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Building a better transit line: how location and land use make or break good transit service

Buses on the 9 and the 99 routes battling traffic.

This post is part of a series about Managing the Transit Network [1]: all about how TransLink plans transit service in our region. See all the past blog posts in the series here [2].

This post covers pages 12-21 in the Managing the Transit Network primer [3].

So far in our series, we’ve talked about the overall goals and challenges [4] for transit planning. And we’ve looked at the broad themes we keep in mind when we design a transit network. (We also did an interview [5] with the planning team behind this project!)

But in this post, we’re going to take a look at transit planning on the street level. That is, how do we design a good bus route or transit line? (And by “good,” we mean “a transit line that serves lots of people for as much of the day as possible.”)

Well, there IS an actual answer. Generally, we try to design a transit line with nine specific elements to make it likely to serve lots of people almost all the time. They are:

We’ll talk about each of these elements in more detail below. But eagle eyes will already note that locations and land use of the existing environment play a big role in making a transit line a success!

Serve areas of strong demand

Areas with higher densities and activity levels support higher frequency transit service.

Where do you build a transit route if you want it to gain high ridership quickly?

Connect the places where everyone wants to go—and your route will do especially well if those places are inconvenient to drive to.

It may sound obvious, but it’s worth spelling out to ensure everyone understands. Good transit service—service that everyone wants to use—connects the places where lots of people want or need to get to.

These places are essentially destinations of concentrated activity—like town centres, hospitals, universities, and shopping centres, or just places where many people live and work. If it’s inconvenient to drive to these destinations, even more people are likely to take transit to these areas. (For example, perhaps parking is more expensive or limited near these destinations.)

It’s worth noting that if these places have a variety of uses and buildings, a transit line has a better chance of experiencing decent ridership all day. For example, if a movie theatre is next to an office building, there are riders who will take transit to work during the daytime, but there will also be riders trying to get to the movies throughout the day and the evening too.

Have strong anchors at both ends

Transit lines with strong anchors generate ridership in both directions along the entire route, improving productivity of the service.

We make an effort to start and end our transit lines at major activity centres or connection points.

Why? Well, a transit line works best if lots of people want to get on at both ends of its route. This means the “anchor” destinations at both ends need to be places that many people want or need to go—good examples include a major bus exchange, rapid transit station, hospital, or university.

The illustration above shows why it’s important to have solid anchors at both ends of a transit line. The top diagram shows a transit line with solid anchors and destinations along the way. The line is always serving lots of people throughout its journey. Every hour that it is in service, it’s serving a good number of customers. Thus, we aren’t running empty buses at high cost which aren’t helping riders get to their destinations. We’re also not overcrowding the bus.

The second diagram shows what can happen if a line does not have strong anchors. Buses start off empty and gradually fill up. Near the middle of the route, where demand is highest, there could be overcrowding, making the ride unpleasant for our customers. Near the tail end of the route, the buses empty out again. The cost per passenger near the ends of the route is high, since we’re trying to provide enough capacity to serve the busy middle section. So for most of the time, this line is running empty buses with not enough customers, and in the middle, the bus is too overcrowded to be an attractive ride.

Be as direct, simple, consistent and legible as possible

More direct transit services offer better speed and reliability to customers, are cheaper to operate, and easier for customers to wrap their head around.

We try to make our transit lines as straight as possible.

An effective transit line will follow a reasonably direct path along most of its length—after all, the shortest way between two points is usually a straight line. It’s also more cost-effective to operate, since it requires less time to run the route.

A direct transit line is also much more appealing for riders. A transit line that meanders instead of going straight to its destinations will usually drive its riders nuts. We’ve all experienced this kind of “milk-run” transit ride, which takes forever to get to where you want to go. Lots of riders get very annoyed with this type of service.

And there’s one more benefit from making a transit line as straight as possible. It makes it more legible for people—meaning it’s much easier for riders to understand and remember where the transit line is going. That’s important, because knowing the transit system like the back of your hand helps you easily figure out how to use transit to get to where you need to be, and thus more likely to take transit.

All this benefit from straight lines!

