Free Low-Frequency Transit Idea: Rider Simplicity > Cost

I’m on vacation in a part of the world where major towns (population 24,000) have weekend train service every other hour, including stops in many towns of just a few hundred.* I’m using my fair share of this convenient Norwegian transit, including buses, streetcars, and ferries.

Trondheim, Norway

Trondheim, Norway

Here for a reunion, I’m seeing many friends. This week I’m in Trondheim (population 180,000, metropolitan population of 275,000). Here, an example of how to design — or not design — a bus schedule was thrust in my face by a couple of them. When I was getting the 101 on how to bus into the City, they complained,

The bus used to run every hour at 10 past the hour. They changed it, and now it goes every hour from 7-10 in the morning, and then every hour and a half during the middle of the day, and hardly at all in the evening and on weekends. Check out the schedule!

They’d saved the old schedule just to show off how impossible the new one is (my friends are both very Norwegian, which is to say opinionated and generally well-informed. They’re also a bit nerdy).

The problems they listed included:

  1. it unnecessarily lists the time for every single station, which is TOO MUCH information,
  2. the old schedule had one simple page; the new one is 7 pages long (with crazy tiny font, which has me worried about those poor grandmothers who use the bus),
  3. it used to be easy to just “know” the schedule, and now it’s hard to keep track of when the bus is coming,
  4. it’s annoying to use, especially when you’re in a hurry.

A very elegant – and now outdated – bus schedule. MetroTransit, can we get these?

an intimidating bus schedule

This is page 1 of 7 on the current illegible schedule.

I’ve ridden this bus system twice, once five years ago and again this week. There’s always the “new rider” experience of trying to figure out how to pay, finding the right stops to get on and off, remembering how to get home where there’s more than one bus to choose between, and learning the “rules” of how to ride. I recall from five years ago, though, that it was comforting to know that I could just remember “five past to get to downtown, and 13 after on the #11 to get home.” Low-frequency busing made easy!

This new schedule is less rider-friendly. As proof, this week I’d misremembered the time to head into town and thought I had 25 minutes until I had to head out the door to catch the bus with five minutes buffer when actually the bus was two minutes away (and the next one didn’t go for 90 minutes).** Oops!

The changes were surely driven by budgets. The current times surely fit with demand, and I’m sure mid-day, evening and weekend fare short-falls are smaller thanks to fewer buses. I suspect they’ve also lost fare income from choice riders. Norway is a wealthy country and despite the incomprehensible-to-Americans taxation of cars and gas plus difficult city parking, nearly everyone who wants to own and drive a car can — and does. The annoyance of my friends suggests they are less likely to ride the bus than they used to be, and they can’t be alone.

I don’t want to leave you with the sense that the transit folks in Trondheim are hopeless.

The buses ran on time and they were plentiful, clean, and comfortable (also electric). They also had these wondrous screens that showed the next stop, plus the two stops after that. There was an automatic announcement giving the current stop and next stop. For a new rider, it was as easy to know when you were coming to your stop.

info screen on a bus

This info screen showing the current and next stop was matched by an automatic announcement.

Next, their smart phone payment app was really easy to use, working with American users. Notably, the one for the national train system won’t let you create an account if your zip code didn’t have the right number of digits (four).

*Norway’s population density: 35 people/square mile, 209th “highest” in the world (of 244). The US is 182.

**I caught it.

P.S. I’m on vacation, so someone else is going to have to answer questions about Norwegian transit while I take a streetcar to go visit a stavkirke.

About Janne Flisrand

Janne Flisrand spends her time thinking about how people interact with the space around them. Why do they (or don't they) walk or bike or shop somewhere? How do spaces feel? Why do people sit here and not there? Why bus instead of bike, bike instead of drive? What sorts of spaces build community, and what sorts kill it? Can spaces build civic trust and engagement?

9 thoughts on “Free Low-Frequency Transit Idea: Rider Simplicity > Cost

  1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    I loved the buses in Sweden too. Amazing to see (relatively) low-density areas with decent transit service. Maybe if we quadrupled our gas taxes we could fund a similar system and motivate higher ridership…

  2. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    Interesting — I haven’t really experienced smaller-city Norwegian transit, only Bergen and Oslo.

    I certainly agree having consistent on-the-hour times does make infrequent transit a lot more practical. However, this must be a bit less of an issue in the age of smartphones, right? In Minneapolis now, I almost always The Transit App to check for next bus. Was that system or a similar one available in Trondheim?

