Improving the Bus Experience

Sept. 13, 2019
Agencies can boost ridership and customer satisfaction by striking the right balance of service reliability and creature comforts.

The transit bus-riding experience has transformed so dramatically in the United States over the past decade that it’s hard to imagine a time when people craned their necks beside bus stop signs in hopes that the next bus would be theirs. Many of today’s bus riders can use their smartphones to determine their bus’s arrival, and enjoy a quicker, safer trip when it does. In many cases, they also can use their phones to pay the fare and connect to Wi-Fi for the duration of their trips.

Transit agencies have gradually been building out these technologies and amenities and are taking other steps to attract additional riders. Nationally, between 2007 and 2017, bus ridership declined 11 percent, according to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) 2019 Fact Book. The reasons for this vary from region to region, but the net effect is that transit agencies are becoming more creative in providing a range of services to retain existing customers and attract new customers to their system.

Fortunately, there are many great examples of agencies that are finding success in partnerships, operational transformation and investments in forward-looking technology. Here are a few core strategies that we’re seeing being executed across the country. Some could be described as back-to-basics and others as taking-on-the-future.

Strategy 1 – Be quick and predictable

Let’s start with an indisputable fact: people want their bus to get them where they want to go as quickly and predictably as possible. Successful transit agencies understand this reality and have focused on tactics that increase service frequency on heavily used routes, investing in traffic signal priority systems and reducing the number of stops to reduce duration of the ride. Additionally, 81 percent of transit buses have adopted automatic vehicle location systems to optimize operations and provide real-time bus arrival notices to riders.

In recent years, we have seen several agencies roll out “overnight” system redesigns that concentrate on improving service along the busiest corridors. Often, this means a 10-minute wait for the next bus, rather than 20 or 30 minutes. Agencies have also extended service hours into the evenings and have added weekend hours to accommodate the diverse schedules of service workers.

In Houston, Texas, for example, a major reimagining of their METRO bus system has resulted in reliable service being delivered to residents seven days a week, with buses arriving at stops on heavy-use routes about every 15 minutes. The city reorganized its routes from a previous radial design into a grid, so buses now reach more parts of the city. METRO ridership has increased since this transformation.

Strategy 2 – Use tech and partnerships to make trips seamless

One consequence of concentrating resources on a city’s busiest corridors is that the outlying, low- density areas may receive less emphasis in terms of routes and service frequency. However, it is important to continue to serve this market with transit options. This is why many agencies are partnering with Uber, Lyft and other transportation network companies (TNCs) to create a seamless solution.

No doubt, transit agencies and TNCs continue to compete head-to-head in certain markets, but increasingly they are realizing the outsized benefits possible to both parties when they cooperate. TNCs already are providing transportation to and from transit hubs but could serve a valuable role as an extender of bus services in select geographic areas through partnerships with the transit agency. This could include agency subsidies for TNC rides, potentially a less costly proposition in low-density areas where full-sized buses may not necessarily be the most efficient way to provide transit services.

Ultimately, consumers make the decision about the transportation services they’ll use, and they appreciate any effort to make such decisions easier and less stressful. This is why we’re seeing more bus agencies and TNCs collaborating on the information front, providing consumers with transparency in terms of available travel options.

Denver, Colo., is experimenting with Uber in this regard, offering the public an easy way to plan multimodal trips – such as a bus trip and Uber trip – in one place. In essence, the Regional Transportation District is providing real-time bus (and train) information to Uber, which in turn incorporates this information into its ride-sharing app. This collaboration also lets riders use the app to buy their transit tickets and access end-to-end directions. Initial findings of the experiment are promising, which means that other cities soon could offer a similar service.

Strategy 3 – Think outside the bus

Many bus shelters have long been in need of a makeover, and some agencies are taking steps to make the (ever-briefer) wait for a bus more pleasant. High efficiency LED or even solar lighting is now common on shelters. Technology, too, is playing a role. We’re seeing a trend of digital readouts at bus stops to provide real-time bus arrival information, as well as Wi-Fi connections so that passengers can begin to stream their entertainment before boarding their (Wi-Fi enabled) bus.

Fare collection is rapidly evolving as well. Most bus rapid transit (BRT) routes employ off-board ticketing with the aid of Ticket Vending Machines (TVM). Increasingly, transit agencies are moving toward mobile ticketing whereby passengers can purchase single ride or even multi-ride passes on their smartphones – even if their trip requires a transfer or multiple providers.

Strategy 4 – Electrify for the future

On-board Wi-Fi and electrical outlets are still relatively uncommon, but we believe they’ll soon be ubiquitous. Such amenities, along with more comfortable seats and better environmental controls are part and parcel of the newest buses rolling off the assembly lines. The newest buses are dazzling in every way, and when they roll down the street, they instantly reframe the “bus experience” in many people’s minds.

As agencies upgrade their buses, some are taking things a step further by transforming some of their fleet into all-electric vehicles. Although the United States is currently behind other nations in utilizing electric buses, the momentum appears to be shifting thanks to improving technology and public interest in the environmental benefits of electric vehicles, in general.

In Indiana, the Red Line will be the nation’s first all-electric BRT service and is part of a program that will connect Indianapolis and several other cities in a 35-mile corridor, coming within walking distance of more than 100,000 people. On the west coast, Los Angeles, Calif., is already rolling on its ambitious plan to have a 100 percent electric bus fleet by 2030.

Strategy 5 – Prepare for tomorrow

Finally, nothing has the potential to change transit operations and enhance the rider experience more than automated and connected vehicle technology. The capabilities becoming a fast reality allow BRT systems to add significant capacity and precision to their operations, positioning them to rival commuter rail lines’ service and ridership with unmatched flexibility to meet marketplace changes.

Delivering a great experience

These agency innovations – and many more across the country – are an acknowledgement that delivering an exceptional customer experience will be essential to preserving the vital role of bus service in our communities. We look to the coming decade with great anticipation and confidence that it will be one of rising ridership, innovation and reliable, safe and affordable trips for more Americans than ever before. 


Kimberly Slaughter is senior vice president and national transit/rail market sector leader for HNTB Corporation. 

Mark Huffer is project director and bus rapid transit practice leader for HNTB Corporation.