In San Francisco, a Glimpse of the Future of Transit

What if transit agencies were as nimble in providing service as riders are in using it?

I recently moved to San Francisco, and I was lucky enough to find an apartment that’s only a few short miles from work. As a lifelong public transport commuter, I made a point of checking out the transit options.

It didn’t look great; they all involved bus-to-bus transfers.  All the literature suggests that people really hate transfers, especially for services like buses that tend to have longer and less reliable headways.

So I turned to apps. The real time information powering Citymapper, Transit App, and Moovit is not new, but I didn’t have much use for it when I lived in New York. My daily commute was so obvious I didn’t need additional information – I walked to the A train.

In San Francisco, things changed. There are dozens of different combinations that might prove to be my fastest route on any given day (see below). Which one is faster depends on a long list of variables – traffic congestion, the different wait times for express or local service – and, critically, the chances that my dropoff time from one route is convenient to my pickup on another. This last point is critical, because knowing it in advance directly eliminates one of the issues with bus transfers: not knowing how long you’ll wait for the second bus.

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That’s important, because I have 3 or 4 different options for the first bus I board in the morning (for those in San Francisco – the 1, 1BX, 38, 38R, 2, and 33). With real time information in hand, I can hop on whatever first bus leg will get me to work quicker, including knowledge about the future location of the second bus. After experiencing it for the first time, it’s clear that real time information and predictive software is already helping to make transit more attractive, even in places where things like bus-to-bus transfers are required.

But at a more profound level, it’s highlighting changes to transit operations that may be on the horizon. In San Francisco, I no longer really care about routes in any conventional sense. I don’t care about a schedule, I don’t really care about ‘stops’, and I don’t really care where one bus drops me off or another picks me up. As long as those things can be reliably conveyed to me when and where I need them, they don’t need to be fixed in time or space.

In one important sense, bus routes are a way to communicate information about service to riders: “Stand here, get this bus, go there”. That makes sense when you don’t have a more dynamic way to communicate, which we didn’t when we invented bus routes 200 years ago. It’s obviously also a logical structure in places where you have or need dedicated infrastructure, as streetcars once did and as my old subway commute in New York City still does.

Clearly, though, routes have had a lot of staying power even beyond those places. Despite enormous urban development changes, most of the bus routes in major cities still look a lot like the streetcar routes that they replaced almost 100 years ago.

Now, sophisticated riders are able to hop between routes, knitting together new kinds of service with real time information. But that’s only a one-way flow – riders are getting smarter.

But what if transit agencies were as nimble in adapting service? Could buses decide to skip stops or turn local into express based on how many riders were already in the vehicle and where they were going? How about dynamically rerouting buses to avoid traffic congestion? What about deciding on the number vehicles in service based on real time demand?

Before you can even start thinking about that kind of dynamic service, agencies need to overcome one obvious hangup: a lack of fine grained data on their own riders. Riders are getting a lot of information from agencies via new APIs and apps, but not much is flowing back the other way.

That’s one reason I was excited to read about a new MBTA partnership with Transit App, which seems to be bridging this gap and providing user information back to the agency. That’s an exciting first step. If agencies are going to get more nimble and more able compete with the private car (let alone the private autonomous car), much more of that will be required. Without fine grained information on how its own riders are using their service, I can’t see how public transit agencies are able to thrive in a future marketplace of on-demand options.

Just to point out an obvious constraint to changing service patterns – you can’t start skipping stops and dispensing with the idea of routes until everyone is using a device that can convey information in real time (a smartphone, or something like it). Today, I suspect the number of daily bus riders using an app on a regular basis is still quite low.

And another disclaimer – in places where buses are already fast, frequent, and full, dynamic service changes probably won’t produce all that much benefit. But that’s a small slice of today’s transportation picture. Only about 2% of travel in the US is completed on public transportation. I think there are a lot more places that would benefit from nimbler bus service, and that’s a good thing for the potential growth of shared rides in the future.

All of these concepts are not wholly new – the International Transport Forum has modeled the most efficient possible public transport structure for Lisbon. While it kept the metro in place, it eliminated traditional fixed route bus service and replaced it with on-demand minibuses and shared taxis. A recent report by ITDP and UC Davis argued that transit will have to evolve and use smaller, on-demand vehicles where they make sense, in order to meet our long term climate objectives.

But what’s changed for me since I moved to San Francisco is that my commute is starting to give me just a hint of what that future might look. It’s exciting to see up close.