More Frequent, Not Cheaper Bus Service

A while ago, the D.C. Council was toying with making Metro buses free on D.C. routes. Leaving aside the impulse to treat public services as charity for poor people (as opposed to services that should be functional and for everyone), it really shows how none of them truly appreciate what it’s like to use mass transit. Because this is what a functional system would look like (boldface mine):

American advocacy regarding frequency comes extremely compromised. The sort of frequencies that permit passengers to transfer between buses without timing the connection are single-digit headways, and the digit should probably not be a 9 or even an 8. Nova Xarxa successfully streamlined Barcelona’s bus network as a frequent grid, with buses coming every 3-8 minutes depending on the route. Vancouver and Toronto’s frequent grids are both in the 5-8 minute range.

However, American transit agencies think it’s unrealistic to provide a grid of routes running so frequently. Therefore, they compromise themselves down to a bus every 15 minutes. At 15 minutes, the wait time is too onerous; remember that these are buses that don’t run on a fixed schedule, so a transferring passenger is spending 15 minutes waiting in the average case and 30 minutes in the worst case. These are all city buses, with an in-vehicle trip time in the 15-30 minutes range. A bus system that requires 30 minutes of worst-case wait might as well not exist. If this replaces buses that run every 20 or 30 minutes on a fixed schedule, then this makes things worse…

Every so often, we read about elected officials who try to live on food stamps for a week. To the mayor and the Council, I propose a different challenge: spend two weeks using only bicycles, walking, and mass transit. Not only would they begin to understand the need for more frequent and reliable service, but they would see the city’s geography differently, the way many people do.

Though, like I said, thanks to some very pessimistic budget estimates, nothing will happen anyway.

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4 Responses to More Frequent, Not Cheaper Bus Service

  1. Michael Finfer says:

    Transportation management in the US also believes that there is nothing to learn from systems elsewhere in the world. You can see where that has gotten us.

    • Joe Shelby says:

      As with their more reliable electrical grid and telephony systems, having to totally rebuild from scratch in the 1940s and 1950s means you can apply a lot of lessons learned from the mistakes made from the pre-war way of things.

      The US never needed to do that, so we have a lot of crap in our practices as a result of having to live with the bad decisions from a hundred years ago…and then our political system ended up structured such that 45% of the voting populace are convinced that’s somehow a good thing.

  2. Joe Shelby says:

    Metro’s trains can be the same way, esp on weekends. I haven’t actually bothered with the Silver Line since it opened, because of the dread that i get to the platform 2 seconds after it left and i’m forced to wait 20 minutes (or more) for the next one. Orange Line was no better when that was something I might use from Vienna. That “just missed it” feeling is incredibly depressing.

    A little downtown driving which I’m used to and $9 for parking for a family trip to National Portrait Gallery was 1) more reliably faster for me (even with an obnoxious construction block on H), and 2) *cheaper* than metro would have been for the three of us. So driving beat metro on both aspects.

  3. adameran says:

    In Sacramento CA, buses are on three-hour headways. Light rail comes every 30 minutes. We don’t have transit, we have transit theater.

    This is a product of sprawl, which requires every single significant trip be in an auto. It’s not only a cause of global warming, it’s a guaranteed regressive “tax” on the poor, since every driving-age adult must own a car.

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