By Noel T. Braymer
Unless a person is lucky enough to live near a train station and most of their destinations are near a train station, then they never have to transfer to a bus to get to where they want to go. But there are lots of places people want to go to which requite a transfer by transit either by bus or rail. Even if you are not transferring from a train, there are times when riding bus transit would make sense.Taking transit is a simple way to reduce the need for parking in urban areas and reduce traffic congestion which building more roads and parking only makes worst. The problem is most people will only ride a bus if they have no other choice.
In America, bus transit is often looked at as the mode of travel of last resort. When riding the bus, travel is often slow, uncomfortable and the buses are often late. Quite often what takes the most time are the poorly coordinated connections and indirect routing to get to where you want to go. Often there are long walks to get to your final destination compared to much nearer parking. But bus transit is better in many places in the world. In most developed countries rail service is popular and heavily used because it is a good service. In such places better bus service is also available. I remember from a trip to Europe in 1980 that bus service was much better than in this country. In Germany and Switzerland many bus lines had large, articulated buses in 1980. In these countries self-service ticketing was used both on rail transit and and buses. This speeds up boarding since people can enter from all doors and and not wait in a slow line like on American buses with pay as you enter ticketing. I even saw ticket machines on buses so there was no excuse not to have a ticket when ticket inspectors came on the bus. Delays at boarding are a major cause of late and slow buses. In Europe many buses make fewer stops than buses in this country which also reduces running times.
What can and should be done for both light rail and bus transit is give both priority at traffic signals. This will also speed up service and avoid delays. This doesn’t necessarily mean that buses and light rail get a green light as soon as they arrive at a light. But it can mean shorter times spent at traffic lights. At major arterial roads bus lanes would speed bus service and increase bus capacity while reducing traffic congestion in urban areas. So why hasn’t more of this done in this country? Well roads and highways are generally administered by traffic engineers. They traditionally think in terms of moving the most vehicle as possible on roads and highways. What is needed are efforts to increase the number of people that roads can carry to control congestion. That can only be done by attracting more people in high occupancy vehicles such as buses and light rail.
Just as important as moving buses and light rail faster, we need to have faster connections between buses and to rail transit to get passengers to their destinations faster. People are less likely to take the bus to ride for 2 hours for a 20 mile trip while spending much of that time waiting for connecting buses. Switzerland is the model for connecting all forms of transportation together. Their trains run on the same schedule all day and night every day. These trains have connections to other trains, buses, ferries, boats, cog railroads and airports. The secret to making this work in Switzerland is everything has to run on time. If a train misses a time slot, it has to wait for the next time slot. Better to have one late train than have one late train screw up the connections of all the other services. Needless to say in Switzerland this doesn’t happen very often. In Switzerland, and in many European Counties people of all economic levels ride buses and other forms of public transportation. They ride it not because they don’t have cars: most do. It is because public transportation service in much of Europe is good.
We have a mixed record on connections between trains and between buses and trains. In north San Diego County many local transit buses connect to the Sprinter DMU train service between Oceanside and Escondido. The buses are scheduled to arrive shortly before the trains arrive and leave shortly after the Sprinters have left. In San Diego the light rail Trolley Lines all meet and connect with each other so passengers cab quickly transfer. When the Trolley first ran in San Diego in 1981 the bus operators were afraid that it would pull riders from their buses. Buses where scheduled to stop at Trolley Stations. The result was bus ridership went up not down with the Trolley.
In Los Angeles by comparison, if 2 transit trains on different lines arrive at a station at about the same time it is more likely by chance than design. Even if this happens, there is no guarantee that you will be able to catch your connecting train because it often leaves before you can get to the platform. The are plenty of buses in Los Angeles County at rail transit stations. But often there doesn’t seem to be coordination between rail service and bus service. There can be a wait for the next bus after getting off LA rail transit. As for the San Francisco Bay area, local bus and rail service is often quite frequent. But it is often quite fragmented, with passengers having to pay a second full fare to make a transfer between two lines of different services. There is the Clipper Card which is accepted by most Bay Area Transit providers. But it is a debit card with allows you to pay fares to each provider, it doesn’t have regional passes good on multiple agencies in the region. The good news is there are efforts to make using the Clipper Card between agencies easier and cheaper for passengers.
On any transportation service, frequent and faster service are major draws for increasing ridership. With many forms of public transportation there is often declining ridership not growth. When ridership declines, agencies tend to raise fares, and reduce service to prevent budget shortfalls. What happens so often when this is done ridership and revenues go down even more as even fewer passenger ride the service as the service gets worse. This is a common death spiral for public transportation services. What is often the case for public transportation providers is they think in terms of operating trains or buses, usually during the work week during rush hour. What they ignore is they are suppose to be offering a service.
To increase ridership, first you need to find ways to improve your service to attract more riders. In San Diego, transit carries a great number of people during Comic-Con. There is no way to get around downtown San Diego by car during Comic-Con or cheap parking to move around. But riding transit to Comic-Con is part of the experience. People travel to many places at other time beside to work and back in the morning and late afternoons. What attracts riders is faster, frequent and reliable service, clean vehicles, good connections to more places and attractive fares. To often services love to build more projects, while neglecting to maintain their existing service. A good example of this is BART which is having problems keeping its trains running now while building extensions to more of the Bay Area. As travel patterns continue to change, public transportation has to discover where their markets are and capture them, instead of making the same mistakes over and over again.