Op-Ed: VTA Should Rethink Those ‘Spaced Out’ Bus Stops

On New Year’s Eve, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) released a video about its new bus stop-canceling project titled “Our Bus Stops Are Getting Spaced Out—Less Stops, More Go!”

The way the video tells it, pesky transit riders—a fictitious elderly woman named Mrs. Roberts in particular—have forced VTA to put bus stops close to where riders live or need to go. Over time, the clip goes on to say, this led to convenient bus stops on every block.

Now, however, VTA plans to change that—mostly by eliminating stops with low ridership—in order to speed up buses.

VTA is right about one thing: our buses definitely need more “go.”

Currently, buses move just 23 minutes for every hour they’re on the street. They spend those remaining 37 minutes simply idling around due to traffic congestion, red lights, or picking up and dropping off people at bus stops.

That’s annoying for riders and costly for taxpayers.

VTA estimates that improving bus speeds overall by just a mile an hour would reduce taxpayer costs by over $15 million a year.

So, while higher speeds are in everyone’s interest, VTA is going about this the wrong way.

First of all, blaming its own customers for worsening service—like the video does—is not helpful. Obviously, if VTA had even less riders, buses would need to stop even less often, improving speeds even more. But that is not the direction we want to go.

Secondly, bus stops only take long if there are lots of people getting on and off. Low-ridership stops, by definition, can’t cause major delays. If there is no one to pick up—and there are too many stops where that is, unfortunately, true—the bus just keeps driving and isn’t delayed by a single second.

We need to focus on the real causes of slow transit instead.

VTA can easily shorten loading times while improving—instead of worsening—customer experience by allowing back-door boarding for clipper card users. Meanwhile, local cities can do even more by making transit and riders a real priority on their streets.

And yet, the VTA is starting with the one option that makes transit less attractive.

Thirdly, the transit agency seemingly ignores the fact that riders depend on safe pedestrian infrastructure to get around.

A 200-foot beeline on a map can easily turn into an 800-foot walk because of limited sidewalks or lack of safe street crossings. It doesn’t help that suburban layouts throughout Santa Clara County create scenarios where the bus stop down the street is easier to access than one on the other side of the fence.

There’s no point in improving bus speeds by a minute or two if users then have to spend an additional five to get to the new bus stop.

Riders care how long it takes to get from door to door, not bus stop to bus stop.

Last but not least, according to its website VTA isn’t just eliminating bus stops due to low ridership—it’s also eliminating them to make streets more convenient for cars.

“Reasons that a bus stop may be relocated/consolidated include: (...) Stop placement in heavy right turn lanes,” the agency states.

This is a wrong priority for a transit agency.

If we can’t even make room and time for bus stops on our streets, there is little hope we’ll ever get the fast-moving transit system that we need.

Admittedly, not every stop is well placed. Just looking at the 66 line, one of three routes in the pilot program (the others being 56 and 68), actual improvements could entail:

  • Moving the bus stop on Main Street in Milpitas under the Highway 237 overpass to directly in front of the county library and medical center.
  • Moving the bus stop on Snell Avenue and Obert Drive (which is set to be eliminated) a few hundred feet north to take advantage of the HAWK signal that provides safe passage to Martial Cottle Park.

Yet none of these ideas seem to be considered.

Balancing where to place bus stops requires evaluating the location of each one and not just those with low ridership. It’s also a much easier sell to the public if there are locations that will meaningfully improve.

VTA should’t be afraid to propose stops where they make the most sense for riders—even at the expense of single-vehicle drivers. If that prompts local opposition or resistance from old-school, car-centric traffic engineers in city transportation departments, then let’s engage in that discussion.

Some may ask why 10 people on a bus should take precedence over the five in cars waiting behind them. To which the only right answer is: Why aren’t they already?

Smart placement of bus stops is vital for both passengers and the VTA. But right now, VTA’s plan isn’t bold enough and risks leaving riders behind.

I encourage you to email the VTA at [email protected] to let them know where you would like bus stops to be relocated—especially on the 56, 66, and 68—in a way that puts the needs of riders first.

We’re certain even old Mrs. Roberts would approve.

Robin Roemer is a transit and transportation safety activist and a member of the VTA’s Citizens Advisory Committee. Gil Rodan is a San Jose resident, writer, and activist. Opinions are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside. Send op-ed pitches to [email protected].

