October 14, 2019

The State of the Bus 2019

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Are buses in America getting better, faster, and more reliable? Or are they going in the wrong direction?
October 14, 2019

The State of the Bus 2019

October 14, 2019

The State of the Bus 2019


Transit agency and city staff across the country work every day to improve bus service; through active dispatching, bus lanes, and transit signal priority, they are committed to finding ways to make sure riders get where they need to go quickly and efficiently. But numbers don’t lie, and reliability metrics are crucially important to measure the quality of bus service.

So are America’s buses getting better, faster, and more reliable? Or are they going in the wrong direction?

Luckily, Swiftly provides some unique insights into how reliably buses across the country are running.

To answer these questions definitively, we looked at the performance of the top 2,698 bus routes in the 25 largest agencies in the United States in two key categories: on-time performance and schedule run-time accuracy. For the month of May 2019, we looked at how buses performed in terms of on-time performance and how they did compared to their scheduled run-time. This gives a unique glimpse into how the average bus route across the country works for riders. Why did we choose May? Thanks to the combination of school being in session and great weather, it tends to be one of the months with the highest, most consistent transit ridership.

Just two-thirds of vehicle arrivals are on time country-wide. Bus lanes, transit signal priority, and active dispatching all can help needle these numbers upward.

If you were to walk out to your closest bus stop to catch a scheduled bus in May 2019, two out of three times, it would be “on-time.” That means it was within one minute early or five minutes later than when it was scheduled to be there, which is the most common definition of “on time” used by US transit agencies. The third time, the bus would have already left, or you would have to wait over five minutes for it. We found this by holding all 25 agencies to the same on-time performance standard (one minute early to five minutes late) and taking the average of how all the agencies performed.

Of course, this tells us there’s room for improvement. Bus lanes, transit signal priority, active dispatching, and can all help needle these numbers upward.

So where should you go if you hate late buses?

Visit San Jose, where just 8% of the VTA’s buses ran late, the lowest percentage of the agencies we looked at.

Just over half of America’s actual run-times are within 3 minutes of scheduled run-times. Revising schedules to reflect actual run-times can result in fewer buses idling at terminals.

While on-time performance reflects what a rider at a bus stop experiences, run-times look at how long it takes a bus to get from one end of the route to another. Drafting accurate schedules that reflect real life run-times is critical to get the most out of an agency and the public’s money. If the time it takes a bus to get from terminal to terminal is less than expected, then agency staff can turn those buses around more quickly and get them back into service. If they take longer than expected, buses will start late on their next trip, often setting off a chain reaction of poor on-time performance.

At Swiftly, we consider schedules that reflect run-times within 3 minutes as accurate. Of the 2,698 bus routes we looked at in our dataset, just over half of them had schedules that reflected their average run-time to within 3 minutes. The other half had schedules that were either early or late.

These numbers reveal that planners and schedulers are leaving bus service hours on the table that could go to make bus service more frequent. And creating a more accurate and optimized bus schedules is completely within transit agencies control. Focusing on run-times when building bus schedules is one of the quickest ways to improve on-time performance. Revising schedules to reduce those shorter than expected runs can result in fewer buses idling at terminals, allowing those buses to get back on the route serving riders.

Have a passion for accurate schedules?

Get yourself to San Antonio, where VIA has one of the highest accuracy of run-times in the nation with 65%.

What does it take to improve these numbers?

Moving these numbers in the right direction is a challenge. The tools agency staff use to increase the percentage of bus routes with on-time and accurate schedules are no surprise. Writing optimized schedules, getting bus operators to leaving terminals on time, and encouraging city transportation departments to build streets that prioritize transit will all help these numbers.

But transit agency staff still only have 24 hours in a day. With hundreds of routes to manage, staff can’t adjust every schedule, dispatch every terminal, or ask for a queue jump at every intersection.

The insight to know where to apply these improvements to get the biggest bang for the buck is the real opportunity for staff.

Swiftly is in the business of helping agencies find those places where staff can provide more reliable service to riders. To transit agencies who want to improve on-time performance and ensure they use more accurate and optimized schedules, please reach out!

Stay tuned!

These numbers are just a snapshot in time for one month. This is the start of Swiftly’s State of the Bus project. We’ll be looking at how these numbers change year over year. This provides a benchmark the whole transit field can use to see if we’re succeeding at making buses more reliable for riders. Stay tuned and follow along on Twitter at @SwiftlyInc.

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