Aarian Marshall is a transportation reporter at WIRED and former CityLab contributor. She lives in San Francisco.
A recent study suggests there’s a best—and cheapest!—corner for passenger pickups.
In the world of transit, the best bus stop may be ahead of you. Or behind you? The question of ideal bus stop placement is a matter of debate. There are near-side advocates, who believe the best place to put a stop is before an intersection and its attendant traffic light. There are also far-side advocates, who believe the best stop is after a light.
In a paper published recently in Transportation Research Record, the McGill University doctoral candidate Ehab Diab and the transportation planner and associate professor Ahmed El-Geneidy seek to settle the issue once and for all. The researchers’ article is called “The Far-Side Story,” so you can guess where they end up.
Which side is safest?
This may sound like planning small potatoes, but there’s a lot at stake with bus stop choice. Near-side advocates argue that buses stopped at red lights can better see pedestrians crossing in front of them, particularly those racing to make transfers from other buses. A driver can also use those traffic-light pauses to orient herself to oncoming traffic from all sides, including other buses. In other words, near-side lovers say, putting buses on the right side of the light is a safety issue.
But near-side stops can also be dangerous: vehicles sometimes try to circumvent a paused bus to make a right turn on red, leading to accidents. Pedestrians venturing out into traffic around a large, idling bus can also be struck by oncoming cars. Far-side stops, on the other hand, encourage pedestrians to cross behind the bus, where they can’t get hit.
A matter of efficiency
And then there’s the efficiency argument, the focus of Diab and El-Geneidy’s work. By putting a bus stop in the right place, they argue, transit agencies can run buses through their routes at a clip. The researchers use data from two transit systems: Montreal’s Société de transport (STM) and Oregon’s TriMet. In both systems, they find, near-side stops take more time than far-side ones, by somewhere between 4.2 and 5.0 seconds. This time seems inconsequential—why should we care that a stop takes five extra-slow blinks of an eye? But El-Geneidy broke down the math for me: “If you take it and put it in the context of the entire system and a route that has 40 stops, you’re saving...200 seconds. That can save a bus.”
By “save a bus,” El-Geneidy means reducing the number of buses run on a given route, and it’s a big deal. Transit planners always aim to maintain specific headways on their routes, which are important for riders who are trying to determine whether the bus is a fast and reliable mode of commuting. Planners err on the side of conservatism. If they find that 2.1 buses are needed to maintain a headway, for example, they’ll run three buses on the route. But if a bus can keep to its schedule, that might drop back down to two buses—saving the transit agency in labor, gas, and mechanical costs. At TriMet, for example, a bus costs $141.93 each hour it’s in use, so cutting down on one bus saves the agency hundreds of dollars a day.
The U.S. government’s Transit Cooperative Research Program has said that “far-side intersection placement is desirable” for some time now, but Diab and El-Geneidy’s paper gets more firmly at the “why.” You can understand now, too, why bus drivers sometimes refuse to open up their doors as they’re idling at near-side stops. Time is money, kids, and letting you board might waste valuable seconds—and taxpayer dollars.