I intend to begin a series of posts, about the concept of scale-variance in public transit. What I mean by scale-variance is that things work dramatically differently depending on the size of the network. This can include any of the following issues, roughly in increasing order of complexity:
- Economies and diseconomies of scale: cars display diseconomies of scale (it’s easier to build freeway lanes numbers 1-6 than lanes 14-20), transit displays the opposite (there’s a reason why the world’s largest city also has the highest per capita rail ridership).
- Barriers to entry: a modern first-world transit network, or an intercity rail network, requires vast capital investment, beyond the ability of any startup, which is why startup culture denigrates fixed-route transit and tries to find alternatives that work better at small scale, and then fails to scale them up.
- Network design: the optimal subway network of 500 km looks different from the optimal network of 70 km, and its first 70 km may still look different from the optimal 70 km network. Bus networks look different from both, due to differences in vehicle size, flexibility, and right-of-way quality (surface running vs. grade separations).
- Rider demographics: the social class of riders who will ride half-hourly buses is different from the class who will ride the subway, and the network design should account for that, e.g. by designing systems that the middle class will never ride to destinations that are useful to the working class. But then marginal rider demographics are profoundly different – sometimes the marginal rider on a low-usage bus network is a peak suburban commuter, leading to design changes that may not work in higher-volume settings.
For a contrasting example of scale-invariance, consider timed transfers: they underlie the Swiss intercity rail network, but also some small-town American bus systems and mid-size night bus networks such as Vancouver’s. I wrote about it in the context of TransitMatters’ NightBus proposal for Boston, giving a lot of parallels between buses and trains that work at many scales.
However, night buses themselves are an edge case, and usually, bus network design is different at different scales. In this post I’d like to go over some cases of changes that work at one scale but not at other scales.
The trigger for this post was a brief Twitter flamewar I had earlier today, about Brampton. TVO just published an article praising Brampton Transit for its rapid growth in bus ridership, up from 9 million in 2005 to 27 million in 2017. Brampton is a rapidly growing suburb of 600,000 people, but transit ridership has grown much faster than population. The bone of contention is that current ridership is only 45 annual bus trips per capita, which is weak by the standard of even partly transit-oriented places (Los Angeles County’s total annual bus and rail ridership is about 40 per capita), but is pretty good by the standard of auto-oriented sprawl. The question is, is Brampton’s transit success replicable elsewhere? I’d argue that no.
First, Brampton’s transit ridership growth is less impressive than it looks, given changing demographics. Fast growth masks the extent of white flight in the city: it had 433,000 visible minorities in 2016, up from 246,000 in 2006 and 130,000 in 2001, and only 153,000 whites, down from 185,000 in 2006 and 194,000 in 2001. The TVO article points to racial divisions about transit, in which the white establishment killed a light rail line over concerns about traffic, whereas the black and South Asian population (collectively a majority of the city’s population) was supportive. Ridership per nonwhite resident is still up, but not by such an impressive amount. Brampton’s population density, 2,200 per square kilometer, is high for a North American suburb, and a change in demographics could trigger ridership growth – this density really is okay for both transit and driving, whereas very high density (e.g. New York) favors transit and very low density (e.g. most of the US Sunbelt) favors driving regardless of demographics.
But even with demographic changes, Brampton has clearly gotten something right. I compare ridership today to ridership in 2005 because that’s when various bus improvements began. These improvements include the following:
- A bus grid, with straighter routes.
- More service to the airport.
- Free transfers within a two-hour window.
- New limited-stop buses on the major trunks, branded as Züm.
The bus grid is not especially frequent. The Züm routes have variants and short-turns, with routes every 10-12 minutes on some trunks and every 20-25 on branches and the lower-use trunk lines.
This isn’t the stuff high ridership is made of. Most importantly, this is unlikely to be the stuff higher ridership in Brampton could be made of. The Toronto region is electrifying commuter rail in preparation for frequent all-day service, called the RER. One of Brampton’s stations, Bramalea, will get 15-minute rail frequency all day; but Brampton Station itself, at the intersection of the two main Züm routes, will still only have hourly midday service. With fast service to Toronto, the most important thing to do with Brampton buses is to feed the RER (and get the RER to serve Downtown Brampton frequently), with timed transfers in Downtown Brampton if possible.
The express buses are specifically more useful for low-transit cities than for high-transit ones. In low-transit cities, the travel market for transit consists of poor people, and commuters who want to avoid peak traffic. Poor people benefit from long transfer windows and from a grid network, whereas commuters only ride at rush hour and only to the most congested areas; in Brampton, where city center doesn’t amount to much, this underlies the express bus to the airport, and the trains that run to Downtown Toronto today.
The marginal rider in Brampton today is either a working-class immigrant who can’t afford Toronto, or a car-owning commuter who drives everywhere except the most congested destinations, such as Downtown Toronto at rush hour, or the airport. Brampton has catered to these riders, underlying fast bus ridership growth. But they’re not enough to lead to transit revival.
The value of a bus grid in which passengers are expected to transfer to get to many destinations rises with the frequency of the trunk lines. In Vancouver and Toronto, the main grid buses come every 5-10 minutes off-peak, depending on the route, and connect to subway lines. Waiting time is limited compared with the 15-minute grids common in American Sunbelt cities with bus network redesigns, such as San Jose and Houston.
The difference between waiting 15 minutes and waiting 7.5 minutes may seem like a matter of degree and not of kind, but compared with bus trip length, it is substantial. Buses are generally a mode of transportation for short trips, because they are slow, and people don’t like spending all day traveling. The average unlinked bus trip in Houston is 24 minutes according to the National Transit Database. In San Jose, it’s 27 minutes. Breaking one-seat rides into two-seat rides, with the bus schedules inconsistent (“show up and go”) and the connections not timed, means that on many trips the maximum wait time can be larger than the in-vehicle travel time.
The other issue coming from scale is that frequent bus network don’t work in sufficiently large cities. Los Angeles can run frequent bus lines on key corridors like Vermont and Western and even them them dedicated lanes, but ultimately it’s 37 km from San Pedro to Wilshire and an hourly bus on the freeway will beat any frequency of bus on an arterial. There’s a maximum size limit when the bus runs at 20 km/h in low-density cities (maybe 30 in some exceptional cases, like low-density areas of Vancouver with not much traffic and signal priority), and cars travel at 80 km/h on the freeway.
This has strong implications to the optimal design of bus networks even in gridded cities. In environments without grids, like Boston, I think people understand that buses work mostly as rail feeders (it helps that Boston’s public transit is exceptionally rail-centric by the standards of other US cities with similar transit use levels, like Chicago or San Francisco). But in sufficiently large cities, buses have to work the same way even with grids, because travel times on surface arterials are just too long. The sort of grid plan that’s used for buses in Chicago and Toronto is less useful in the much larger Los Angeles Basin.