Is It Time for Muni to Consolidate Bus Stops?

Picture_8.jpg1 California line bus stop map. Does it need so many stops? Click for the full PDF.

As the MTA Board considers solutions to reduce its enormous $129 million deficit, bus stop consolidation should be at the top of its agenda.  Bus stop removal is one of the easiest engineering solutions to speed up service, but the political fallout could be significant without a groundswell of organizing and support from those who would benefit from service improvements. 

The MTA's current bus stop spacing policy is the following:

1. Passenger stop spacing should be approximately 800-1,000 feet on motorcoach and trolleycoach routes except where there are steep grades, and 1,000-1,200 feet between stops on LRV surface lines.

2. On streets with grades of over 10 percent, stops should be spaced 500-600 feet apart. On streets with grades of over 15 percent, such as on Castro between 22nd Street and 24th Street, stops may be spaced as close as 300-400 feet.  There are no special grade guidelines for surface rail (Muni Metro and Historic Streetcar) because the technology limits operation well under 10 percent inclines.

Bus stop spacing is usually balanced by density, topography and the guidelines you see above. Said Aimee Gauthier at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, based in New York:

Ideally, bus stops are determined not by distance (like every block) but by actual passenger volumes. In general, bus stops should be spaced so that they are a reasonable walk between stops (that differs according to who you are talking to and the context [uses, activities around there], but usually it is a within a 10 – 15 minute walk). 

Many stops in San Francisco, however, do not fit the above criteria, including instances of single blocks with multiple stops.  If Muni eliminated stops now, or at least began an experiment, trying out one line, it could save them precious running time costs and improve service and reliability.

Muni actually revises bus stop spacing [PDF] more frequently than one might think, though in a recent interview, MTA Executive Director Nat Ford told Streetsblog San Francisco they aren't planning to release system wide bus stop consolidation recommendations until after the budget process is over.

Walk SF Director Manish Champsee analyzed MTA data on several lines and his determinations strongly support consolidation:

On the 14 Mission if we were to remove every other stop (i.e. only run the 14L as opposed to the 14), MTA could provide about 20 percent more service than they currently do and save about $5 million.  To give you an idea of what $5 million is, MTA is proposing a $5 increase in the adult Fastpass. This would yield $7 million per year.  They are also proposing an extra $5 increase in the senior/youth/disabled pass which would bring in $2.5 million per year.

Under a declaration of fiscal emergency, MTA could act now without a lengthy environmental review process and potentially drawn out political debate to eliminate redundant stops on lines like the 1-California, and any number of lines, to save millions. By some calculations, eliminating 10 percent of bus stops could save Muni at least $14 million a year.

SF State Geography Professor Jason Henderson thinks the whole approach is problematic:

Optimizing the system is a good thing, but MTA is going about it the wrong way. The cutting of stops and the cutting of routes is endemic of the way the MTA is hamstrung because they don't want to raise the price of driving while lowering the conveneince of driving. Instead, from all I can tell MTA is focused on how to raise the price of transit fares and lower the convenience of transit.  MUNI needs to expand capacity significantly, not contract.

A couple years ago, Mayor Gavin Newsom vocally supported stop removal, so there is reason to believe he will come out strongly in support of the MTA for consolidation when the agency releases its proposal. Without a vocal and organized constituency, however, voicing support for service improvements and time savings through stop removal, the issue will not be popular politically.

The Board of Supervisors would not be able to reject a consolidation proposal outright, but you can imagine the political reaction when constituents bemoan the loss of the stop they have taken for granted for decades. No supervisor wants to be seen as creating hardship for the poor people or the elderly.  Should make for some dramatic hearings, if we get that far.