Tape, chalk, and a few stanchions whip long rider queues into shape.

Vancouver has a problem with its 99 Broadway bus that most cities would envy: it's too popular. The 99 is part of a Broadway bus corridor that's considered the busiest in North America, carrying about 100,000 riders a day. At some stops, despite coming every few minutes during morning rush, the buses hardly put a dent in the lines of passengers awaiting the next one.

So that's a good problem, but it's still a problem — especially at the stop outside the Broadway-Commercial SkyTrain station. Here, commuters leaving the train station to catch the 99 fork into three lines to board the front, middle, and rear bus entrances. But these lines can get so long they curl around the block back into the train station (below, the bus is at the far right):

TransLink, the metro area transit authority, wanted better control of the queue to avoid safety hazards and keep riders from blocking the sidewalk. But past efforts to manage long bus lines had not always turned out well. More traditional approaches, often based on impersonal queuing models or data-based passenger counts, led to ineffective interventions — like this winding passenger shelter (at a different stop) that riders simply ignored and cut through:

This time the planning firm Nelson\Nygaard took a different approach: they decided to intervene with the 99 Broadway lines in real-time. So they brought a few basic tools to the site — some sidewalk tape, a few stanchions, chalk — and over the course of a few morning rushes tested out which queuing methods got the best rider response. The situation made for a perfect testing ground, because every few minutes brought a new experimental sample of riders.

"Sometimes you need to think about a problem differently or approach the way you collect information about a problem differently to come up with the right result," says Paul Supawanich, senior associate at Nelson\Nygaard, who worked with colleagues (as well as Liana Evans and Michelle Babiuk from TransLink) on the project. "It's not always just about before-and-after data. Sometimes it's about getting out there and observing things in real-time."

Time-lapse videos made from 6 to 9 a.m. during one morning of the project offer a glimpse into the process. The eastbound video shows riders emerge from the train station (behind the camera) and form three bus lines. They do a decent job organizing themselves, but still block the sidewalk until the planners tape down three separate lines. That splits the sidewalk into four even sections, leaving plenty of room for walkers to pass. When the tape gets pulled up, the blocking problem returns (see the 3:50 mark).

The westbound video, filmed the same morning, shows an attempt to get riders to form switch-backs for the rear door. Switch-backs extend a line by looping it back (think: airport security); in this case they could increase line capacity by about a dozen passengers. Vertical stanchions did the job, especially when aided by arrows on the ground showing the first person where to stand, but riders didn't abide switch-backs guided by sidewalk tape alone.

The real-time planning enabled Nelson\Nygaard to make some recommendations to TransLink without undergoing a lengthy (and costly) analysis. Sidewalk tape is as effective as fences for keeping the sidewalk clear while less constricting. Stanchions are needed to create switch-backs. Posted signs up don't work as well as arrows on the ground, though all signage is unnecessary in the station because bus riders know where to go on their own.

This specific project aside, Supawanich says the live trial-and-error intervention helps push the boundaries of standard planning approaches. "Sometimes it's easy for us to be armchair planners and look at maps and data and this other stuff and attack a problem," he says. "But this is one of those cases that just by being there and observing over the course of a couple hours how people react to something, it became clear what was going to work and what wasn't."

All images courtesy of TransLink / videos courtesy Paul Supawanich.

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