Maintain speed and reliability along the entire route

Measures to improve transit’s speed and reliability - such as bus-only lanes or transit signal priority at intersections - make transit more attractive and cheaper to operate.

If your transit line connects popular destinations, it still won’t attract riders if it’s slower than driving and never on time at its stops.

And from our side, a slow, inconsistent service is more expensive than a fast one. (For example, more driver time is needed to operate a slow bus route, and more fuel is wasted.)

So we try our best to create favourable conditions that ensure that our transit lines are fast enough to be a reasonable alternative to a car, and to help them stay on schedule.

One major factor in affecting speed and reliability is how many times a bus must stop. Stops happen at places like intersections and bus stops, or just on the road due to traffic congestion. And all these delays can really impact how well the whole transit line serves its riders.

But! There can be an answer. We can use transit priority measures to help alleviate some of these delays.

As you might have guessed, transit priority measures are tactics taken to give priority to transit over any other traffic. They work on two types of transit delays: signal delay (the time buses spend waiting at lights) and congestion delay (the time lost by buses waiting in traffic). These methods include:

We work with our municipal and provincial partners to help implement these solutions, and the outcome is usually faster, more reliable service for our riders. And at the same time, we try to discourage road changes that may hurt transit speed and reliability.

As well, where there’s lots of demand for longer faster trips, we’ll sometimes introduce B-Line or limited-stop service. Less stops means a faster, more reliable trip, which gets you to places faster, and helps us increase the frequency of our buses without adding extra cost.

Avoid duplication or competition between transit services

On the left, ridership is split among overlapping transit services, reducing the productivity of each service. On the right, well-spaced transit services maximize coverage while avoiding competition between services.

To build a successful transit line, don’t put it so close to other transit lines!

Routes that are too close or overlap also tend to reduce ridership on both lines, as the same population of riders will now be split between the two lines. And if routes are too close or overlap, we’re overserving one population with resources that could go to serve other places.

We try to space out our parallel transit corridors by about 800m, so locations in between are within walking distance to one line, but not two. (400m is considered a 5 minute walk.)

Match service levels to demand

Services that operate at appropriate times and frequencies to closely match ridership demand are the most efficient and productive.

An effective transit line provides the appropriate level of service to meet demand and encourage people to use it.

A good example is a line where buses run often during the day to help get students to school, but less often in the evenings when fewer people are expected to ride it. This service meets demand when it is greatest, but keeps costs in check by running buses only when people are riding.

So when we think about our transit network, we try to understand the differing travel demands around the region, and how we can match the service to that demand effectively. It’s important to note that we plan the entire network this way, thinking about each transit line in the context of the broader network of transit services (SkyTrain, SeaBus, Bus, etc). It isn’t buses competing against trains, but how they all work together to provide good transportation outcomes.

There are a few variables that we can adjust to affect service levels on a given transit line:

Have balanced loads in each direction

Transit-supportive land uses help generate ridership in both directions.

Having balanced loads in each direction on a transit line is important. It costs about the same to operate a bus that’s full of passengers as one that is driving around empty. And since we can’t run transit vehicles (and drivers) in one direction without also running them back, the capacity provided in one direction is usually the same as the other.

A balanced load means demand is about the same in both directions. That means we’re not wasting any money running empty buses on the route.

However, not all transit lines have balanced loads. A transit service might be very productive in one direction but unproductive the other way. For example, a bus line from a suburban residential community to a city centre will have a lot of passengers inbound during peak morning hours, but few passengers going the opposite way at that time. This is a problem for transit because we can’t run transit vehicles (and drivers) in one direction without also running them back.

That’s where land use comes in. If a corridor offers a variety of land uses, with many different destinations along the way and at both ends, riders will have reasons to travel in both directions. On these types of lines, transit vehicles are less likely to be crowded in only one direction and nearly empty in the other. Zoning and other land use decisions that encourage a diversity of uses can really help improve ridership and efficiency of a transit route!

Experience an even distribution of stop activity

On the left, the majority of boardings and alightings is at a few stops. On the right, there's activity at many stops and less overcrowding..

Similar to the balanced loads point above, transit service is more productive when there are many places along a route where people want to travel.

