Headway Change? Metro Proposes Increasing Maximum Time Between Some Buses

Westbound on the 720. Photo:##http://www.flickr.com/photos/fariac/2458679400/sizes/z/in/photostream/##Faria!/Flickr##

Every year, the Metro Board combines its December and November meetings into one giant meeting in mid-December.  One item, passed by the Board’s Safety and Operations Committee in November is already raising concern from bus advocates and riders who are worried that a change in bus’ headway times could lead to more crowded conditions.

The innocuously titled Agenda Item 45: Update Metro Service Standards and Policies proposes to increase the maximum headway time for rapid bus service to 20 minutes for peak service and 30 minutes for off peak service.  This doesn’t mean that there will suddenly be a thirty minute wait for all rapid buses in the middle of the day, but it gives Metro the flexibility to altar time tables for bus service on rapids and other lines that it doesn’t have at the moment.

“The new standards are unequal and biased, allowing buses to have slow 60 min headways versus 10-12 minute headway cap for rail service.  If these kinds of service standards get applied more buses can be slowed down and trip thinned by the MTA.  Bus riders will have to bear additional wait times and this will kill ridership on the buses,” explains Sunyoung Yang, an organizer with the Bus Riders Union.  “If the same headway standards applied on any of the rail service even the Red Line, no one would ride it—imagine waiting 30 min to an hour for the next train to go to Union Station.”

For its part, Metro staff says that Agenda Item 45 is as innocuous as its title.

“We’ve been using 20 minute frequency for evaluating Rapids over the past few shakeups, so the standards are consistent with our informal guidelines,” writes Dave Sotero from Metro’s public relations division.  “The original planning guidelines for Rapids were 10 minute peak/20 minute base.  We were required to operate Rapids at this level for a period of one year from each line’s implementation. 

After the first year, we are allowed the flexibility of matching service with demand.  During the past few years, we’ve conducted an evaluation of the Rapid program and right-sized service levels to match demand.  As a result, many of the rapids do not follow the 10 min peak frequency.  Therefore the standard was reset to 20 minute to be consistent with current operations.”

The Bus Riders Union contends that changing the headways is part of a self-fulfilling plan that reduces bus ridership.  For example, if bus headways are increased in an area, it will reduce the people riding that bus service, which will lead to reduced ridership.  The reduced ridership will lead to increased headways, that will again reduce the ridership.  To the Bus Riders Union, Metro is basically practicing the reverse of the induced demand theory that applies to highway widenings.

Metro’s Rapid Line 720 on Wilshire Boulevard is one of the most used rapid bus lines in America, and thanks to some unfortunate problems earlier this month, it provided a window into what a 20 minute headway on that rapid line would look like.  Streetsblog reader Elizabeth Huff wrote her sibling Herbie Huff about a two night period where there was a 20 minute headway on the 720.  Metro staff claims that there was no plan for this change, but that sometimes mechanical problems, traffic and other variables collude to create a mess for transit riders.

The Huffs write of the early November experience:

Both times it has been a crisis of full buses passing crowds of dozens. At her stop at Beverly, tonight she counted over 50 people waiting for the bus. It is usually 10-15 people; and the 720 bus is posted to run on 5 minute headways normally. She usually waits 5-10 minutes for a bus, and the past two nights she has waited 30 minutes and 45 minutes respectively. Something very fishy is going on.

She has observed the bunching of buses, which is a normal occurrence and can screw up headways, but the sheer number of buses running right now only adds up to a fraction of the usual.

By the end of the week, the bus headway was back to normal.

  • corner soul

    What a joke! No wonder LA buses have such low ridership, 20 minutes is an eternity for anyone with options (car, bike, etc.)

  • Elizabeth Huff

    If Metro actually makes those changes on the 720, I will be riding my bike to work an back, I can’t afford to wait that long everyday.

  • Spokker

    There are so many goddamn buses on Wilshire that nobody knows what to do with them. What moron thinks they are going to increase headways on 720 to 20 minutes at any time other than late at night?

    Clearly the buses were fucked that night. We need a subway under that street. 10 minute service all night! But this is racist.

  • Anonymous

    I’m pretty sure the 720 has no chance of seeing headways greater than 20 minutes in off-peak. The 720 currently operates every 2 – 5 minuts in rush hour….nobody is crazy to make it 20 minutes. That’s just fear talking.

  • P.

    The problem is that in calculating headways, Metro has a tendancy to include rapid and local service in the math.  You might get a bus every 10 minutes but it might not be the one you want.

  • This makes me fundamentally wonder is Metro serious about operating Rapid service. These kind of headways destroy any sort of time advantage versus limited/local services. As it is the trend has been toward dismantling Rapids in favor of local service and/or limited 300s.

    I’ll admit some of us felt Metro went a bit overboard when rolling out the Rapids with some from the get go rather questionable as to performance (the 714, anybody?). I know this is partly because the Rapids were part of the new service the consent decree mandated. But now we seem to be going too far the other way.