10 Comments

  1. San Jose always does what it wants and disregards those that are affected by their decisions. They have their own agenda and that’s what the focus is. What will VTA do when the people who really need their transit systems can no longer ride it because you have made it so inaccessible? I’ve taken VTA in and off for years to have a good idea of it’s clientele. They are the most vulnerable of the city and it is usually their only form of transportation. Do you ever think about the effects of cutting a bus stop or a bus line out and how it might effect its riders? Yet you try and cater to those who will never ride the bus and then complain about low ridership. You reconfigured Santa Clara st/Alum Rock and now the buses which don’t fit in the lanes with cars next to them, barrel down the lanes like tanks. Did that not work out for you?

  2. If a stop is on the route, the schedule must allow for it. If there’s no one to pick up or drop off, the driver needs to drive slowly to stay on schedule.

    Transit scheduling is always tradeoffs. People won’t ride if the stops aren’t convenient enough OR the trip is too slow. A route with enough ridership can have express buses.

  3. If you say things like “car-centric,” and introduce that related weird political baggage, you immediately make yourself not serious, you disqualify yourself.

    Just say that stop placement and spacing based on reasonable walking distances or access times to the stops should be one basis for choosing stops, and VTA shouldn’t try to rationalize or be cutesy about making service cuts to speed up its buses. Maybe instead it should run vans instead of buses on thinner routes or at thinner patronage times if it wants to save costs, and could even provide more routes or runs with more vans and fewer buses.

  4. If Elon Musk is right, it’s probably not the time to be investing any more money in urban bus transit.

    Musk predicts that 2021 will be the year of the Full Self Driving robo-taxi.

    Since there are no drivers with associated salary and benefits, the operating costs of robo-taxis will be quite low. Likely much lower than buses.

    And robo-taxis will have advantages that buses don’t have, like rides on demand like Uber, and direct-to-destination trips.

    Robo-taxies could very well put VTA buses out of business.

  5. They are Right.
    VTA consistently have BAD IDEAS one after another. VTA does not want to help customers as VTA eliminated stops in 2019 that meant more customers had to walk up to 1 MILE to get to the 70. Elderly customers had to travel over 4 miles to get to the 64 Ohlone Chenowhyth stop. Homeless individuals couldn’t get to the County Fair Grounds because VTA removed routes that go from North East to North West.

    VTA SHOULD NOT REMOVE STOPS I have seen a dozen times in good and bad weather the lone person ( regardless of age or ability ) at the infrequent stop that was desperate to get home or to work during those rare times.

    Removing stops HURT the community more and proven VTA absolute failure to provide essential service to the residents of Santa Clara County.

  6. I completely disagree with the idea that the number of stops are fine as is. A modern transit agency optimizes its bus stops to optimize its ridership. Win-win. I am an immigrant from Europe and when I got on the bus here I was quite surprised how many times the bus stopped, really making the bus slower than it needed to be. First-hand experience therefore.

    Right where bus nodes are (where more than one bus line stops), there should not be any bus stop nearby for about half a mile from that node. These transit nodes are very attractive, and folks are willing to walk an extra distance\. Plus, it gives parking spaces back right where that is needed, because transit nodes are often found on shopping streets.

    Transit is considered one of the healthiest forms of transportation because people get to walk a bit. This is confirmed over and over again. Also studied, bicycling in polluted air is actually less healthy than taking transit. So, let’s stop worrying about all bus stops right outside our door/on the corner. Walk a bit, make the bus go faster, make it more attractive. Take the superfluous bus stops out, and remove all bus stops that are too close to bus/transit nodes.

  7. When buses have to block traffic lanes to pick up/drop off passengers, it slows down traffic. That also slows down the buses! Slowing traffic doesn’t just affect cars, it also affects the bus service. So, trying to minimize situations where buses impede traffic makes sense FOR THE BUSES not just for cars.

  8. Bus stop spacing is an important part of transit planning, and wider spacing is an industry best practice. Stops that are too close together and have lower usage introduce more schedule variability that has to be accounted for. This increases operating costs and reduces reliability. By maximizing bus stop placement so they are more regularly served in more regular patterns, service can be provided more efficiently from a time and cost perspective. If this work is performed correctly, two busy stops that are close together will remain in most circumstances, and two lightly used stops that are close together will be consolidated. This is exactly why other Bay Area transit systems like Muni and AC Transit have undertaken exactly the same effort of the past few years, and why LA Metro in So Cal is undertaking a huge effort to do exactly this as we speak. This op-ed seems out of touch.

  9. It might be more cost effective for VTA to simply give everyone who rides the bus a personal vehicle and eliminate all the costly buses, operations and maintenance costs, enormous farebox subsidies, and bloated overhead.