Bus bunching on major routes calls for new approach from TransLink
By Michael Henricksen, Sarah Glover, Jason Shi, and Nick Zhu
With the announcement of further price increases across the board for transportation in Vancouver, it is time for the cash-strapped TransLink to improve its operating efficiency rather than throwing money at a problem that is suffering from a severe case of diminishing returns.
One issue that often irritates passengers in Vancouver is a phenomenon known academically as bus bunching. It describes a situation where one bus is delayed to the point where the next bus of the same route catches up to it. This results in the delayed bus picking up the bulk of the passengers at each stop, passengers who have been expecting to catch that bus at its earlier scheduled time, while the second bus behind it runs the rest of the route under-capacity with almost non-existent headway (distance to the bus in front).
There are many different ways to improve headway and TransLink’s current solution, slacking, attempts to achieve this by forcing bus drivers to stick to a strict schedule so that they leave and hopefully arrive on time. Because there are outside factors such as traffic conditions and varying passenger loads, bus companies will actually reduce service (slack) in their schedules. This means that buses running ahead of time wait at control points—usually on major intersections—until their scheduled departure time. Not only is this evidently not working, some studies have shown that this approach can actually be worse than having irregular headways between buses as it slows down the speed of how fast passengers move.
We prefer a more dynamic, common-sense approach. On high-frequency routes, such as the 99 B-Line and those that feed into Southwest Marine Drive on their way to UBC, we advocate for the abolishment of the bus schedule. Instead, buses should wait until the distance between buses has been shortened. Further, the driver of the delayed bus should advise boarding passengers that the next bus is near and to take that instead, allowing it to catch up to where it should be and also making peoples experience on the bus more comfortable since they are not packed with passengers. This may sound crazy but studies have shown that this approach to transit gets more people moving faster, despite seemingly having to wait more.
Passengers will need to be notified of this new approach and drivers will need to make fair judgments and work collectively, but with both the required communication and GPS equipment already available on buses and real-time scheduling available through the website and the SMS system (as well as electronic signs at some stops), TransLink is all but ready to be an innovator in transit.
Michael Henricksen, Sarah Glover, Jason Shi, and Nick Zhu are University of British Columbia students who are studying economics. They live in Vancouver.