    Oslo has probably the best bus system of any major city I’ve been in. The buses themselves are of similar quality to the Trondheim ones — clean, low-boarding, quiet, modern buses. Same great “next three stops” screen. Operates on proof of payment system, and people are strongly discouraged from buying a ticket from the driver (extra fee). And it stops every 1/4 to 1/2 mile, much less frequent than Minneapolis buses. I’m also not sure how, but somehow the ride feels smoother, despite much windier, hillier, streets.

    Also in my last visit as a tourist, I really liked being able to buy my ticket (individual ticket or week pass) with the cell phone app. Sounds like this was also available in Trondheim. For tourists to Minneapolis, their only practical option is buying a single ticket each bus ride with exact change. I can’t see them finding a Rainbow service counter to get a Go-to card…

  3. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

    Love Norwegian transit. Terribly inconvenient country for a car,so trains, flights, or ferries are the way to go.

    Oslo’s T-Bane metro is wonderful. Some of the lines end at hiking trails. The #1 (red) line ends at the top of a mountain. It’s fantastic. My favorite part of Oslo’s system is how they have precisely the right type of transit for each need. There’s a metro, the tram, buses, ferries, and bike share (which was the only thing MSP did better, when I was there). The city is extremely walkable. You could always get places quickly and efficiently using the type of transport that you needed.

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      MSP might have a better bike share bikes, but you certainly can’t argue with Oslo’s price — 120 nok, less than $15 for a year’s use with no trip fees. You’re allowed to take the bikes out for three hours at a time.

      My dad used the system a ton when he visited in summer 2014, taking the bikes out as far as Bærums Verk, about 20 kilometers outside city center.

      (He still didn’t think three hours was enough!)

  4. Janne

    I’ve been thinking about elegant ways to solve the need for varied capacity. Maybe
    just run additional buses on the half hour? Or cut out even hour buses buses from 10-2? Or, as half hour buses during rush hours? Pedictability and easy-to-understand/remember goes a long way to balance infrequency.

  5. Keith Morris

    Sad thing is, low-frequency service in Lansing is much more user-friendly than it is here, let alone comparing it to Europe. In Lansing: maps are posted at every stop (those with several have them on plastic boxes that you can rotate to see them all), route numbers are posted at every stop, arrival times are timed to each specific stop and not a major stop X number of blocks away, trash receptacles are attached to bus stops sans shelter, every bus is equipped with bike racks which hold three (especially important for low-frequency routes here where two bikes fill up the rack and might result in waiting another half hour), and their #4, the Entertainment Express, runs somewhat frequently and til after bars close (a half hour later than here). Even these upgrades would be major over here.

  6. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Great post Janne. A semi corollary to this is restaurants that continue to serve some unprofitable and not very popular items. A good restauranteur knows that many groups have one person who likes that item and if it’s removed they’ll not just loose that one customer but all of the people in their group. Hardware stores have to carry a lot of items that they may only sell one of every couple of years because if people can’t count on getting what they need they’ll make a habit of going elsewhere.

    A friend has an ice cream shop that she keeps open EVERY day 10a – 9p even though they have almost no customers in the mornings and after maybe 7p Mon – Thu. She’s found that overall customer traffic is much higher if her hours are consistent EVERY day.

    BTW, if you’ve never done it you should go ride the Trampe bicycle lift. Great and unique fun! 🙂

  7. Ryan Johnson

    What you documented kind of reminds me of Tromsø as well, though I can’t speak to any current scheduling issues as I’m not there– but there was a big lack of quality communication and clear bus schedules for newish users of the system, which was important because the wrong bus could end you up in the ‘burbs on fairly short notice. But, the system was really good for the size of the city (, population is ~70k; 72 people/sq mi. I fairly often had to field questions for tourists who couldn’t make easy sense of the schedules, or maps. Maybe things have changed somewhat in the 3 years I haven’t been there.

    A lot of the issues could of course be solved with better smartphone apps, but then what do you do for the tourists and short-stay people who may not have a phone, or a cheap enough data plan to make it worth it? I didn’t even have that in the 2 years I lived there, but again, maybe this is easier for people now too.

    1. Janne

      We have been struggling with the data access problem. We can use the app to pay… If we have WiFi access. It’s also been tough to get route maps or go to understand how the abstract line maps connect to the steets we are walking on.

      On the other hand, I’m commenting from a bus taking me over a very rural mountain to a cabin. Sure, it ends in Oslo, too. The bus is full.

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