So. One of the questions that keeps coming up over and over again during this whole BRT discussion that’s been going on is why AC Transit doesn’t just try to figure out what’s wrong with the 1R and see what they can do about it?
Well, as a matter of fact, that’s exactly what they have been doing. And conveniently, AC Transit has recently issued a report (PDF) on exactly that subject and will be hosting a community forum to discuss it on Thursday.
Let’s start from the beginning.
What is the 1R?
AC Transit’s has been running a bus line called the 1R since June of 2007. The line runs from downtown Berkeley to downtown Oakland along Telegraph, then from downtown Oakland to the Bayfair BART Station in San Leandro along International Boulevard. Along the same route, AC Transit also operates a line called the 1, which is in general, slower than the 1R, because it has way more stops. Previous to the summer of 2007, this corridor was served by two different buses, the 40 and the 82.
It is a tremendously popular line, carrying over 12,000 passengers daily as of November 2008 (an 11.4% increase from 2007). This is on top of all the passengers that ride the 1. Although riding the 1R is substantially faster than riding the 1, many people choose to take the 1 anyway because the 1R stops are quite far apart, and often not particularly close to one’s destination.
Theoretically, the 1R arrives every 12 minutes between 6 AM and 7 PM at each of the 36 stops along its 17 mile line. The total trip from downtown Berkeley to Bayfair BART is supposed to take 73 minutes in the morning and 78 minutes during the afternoon rush hour.
The superior speed of the 1R versus the 1 is due to the two factors. First, the 1R stops a whole lot less than the 1. 1 stops are spaced between 800 and 1,300 feet apart. The minimum distance between 1R stops outside of downtown Oakland is about 1,200 feet, but they average a much longer 2,400 feet and some are spaced nearly 5,200 feet apart.
Besides the stop spacing, the 1R is also faster than the 1 because of something called Transit Signal Priority. This is a neat-o high-tech tool that you put both on the bus and the traffic light. When the bus is approaching the traffic light, the tool can tell, and it will keep the light green for a couple seconds so the bus can get across.
Sounds great. But do people ride it?
So this is an issue that comes up a lot when people are talking about transit. It is not uncommon whatsoever to hear people talk about the bus as if only buses are only ridden by the destitute and crazy transit freaks. Often, when talking about the bus – in public meetings, in comments on, say, this blog, or in general conversation, you will hear people say things like “Oh, I would never ride a bus” or “Nothing could make me ride a bus” or “Nobody who has a choice of doing something else would ever make me ride a bus.” Maybe. Maybe not.
Obviously there are always going to be some people who will just never ride the bus anywhere. You can’t do anything about that. But there are also lots of people – normal people – who ride the bus because it gets them to where they need to go, and it’s simply easier than driving a car. One of my favorite things I’ve read in the last year was this interview with Mad Men and Angel star Vincent Kartheiser, where he says he takes the bus to work. The interviewer acts all shocked. Like, where do you live that you can do that? And he’s so casual about it, all “Oh, I live here, but you can take the bus from lots of places. It’s not a big deal.” It is so rare in the media to see taking the bus portrayed as a normal thing to do, even though, in reality, it is incredibly normal. More Oaklanders take the bus to work than take BART.
Anyway, enough with the tangent. Do people ride the 1R? Um, yes. The 1R carries roughly 12,000 passengers a day. And they ride it in growing numbers. Between October 2007, a few months after the line debuted, and November 2008, ridership on the 1R increased by 11.4%.
And why do they ride it? Well, a lot of people take the 1R to work. The chart below illustrates the number of people on the bus during AM commute hours, along with how many people are boarding and exiting (alighting) at each stop.
Also, contrary to what some people seem to believe, people don’t only ride the bus during commute hours. If you ride the bus during the middle of the day, you know this already. If you don’t, well, the chart below illustrates the line usage during midday hours.
Overall, the 1R averages 89 passengers per trip.
Okay. So why don’t even more people ride it?
Well, big problem with the 1R is reliability. As I said above, the entire route is supposed to take 73 minutes. In reality, it can take as much as 115 minutes. That’s a big difference.
Of course, most runs don’t go so crazy far over schedule. The average running time for the 1R going south during peak afternoon periods is 89 minutes, 11 minutes longer than it’s supposed to. The deviation from scheduled running time varies throughout the day, but it’s almost always longer. See the chart below.
A more sobering way to look at it is to consider how many trips are completed within 5 minutes of the scheduled runtime. In AM peak periods, this figure can be as low as 21%. Yikes!
The full report includes lots of great charts that give a little more context to the problem, showing where exactly the bus gets so slowed down, but for the sake of space, we won’t get too much into it here.
When buses get behind schedule, the result is often something called “bunching.” This is when multiple buses arrive at or near the same time. The bunching is probably the most serious problem with the 1R, as it means riders end up having to wait much longer than they should for a bus to show up. It means the service is unreliable. And when people can’t count on the bus to take them where they want to go when it’s supposed to, then they are much less likely to ride it.
For purposes of the report, bunching was defined as buses arriving within 2 minutes of each other. During peak afternoon periods, 16.5% of buses were found to be bunched. The report defines “normal” headways as buses arriving 10 to 14 minutes apart. During peak afternoon periods, only 14.8% of buses were found to be normal. Terrible! The bunching percentage increases and normal percentage decreases as the bus gets further and further along the route.
