St Louis, Stop Spacing, and the Future of the 50s

Stop spacing in NW Minneapolis

Riding the bus is slow.  It is sometimes vein-bulgingly, pencil-snappingly slow.

Since I prefer riding transit, I choose where to live based on the quality of the transit service, and so a few years ago I moved to Kingfield because of the 18 line, one of the most frequent in town.  It didn’t take long for me to move away because despite the 18’s frequency, it takes forever to get anywhere – specifically it takes 27 minutes at rush hour to travel the 3.2 miles between 7th St and 38th St.  At about 7 mph, that’s not much faster than walking (well, it’s twice as fast as walking, but counting wait times and assuming typical delays, it’s usually only 10-15 minutes faster and it’s not uncommon that it’s slower).

In an effort to speed things up, St Louis is eliminating bus stops.  They predict their effort “will help keep buses on time, while saving fuel and maintenance expenses.”  Based on the blog entry, it appears their spacing standards didn’t change, they’re just enforcing them for the first time.  Here are the standards:

Local Service
Stops located at major intersections, major traffic generators, and where bus routes or rail lines cross
Stops located in high populated areas every 1/8 to 1/4 mile apart
Stops located in lower populated areas every 1/4 to 1/2 miles apart
Express Service – Limited Stop
Express routes over local service in high density areas should be located approximately 1/3 to 1/2 mile apart

It’s interesting that their policy recommends closer spacing in denser areas.  While it’s logical to include more stops to serve more people, when actual stops are on demand you risk less by allowing people to stop more often in low density areas.  In addition, there is a limit to how far people will actually walk, and as Jarrett Walker mentions in that link suburban areas tend to have less connected street networks that require even more walking.

St Louis block size map

That reminds me – this blog isn’t called Getting Around St Louis.  How does St Louis’ policy compare to Metro Transit in Minneapolis?  Well, for one, it’s hard to find any of Metro Transit’s policy documents.  You can find some information on their website, but only through the magic of google – you can’t seem to navigate to any policy information on their website and it isn’t on their site map.  I’m not sure that using a blog is the best way to publish policy, and St Louis doesn’t seem to have any more policy information on their site, but a blog is a good way to solicit comments (and they’ve flooded in on this issue) and update on the progress of a project as it happens.

A little googling reveals that Metro Transit’s stop spacing policy recommends a stop every eighth of a mile.  (Edit: Commenter Charles linked to the 2030 Transportation Policy Plan, which has this to say about stop spacing:

Recommended Bus Stop Spacing
Bus stops that are close together reduce walking distance and access to transit, but tend to increase bus travel time. This recommended spacing seeks to achieve a balance.

• 6-8 stops per mile for local service
• 1-2 stops per mile for limited stop service

An allowable exception to standards may be central business districts and major traffic generators. These guidelines are goals, not a minimum nor a maximum.

While I admire a policy that defers to real-world conditions, I have a hard time believing there is a situation that would justify a stop less than an eighth of a mile from another stop.  The only possible exception is the disaster that is Lake & Nicollet, but that situation could and should be mitigated by reconfiguring the bus routing and street designs.)

As the map linked at the top shows, many of the east-west streets are spaced every sixteenth of a mile.  Considering most routes in Minneapolis lie no further than a half-mile from the nearest parallel route, I think it’s reasonable to recommend spacing every quarter mile on most routes.  For example, if stop spacing on the 4 and the 18 were reduced to every quarter mile, the maximum someone would have to walk to a stop north of Lake St would be .37 miles.

St Louis actually seems to have larger blocks than Minneapolis, which I’m assuming is mostly a result of more urban renewal.  Larger blocks actually require closer stop spacing as the street network requires more walking.  Minneapolis, on the other hand, has a relatively intact grid network.  This will allow wider stop spacing since the grid network and small blocks shortens walks.  (Note:  I basically added this paragraph because I wanted the maps in this post.  I just screen captured them from the H+T Affordability index, which has the most user-friendly and in-depth demographic mapping I’ve seen.)

Minneapolis block size map

Stop spacing is something I’ve griped about before, and wider stop spacing shouldn’t exactly be considered state of the art.  The Citizens’ League already called for quarter-mile stop spacing on north-south streets and eighth-mile stop spacing on east-west streets… in 1956.  They exempted Downtown (then called the Loop) from their proposal, but that’s actually where Metro Transit has done the most work with stop spacing.  Metro Transit has also looked at stop spacing in their sector restructuring studies, which began around 1998 and I think has been completed in 4 of the 8 sectors.  However, their recommendation of a stop every eighth of a mile is half that of the rest of the world.  It’s time for Metro Transit to join St Louis, the 50s, and the rest of the world and start spacing bus stops every quarter mile.

