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Urban Wonk

Eliminating Bus Stops Can Actually Improve Service

Eliminating Bus Stops Can Actually Improve Service
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You might think that more bus stops mean better bus service, and to some extent that's true. A transit system certainly becomes more useful when you can get on near your home and off near your destination. That said, every stop made by a city bus increases trip time from Point A to Point B. Strong systems find a way to strike a balance between stop access and route speed.

Sometimes striking that balance means getting rid of stops that are clogging up the line. Last week, reporters at News1130 in Vancouver pointed to research showing that eliminating some bus stops "reduces travel times significantly without drastically affecting the number of people served along a route." They suggest that city agency TransLink cut stops as a "simple" way to reduce costs while still improving service.

TransLink's particular situation aside — the agency later responded that it does an annual review of its routes and stop placement — the research mentioned by News1130 is worth a closer look. Published last year [PDF], it focused on the bus system in Fairfax, Virginia. The researchers analyzed stop spacing under a variety of walking thresholds (how far someone will walk to reach a stop) and found that many of the system's 121 stops seem redundant:

The researchers believe that at a walking threshold of 800 meters (roughly half a mile), the Fairfax bus system could eliminate 53 of its 121 bus stops and still provide coverage to 82 percent of the area. Removing the stops would reduce both travel time and operating expenses by about 23 percent; plus, faster service would attract more riders and generate more revenue. And since only 10 percent of the population would lose coverage from the cuts, the researchers see stop removal as a win on balance.

Whether or not you agree depends on a number of factors. For one thing, not all riders are willing to walk half a mile to a transit stop, and aging populations in particular need closer transit access. A quarter mile is a more common standard, and in many U.S. cities the walking threshold is even lower. And not all distance is created equal: going half a mile on a dense pedestrian-friendly street grid isn't as tough as, say, going half a below an interstate or across congested arterials.

At the end of the day, proper bus stop spacing depends largely on whether the system's goal is ridership or coverage. Basic geometry dictates that a transit system will have some overlapping coverage areas (where people can walk to more than one stop) and some gaps in coverage (where they live near the line but not near a stop). If you want faster service and more riders, you want the limited overlap that come with stops spaced far apart; if you want better coverage, you want the small gaps that come with stops spaced close together.

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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