What makes the bus so slow?
Well, obviously, there’s traffic. And along with it, stop lights. 19% of the 1R’s running time is spent waiting at traffic lights. But there are other factors as well.
24% of the 1R’s running time is spent at stops, waiting for passengers to get on and off. This is an issue with busy bus routes. It takes time for people to get on and off the bus, and when you have a lot of people getting on and off, it ends up taking a lot of time. At the worst stop, International and 34th Avenue, it takes an average of 78 seconds to get everybody onto the bus.
Part of the reason it takes so long is because it takes people a while to pay. People paying cash take the longest. Often people (irritatingly) have not gotten their money ready beforehand, and end up standing at the farebox fishing for change and making everyone wait behind them. 34% of 1R passengers pay cash.
The fastest way to pay is using something you can just flash and go, like a TransLink card or flash pass. Riders using TransLink take as little as 2 seconds to load. Sadly, TransLink payment accounted for only 3% of the 1R’s passengers as of the time of this study, although that figure is surely increasing now due to the more widespread adoption of TransLink and policy changes on the part of AC Transit.
Besides the general loading time, the 1R also has to deal with the additional time it takes to load strollers and wheelchairs. There are also a lot of strollers and wheelchairs on the 1R. Obviously, there are, in general, going to be more strollers and wheelchairs on high traffic lines simply because there are more people riding the bus total. But it does sometimes seem that the 1R, particularly on the East Oakland portion, gets a disproportionate number of strollers.
Strollers and wheelchairs slow down the bus because it takes a much longer time to get them on. The ramp has to come out, people have to get on it, then the ramp has to come back up, then once they’re on the bus, strollers have to find a place to go and wheelchairs have to be secured. The average loading time for a stroller was found to be 1 minute and 34 seconds, and the average loading time for a wheelchair was found to be 4 minutes and 10 seconds.
How do we fix it?
No, just kidding! Seriously! I don’t want this discussion to turn into another debate about BRT, it’s about improving the 1R. Various features of a BRT system would eliminate or significantly reduce some of the dwell time problems delineated above, but even if AC Transit ended up deciding to go through with totally full fledged BRT as designed in the maximum alternative, that still wouldn’t be operating until like 2015. That’s a long time to wait for a better bus.
The report identifies a number of ways to improve speed and reliability on the current 1R. Read the full report (PDF) to see them all, I’m just going to do the highlights here.
First, the bus can be made safer for the large number of strollers if they have a place to go. Additionally, the time associated with loading the strollers and having people stuck in line behind them could be decreased it they don’t have to hunt for a place to park. The suggestion here is to replace some of the normal seats on the 1R with seats that flip up and down. That way, if there are lots of strollers on a run, more space can be available to accommodate them. If there aren’t, then people can use the space to sit down.
For wheelchairs, the report suggests marking clearly the space at the bus stop where everyone should be waiting – one space for people using the front door and another space for passengers who will need the ramp. This would be helpful, but of course, only works if the bus always stops in the exact same place. As frequent riders know, that doesn’t always happen. The report suggests that this problem could be ameliorated by separating 1R stops in certain high locations from the stops used by other buses, so the 1R wouldn’t be stopping all the way behind the other bus.
Additionally, the report suggests that 1R drivers get special training to familiarize them with the unique operating needs of the rapid line and that the line be managed more closely to lessen the impact of bunching. For example, when a bus reaches the end of the line, the driver would be instructed to not depart in the other direction until 12 minutes have passed since the last bus left. The ideal departure time would be indicated through the use of a countdown clock, and would hopefully put a stop to the snowball effect created by bunching, where each instance of bunching ends up making the problem even worse for the next bus.
Finally, the report suggests that the time spent loading passengers could be reduced by encouraging less time consuming payment methods. Specifically, it proposes exploring the use of some sort of ticket vending machine at the line’s busiest stops (Shattuck and Allston in downtown Berkeley, 20th and Telegraph, 14th and Broadway, 11th and Broadway, 12th and Broadway 11th and Harrison, and 12th and Harrison in downtown Oakland, International and 34th in the Fruitvale district, and Bayfair BART). If passengers could buy a flash pass before they get on the bus, then the time waiting for people to hunt for change could be significantly reduced. Passengers could be encouraged to use the vending machines instead of on-board cash payment if the vending machines offered some kind of fare discount. Clearly, there are a variety of issues that would have to be addressed before AC Transit could implement ticket vending machines, but it seems like a promising concept.
If you find all this as fascinating as I do and want to know more, you have two options. First, you can just sit down and read all 88 pages of the report (PDF). It’s not anywhere near as bad as it sounds – there are lots of big maps and charts, and the whole thing is written in admirably clear and non-jargony language. Second, you can go to the community forum AC Transit is hosting tomorrow. At the forum, AC Transit staff will present the findings of the study, answer questions, and take suggestions from the public about how to improve 1R service.
The meeting will be held tomorrow, Thursday, February 25th at AC Transit’s headquarters at 1600 Franklin Street in downtown Oakland from 6 to 8 PM.