13 comments on “St Louis, Stop Spacing, and the Future of the 50s

  1. As someone who lives in Uptown and works in St Paul (and sometimes has to miss the 53 due to happy hour or whatever), oh god yes. The 21 is interminable, since it stops every damn block. Even the 53 could use the elimination of a few stops in DT St Paul. For example at 6th and Sibley (where I work) there are stops on both sides of Sibley for the WB bus. They’re about a 30 second walk apart. That’s just silly.

    In short, YES.

  2. I feel that one the greatest contributors to ‘bus bunching’ are Metro Transit’s frequent stops. It’s endlessly frustrating to see the same numbered bus, one that should be 7 to 10 minutes behind you, pass while you’re picking up passengers. During the summer and fall, I usually avoid public transit in lieu of biking. It’s faster, easier, cheaper and, on all non-rainy days, more enjoyable.

    In Sydney (Australia), bus stops are spaced pretty far apart outside of the CBD (1/8 to 1/4 of a mile * estimate*). There are fewer stops, but the stops are nicer, usually have covers and real-time digital displays with ETAs, etc. It seems like a pretty good system. They, of course, have the advantage of decent weather 12 months out of the year.

    • I wonder if people in the suburbs are more likely to drive or bike to stops anyway. I’ll have to keep thinking about it, but my gut is that a suburban route can have closer spacing, but with more utilization stops should be removed.

      • mulad says:

        Yeah, as opposed to how St. Louis is doing things, I suspect it’s better to have stop spacing inversely proportional to ridership (per revenue hour) on a particular line, within some reasonable boundaries. Buses on low-ridership routes routes will naturally run longer between pick-ups and drop-offs. However, it’s probably still important to have some consolidation, mostly so that amenities can be better justified (as Tcmetro mentioned below).

        I guess that makes me feel that stops should be pretty evenly spaced everywhere that’s reasonable, but I definitely agree that 1/4 mile is a desirable target distance.

  3. mulad says:

    Quite something to see that the idea has been pushed for at least 55 years. I was amused to see Fred Ossanna’s name in the Citizens’ League report, since he was in charge of Twin City Rapid Transit as the last streetcars were being taken off the rails.

    Their report also mentions mid-block and far-side stop locations. I haven’t formed much of an opinion about mid-block stops, but I do think that far-side stops are better than traditional near-side stops when an intersection is controlled by stoplights.

    Anyway, I knew these ideas must not be new ones. It’s always interesting to find out how far back they go…

    • The 50s apparently happened on a different planet. They even specifically mention that any parking lost to mid-block boarding would be worth it for the safety and speed improvements, a sentiment that could get you shot today.

      But my favorite is that they call for bus lanes on ALL downtown streets with bus routes.

  4. Charles says:

    Thank you for your attention to this topic. Regional Transit Standards address stop spacing and can be found as linked below. The current spacing largely reflects historic precedent and the block sizes within Minneapolis and St. Paul.

  5. Tcmetro says:

    Another benefit of consolidating stops is that the remaining stops will have more passengers, which could justify better amenities, such as shelters, maps, schedules, newspaper boxes, benches, etc.

  6. Brendon says:

    How much of the delay is caused by fare collection versus stop spacing? San Francisco is experimenting with all-door boarding:

    • Great addition to this conversation … fare collection certainly plays a significant role in delay. In Melbourne (a place with a great transit system), fare collection is done electronically upon entrance; or through an automated pay station on board. It really speeds things up; but I did get the impression that fare evasion is pretty commonplace.

    • mulad says:

      I don’t quite have an answer for that, though I’ve found one study from Portland saying that each removed stop would reduce travel times by 17 seconds just due to acceleration/deceleration, so presumably a few more seconds could be found due to reduced door opening/closing time and other shuffling around by passengers.

      Fare collection time has been going down a lot already because of greater usage of the Go-To card and (and friends). It’s said that they reduce boarding times by 3x, though I don’t know if that’s per person or for the whole queue. Usage climbed to 45% as of March of this year, seven points higher than the average for 2010. Since a lot of the remaining folks either use multi-ride passes or transfers, I suspect the number of riders paying in cash has gone down to about one in four or will hit that mark shortly.

      All-door boarding probably can’t reduce load times by anywhere near as much as Go-To implementation has, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be worthwhile, at least in a few places. It’d be impractical to install ticket machines or Go-To readers at all of the 13,891 stops listed in the Metropolitan Council’s data feed to Google Transit (and I’m not sure if that number includes the MVTA), but certainly some busy stops should get ticket machines and be designated as all-door boarding stations.

      That said, Metro Transit still has to work on acquiring buses with 3 or more doors in order for it to really work — I think all of their buses currently only have one or two doors. (In contrast, the University of Minnesota now has Van Hool 40′ buses with 3 doors and 60′ articulated units with 4 doors.)

      I was intrigued by a comment on that Transport Politic article that suggested “SMS tickets” — using cell phones’ text or multimedia messaging capabilities to handle fares. Sounds like a pretty good idea to me.

      I worry a bit about fare evasion, but considering that the Hiawatha Line has a 99.2% fare compliance rate, I guess I shouldn’t be too concerned.

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