Editor’s note: WE ARE BACK! After an extended break in coverage due to the holidays and planning for last weekend’s TransportationCamp DC, we are looking forward to helping you navigate 2019. In case you missed TransportationCamp this year, we have a lot of post-event coverage. Here’s the first article.
Transit ridership is down in the U.S., led by declining bus use. This has serious consequences, felt most acutely by low-income, non-white and disabled Americans.
(According to the American Public Transportation Association, busses are the most economically and racially diverse form of transit in the U.S. Often, they are more accessible to people with disabilities than subways and trains.)
But there’s at least one hopeful sign, and it’s bolted onto a galvanized steel post on the side of the road.
Research indicates that ridership grows at safely accessible, sheltered bus stops. These are relatively inexpensive additions, often supported by existing revenue sources. They might just help reverse the downward spiral of bus ridership if heartily embraced.
At TransportationCamp, hosted by Mobility Lab this past Saturday at Catholic University in Washington, DC, two representatives of TransitCenter — Senior Program Associate Kirk Hovenkotter and Research Associate Mary Buchanan — presented the organization’s latest work on bus stops. The room was full of employees of local transit agencies from Boston to Bogotá.
The report, titled “From Sorry to Superb: Everything You Need to Know about Great Bus Stops,” was released in October 2018. It’s built on case studies of American bus systems in major cities.
Los Angeles is a good example of the problems plaguing many existing urban bus stops. In Los Angeles County, myriad stakeholders must sign off on the construction of new shelters, including City Council, the City of LA Bureau of Street Services, and eight other agencies.
As a result, in the country’s second-largest bus network, shelters almost never get built. If a shelter is approved, it might take six months for it to be installed by LA Metro. Currently only about a quarter of the city’s bus stops have shelters.
But LA is not an outlier. “Most bus stops across America are a pole in the ground,” says Hovenkotter.
However, it’s this deficiency — poor-quality bus stops and not enough shelters — that could be an opportunity for many transit systems to increase ridership.
A study by the University of Utah found that bus stops upgraded with a shelter, benches, and adjacent sidewalks dramatically increased ridership.
“It does indicate that people are more willing to maybe walk a little farther, maybe change up their way of getting to work,” says Buchanan.
And in Houston, one of the few bright spots where bus ridership is growing, Houston Metro incorporated bus-shelter construction and renovation into its multi-year network redesign project.
Beyond the bus stop itself, riders, in TransitCenter surveys, have consistently valued having a safe walk to get to the stop.
“Eighty percent of regular transit riders walk to transit,” says Hovenkotter.
A TriMet bus stop pole with a single seat built in. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
TriMet, the transit agency in and around Portland, Oregon, excels at improving the walk to bus stops. Beginning in 2010, TriMet has evaluated the area surrounding stops and committed to improving sidewalks, pavement, walk signals, and crosswalks.
But no city has an unlimited budget, and constructing infrastructure of any kind can be costly. TransitCenter’s report identifies several strategies for cities looking for more bus-stop funding.
Many cities contract advertisers to oversee bus stops in exchange for advertising revenue there. But too often, when cities share in that revenue, the profits go into the city’s general fund and are not reinvested into bus-stop benches and shelters.
In LA, not only does the revenue not go back to stops, but TransitCenter found that bus shelters are often located to maximize advertising value and not to best serve riders.
TransitCenter also found that cities get the best results by holding partners to high standards. New York City strictly enforces its contract with advertiser JCDecaux. The city required the advertiser to build or replace 3,500 shelters in five years, which it did, on schedule. NYC DOT even has JCDecaux clear snow from all shelters within four hours of a storm.
In cities without lucrative advertising, federal grants have made a big difference. Minneapolis’ Metro Transit has upgraded a lot of stops with its Better Bus Stops program, but the one-time grant will run out in 2019. With the deadline looming, Metro Transit is now publicly focused on its bus stops and their long-term sustainability.
According to TransitCenter, bus-stop placement is also key. Many cities are bloated with stops and removing any of them is politically toxic. But reducing the number of stops and making sure that each is placed usefully — at transfers or points of interest — increases bus speed and reliability, which riders value.
“It’s not cutting service, it’s actually making service better and more efficient,” says Buchanan.
Finally, the report argues that bus stops are highly-used and under-funded throughout the U.S. According to the National Transit Database, major transit agencies only spent four cents on each bus trip in 2016, compared to $0.47 for each rail trip.
Building shelters, or upgrading stops with basics like trash cans — often completed in a single day — is typically a relatively inexpensive improvement that bus systems deserve. According to Hovenkotter, TriMet in Portland uses a yearly budget equivalent to the price of one bus to build 20-25 shelters, each of which will likely last decades.
Meanwhile, in LA and throughout the country, most bus stops are still just poles in the ground.
Transit agencies often justify these bare-bones bus stops by claiming that stops serving just a handful of riders don’t justify amenities. But that couldn’t matter less to an injured, tired, elderly or disabled person who needs to sit.
In desperation, some riders have turned to masked vigilantism. Late last year, the Los Angeles Times profiled an anonymous artist who builds wood benches that fit onto bus stop poles on the city’s east side.
But LA Metro need only look north to Portland for a more by-the-book solution. At 59 stops with low numbers of riders, TriMet has built seating right onto the pole.
Transit agencies continue to innovate. New York City has been experimenting with rubber bus-boarding islands that can be installed in one day and cost much less than conventional concrete pads.
To increase ridership, transit agencies are going to have to prioritize bus stops, take the lead on improving them and get creative.
Photo of a bus stop in Copenhagen by Judy Dean on Creative Commons.