But that only happens when land use decisions have built a place where there ARE a lot of destinations along a route, when there are lots of people living and working along the route, and when there’s a nice variety of land uses encouraging different activities along the route. And it’s also important that the environment is welcoming to walk around in as a pedestrian!

Services that are very busy at only a few stops tend to generate overcrowding—people get on, fill the transit vehicle, and nobody gets off until that one important stop is reached. Uncomfortable!

But if you have lots of people getting ond and off at a range of stops, you get the following nice benefits:

Have an even distribution of ridership by time of day

Transit-supportive land uses help generate ridership during off-peak periods, smoothing out ridership demand. Click to see a larger version!

Did you know most transit trips are taken in the morning or afternoon rush hours? That’s when people are travelling to and from work or school.

This travel pattern has an impact on transit service for the rest of the day and week. It means there are fewer transit trips taken during the middle of the day, evenings or on weekends. This can lead to overcrowded buses during peak periods, and empty transit vehicles during off-peak periods. Which we try to avoid!

As we’ve talked about, an efficient transit service will have riders all day in both directions. Lines like these justify having higher levels of service throughout the day—because people are using the service!

Having riders all day is key to making transit a more viable alternative to car ownership. And it’s an important requirement for getting a corridor to Frequent Transit Network (FTN) levels of service—corridors where you can expect convenient, reliable, easy-to-use services that are frequent enough that you don’t need a schedule. (The Frequent Transit Network is an important part of our work — find out more about it [6]!)

And again, land-use decisions that support transit ridership in the off-peak hours (usually by mixing uses) can help transit serve riders better and be more efficient. And again, it’s an ongoing partnership that we all work on.

Put your planning hat on: discussion questions

All right, now it’s your turn to play the planner! Here are the questions dreamed up by the planning team. This week’s discussion questions are framed as hypothetical situations representing some of the challenges that TransLink faces on a regular basis. Leave your answers in the comments and we’ll get you some responses too!

Scenario 1
A municipality on the edge of the region has approved a new area in their jurisdiction for development. They’ve approached TransLink, requesting transit service be provided to this new and growing neighbourhood. The development is in a remote location, removed from the existing transit network by several kilometres. It is also near the edge of Metro Vancouver’s urban containment area, near the base of a mountain and otherwise surrounded by very low density agricultural and forest land. The development is largely single use, large lot residential with some smaller lot rowhouses and townhomes. How would you, as a planner, respond to the municipality’s request for service? What type of ridership is it likely to generate? Some people have already moved to the area and are asking for transit service. What priority should TransLink give to this service versus other needs across the region?

Scenario 2
A bus route currently operating along a corridor generates relatively good ridership and provides a fairly direct connection between two urban centres. A resident has called TransLink to request the route be diverted from its normal route to stop closer to their residence. Perhaps not all trips – just a few trips in the morning and a few trips in the evening so the person can get to and from work. The detour would add about 5 minutes to the end-to-end travel time of the service (currently ~25 minutes). The person in question has gone door to door and gathered names and phone numbers from a number of their friends and neighbours supporting the request. What are some of the things a planner should consider when responding to this request?

Scenario 3
A company has chosen a new location for their head office in a business park just off a freeway. Transit does not currently serve the location. The owner of the company has called TransLink to ask for a bus route because 4-5 employees would like to use transit. The owner says that if a bus served the location even more people might use it as there are several other employers nearby. The owner has written a letter to the local mayor. Is this a good use of transit resources? How should TransLink respond? Are there other options the company could explore?

Scenario 4
A large industrial area has been established in the region. The area is growing every year as new businesses move in. People who work in the area come from all across the Metro Vancouver area and the Fraser Valley – from as far away as Chilliwack, Squamish and South Delta. Because of type of businesses in the area, work start and finish times vary throughout the day and night. The area is in a remote location, surrounded by agricultural lands and far removed from the transit network. Calls for transit service to the area are frequent and come from employees and businesses in the area as well as the local council who want to support these local businesses. What type of route is capable of serving the area if workers come from all over the region at different times of the day? How should TransLink approach the issue?

Read the rest of the series

Again, this post covers pages 12-21 in the Managing the Transit Network primer [3]. Make sure to check out the primer [3] and the rest of the blog posts below: