Talking Transit: Speeding up the bus - Metropolitan Planning Council

Skip to main content

Talking Transit: Speeding up the bus

Flickr user Nacto (cc) and Christof Spieler

In San Francisco, riders can now board buses at both doors at every stop.

Published monthly, MPC’s Talking Transit, supported by Bombardier, provides updates about transit-related activities around the world. Read In the Loop for the latest transportation headlines.

Did you know?

This month, the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) began a six-month pilot to test a hypothesis: That paying bus fares off the bus—rather than in front of the driver—would speed service by reducing the amount of time buses sit waiting at stops as passengers board and alight. If the pilot is successful, off-board payment could be replicated as the way to go throughout the region’s bus system.

The test is being conducted on the CTA’s #77 bus, which runs along Belmont Avenue east-west across the city, at its interchange with the Belmont Blue Line station. At that stop, riders boarding the bus westbound during the evening peak period tap their card at a portable reader manned by a CTA staff member before entering a pre-paid waiting area. Once the bus arrives, riders can board at both front and rear doors, without waiting in line as customers tap their cards and pay their fares. It’s not very different from the experience of riders taking the ‘L.’

Reducing time buses sit at stops

Why is it so important to make buses travel more quickly? Fundamentally, people want to spend less time traveling and more time at their destinations. According to the 2014 Who’s on Board report by TransitCenter, the number one thing that would make people ride more transit is if it would take less time.

There are a number of approaches to speeding buses, such as giving them their own lanes, but one of the most promising methods is to reduce the amount of time they spend at stops. It can be truly frustrating to be on a bus and have to wait every block for passengers to get on and off. What’s especially frustrating is the line that forms at well used stops, with rider after rider paying his and her fare as the traffic light ahead cycles from green to red to green and then back to red.

All this sitting around at stops has other nefarious effects: It produces bus “bunching,” which means buses show up in pairs rather than evenly spaced. The result is even more waiting time at stops. Ultimately, as the quality of service declines, people start giving up on transit altogether and stop riding the bus. That’s the opposite of what we want.

Transit agencies around the country have been working to reduce stop times. One approach has been to implement off-board payment, as the CTA is experimenting on Belmont.

In New York City, Select Bus Service routes opened since 2008 have integrated bus lanes with transit signal priority (allowing buses to speed through traffic lights) and off-board fare payment. Overall, those routes have reduced travel times by 19 percent, letting riders spend less time in the bus and more time at work or at home.

So far, this program has been so successful that New York has implemented it on nine bus routes, and is planning to add it on six more in the coming year, including a line through Brooklyn that will open in the coming days.

All-door boarding: A key to reducing bus travel times

In other cities, off-board payment has been put off in favor of a simpler solution: simply allowing people to use the back door of the bus. The idea is that it reduces the amount of time people spend waiting to get on because it doubles the number of doors people can use to enter.

San Francisco is the U.S. city where all-door boarding has been implemented most extensively. In 2012, the Muni light rail and bus system, which operates within the city of San Francisco, began allowing customers to board in the back on all of its buses and trains. The change made it possible for customers with the city’s tap cards (similar to Chicago’s Ventra system) to simply tap-in at a reader in the back of the bus.

This approach did not integrate off-board fare payment—people are still paying on the bus—but as a result, it was simpler to implement across the system. Because riders can pay on the bus, rather than at the stop, the city didn’t have to add fare machines at every stop, saving a lot of money in up-front costs.

An extensive study of the implementation of back-door boarding in San Francisco showed that the “dwell time”—or the time a bus sits waiting at stops as customers board and alight—declined from four seconds per passenger to just 2.5. At a heavily used stop—say, where 50 customers are getting off and on the bus—that meant the average bus spent just over two minutes waiting, versus 3.3 minutes previously. That’s precious time that, over the course of a whole bus route, really adds up. The time waiting at bus stops declined at all types of stops, whether in touristy areas or in neighborhoods.

Best of all, the study showed no increase in fare evasion. In other words, not only were customers getting a faster ride, but people were continuing to pay for their trips, even though they were boarding at the back without the driver’s supervision.

Fare payment as a key for thinking about boarding processes

Speeding up bus service requires thinking about fare payment and bus entry together. CTA has chosen to implement all-door boarding along with pre-paid fare “zones” at stations, but this approach cannot be implemented system-wide because, not only are there thousands of bus stops in the city of Chicago, but most of them are simply on the sidewalk, where such zones cannot be added.

New York’s system relies on a “proof of payment,” in which riders receive a receipt after they’ve swiped their transit cards at a machine at the stop. Riders are supposed to hold on to their receipts, and occasionally officials check to make sure riders have paid (in other cities, riders can simply tap their fare cards at machines at stops outside the bus or train, and their cards can then be checked by officials). In this system, the fare zone is on the bus itself.

Finally, San Francisco’s system is simplest, allowing riders to tap-in on the bus. This system has been implemented successfully on most European bus systems and has the significant advantage of allowing riders to jump on a passing bus without having to be concerned about tapping at the stop first.

Each of these approaches to speeding buses should be evaluated as Chicago pursues approaches to speed our transit network.

A path forward for Chicago

CTA is conducting this off-board fare payment pilot on the 77 bus at the Belmont Station on the Blue Line because this transfer is one of the busiest in the system. Before the implementation of the pilot, boarding times on the bus could reach as long as five minutes, and CTA staff will be watching closely to determine whether pre-payment significantly reduces dwell times.

If it does, CTA is examining other potential locations for pre-paid boarding to be implemented. Significantly, CTA is planning to implement the system on the Loop Link line downtown at the Madison and Dearborn station later this year. That will allow customers to board those buses at their rear doors, further speeding service from Union Station to Michigan Avenue.

The Chicago region should be working to expand transit use, as it plays an important role in reducing congestion and pollution, and improving bus service is a useful element of this process. MPC looks forward to monitoring the progress of CTA’s pilot and examining the potential to expand it.


No comments

More posts by Yonah

All posts by Yonah »

MPC on Twitter

Follow us on Twitter »

Stay in the loop!

MPC's Regionalist newsletter keeps you up to date with our work and our upcoming events.?

Subscribe to Regionalist

Most popular news

Browse by date »

This page can be found online at

Metropolitan Planning Council 140 S. Dearborn St.
Suite 1400
Chicago, Ill. 60603
312 922 5616

Sign up for newsletter and alerts »

Shaping a better, bolder, more equitable future for everyone

For more than 85 years, the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) has partnered with communities, businesses, and governments to unleash the greatness of the Chicago region. We believe that every neighborhood has promise, every community should be heard, and every person can thrive. To tackle the toughest urban planning and development challenges, we create collaborations that change perceptions, conversations—and the status quo. Read more about our work »

Donate »