Maximizing Golden Gate Transit: Headways Schmeadways

I remember reading about a Fairfax woman that decided to go car-free in Marin.  To do it, she sat down each night, mapped out her route and carefully wrote down the times, transfers, and locations for each of the buses.  When she borrowed a friend’s car because of a particularly hectic day, she felt "like a bird flying over her homeland" as she was finally free of the bus schedule. Call me naïve, but I think this means Golden Gate Transit has a problem.

Mapping Frequency

Buses lack the walk-up quality inherent in a car or subway system if headways are longer than about 15 minutes.  Headways longer than that force passengers to memorize the schedule and adapt their lives to the bus, rendering the bus a significantly less attractive mode.

Not all bus corridors are like this, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at a bus map.  While a street map indicates the priority of its roadways through different line colors and weights – highways as thick and red, arterials as less thick and yellow, and local streets as thin and gray – bus maps typically show all lines and all corridors as equal.  While there is a hierarchy in the bus system of which corridors are more or less important, that information is hidden from the rider.  There is nothing to distinguish the tangle of lines from one another.

Human Transit has strongly advocated for frequency maps for larger cities, which highlight routes or corridors with headways that meet or exceed a certain threshold, typically 12 minutes.  Examples are SF Cityscape's frequency map of San Francisco, Washington, DC's draft 15-minute bus map, and Los Angeles' published 15-minute bus map.  GGT’s bus lines rarely see consistent headways better than 30 minutes, but even showing which corridors combine for 30 minute intervals would be a fabulous improvement.  Another possibility is to emulate Vancouver, which publishes a frequent bus map highlighting peak hour routes.  This is where the bulk of GGT's transit ridership lies, and would be useful to capture more of that share.

Either map type would be an improvement over the current map, which shows transit operator.  Riders don’t need to know who operates the bus, only that it takes them where they need to go.

When's the NextBus?

Unlike other regional agencies, GGT doesn’t share its real-time data with and doesn’t use NextBus despite the fact that it uses GPS to track where its buses are.  This is odd, to say the least, as opening up its location data and utilizing NextBus would be incredibly fruitful for the agency.  Its buses have such long headways that missing the bus could mean an hour’s delay.  If the bus is a little early and the rider is a little late, it’s a missed connection that could mean a blown appointment or a missed pickup at school.

Showing when the next bus will come and not just when it’s scheduled to come frees the business man or the parent from that worry.  Applications and devices utilizing similar data are common elsewhere.  The typical use is directly feeding the data to the rider through websites, smartphone apps and a call-in service, and some systems use them at high-traffic transit centers.  There are more innovative uses as well.  In Chicago, the open data is used for displays in shops and cafes near bus stops, allowing riders to shop, relax or keep out of the rain while keeping an eye on the arrivals.

This last use would be especially helpful for the long headways.  Little is more frustrating or annoying than feeling trapped at a bus stop waiting for your ride.  Shop displays capture the rider for business and allow the rider to do more than just sit around and wait.

Publicizing the bus arrival times opens up the bus system to casual users.  If I need to get to Fourth Street later that day and I see that a bus is going there in 7 minutes, I know I can hop a ride and be there without dealing with parking.  It embeds the fact that buses are a viable transportation option into the collective mind and bypasses scheduling entirely.

Frequency maps accomplish the same thing in a system-wide way, giving riders an idea of the priority given to bus corridors and routes far from where they normally travel or currently are.  It widens the mental map from two points (home bus stop to San Francisco bus stop) to the whole network, demystifying the system and rendering it useful for casual use.

Longer-term, shorter headways facilitated by and facilitating denser infill development around the various transit centers would provide a much more seamless experience with the bus.  As it stands, headways of an hour makes GGT a system of last resort.  There's only so much marketing can do to help counter the inherent structural flaws of the system, but maximizing what we have requires it.  Lifting the black veil that covers GGT would be a boon to the system and, by extension, to Marin’s sustainability and livability.