Zef Wagner is recently relocated from Seattle to Portland and will be contributing occasionally and sharing his fresh-eyed perspective of Portland – Chris
Most people take it as a given that local bus service is slow and often unreliable, while light rail is fast and very reliable. This is great news for those who have easy access to the MAX system, but for those who depend on a bus for their daily commute it results in frustration and resentment. While a bus in mixed traffic can never approach the performance of grade-separated rail, there many ways to improve the quality of bus service in order to narrow that gap. The most obvious answer is to increase bus frequency, but the economic downturn has forced TriMet to reduce frequency across the board, and it will most likely take many years before the funding is available to restore this lost service. Therefore any improvements in the short term will have to involve getting more and better service from existing resources.
So what is the number one way we can improve frequency, speed, and reliability in our bus system? The answer is…wider stop spacing! In most of the world the standard for stop spacing for local bus service is closer to a quarter-mile, or around 1300 feet, while most North American bus routes stop about every 2 blocks, or around 600 feet. Why is there such a disparity? Human Transit has done a great job examining this issue, but the short answer is that American transit agencies tend to value coverage over speed and reliability. Another factor may be the legacy of the streetcar system, which was mainly built to compete with walking rather than with driving.
The accepted standard for walking distance is that most people are willing to walk a quarter-mile to get to a local bus service. If you wanted to give everyone access to only one bus stop, you would space stops every half-mile, but this would result in large coverage gaps at the halfway point between stops. Quarter-mile spacing is generally ideal because the entire corridor gets complete coverage, but overlap is kept at a minimum. Closer spacing might make sense in very dense areas like downtown, but most areas of Portland concentrate housing and employment density in narrow strips along corridors like Hawthorne, Division, or Alberta. This “corridor” density means that buses with wider stop spacing would still reach most of the people and destinations, while providing a dramatically better service.
What’s so great about wide stop spacing?
First, it increases the speed of the bus line, making it more competitive with driving for more trips. Second, it improves reliability, since every stop is an opportunity for unexpected delays that may cause the bus to get off schedule. Third, it improves frequency by allowing each vehicle and operator to make more runs in the same time period. As a simple example, if a bus route normally takes 60 minutes but stop consolidation brings it down to 50 minutes, then in 6 hours each bus can make 7 trips instead of 6. This is great way for us to get more frequency now without having to wait for additional funding.
What about the issue of access? While it is true that any stop consolidation will result in some people having to walk farther to reach the nearest stop, people are generally willing to walk farther to access high-quality transit. For example, the standard for grade-separated rail or Bus Rapid Transit is for stations to be spaced between a half-mile and a mile from each other. The additional speed, reliability, and frequency gives riders confidence that a long walk will not be followed by a long wait and a slow trip. This same principle should apply to local bus service with quarter-mile stop spacing. Most people in the supposedly “lost” coverage area will be willing to walk farther for superior service.
Have other transit agencies done this?
Other transit agencies on the west coast are leading the way on this issue. King County Metro in Seattle has been engaged in stop consolidation on their busiest routes for quite some time. They have been slowly moving toward a quarter-mile average stop spacing and have seen little local opposition. In fact, a survey of 60,000 residents of Seattle’s Rainier Valley showed that 93% approved of spacing bus stops 3 or 4 blocks apart rather than 1 or 2. San Francisco’s Muni has an ambitious plan for stop consolidation which they estimated could save or reinvest $5 million per year (or 2% of service) by eliminating 1 in 10 stops systemwide. Unfortunately that plan has been delayed due to lack of staff time and loud opposition from bus stop constituencies. It is notable that King County Metro chose to focus on surveys of entire transit-dependent communities and found widespread support, while Muni listened to a vocal minority that was not necessarily representative.
So what can TriMet do right now? First, they can revise their stop guidelines from the current range of 780-1000 feet to a range of 1000-1300 feet. Second, they should change their current practice of having closer stop spacing in all dense areas and focus instead on the shape of the density. It makes sense to have closer stops in areas with broad swathes of density, like the Pearl District, but on arterials like Hawthorne where the density is only concentrated along the corridor itself, wider stop spacing is more effective. Third, TriMet should follow the lead of Metro in Seattle and engage in a route-by-route stop consolidation program, making sure to work with neighborhoods to identify the most productive and useful stops to keep in service.
With massive service cuts behind us and higher fares ahead of us, bus riders are feeling shut out by TriMet and are starting to organize through groups like OPAL to advocate for more bus service. Stop consolidation would be an easy way for TriMet to immediately deliver better service with existing dollars and would send a powerful signal to bus riders that they have not been forgotten. Bus advocates would do well to push TriMet towards short-term, practical improvements such as stop consolidation while also working toward a long-term funding solution for regional transit.