When all you have is a bus-planning hammer, beware of oddly-shaped nails

My first guest post for this old city is up! If you haven’t added them to your daily reading, do so without passing Go or collecting $200; Geoff and Jon are really committed to moving the ball forward on good public space in Philadelphia, and of course land use and transportation are always two sides of the same coin.

For those of you arriving here from Jon’s link, welcome! I hope you find it educational here, but I suppose I’ll also settle for being entertaining. I’m sorry my WordPress stylesheet is much more boring than Geoff’s Drupal stylesheet.

The crossposted full text appears here, after the jump.

Last week, while the rest of us were distracted by the sky falling (or at least that fraction consisting of frozen water), Inga Saffron’s Inquirer column opened up a vitally important conversation on bus service in Philadelphia. If you haven’t read it yet, go take a look, right now. I can wait.

You’re back? Great.

So, there’s a lot to chew on in this column, both on the technical and the political side, but I want to start with just the first three action items listed in her sidebar:

  1. Stop every other block
  2. Give buses the green light (a/k/a traffic signal priority), and
  3. Far-side stops.

These are the three go-to steps in the American bus planner’s toolkit. They’re fairly well-established methods of speeding up bus service. Unfortunately, in 2011, when SEPTA and MOTU tried implementing stop consolidation and far-side stops on Route 47, by some measures the worst bus in the city, in a service improvement pilot program: nothing happened. Southbound trip times actually lengthened by ten seconds. The Standard Toolkit failed in South Philadelphia. SEPTA and MOTU, to their credit, did not engage in Cargo Cult Urbanism by trying to force their results to fit modern urban planning dogma. Instead, they abandoned the experiment.

Now, it’s true that the Route 47 pilot was incomplete, and therefore deficient, in a lot of ways. For instance, it failed to give buses signal priority in the segments where they could have used it. But the key point of failure is that the Standard Bus Toolkit assumes things that just aren’t universally true in Philadelphia, and are specifically wrong about the route taken by the 47. The first wrong assumption is that every intersection has traffic lights, not stop signs. As anyone who’s spent any stretch of time south of South, north of Vine, or west of 40th could tell you, stop signs are the rule in Philadelphia on all but the most major of arterials. And that’s a good thing! Stop signs don’t need electricity to run, which is good for the city’s operations budget; they discourage speeding, which makes everyone safer, and they keep the average speed of driving low, which discourages car ownership altogether. The predominance of stop signs actually contributes greatly to the walkability and liveability of our neighborhoods. However, it also slows down buses along with cars, and negates any potential gain in speed from consolidating stops.

The second wrong assumption is that faster speed is the be-all end-all of superior bus service. It turns out, there’s a negative correlation between the speed (in annual miles/annual hours) of a SEPTA City Transit Division bus route, and its operating ratio, i.e. how much money it makes back in fares for every dollar spent on running it. Operating ratio is a good proxy for the utility of the route. Now, obviously, all other things being equal, running faster is still better than running slower. The goal of the Route 47 pilot was a six-minute savings, which would allow the same service with one fewer bus, or better headways with the same number of buses. But the real-world data suggests that all other things are not equal, when the bus that comes closest to paying for itself is the relatively schleppy Route 60 across Allegheny Ave. Slow speeds alone do not keep Philadelphians off the bus, nor does fast speed alone attract them on board.

What we need is a better toolkit, one that takes the actual conditions found in Philadelphia into account. The Route 17 is never going to go much faster than it does today, stopping for a stop sign every block from Oregon Avenue to South Street (then on to Penn’s Landing) and back. But it can be a much more pleasant experience, and a more cost-effective one for SEPTA to provide. So, what can be done to help a bus that’s already a victim of its own success?

  • Introduce more short-turn buses at rush hour. The Route 47 pilot added one short-turn to the schedule; for real crowding relief, one out of every two to three buses to South Philly should be short-turning at Washington Ave (or Federal or Wharton Streets, wherever is most convenient for a quick bus layover).
  • Retrofit more bus depots for 60-foot articulated buses. Routes like the 17 and the 47 are already running every six minutes or less at rush hour; adding more buses basically guarantees bunching, and it’s really expensive to boot. SEPTA would have converted these routes to articulated buses long ago, if Southern District at 20th and Johnson Streets could physically store and service them. Unfortunately, it can’t. Major retrofits to bus depots like Southern and Callowhill are probably the unsexiest of all unsexy behind-the-scenes capital upgrades, but until they happen, Southern District routes like the 17 are going to bleed money unnecessarily. Fortunately, line items for depot upgrades have been included in SEPTA’s “Catching Up” capital plan.
  • Enhance the attractiveness of alternative two-seat rides. Remember how I said that the Standard Bus Toolkit only really worked on the few arterials with traffic lights? Well, a lot of those arterials have bus routes on them, but those routes largely tend to be the ones that feed into the Subway and the El, instead of the ones that run direct to Center City. Those routes also tend to have strictly worse headways than the major one-seat rides, even before factoring in the waits for transfers. Given that additional capacity on the El is still available, and capacity on the Subway is in no danger of being reached, this is a major failing by SEPTA to effectively manage its assets. Not to mention that SEPTA is still charging an insane and inequitable $1.00 transfer charge, putting up a serious financial barrier to efficient use of its own system.
  • Launch Philadelphia’s bikeshare system, ASAP. It’s almost clichéd at this point for me to bang this particular drum. But buses can do a much better job of serving everybody, if they don’t have to serve all of the short trips within Greater Center City that they do today. Ms. Saffron’s column even alluded to this in her closing paragraph; no shock, she’s a bike commuter herself.
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