Bus Stop Consolidation: The Times Have Changed

2574554709_0e34ebe62a.jpgFlickr photo: erik kuo
Does the 14-Mission really need to stop at every block on Mission Street? Does the 21-Hayes? Consolidating bus stops could speed transit vehicles and reduce dwell time, saving service hours that could be used to increase frequencies and add hours of operation. Yet the MTA has avoided the topic for years, not even mentioning stop consolidation as a cost savings measure to mitigate the service cuts and fare increases just approved to bridge part of the agency's $129 million deficit.

The reason for this reluctance, according to several people within the agency who I spoke with, is that the planners were afraid that the controversy around stop consolidation would jeopardize other equally or more important reforms they were promoting. MTA planners are still stung by the defeat of their modest proposal to consolidate stops on the 38-Geary in the Tenderloin. Tenderloin residents got the Board of Supervisors to reject that proposal by pointing out that only the Tenderloin was targeted, giving the appearance that stop consolidation was more about helping the more well-to-do residents of the Richmond zoom through the Tenderloin more quickly than it was a transit efficiency measure that could benefit everyone.

Times have changed, apparently, with stop consolidation finally making it to the top of TEP Program Manager Julie Kirschbaum's "to do list." What's different?

From a political perspective, the supervisors no longer have any authority over stop location. From a policy perspective, by proposing systemwide consolidation (at least on the 15 busiest routes), the MTA is not vulnerable to charges it is pitting one neighborhood against another. And most importantly, the benefits of stop consolidation are beginning to appear greater than the political cost of taking away some bus stops.

Kirschbaum has consistently claimed that stop consolidation was not "the most important" efficiency measure the system could make, but she has recently conceded that of all the possible reforms, it's in the "top eight to ten."

A very rough estimate of the cost savings equates every 5 percent of stops eliminated with a 1 percent reduction in service hours. In other words, eliminating one in ten stops would save $5 million, or nearly the entire cost of weekday operation of the 71 and 71L lines. This refers just to the savings in stops avoided; it does not take into account the additional revenue from passengers who may be attracted to a faster transit ride.

Muni's stop spacing standards are pretty typical for the United States, which is to say, out of date with the latest thinking in how to provide efficient, attractive transit service. European transit systems, with higher ridership, typically provide fewer stops: only three to four per mile. Systems in the United States typically provide seven to ten stops per mile. Furthermore, Muni's stops are actually much closer than its standards should allow. Only 17 percent of Muni's bus stops fall within the recommended range of 800-1,000 feet (closer on steep grades); 70 percent are closer than that; 13 percent are spaced farther apart than that.

The complaint against stop consolidation is that stop removal is akin to a service reduction. Indeed, the buses would be perfectly efficient, the argument goes, if they never had to stop to pick up passengers! Transit agencies must balance the additional access and egress time they ask their passengers to absorb in walking to the stop with the reduced travel time and operating costs gained. A 2007 empirical study of an implemented stop consolidation on TriMet in Portland found that "reductions in accessibility from stop consolidation were offset by time improvements in the line haul portion of their trips. Thus, the utility of their trip making appears to have been unaffected."

And just like the Bike Plan has social benefits beyond mere safety for riders, so does an efficient transit system. A California health official who asked not to be named noted that "70 percent of people who use public transit get their recommended daily exercise by walking or biking to and from the transit stop. If consolidating bus stops leads more people to take transit due to faster travel, there would be a significant health benefit."

"We do need to be mindful of ensuring that people with mobility challenges are not disproportionally affected," she added. "But given that lack of exercise is a major contributor to the diseases such as diabetes that cause disabilities, and given that people with mobility challenges also need physical activity for their general health, on balance a well-considered stop consolidation program may have significant health benefits across ages and physical limitations."

MTA staff is hoping that at least a fraction of the amount of support that was generated for the bicycle plan can be marshaled to support stop consolidation.

Kirschbaum tried to downplay expectations about the benefits of stop consolidation, but with over 4,000 bus and rail stops, even modest consolidation could save the agency millions of dollars a year. She will present a revised policy to the MTA Board in August, with specific, route-by-route proposals due in October. The MTA is not expected to approve changes until February 2010 after a series of public outreach meetings.