This last weekend, I rode on Route 160 at the same time in the morning on both Friday and Saturday while on my way to work. Even though it was the same trip on the same route, the experience was quite different between the two days. On Friday, we left Dayton TC as soon as the clock said it was time to go. Over the course of the trip, there were less than 8 people, and we only had to stop a handful of times. By the time we got to my stop (the last one before Three Rivers TC), just 15 minutes had elapsed, which is also the same amount of time Google Maps estimates the drive from Dayton TC to Three Rivers TC will take on the same route. On Saturday, the bus had quite a few more passengers, with more boarding/alighting at most of the key stops along the route. By the time we got to my stop, about 22 minutes had elapsed, which according to the public schedule actually makes the bus late by 2 minutes (though regular riders of the 160 would know this is more in line with the usual running time of the route).
After the stark differences I had in my experience (as minuscule as they might seem), I started thinking about what it really means to say that a bus is “on schedule.”
Traditionally, Ben Franklin Transit has told riders that they should be at their bus stop at least 5 minutes before the bus is scheduled to arrive. With a large majority of the passengers being regular riders who use the bus at least once a week, the process of catching a bus is pretty routine as they largely have the schedule(s) committed to memory. Being used to this laid back approach was a bit of a culture shock for me last year when I moved twice and spent several months living in Tampa and later Spokane. As a major metro and medium-city respectively, the transit agencies did things quite differently.
It wasn’t until I was in Tampa when I learned about the concept of a “timepoint hold.” Just like BFT, they publish their schedules with times at key points along the route listed. However, Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART) had a strict policy for their operators that if they pass a scheduled timepoint early, they will be subject to disciplinary action (i.e. a write-up). On the very first night I was in Tampa while getting my introductory tour of HART with Jason Eames, we were on a late night Route 30 trip where the bus operator was deliberately driving the bus slow (by my estimation about 25-30mph on a 40mph road). Having never seen something like this, I asked Jason about it and he explained the aforementioned policy. Later on in my time in Tampa, I noticed other bus operators doing the same thing, while others would drive the bus at a regular pace until they arrived at a timepoint where they would stop the bus and wait until the clock said they could proceed. I also observed the same thing in Spokane while riding Spokane Transit Authority buses, though it was quite rare for it to happen there (which may be attributed to careful work by staff to develop more accurate schedules in a time of austerity measures).
When I was living in Tampa and Spokane, the concept of the “timepoint hold” seemed a bit extreme and even wasteful to me. After moving back to the Tri-Cities and riding BFT again, I’ve started to wonder if there may be something to it. The schedule is arguably the most crucial piece of information for bus riders. Whether they’re an experienced rider or a new one, it’s important to be able to know what time your bus leaves and when you’ll get to your destination, along with how long the trip will take. If the bus isn’t running within 5 minutes of that schedule, it can mean a few things. Maybe the schedule wasn’t allocated enough time and needs to be adjusted, or maybe the bus operators are traversing the route too fast and need to be asked to slow down a bit. When you’re dealing with routes that only run at 30 minute plus headways, this is especially critical. Nobody wants to be waiting outside in the hot sun or pouring rain only to find out that the bus passed by 3 minutes before they got there and now they’re stuck waiting for at least another half-hour. Even if it’s a frequent bus route (every 15 minutes or greater), a schedule is still a crucial tool to have. (You may recall earlier this year when I posted the entire schedule for Tampa’s MetroRapid North-South Line after HART neglected to do so initially).
In the future, relying on public schedules may not be such a critical issue as more and more agencies start launching real-time bus tracking apps and others starting increasing frequencies. For the time being however, we have to work on the basic issues to help attract new riders, and solving the issue of staying on schedule is probably the best place to start.