People really hate waiting. Research suggests that many people misjudge the amount of time they spend waiting for the bus, overestimating by anywhere from 50-100%. This is a problem for transit ridership, since you don’t have to wait to drive your car.
The Atlantic Cities recently suggested that real-time arrival information might be the answer; a University of Washington study found that people who used OneBusAway (a real-time bus information service) were able to accurately measure the amount of time they spent waiting.
However, let’s say we assume that waiting is truly the root of all evil. Could we revamp an existing transit system to avoid waiting, or at least make it as pleasant as possible? What would it look like? Here are a few suggestions.
Note that I don’t think all of these suggestions should be implemented as is. Rather, they’re meant to provoke discussion about the goals of our current transit system, and whether those goals are the right ones.
Maximize frequency. If one bus runs every 30 minutes, and another bus runs every 15 minutes, the average wait time for the second bus will be half as long. Double frequency again, and wait time again goes down by half. The gold standard is a line like the NYC Lexington Ave subway, which comes so frequently that you’re liable to watch two trains go by as you make your way from the fare gates to the platform. More realistically, a bus that comes every 10 minutes or less has an average wait time of 5 minutes or less, which is a huge improvement over the status quo. But there’s no such thing as too much frequency.
Choose frequency over span and coverage. If a bus only runs once every hour, then for the amount people will have to wait, it might as well not be running at all. Better to use those service hours on improving frequency during a shorter window of service, or to improve frequency on a different bus that follows a similar route.
Choose frequency over speed. If a bus only runs once every 30 minutes, but it has a long non-stop segment, then it would be better to reroute it so that it has a timed connection to a nearby train or frequent bus. The resulting trip will be slower, but less time will be spent waiting.
Prefer bus routes along neighborhood-commercial streets. Don’t force people to walk from a vibrant commercial street to a quiet residential road, or a loud car-centered arterial or freeway. Use the streets that provide a better waiting experience, even if they’ll make the bus slower. As a litmus test, if a street is a great place to walk, it’s probably a great place to wait for the bus; if no one is out walking, then no one will want to wait there, either.
Prefer bus stops in front of good waiting places. If you’re at a coffee shop or restaurant that’s adjacent to your bus stop, then you almost don’t have to wait outside at all; you can stay inside until you know the bus is about to arrive. A bus stop in front of a bank or a parking lot offers no such advantage. Worst of all are freeway stops, where you’re exposed to both weather and noise, with nothing to distract you.
Prefer connections at great waiting places. The wait for the second bus is even worse than the wait for the first bus. You can’t avoid the wait by running out the door at the last minute. The best connection points are blocks with tons of interesting retail establishments and street life. The worst connection points are freeway exits or interchanges.
Don’t have too many stops. Sitting on a stopped bus isn’t as bad as waiting for the bus to come, but it’s not nearly as good as sitting on a bus that’s moving. A carefully chosen set of stops, where each stop provides a relatively pleasant waiting experience, will minimize the amount of time that riders spend waiting for the bus to resume moving.
Prefer stop amenities to on-vehicle amenities. For example, heated bus shelters would dramatically improve the waiting experience on cold winter days, while Wi-Fi would give people something to do. This is especially important for stops that must be placed in terrible locations, such as major freeway stations.
To reiterate, I don’t think that all of these changes are appropriate all the time. But I do think it’s interesting to think about the kind of transit network we’d have if we truly wanted to eliminate the unpleasantness of waiting. It might be better, and it might be worse, but it would undoubtedly be quite different from what we have today.