I have a friend who recently moved to St. Pete’s south side from a more suburban part of the Tampa Bay region. After a coworker of his got a DUI, my friend started seriously considering using transit to get to his favorite watering holes downtown. But after looking into it, he decided it probably wouldn’t be practical. The single-biggest factor in that decision, he told me, was the fact that there were 28 stops on the four-mile, one-way trip.
I’d never tried to quantify it before, and his number seemed a bit high to me. But sure enough, on some of the main streets here in St. Petersburg, there are bus stops as frequently as every other block.
We do tend to have a high density of bus stops here in the US, which is ironic considering our historic preference for low-density living. Some guidelines recommend as many as 12 stops per mile (warning: PDF) – or one stop every 400 feet or so – in central business districts, with seven or eight stops per mile (one every 700 feet) in the “urbanized fringe.”
Seven stops per mile is pretty standard for bus stop spacing here in the US, though Europe seems to do fine with only 3 or 4 per mile.
But do we need so many stops? There’s plenty of research out there quantifying how far the average person is willing to walk before deciding it’d be easier to just get in his car. But if – as Jarrett Walker explains in this post – the generally accepted value for that distance is 400 meters (or about 1200 feet, roughly a quarter-mile), then why should there have to be stops on every second block?
Certainly, there’s an instinctive argument in favor of having more bus stops – more stops means catching the bus is more convenient for more people, and should therefore attract higher ridership. But it doesn’t really work out that way – in fact, it’s actually counterproductive in that it creates a negative perception of transit for potential riders: having too many stops contributes to a) longer travel times, especially over longer distances, and b) a perception of transit as a slow and inefficient mode of travel.
How many times have you been in traffic behind a bus that just kept stopping every couple of blocks? Did it make you want to trade in your car keys for a bus pass, even on a part-time basis? Of course not. So often, when we imagine ourselves actually riding the bus any distance to a destination we have to reach by a particular time (work, for example), that’s what a lot of us think of, at least subconsciously. And even if we understand the broader societal advantages of transit, we also know we don’t want any part of a system that seems so slow and inefficient.
(As an aside, this is another reason why express lines are more appealing – and usually more expensive – than local routes. Fewer stops equals faster trips.)
This is not a unique insight. Transit agencies in some cities – like, for example, Washington DC – have come to the same conclusion:
“Having fewer stops per mile allows Metro to more accurately predict when buses will arrive at specific time points, making estimated bus arrival times at stops more accurate for our customers. It also allows buses to reduce their travel times on these routes, alleviating the need to add more time in the schedules for buses as regional congestion increases.”
In December 2010, they put their money where their mouths are by removing a number of bus stops from the routes with the highest average number of stops per mile.
The idea of contracting the number of bus stops is part of an approach to revitalizing dysfunctional transit systems that makes sense to me: diminishing the scale and scope of services until you’re consistently delivering high-frequency, top-quality transit service along a small number of essential routes. Then, once the system has developed a reputation for quality and reliability, you should start adding routes and stops and generally expanding services again.
That said, unless we are talking about routes and stops with absolutely zero ridership, scaling back transit services will obviously have a very real impact on at least some people. Taking away a transit route from a person who may have structured his or her life around the presence of that transit – or someone who simply may have no other way to get anywhere – isn’t something to be taken lightly. There has to be a balancing act between over-subsidizing a too-large and inefficient transit system on the one hand, and meeting the transportation needs of the most transit-dependent segments of the population.
What do you think? Is scaling back transit service a viable strategy?