Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.
Allowing bus riders to board in the rear as well as the front is common outside the U.S., but few American transit agencies have been willing to try it.
Traffic jams can happen inside buses, too. They're caused by those clueless riders who, upon entering and paying the fare, stay as close as possible to the front of the bus. Those boarding after cram into this human congestion, which can quickly become intractable as more and more people get on board and stay at the front. An available seat, or at least breathable space, is often within eyesight, mere feet away at the back of the bus.
Now, this can be unpleasant due to the many bodily odors and general sweatiness of bus riders in tight quarters. It can also really slow things down. Getting people from the bus stop and into the bus is a time-consuming process. San Francisco's Municipal Transportation Agency, Muni, is hoping to speed up that process and cut down that frustrating front-of-the-bus body crush by doing what no other transit agency in the U.S. has done. Beginning July 1, Muni started allowing its riders to board the bus from the back door as well as the front.
"For us, it’s a matter of looking at any way we can to make travel on Muni more efficient," says Muni spokesperson Kristen Holland. She says a recent study of the system's effectiveness found that Muni buses spend about 50 percent of their time on the road stopped due to traffic and the boarding of passengers.
From now on, passengers with paid fares will be able to enter Muni's roughly 1,000 buses, trains and streetcars through back doors. This includes people with transfers and those who've bought monthly passes or loaded money into rechargeable transit fare payment cards. Those needing to pay cash on board will still be required to enter through the front. Holland says the agency hopes that opening all doors will help cut down the amount of time buses are stopped to pick up passengers, at least gradually.
"We understand that at any particular stop on any particular day, it may not be a huge difference at any one moment. We are really looking for a cumulative effect," Holland says.
And while this may seem a straightforward method for improving bus efficiency, its major problem is the vastly increased risk that the people getting on the back of the bus will be people who haven't paid. Free-riders are a problem for transit agencies the world over, but many, including Muni, have fought back by beefing up their ranks of fare inspectors. Muni reported an estimated 8.5 percent rate of fare evasion in February 2011, a rate that dropped to just 3.5 percent in November 2011. To help counteract fare evasion, Muni has a total of 45 fare inspectors, including an additional 10 hired in conjunction with the all-door boarding policy. Even so, the actual amount of people paying cash (or not) is relatively small. Muni says about three-quarters of its fare-based revenue is prepaid. Officials will be doing reviews of the new policy over the next few months to see how well it's working, both in terms of improving efficiency and fare evasion.
Many other transit agencies will likely be paying attention. As the first agency in the nation to implement all-door boarding, Muni is taking something of a risk. Most other U.S. agencies have avoided similar policies for fear of losing already tenuous revenue.
Outside the U.S., all-door bus loading is increasingly common as more cities like Paris have off-board fare payment options and cities like Bogota implement bus rapid transit systems that require riders to pay the fare in a station before boarding.
With the broader adoption of pre-paid, rechargeable and chip-enabled transit passes like the Bay Area's multi-agency Clipper Card and London's Oyster card, it's becoming more feasible for transit agencies to consider all-door boarding, at least for its paying customers, according to Jeff Hiott, a senior program manager at the American Public Transportation Association. He says that as fare cards and automated card readers become more ubiquitous in buses, more transit agencies will warm up to the idea of turning their exits into entrances.
"I would not doubt that others will adopt the same thing," Hiott says.
San Francisco has taken the first big leap. Additional card readers have also been installed throughout Muni's fleet, and riders are already taking advantage of the newly available and less congested entrance to the bus. Holland says it's too early to tell how well all-door boarding has worked out, but she's confident it will make the system work better. Agency officials – both in San Francisco and beyond – will be watching closely to see what happens.
Photo credit: Robert Galbraith / Reuters