13 Tips for Improving Transit Service, No Capital Investment Required

Transit is awesome. You can get around without owning a car, or paying for parking. It’s a climate-friendly way to move people, and it can be convenient if you’re going somewhere with lots of other transit users—like a city center.

But transit has its challenges. We can’t always get where we want when we want, especially outside of cities, and the fare is rarely competitive with driving (even though it should be). And the vehicles are often in poor condition.

My mission is to change that. I believe that transit agencies can improve their service without increasing operating costs or capital investment.

In my experience as a transit rider, I’ve noticed patterns in how different transit agencies deliver their service, some good and some bad. I’ve also experienced great service from some transit agencies, where everything just seems to work smoothly and efficiently.

I’m currently writing a book about these patterns, which I call “front busking” techniques—techniques for improving service at the front end (i.e., the customer-facing side) of a transit agency’s operations. The goal is to help more riders realize that transit really can be a great way to get around—and to provide ideas for making it even better still!

The list of 13 Tips is:

1) Make it easy to find the bus stop

2) Make the stop comfortable

3) Make it safe

4) Give real-time information

5) Provide a simple schedule

6) Emphasize frequency over span of service

7) Provide maps at bus stops and on buses

8) Have the bus come to you

9) Be on time (and don’t bunch up or get stuck behind slow traffic)

10) Let people know when the bus is coming — and keep them updated if there are delays

11) Announce stops (or make them obvious so you don’t have to announce them, especially if you’re not going to stick around long enough for everyone to get off before pulling away from the curb). Also, do this in multiple languages.

12) Keep the inside of the bus clean and comfortable (and as safe as possible, with lights on buses that run late at night). If possible, have a separate area for bikes or strollers. Also, don’t let people bring their giant bags onto crowded buses without paying an extra fare. And don’t let skateboarders ride on the bus. And no standing in front of the doors!

13) Make transfers easy.

1. Take advantage of the current market

Put in more service when gas prices are high, and cut back on service during low-gas-price periods.

2. Use a flexible scheduling system

For example, you could have more buses available during the morning and afternoon rush hours, and fewer at night, on Sundays and during holidays.

3. Schedule buses to arrive at stops every 15 minutes or less during peak hours

Passengers are much more likely to choose transit if they don’t have to wait long for a bus.

4. Use a flat fare system

A flat fare system is easier for passengers to understand than zones or distance fares. Also, passengers are more likely to transfer between routes if they don’t have to pay again or calculate how much their fare will be.

5. Make it easy for people to pay the fare

For example, use an electronic payment system that allows passengers to use an electronic card instead of exact change, or allow passengers to prepay their fares with a credit card or debit card over the phone or via the Internet (which could also help save money by reducing the amount of labor needed for fare collection).

6. Have your transit vehicles display route maps and schedules in bus shelters/stops and on board vehicles

I got into a discussion recently with some people from the transit agency serving my area. They were expressing concern that they were losing riders. I said, “You’re not losing riders, you’re gaining riders, but service is deteriorating.” I was right and they were wrong, but it’s an understandable mistake to make.

When service deteriorates, what happens is that the same number of people ride transit but wait longer. The occupancy of buses and trains doesn’t go down; it goes up. The person who waits five minutes for a bus when it used to take two isn’t really a lost customer; they’re just a late customer.

The transit agency thus thinks they are losing riders, because they are watching the wrong thing. They are watching the occupancy of their vehicles at any given time, and seeing it go down, when what they should be doing is looking at system-wide passenger-miles (or passenger-kilometers) and seeing them go up.

When I was a kid, my father had a job driving a city bus. He could have done that until he retired, if he’d wanted to. But he took early retirement and went back to school to become a lawyer, which turned out to be a much better career move.

My father did not like the bus drivers’ union. On the other hand, there were some things about the bus drivers’ union he quite liked. In particular, there was something called “front busk.”

When you are in a position of power and wish to reward your friends, but do not wish it to be obvious that you’re doing so, one way to do it is through “perks.” And for most employees in most companies, perks mean freebies: tickets to shows or sports events, free food at company picnics, etc.

But front busk meant something much more interesting. Every day when the drivers got their assignments, they would look for the letters FB on their schedule. Those stood for “front busk.” When you drove your bus during rush hour with an FB on your schedule, you got first pick of the best parking places at your destination terminal. If you wanted one of those coveted places right near the entrance—the ones so close

1. Stop the bus and let people on: In order to reduce dwell times, buses sometimes stop for only a few seconds at bus stops. This often results in people missing the bus because they didn’t realize it was theirs or weren’t able to get on in time. If a route is so busy that keeping the doors closed for a few seconds makes a meaningful difference in travel times, then the bus is overcrowded and needs more capacity.

2. Stop the bus and let people off: Some drivers don’t stop completely at stops if no one is waiting to board, but again this can have negative results if someone doesn’t realize that their stop has been passed or isn’t able to exit in time.

3. Don’t pull away until everyone is seated: Again, this improves dwell times, but can result in more passenger falls, particularly among older riders. It also means more time spent standing instead of riding for those who are unable to find a seat.

4. Talk: If you’re driving a route with frequent stops, calling out each stop has several benefits: it allows blind passengers to know when their stop is coming up; it allows all passengers to know when their stop is coming up; it reduces stress for new riders by allowing them to know for

1. More frequent service

2. Simplified fare structures

3. Guaranteed connections and scheduled transfers

4. More accessible vehicles

5. Real-time information for passengers

6. Bus stop amenities and information

7. Better designed bus stops and terminals

8. Fare payment on board buses

9. Fare incentives

10. Pre-board fare payment

11. More passenger space on buses, trains and stations

12. All doors boarding

13. Traffic signal priority

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