What is good bus service?

What is ‘good’ bus service?  There are several measures which gauge the effectiveness and quality of bus service.  

In short, a bus route is ranked based on how much access the line provides its riders, how much mobility it gives the communities it runs through, and how useful the service is to its potential riders.

 These terms are broad, but in terms of bus service they are defined as:

  • Access: A measure of how easy it is to reach places, services, and opportunities by bus.  It is also based on how many and what kinds of places a rider can get to in a reasonable amount of time.  High accessibility routes tend to have more stops so that more people and places are closer to a bus stop.  These lines will also shorten walk times, as the distance between bus stops is shorter (about 300 – 600 feet apart) than a limited stop or express line.  Consequently, these lines are slower than those with fewer stops as the bus picks up and drops off passengers more frequently.

    - Cincinnati's 78 bus illustrates access. With service from downtown to Springdale, the 78 has more than 100 stops over a 12-mile route, serving uptown and the historic Vine St corridor.  Many other bus lines provide similar access. Indeed, nearly all of Cincinnati's core corridors are blanketed with bus stops, from Glenwood and Harrison on the West Side to Montgomery and Madison on the East Side. 

    The bus goes almost everywhere within Cincinnati city limits and covers wide swaths of Hamilton County. particularly along the key corridors mentioned above. All things considered, Metro is probably best at providing access.

  • Mobility: A measure of how efficiently bus service moves people from place to place.  This measure prioritizes faster travel times and the capacity of service in meeting the demand. High mobility routes tend to go to more places and at faster speeds.  These lines shorten travel times, as riders can go farther distances in less time.  If it takes an unreasonable amount of time to get from point A to point B, then the line gives its riders less flexibility as they have to spend an inordinate amount of time traveling which lessens the amount of time they can do other things.  This means less mobility for riders.

    - Cincinnati has very few bus lines with high mobility, but the Metro*Plus is a good example, especially for service between downtown and uptown. You can save up to 10 minutes traveling from Government Square to UC on the Metro*Plus compared to the 19, 78 and other buses that serve uptown. That's a big time savings for a two-and-a-half mile trip. 

    The Metro*Plus achieves faster speeds thanks to fewer stops. There are only 5 stops between downtown and UC, compared to 19 stops on the 78, which follows a similar route.

    Mobility on buses is a major problem in Cincinnati. With a few exceptions, taking the bus is never faster than driving. Typically, it's much slower, especially during rush hour. Expanding Metro*Plus service throughout the city, introducing bus-only lanes (common practice in many cities around the world) and reducing the amount of time it takes to board (tap cards, all-door boarding) are some of the steps that can be taken to improve mobility.

    Note: Commuter express buses often provide high mobility. But they barely connect to the rest of the system, often skipping entire neighborhoods and running only during rush hour. As a result, they should be seen as a complement to, rather than an integral part of a bus network. 

  • Useful: A measure of how well bus service allows for flexibility in planning commutes and trips for the most people.  A highly useful bus line will provide frequent, consistent service that connects people to where they need to go in a reasonable amount of time.  These buses shorten waiting times, as service comes frequently throughout the day and at consistent intervals, in turn giving riders a wider variety of times that they can arrive at their destinations. 

    - The 17 and 19, which serve Hamilton Ave and Colerain Ave, respectively, help illustrate this concept. 

    At peak service (morning and evening rush hour), the 19 comes about every 25 minutes, dropping to around 50 minutes the rest of the day. Weekend service is even less frequent.

    The 17, by comparison, runs every 10-15 minutes throughout the day. Frequency drops early in the morning and late in the evening, but never below the 19. It's also a reliable option on the weekend. 

    What does this look like in real life? Let's assume you just miss the bus. On the 17, that typically means a wait of 10-12 minutes for the next bus. For riders on the 19, however, it could be anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour before another bus arrives. 

    Despite the availability of real-time bus tracking and set schedules, generally speaking, life is too irregular to plan around a bus that comes every 30-60 minutes. A couple extra minutes in the doctor's office, a slow checkout line at Kroger, or staying late to send one more email at work can mean an extra 40 minutes at the bus stop. 

    Sure, some days, that's not a big deal. But when the weather's bad or you're in a rush, missing the bus can be catastrophic. 

    Given the choice, very few people will take that risk, which is why high frequency and thereby more useful buses are so important when it comes to retaining and attracting new bus riders. One or two bad experiences with missing a bus can drive the choice rider away for good.

In the end, the more that people can depend on bus service to live their lives, the more they will view the bus as a viable, reliable transportation option.  Better bus service allows people to sit back and enjoy the ride; avoid traffic, parking, and the cost of driving; and get where they need to go on time.