Bus efficiency: Passengers per Bus

I’ve been intrigued by a few statements and metrics regarding buses recently. The first is that Beverly Scott recently said (on the radio, I think) that the T really should have many more buses than it does; she’d expect an agency the size of the T to be running 1500 buses, instead it has only about 1000. The second is that the T can not add any buses to the fleet, not only because of the cost of acquiring and operating new buses, but because there is physically nowhere to store and service them: the current bus yards are maxed out. And with proposals floating around for post-Sandy-New-York-style bus bridges, there would need to be a lot more buses in the fleet for that to happen.

My question was how heavily used the T’s buses are, especially compared to other systems. For every [fill in the route number here] bus that is jammed full of passengers, there’s a late-evening 350 with just a few riders. I decided to look at the ridership and fleet sizes for large bus fleets in the US, and see how many daily passengers there are per bus in the system. (Note that most fleets carry a 20% spare ratio, so the actual number of passengers a bus will carry in a day is 20% higher.) The short answer is that the T falls in to the normal range of major systems, if even at the lower end. The longer answer is that each system is different, and comparing them is all comparing apples to oranges.
You came here for charts, right? Here’s one. On the right axis are US bus systems with more than 200,000 riders per day. On the bottom axis, the number of riders per bus. I’ll get to the colors below.
So note that the systems in San Francisco and Chicago perform way ahead of anywhere else. The reason there is twofold. One is that in both systems, buses are the backbone of the system: they carry more passengers than the cities’ rail systems, so that many of the busiest corridors are served by buses. In fact, of the top tier of transit cities (there’s a big drop from Seattle, with 390,000 riders, to Baltimore, with 250,000), Boston, New York and DC are the only cities with more rail riders than bus riders. The MBTA’s bus system really operates as a transit feeder system (and always has); the only “Key” bus route in Boston which serves Downtown Boston—other than the Silver Line—is the 111. Most of the busiest bus routes—the 1, 28, 39, 66 and so forth—are either crosstown routes or feed a transit line.
The other difference on the above list is that in several cases, the bus systems primarily—or only—serve the city, with a separate system (or systems) serving outlying areas. For the top-eight systems (in red), only the MBTA, SEPTA, WMATA (DC) and King County Metro (Seattle) serve the whole area, the rest are augmented by suburban systems (Pace in Chicago, several agencies in LA, New York and the Bay Area). For Chicago and San Francisco, I added in other agencies (Pace in Chicago, AC Transit, Golden Gate Transit and SamTrans in San Francisco, since all serve the City there; shown in orange) and it brings their passengers per bus rate in line with other systems.
In fact, it’s interesting that once this adjustment has been made, there are no high outliers: the top systems fall between 375 and 460 riders per bus. There are outliers on the lower end. WMATA is lower by quite a bit, and Seattle lower still; it’s possible the fleet size data there I am using isn’t perfect, or that they have different utilization rates. In DC, there are poor transfers between buses and trains, and rail service carries the bulk of passengers. I’m not sure about Seattle, but it has a very small rail system relative to any other system on the list.
In any case, it’s all apples to oranges because Boston is relatively unique among these systems. The buses are mainly set up as rail transit feeders (this is the case really nowhere else, at least to the extent that BERy was built on subway-surface stations), the system is region-wide, so lower-ridership suburban routes skew the numbers and buses do not carry the majority of riders. If this was a Venn Diagram of cities with more rail than bus passengers and a single region-wide bus and rail provider, only the T and DC would be in the middle. And the T does far better at bus utilization, it seems, than DC, and while Boston’s system was mostly built to integrate surface and subway lines, DC’s Metro was built long after the bus lines had already been established (mostly as streetcar lines, of course). So with the nearest we can get to an apples-to-apples comparison (apples-to-pears, perhaps?), Boston is far more efficient.
So, the T needs more buses. Except for San Francisco, the T, at ±1000 buses, has by far the smallest bus fleet of these top-8 cities (and San Francisco—with 800 buses—only has a 50 square mile service area; about the size of Boston proper; AC Transit alone has another 550). Cities outside the top-8 don’t have the same sort of capacity constraints the T (and other major bus systems) see on a daily basis. In Minneapolis, for example, the busiest bus route runs every 6 minutes. In Boston, several routes—the aforementioned 111, the not-even-key 7—run every 3 to 4 minutes at rush hour, and they’re packed. 
Having more buses would allow more operational flexibility: a route like the 70, which could see many of its problems solved with a couple of extra buses, could see such service without worrying about where to put them. But that’s easier said than done: finding land for a new or expanded bus depot isn’t an easy proposition, especially when existing land, in many cases near transit nodes, has high value. Still, ordering new buses is faster than new rail cars (one year lead time instead of half a decade) and having enough vehicles would have a positive impact not only during irregular operations, but on routes which are overcrowded right now. Buses can be procured off the shelf for $500,000 each. A $50 million capital investment for 100 buses—plus the cost of space to service new buses, of course—could have a quick but lasting impact.

