Decentralized by design: When should we consider ditching exclusive radial bus routes?

By Mary Ebeling

In the past, development and commute patterns required transit—bus or rail—to bring commuters into densely developed central cities. However, over the last 50 years, many metropolitan areas in the U.S. experienced a decentralized urban settlement and growth into less dense outer suburbs. This trend resulted in the dispersal of residential development and distribution of employment centers outside of a city’s traditional central business district. Simultaneously, many central business districts have retained essential services and moderate levels of employment, creating a need for transit to serve both urban core and exurban destinations. Additionally, significant populations in the urban core require transit to access jobs outside of the downtown district. Without an adequate response to this phenomenon, transit can’t bring riders where they need to go efficiently and conveniently.

Metropolitan bus systems that respond to today’s commuter needs thrive and even attract “choice” ridership. This change does not come without pain, as successful adjustments often require a major retooling of the route system to provide “multi-destination” service. Often, as in the case with Tallahassee’s STAR Metro, changes require maintaining service to the central business district while simultaneously providing a new network to residential and employment centers outside of the historic downtown. But the focus becomes connecting destinations rather than funneling riders to a CBD.

Bus systems that successfully transition from a rotary or hub-and-spoke route structure to a more diversified system have several characteristics in common. They:

  • Maintain service in the CBD while reconfiguring the route structure on the periphery to capture suburban ridership and employment destinations;
  • Create meaningful connections between rail and bus service, recognizing that many choice transit riders may begin their transit journey by train, but complete that journey by bus;
  • Improve headways and travel times;
  • Work with major employers to develop “metro-commute options”;
  • Design stops and transfer points to be appealing and convenient, including benches and bike racks to support multiple modes of arrival at the stop;
  • Embrace new technologies such as digital displays at stops, Google trip planning, and smart phone applications with bus arrival times;
  • Construct transit priority lanes or other facilities to move buses through congested areas more efficiently; and
  • Install equipment on buses and traffic lights that will give buses a little more time to get through a light, thus improving travel times.

Transit systems may not need to incorporate every one of the listed strategies into a restructuring effort to be successful and attract choice riders, but systems must make thoughtful changes based on data-driven policy decisions about how to serve the population in the most effective manner. By making well-informed choices on route and service structures that take people to jobs and other destinations, a modern transit system truly will aid in the prosperity of the communities it serves. As Jarrett Walker notes in his blog, Human Transit, “Great transit lines succeed to the extent that many different kinds of people with different situations and purposes find them useful.”

Mary Ebeling is a Transportation Policy Analyst with SSTI.