Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
Using the hashtag #StraighterIsGreater, the Transit Center is collecting maps of the most convoluted bus routes in the U.S. and abroad.
Weary commuters will tell you: As convenient as city buses are, rides can feel torturously long as they zig-zag their way across town. A trip that should take 20 minutes via a direct route can easily double in travel time by bus, as they often follow a more roundabout path, taking detours off of main roads and making loops around faraway neighborhoods. Add in traffic, and you’ve got a possible hourlong ride.
Buses follow such routes so they can serve more people in more areas within a single trip. But some advocates are calling for simpler routes, arguing that it will not only improve efficiency, but also ridership. The Transit Center, a research organization focusing on improving urban mobility, is one of those advocates. The organization’s recent survey of 3,000 transit riders from 17 metropolitan regions found that the improvement commuters value most is cutting travel time.
Using the hashtag #StraighterIsGreater, the Transit Center has embarked on a social media campaign to gather some of the most convoluted bus routes in cities. Rider responses have poured in, and some are quite headache-inducing.
Take, for example, the W2 and W3 buses that run through the Southeast quadrant of Washington, D.C., which take a C-shaped detour and make several loops before reaching their final destinations. (As one user points out, there are other, more direct routes serving this area.)
Q: If you let a tortured transit route run its course, will it eventually straighten out? pic.twitter.com/ZMd5sNTZhh— Sarah Fine (@fineplanner) August 23, 2016
Then there’s the route in Richmond, Virginia, that keeps overlapping itself.
And in Tacoma, Washington, a route that starts at Tacoma Community College’s transit center drifts off onto several back roads before arriving at its final destination—on the other end of nearby road.
This is certainly not a U.S.-specific problem. The Transit Center has gotten tweets from dissatisfied riders as far as Moscow and Bangalore.
A 2013 report by the Transportation Research Board at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine looked at how 59 transit agencies responded to scheduling problems and complaints of slow speed, and found that three-quarters tried adjusting their bus routes. The most popular approach was to streamline them—straightening routes and reducing deviations and turns. Of the six agencies that measured their results, three saw a minor increase in speed, while one saw a “moderate increase.”
Of course, it’s not always easy for a transit agencies to simplify bus routes. One of the six agencies reported that “streamlining was too complex to report an overall trend, because route segments were transferred among routes.” Indeed, agencies that didn’t try this approach said they were concerned that doing so would require riders to make more transfers, and therefore would cause them to lose ridership.
“It has historically been very difficult from a public-relations standpoint to remove bus stops or streamline a route with numerous turns,” the researchers wrote. “There can be a lack of understanding in other departments of the importance of maintaining or increasing bus speeds and the extent to which fare collection, stop spacing, inefficient routing, and other seemingly minor actions add up to a notable impact on speed of service.”
But there are success stories out there. People also tweeted maps of their neighborhoods’ busiest—and most direct—bus routes, like this one in St. Louis, Missouri, and another in In Tacoma, Washington.