Flickr/Shinya Suzuki In Montreal, a bus hangs out in front of a near-side stop.

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.

All the options for bus stop locations, courtesy of the Transit Cooperative Research Program. (TCRP)

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.

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