19 thoughts on “Bus efficiency: Passengers per Bus

  1. Just a quick note about WMATA bus operations – it's super weird because yes, they *do* cover the whole region, but there are *also* a number of suburban bus operators to augment. E.g., ART in Arlington, The Bus in Montgomery County, the Fairfax [County] Connector, etc. etc.

    Not to mention that WMATA runs a ton of low-ridership coverage routes, and leaves the main trunks with relatively poor frequencies (at least by my definition, but you know me).

    You know how people say that London is Boston on the scale of New York? (One of my favorite aphorisms.) Would double-deckers work at all? I don't know what stop spacing or frequency is like, but that could certainly be an interesting experiment if the T needs to build new garage space anyways.

  2. Good information about WMATA. Seems similar to the T, which runs many suburban feeder lines (having taken over the Eastern Mass lines and the M&B back in the day), although without the overlapping service until you get out in to RTA-land (the closest being the MWRTA which runs service to Woodland).

    Double-deckers might work to get more people per bus, but it would basically require the first/only double-deck transit bus in the States. New designs are costly, perhaps moreso than new facilities. A location that comes to mind: some of the forlorn parking lot out between Suffolk Downs and the gas tanks. The T commissioned a study more than 10 years ago about bus maintenance facilities, which seems to have gone nowhere.

  3. The problem with siting a facility is only partially the cost of land. A huge barrier is that no one wants a bus garage, and the extra bus traffic it brings, in their neighborhood. It's going to take major regional cooperation or some kind of strongarming to convince a city to site a new bus facility. Given that there's low political support for buses in general, I'm not sure it will happen soon.

    • The T should start buying battery powered buses (Worcester already has some), and convert diesel / CNG bus routes to electric first in communities willing at accept new bus yards which the T will commit to making electric only.

      Also, can we have a bus yard at Conley Terminal for the routes which currently serve City Point? (Probably about 50 buses; would that be too few to be workable?) And can we get rid of running those buses on E 1st St, and move the terminus to near the intersection of E 1st and Farrugut Rd?

    • Maybe the T should buy out RTE 128 Auto Parts in Waltham and put a bus garage there, and build a ramp from that lot directly to the nearby highway interchange (although getting buses back there at the end of their runs may be awkward). I suspect that location could work for buses serving Waltham, Lexington, Hanscom, and Route 2.

    • A fair point, but I think Houston and Boston are apples and oranges. Houston has approximately one fifth the ridership of Boston. Their busiest bus route carries 9000 passengers per day; the MBTA has 9 routes which carry at least 10,000. I doubt there is nearly the overcrowding issues in Houston: the realignment of the routes there was to provide more frequent service. Most routes in Boston have relatively frequent service (not to the extent of NY or Chicago, where nearly every route does) but are frequently so crowded that they bypass customers or lose time when people cram on board. It's an entirely different issue, which might be solved better with bus lanes and signal priority than wholesale route realignment.

      Another issue: in Boston, there is a lot more fixed infrastructure: routes generally have to serve a major terminus (usually a rail transfer station) and there are many fewer wide streets suitable for buses to travel. So what works in Houston may not really be applicable here.

      Plus, Houston has about 400 more buses than Boston and carries half the passengers.

  4. Exactly. Many existing older MBTA yards back on to residential properties (Fellsway, Arborway, the trolley yard in Brookline, etc) and using those types of properties would very likely not be feasible. Siting a garage in Eastie on Tomosello Way between Suffolk Downs and the gas tanks on an old parking lot would be a perfect location: no pesky neighbors, nothing in the way, and no real housing development potential. 25 acres of pure bus maintenance. Not sure how it would impact pullout distances compared with Lynn and Bennett.

  5. Seattle's low rail share is partly because their rail system is small, but also because their bus system is quite good. Their buses take advantage of HOV/HOT lanes along most major highways, intermittent dedicated lanes around much of the city, and a downtown transit tunnel shared with the light rail (although they'll soon be kicked out of the tunnel to free up more slots for expanded light rail). Their buses are also frequently electrified, which may give a sense of permanency.

    Now that I think about it, I'm curious what percentage of bus service runs in dedicated lanes (i.e. is relatively reliable) in different cities. That might be a good predictor of passengers/day/bus.

    • Seattle's bus system is good, but by this metric, inefficient: their fleet is nearly twice the size of Boston's with about the same number of riders. Although in a sense it's filling in in place of things like commuter rail or suburban (BART/outer Metro) rail. I think density of the service area is probably a better predictor, although not perfect.

  6. One of the problems at this point is that they also don't have enough drivers, even to operate the buses that they already have consistently. That timetable planner from public meeting said that one of the big problems is that there aren't enough drivers on the extra board, and experience bears that out. For example, last week, the 70A that I usually take to work just didn't run at all, presumably because the driver was on vacation. Given that they don't have enough money to operate what they already have, I'm not sure that buying more buses will solve anything (aside from replacing the completely life-expired ones, which they are already doing).

