Stop Spacing, Speed and Simplicity

There are two things you need to understand about short stop spacing. First, it is a very peculiar North American phenomenon. Transit stops spaced a few blocks apart or less, around 200 metres, is simply something that does not occur in Europe or Australia. The other thing you need to understand about short stop spacing is that it is wrong.

That is what Jarrett Walker said (I’ve paraphrased a bit) to a group of Calgarians at the John Dutton Theatre when TransitCamp invited him to speak this April. What Walker was referring to was the practice of locating bus stops close to one another, often less than a couple of blocks away. This occurs often in North American transit systems, but less so in the rest of the world (we won’t go into the historical reasons for this).

Walker discusses stop spacing extensively in his book Human Transit (http://islandpress.org/bookstore/detailsyy75.html) and on his blog of the same name (http://www.humantransit.org/stop-spacing/). In both Walker points out that stop spacing ultimately comes down to a battle between speed and reliability versus coverage.

If you want fast and frequent service, stops need to be spaced farther apart, both to reduce the delay due to stopping, but also to increase frequency. The less time the route takes to run, the more operators you can have running the route, thus increasing frequency. If you want service that makes walking distance to stops very short, transit stops should be close together. Walker argues (and we think justifiably) that a good transit system needs to focus on frequency and speed rather than coverage.

Many cities have achieved considerable increases in speed and frequency along select transit routes by doing just this — eliminating stops. Both Seattle and San Francisco have done this to considerable effect. Calgary has also made strides in this direction with its 300-series “BRT” routes, which complement existing trunk lines with limited-stop services. The 305, in essence, is a rush-hour relief line for the Bowness–Forest Lawn service on Route 1.  The 301, which has the highest bus route ridership in town, mirrors Route 3’s coverage of Centre Street. By reducing the number of stops on these routes, Calgary Transit has achieved considerable increases in speed and frequency, and has also drawn many more transit riders.

At TransitCamp we think there are other routes that deserve the same approach. Let’s look at Route 176 (http://www.calgarytransit.com/route_maps/rte176.html), which runs about 20 kilometres along 52 Street NE from Saddleridge in the northeast to Douglasdale in the southeast and connects to Foothills Industrial. It is as straight and direct as a transit route can get. However, with no fewer than 50 stops each way, the roughly 400-metre distance between stops is half of the 800-metre spacing Walker suggests for this type of route.  A route with the number of stops each way reduced from 50 to 15 would vastly improve speed, reliability, and frequency for area residents and employees.

The Route 3 (http://www.calgarytransit.com/route_maps/rte003.html), one of Calgary Transit’s busiest routes, runs north and south through downtown along Centre Street to the north and Elbow Drive to the south. While we’ve already touched on the northern segment in discussing Route 301, the southern segment of Route 3 is also very direct. It travels south on Elbow Drive for the entire route, and other than for a few places downtown, it never makes a turn. This is as ideal a route as you’ll find for limited stop, express service. Route 3’s southern segment is around 14 kilometres long, which puts its roughly 50 stops about 300 metres apart. The typical radius planners use for proximity to transit is 600 metres, which means that there is significant overlap of walking distance between stops for this route.

Let’s use the same solution we witnessed on Routes 301 and 305, and take a page from our earlier revised route for the 176.  Our new route will reduce the number of stops each way from 50 to 20, bringing the distance between stops to a more realistic level. Stops would be at important cross-streets, such as Heritage Drive, Southland Drive and 50th Avenue as well as adjacent to local commercial areas and schools, providing faster and frequent service to these areas while not making anyone’s walk to the bus stop unbearable.

By simply reducing the number of stops on many of the transit routes in Calgary, we can increase the speed and frequency of that service, ultimately creating a better transit system for everyone. We discussed just two routes in our city that could use this type of service, but there are many others. The next step is creating a network of these routes so that passengers can move easily across the city on fast, frequent routes.

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4 thoughts on “Stop Spacing, Speed and Simplicity

  1. Quick correction. The #3 does veer off Elbow to turn down Heritage Drive. It stops at Heritage station, turns around, and heads back to Elbow.

    I think one of the worst offenders for stop spacing is the #7. On 33rd Avenue it stops every block in some spots (160 m!)

    I’ve heard this comes from the days of the streetcar, when the streetcars only had to compete with walking. Service could be slow, as long as it was better than taking the trip on foot. I bet the #7 stops at its original streetcar stops on 33rd…

  2. Thanks 23skidoo. I took the 7 once along 33rd avenue and was surprised by how much it stopped! That route could definitely use an upgrade to limited stop service.

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