    The 720 is safe. Also the BRU conspiracy hand-waving is excessive. But still these headways make no sense for a service that is called Rapid. This is verging on Vapid…

  • Although I don’t work for the MTA, I have seen some of the information on the 720 and service in general. Although scheduled service has not decreased substantially since 2006, I think a big contributor to the delays has been the cuts in the extra board as part of service thinning. The “extra board” are the drivers that sit around watching TV all day but roll out when a bus breaks down, or they fill in when someone is out sick. With fewer people on the extra board, plus the abominable time it takes to roll a 60 foot bus out of division 10 to the Westside, just a couple of breakdowns and you’re toast. Also there’s MTA’s aggressive scheduling – with each trip timed to the minute and as much slack time removed as possible – combined with different priorities of the drivers. Some want to get back on the road ASAP if they are down 20 minutes, while others are content to take their full recovery time and leave late from the start. They have cut down early buses substantially – the most recent October 2011 data has it down to 5% from a horrific 19.2% three years ago – but late buses gone up conversely from 17.6% to 31.2%. 

    Now MTA does publish all of its real time bus tracking data online, but no one has yet used Nextbus data to do a “rollback” in time as to where buses are. It would be a great app for someone to develop, although it has very little utility for most people that don’t work at the agency.The other factor is customer complaints and headway of the line being affected. If the 442 or the 450 doesn’t show up, the upper middle class riders fill out the comment forms on their phones while they stew. (So fill out those forms every time you get passed up or wait forever, to spike those numbers.) Also, there definitely is less priority to replacing a bus that runs every 5 minutes, since you could “take the next bus”, compared to a bus that runs every half hour, never mind that the bus runs every 5 minutes because people are using it. Not replacing a bus that runs every 5 minutes just gets lost in the shuffle, while a 30 minute headway line with vocal riders will get replaced as quickly as possible. I also think that has to do with why afternoon service seems significantly less reliable than morning service. 

  • The whole point of Rapid was BRT like service. But at lot of the half hour rapids are political. The 705 and 710 serve areas which have seen many rapids cut, so cancelling those could raise Title VI issues.  If they cut the 734, 762, or 794, they have to pay back the Federal government for the signal priority, and cutting the 750 means that those fancy shelters have to be broken up and returned to the Feds. MTA has realized that it’s better to run one bus every 15 minutes rather than a Rapid every 30 and a local every 30, but they thought that every corridor would be as successful as Wilshire, and failed to estimate how much traffic the Orange Line is pulling off Ventura.

  • As far as the BRU complaint MTA is just ratifying what they already do. The system map accurately shows that 10 rapids – almost half – exceed MTA’s own standard. So they are just lowering the bar to the existing situation. Honestly I don’t think the 20 minute rapid impresses anyone either. If you aren’t going to operate every 15 minutes than add the three buses an hour to the local and give yourself 10 minute service. Yes the BRU will complain that trips will be longer, but MTA tried flooding corridors with Rapid, especially midday, every 15-20 and they weren’t using it. I think that average trip length in midday may be shorter anyway. 

  • I agree and concur that the big issue is service quality. The only way MTA can hear how important that is to riders is if they complain every time they get passed up. Nothing will come of it but it will spike up the statistics, which are published every month, and raise some eyebrows. Really, with the smartphone, it shouldn’t be too hard to fire up an email with the time, amount of time spend waiting, bus number that passed one up, and bus that arrived. I’ve also found that TransSee – http://doconnor.homeip.net/TransSee/RouteList.php?a=lametro – is a good tool since it has bus numbers and thus actual buses on the street, whereas the normal Nextbus could be providing “scheduled times” fiction.

  • busnbike

    To me, rapid buses only make sense when they don’t have to wait in gridlock with all the other traffic. Otherwise, what’s the advantage? Wilshire needs a BRT or purple line extension already.

  • Anonymous

    Seems to me to be quite simple.  If the line cannot operate at rail-transit-like frequencies at all time of the service day, it cannot have Red buses and it cannot have a 7xx (or 9xx, are you listening Silver Li(n)e schedulers?) route number.

    This service was sold to the non-transit-using public as “just like rail, but cheaper”™, as in “See, Luxury-car-leasing-gentry we don’t have to spend all your gasoline-tax to move the proletariat on an expensive train, we can save that money for (yet) another freeway widening project for you!”

    So it needs to be deployed in a certain manner or not deployed at all.  At least have the decency to let me decide if I am going to attempt the trip by “BRT” from my origin rather than realize I’ve been duped at some transfer bus stop enroute.

  • Michael Smith/NextBus

    Note: the NextBus system uses GPS to make arrival predictions in real-time. The TransSee app simply uses a feed of the NextBus data so provides the exact same information. Only difference is that TransSee also makes the bus numbers available.

  • Dan W,

    What exactly does “rapid” actually mean anymore?  If you have to wait longer than 12 minutes for it and if you don’t save 12 minutes of travel time over the “local” service, then it really isn’t a “rapid” service in my book.  Just call it a limited bus, but don’t pretend the service is something that it isn’t.

    Without transit only lanes, it really isn’t possible to have consistent “rapid” bus service in heavy traffic.

  • Spokker

    At over 12 minutes you would use a schedule. If I know the bus comes at :20, then ill go wait at :15. Ill be happy the service is faster than the local.

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