I work in transportation scheduling in one of the biggest metro areas in the US. Our overall numbers for buses are over 80 per cent, which ain’t bad.
As noted above, buses and street level light rail operations have to deal with traffic, both auto and pedestrian, and the consequent variability and irrationality. You could still have a bus service that ran on time as much as train systems in Europe and Japan do, but it would cost too much.
Primarily two issues are at play:
- a lack of enough reserve buses and drivers at the ready in case of accident, vehicle break down, or slow down due to construction or police activity. If you have surplus drivers and buses at the ready, and place them in central locations, they can be put into service quickly enough to keep any delay down to the immediate trip involved, and not affect any subsequent ones.
It’s standard practice to have one or two drivers and buses available as standby’s at a given bus garage, to cover for sickouts and delays like those mentioned above. Having more than a few spares gets expensive, though, so cost outweighs other concerns.
- the tendency of some (many) drivers to run their own schedule when they aren’t being closely watched. That is, they take more break time than the schedule allows, or they stop at unauthorized places in order to get food or meet people, or they don’t service parts of the route that they are supposed to.
We’ve tested this on many occasions. We get a report that our schedule for a particular line isn’t working. Our data tells us that it is working, or was when we first implemented it, so we go out in the field to make sure nothing’s changed.
We position ourselves at various points all along the bus route, so the drivers know they’re being watched. Surprise! The schedule that supposedly didn’t work now runs like clockwork. If people know they will get written up if they take too much break time, or deliberately lag behind to let the following bus take the passengers they would have picked up, or go off route to hit their favorite barbecue place, they don’t do it.
I’ve worked in various capacities at smaller bus agencies than the one I do no, and those agencies don’t have the resources or the inclination to do the large scale, on going data analysis that we do. Their schedules tend to be quite slow in adapting to changes in traffic conditions, ridership patterns, new schools and worksites that can change the demands on bus routes. So, delays in smaller transit agencies may be just a question of not being able or willing to change quickly enough.
And you still have the question of cost. Good transit can “pay for itself” in the sense that provides good value to a community and allows economic and social life to flourish. But it doesn’t pay for itself directly, immediately, the way that opening a new Target in the new suburb on the west side of town does.