    • I'm not sure this is the case. I was at the 70 meeting in Watertown and the issue seemed to be the number of buses and garage space; they can usually find someone to fill in on overtime. Plus, there's no "the driver" for these routes, but a rating system which assigns routes by seniority. Drivers are trained on multiple routes, and I very much doubt the T is missing trips because there's not enough staffing. (Unlike FRA rules, drivers don't time out as quickly as rail operators; when there's a subway disruption, for instance, the T can call drivers coming off of shifts and have them divert to earn overtime.) So I'm not sure this is the issue.

    • I don't doubt that drivers are trained for multiple routes, and indeed they tend to move around with schedule changes, but my understanding is that in each given "rating", the drivers will pick a block of trips (in order of seniority), and then they'll just drive those trips for those three months, generally on one route. When a driver calls in sick, or takes a vacation, they get a driver from the "extra board" to fill in for those trips, which requires paying a bunch of drivers whose job it is to sit around and not drive buses until one of the regular drivers needs a day off.
      I was also at that meeting, and in talking with the planner afterwards, she said that while there are enough drivers to run the regular service, they don't have quite enough on the extra board, and it's hard to explain that they need more money to hire more, since in the ideal case, those drivers won't actually be driving. And all that said, the 70 definitely DID have missed trips all of last week. The suggested reason behind those was, of course, just conjecture on my part.

  7. Bus garage siting shouldn't be an issue – the MBTA has had a long-term plan to build a new garage at Wellington to replace Fellsway Garage and to take over maintenance at Lynn Garage (Lynn would remain in place to store and fuel buses). It seems to me that there should be sufficient industrial or office parcels out along 128 that one could be purchased for a garage to take over the Mass Pike, Alewife and Burlington buses, thus freeing up space at Albany Street and Charlestown.

    • If this is the case, it's disappointing. Wellington has great potential for transit oriented development: lots of space and good transit access to employment areas. The parking lot is a dead zone, but considering the amount of housing that Boston needs, it could provide a lot of it. A bus yard may not be the best use for that land. And while Fellsway is cramped and antiquated (cramptiquated?) it is centrally located: there are only so many parcels around. I'm not sure how set-in-stone those plans are, though; they seem to be in the talking phase.

    • The advantages at the Wellington site is that there is a train yard there already and the fact that the MBTA owns the land there. NIMBY opposition should be minimal. I'd rather see the TOD activity take place over on the Wellington Circle side of the area.

  8. Dear All:

    AC Transit is testing double decker buses (Alexander Dennis). They have been in regular use for years in Davis, California (a college town just south-west of Sacramento) and Community Transit in the northern Seattle suburbs has been using them for a few years on commute routes.

    — Chris Peeples —

    H. E. Christian (Chris) Peeples
    At-Large Director
    Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District
    1600 Franklin Street, 10th Floor
    Oakland, California 94612-2800

  9. There is one US pilot of double decker buses with AC Transit in the Bay Area http://www.actransit.org/doubledecker/ and plenty of examples north of the 49th parallel in Canada – BC Transit, Victoria, BC; Strathcona County Transit, Edmonton AB; OC Transpo, Ottawa, ON & GO Transit, Toronto, ON. My own city (Auckland, New Zealand) is introducing double-deckers to add capacity and deal with a severe shortage of kerbside space in our city centre on routes where we're running up to 34 buses in the peak one hour/direction. Downsides are potential (and expensive to address) clearance issues,especially street trees and low hanging overhead wires and potential for longer dwell time at stops. Of course labour costs are a huge elements of transit opex and double-deckers can help stretch this. IMO, best on high-frequency, high-ridership corridors where pass-ups are a issue and implemented at same headways as single-deckers so as not to be perceived as a cost/ service cutting exercise.

  10. In the wake of the MBTA's winter service failures and the dawning realization that the current setup may be unsustainable, there has been much talk about possibly splitting off the commuter rail from the authority. I'd like to see this process taken one step further and have the suburban bus operations removed from the MBTA's purview as well. Let the T focus on the transit network in the traditional 14 cities and towns that grew up around the old Boston Elevated Railway territory. The suburban operations could be set up as follows:

    Quincy '200' routes – create the South Shore RTA (possibly merged with Brockton's BAT)

    Lynn and Salem '400' routes – create the North Shore RTA, merged with the Cape Ann RTA

    Mass Pike and Waltham/Newton/Needham '500' routes plus the Bedford, Lexington, Bulington and Woburn services – create a NorthWest RTA or merge into an expanded MetroWest RTA

    Essentially this brings back modern versions of the old Eastern Mass. Street Railway and Middlesex & Boston systems, but this makes sense. The needs of the suburban communities is much different than the needs of Dorchester or Somerville or Revere. Some of the state's RTA's have been very responsive and creative in meeting the needs of the local communities. Brockton's BAT pioneered the use of pulse scheduling and offers frequent service across its network (compare this to the shrunken MBTA local bus service in Lynn and Salem since the EMSR days). Merrimack Valley RTA implemented its own Boston commuter bus in response to the needs of patrons who were not being well-served by the commuter rail system. Give these systems funding and let them decide how to best use it, and let the MBTA focus on its core territory.

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