A needed dose of speed for bus transit
Anyone who has ridden a public-transit bus can testify to ample frustrations: innumerable stops to pick up or drop off passengers, traffic lights that seem to turn red as the bus approaches and a strict adherence to a timetable that often forces drivers to stop to avoid getting ahead of schedule. Add it all up, and some bus trips feel like they will never end.
Recently, however, some transit agencies have sought to ease their passengers’ pain — and also boost ridership — with the introduction of bus lines aimed at significantly reducing travel times. This summer, AC Transit, which provides bus service for the East Bay region of metropolitan San Francisco, unveiled a “rapid-bus” line that covers a 14-mile stretch in and around San Pablo and Oakland. The new line replaced the route’s limited line, which made fewer stops than the local line.
Through a combination of factors, the buses on the new line complete the route 20 percent faster than the limited line buses did. First, the rapid-bus line has only 25 stops, whereas the old limited line contained 45. The new line also does not follow the extremely precise schedule common in bus travel. Instead of having to arrive at stops at a scheduled time, which often means stopping a bus or slowing it down to avoid arriving at a point ahead of time, drivers complete their routes as quickly as possible. To help riders keep tabs on the rapid and local buses, AC Transit is installing electronic signs at stops that inform riders when the next bus is due to arrive.
The rapid-bus line also manipulates traffic signals to decrease travel time. As the buses approach traffic lights, emitters installed on the vehicles send infrared signals to detectors placed on the mast arm of traffic signals. Depending on several factors, a traffic light will remain green until the bus clears the intersection, or a red light will turn more quickly.
To improve rider comfort, AC Transit purchased 15 low-floor buses from Koningshooikt, Belgium-based Van Hool for the rapid-bus line, so that passengers do not have to climb stairs to enter the vehicles. Add up all the factors, and the agency hopes the rapid buses will dramatically improve the bus-riding experience. “It’s like you’re in your car driving down the street, says Jon Twichell, AC Transit’s transportation planning manager. “It’s not stop-start, stop-start.”
The new line appears to be attracting new customers. A recent mid-August morning showed an 18 percent increase in riders when compared with statistics from June, when the limited line was still operating. The service eventually will be available to more riders, as AC Transit is planning to open another line in about two years.
In addition to the new buses’ $4 million cost, the agency spent approximately $4.5 million to equip traffic lights with sensors, build new shelters and market the line.
AC Transit drew much of its inspiration for its rapid-bus line from the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which launched two rapid-bus lines in June 2000. The agency has since created four more lines and plans to have a total of 28 rapid-bus lines, covering 450 miles, running by the end of 2008. The lines are designed to be completed by their drivers in at least 20 percent less time than the limited lines they replaced.
The faster buses have been a hit in Los Angeles. The combined number of riders who use either the local or the rapid services on the first two routes to offer rapid buses has increased by 40 percent when compared with the number who used either the local or the previous limited lines.
AC Transit and MTA appear to be on the front line of a growing trend. “We’ve been visited by dozens of other agencies from around the U.S. and the globe,” says Rex Gephart, director of regional transit planning for MTA. According to Gephart, transit officials from New York, Washington, D.C., Phoenix, Pittsburgh and Miami, among others, have visited Los Angeles to study the rapid-bus system.