Chart of the Day: MSP Bus Speeds Since 2000


Today’s chart of the day comes from a post at City Observatory by Daniel Kay Hertz highlighting a nationwide trend of average urban bus speeds dropping since 2000. The piece goes into the trouble in dealing with nationwide data in evaluating cause and effect of this reduction and questioning if bus service cuts play a significant role in speed reduction.

Further, it’s possible slower speeds on Metro Transit buses could actually coincide with overall service improvement:

It’s also possible that average speeds could decline without any clearly negative impacts on service. Our measure of system-wide bus speeds will pick up changes in the mix of route types that a city runs, so some year-over-year changes may reflect that, rather than changes in the speed of any particular route. Imagine, for example, a transit agency that decides to cut back on suburb-to-city commuter express buses with little ridership and instead focus on local routes in neighborhoods where residents, jobs, and amenities are more densely packed. That would almost certainly reduce the agency’s average bus speed, but might at the same time increase the number of people with access to useful transit service.

Of course, bus speed is not the only measure of high quality transit service:

While vehicle speed isn’t the only, or even most important, factor in good bus service, it does matter—and slow speeds are hardly inevitable. Better stop spacing, all-door or proof-of-payment boarding, and bus lanes can all dramatically improve speeds. The current downward trend suggests that these interventions may be increasingly needed.

I’m interested if readers have any data or anecdotes about what factors may have played into the drop in our own region, which came in at 6th highest of all transit systems sampled.

6 thoughts on “Chart of the Day: MSP Bus Speeds Since 2000

  1. John Dillery

    Riding the highest ridership routes reveals why average bus speeds have decreased, I think. I observe the trend continuing since the 1980s not just since 2000. Traffic congestion is an obvious factor, but here are some others that should be considered:

    1. The standard 40-foot long transit bus has less interior space now because the low floor design to accommodate the ADA has less aisle space where it is more essential: just aft of the front doors.
    Standard buses had about 50 seats, now have less than 39 seats.
    The ramp is a bit faster than the old wheel chair lift certainly, but I observe that this benefit is canceled out by passengers moving slower inside the bus partly due to this constraint.

    There are potential solutions. Re-think the “standard bus”. They could be replaced with 45-foot long buses (over the road coaches are 45 feet long). This would win back the essential front aisle space. Be more innovative. Have you ever been on a low floor double deck Mega Bus? They have very rapid boarding and alighting, and most have over 45 seats, lots of aisle space. Why not try a two-door version on local city bus lines? Worth a try, even if the bus garages need to be re-modeled. Many larger cites run low floor 60-foot articulated buses on all of their busiest lines to the point that they are really the new standard bus. I have noted that they seem faster boarding and alighting than standard buses when I ride them here in the Twin Cities.

    2. Passengers are moving slower in the bus than they used to. I think the reason is that so many have grown up riding school buses. They were ordered to never stand up until the bus had come to a complete stop. In fact, local city transit schedules were never designed with this rider behavior in mind. The assumption traditionally was that you signaled your stop, got up immediately and were at the exit doors (the rear doors, not the front doors) so that you were ready to bail out at your stop. I enjoy riding local routes when the old style rider behavior is the norm, because we sit still less of the time and are moving more of the time. If higher bus speeds are desired, then I think that we have to get back to the traditional rider behavior as part of the solution. Face the trade-off directly.

    Thank you.
    John D.

    1. Wayne

      Regarding #1, there’s already a lot of local bus routes that require turns that the current buses can barely squeeze into, especially around rush hour when cars creep up or block the box. Making the buses even bigger will only exacerbate this problem. I’ve quite literally been on a bus that sat halfway through its turn for about 3 light cycles because it needed to get into the oncoming traffic lane to complete the turn and no one would allow it to get in for a few feet to do so. This was within the last week. It’s a really regular occurrence.

      Regarding #2, many bus drivers accelerate and decelerate in such a way that standing before the bus actually comes to a stop is pretty dangerous, especially for anyone without the best balance or a very sure grip on a pole. You’ll see plenty of people on the train up and ready for their stop because it doesn’t suffer from the side-to-side swaying and jerky starts and stops that buses do. One more reason buses are pretty inferior for high-ridership corridors.

  2. Wayne

    I’ll give you a top #1 reason why bus service keeps getting slower: refusal to dedicate right-of-way and to give any priority at crossings. Buses get stuck in traffic and traffic gets worse as the economy improves, therefore buses get slower.

    The one sad piece of transit dedicated ROW on Nicollet that we had was incredibly bad because every signal was timed to prefer cross-traffic and taxis and cyclists would slow down buses (I’m not dissing biking, but it doesn’t interface with heavily-used transit ROW well!). Now buses are off sharing lanes with cars on 3rd ave for the next two years and SHOCKINGLY they are always even later than before during afternoon rush hour. Who would have seen that coming? (I’m conveniently ignoring suburban buses because they’re in a class of their own–all the best new double lanes and real time departure signs for them! Screw you inner-city routes!)

    So yeah, unless we get serious about actually taking some road space from inefficient single-occupant auto users to drive or store their vehicles and put it towards speeding up buses full of people, service is going to degrade to the point where it’s unusable. I just waited 45 minutes earlier this week for a northbound 4 during rush hour when they’re supposed to come by every 10-15 minutes. After those 45 minutes I still didn’t catch it, I got lucky and a kind 141 driver picked me up even though he wasn’t supposed to stop there (but his spoiled limited stop riders made sure to let me know he wasn’t supposed to stop there, because god forbid their easy and fast commute get slowed down by inner-city plebes!).

    Crappy transit is one of the top 2 reasons I’m planning a move out of Minnesota in the next few years. I see no chance of it getting any better anytime soon, so I’ll take my skills elsewhere. I’ve been seeing a trend lately of other young educated people I know leaving town for places with better transit and more urbane environments. I can’t imagine this sort of brain drain won’t have a long-term impact on the economy here, but hey there’s always fresh meat from the farm in Wisconsin right?

      1. Wayne

        I suppose I’ve been on both sides of this problem, so it really works both ways. But it’s still not a great idea in either case to force buses and bikes to use the same limited space when there are large volumes of both. I still think a bus tunnel with surface pedestrian mall/bike path would be the ideal solution, but we can’t build transit tunnels unless they’re in wooded parkland.

        1. John Charles Wilson

          One problem with the bus/bike interface is that buses and bikes *both* average 10-15 mph but do so in different ways. Bikes tend to go 10-15 mph pretty steadily, while buses go 25-30 mph with frequent stops that bring their average speed down to the same as a bike. This means they get in each other’s way a lot. How often I see a bicyclist stuck behind a stopped bus get frustrated and pass it by, only to delay that same bus when it takes off and is trying to get to the next stop! Maybe the bus even passes the bike again if there’s room, only to have the same thing repeated in a few blocks!

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