Local Bus Transit Service Design and Quality in Western Europe*
Jack M. Reilly
Comparisons of Western European and North American transit invariably focus on the high-quality rail systems found in the former. This focus, however, tends to diminish the important role that buses play in Western European transit systems. American transit agencies can learn much from Western European bus operating practices, service innovations, and technology applications.
BUS OPERATING PRACTICES IN WESTERN EUROPE
As in the United States, Western European bus operations consist largely of the routine task of boarding and alighting customers at stops along prescribed routes at regular time intervals. However, there are considerable differences between the United States and Western Europe in the details of service execution.
Distances between bus stops are generally much longer in Western Europe than in the United States. In Hanover, Germany, for example, the average interstop distance is about 450 m. American transit systems generally set
stops at about half this spacing. The longer intervals between bus stops in Western Europe, however, provide benefits to transport operators and their customers. Although walking distances are made longer, customers gain from the faster travel speeds resulting from less bus deceleration, acceleration, and dwell time. Service reliability is also enhanced, since a major source of time variation between trips is the number of customer stops en route.
Of course, increasing the distance between stops can be done only if the environment permits convenient pedestrian travel. Western European cities frequently have pedestrian-only zones and traffic signal engineering and intersection geometry that are well suited to travel by foot.
Reducing the number of bus stops also has advantages for providing customer information and traveler amenities. With fewer stops, more attention can be paid to each stop and the level of customer amenity. In Western Europe, it is typical for bus stops to have shelters that include posted schedules, ticket machines, and public telephones. Furthermore, fewer stops make it easier to display information on printed timetables. When stop densities are increased, as in the United States, it is difficult to show each bus stop on a printed map.
Timed Transfers and Other Scheduling Practices
Practiced sporadically in the United States, timed-transfer systems are common in Western European cities. These systems enable convenient transfers between vehicles at major transfer centers because schedules are pulsed at easy-to-remember intervals that are based on clockface headways (i.e., 10, 20, 30 minutes after the hour). They are particularly helpful at train stations, which tend to be the major bus transfer hubs of Western European cities.
In some Western European bus networks, several routes branch from a common trunk. Service on these routes is typically phased to provide a regular interval between buses along the major trunk. As a result, two routes with a 20-minute frequency can combine to a single route with 10-minute frequency.
In larger cities in Western Europe, buses are permanently assigned to particular routes, which has many positive implications for customer information. Major stops can be displayed on the bus exterior and route maps can be posted inside the bus, much as they are in underground railway sys-
tems. On the down side, this practice precludes interlining and may increase operating costs because of vehicle dedication.
Many Western European systems operate nightbus, or “nachtbus,” networks. In such a network several daytime routes are combined into a single night route. In Paris, night routes are designated by letter (rather than by number). Frequently, the routes are pulsed at major boarding points, which facilitates transfers between buses. Transit operators also publish separate night service route maps, and in some cities, such as Osnabrück, Germany, vehicles are specially marked for this service.
Fare Collection and Structure
Bus fare collection in Western Europe is almost always handled off the bus. The idea is to increase boarding speeds at each stop. Off-board fare collection reduces dwell time at stops and enables customers to board at all doors in the bus.
Several systems use a simple technology in which fare media are purchased off-board but validated on-board. Most transit users buy discounted weekly, monthly, or annual fare passes. Inspectors randomly check to determine whether passengers have a valid ticket or pass for their journey.
Like American transit systems, Western European operators have been exploring “smart” cards for transit fare collection in which a chip with a stored value is used as a substitute for cash payment, particularly for small purchases. In Western Europe, most public telephone systems already use a similar card. Some cities are experimenting with a single card for a variety of public purposes such as downtown parking and transit use.
As fare collection technologies advance rapidly, the integration of fares among transit operators in a region is becoming more important. In many Western European urban areas with multiple operators, transit fares are set on the basis of origin and destination, not on the basis of mode of travel or the individual operator. For example, in Zurich, there is a regional fare structure for all surface transport modes including tram, bus, ferry, and rail systems. In several markets, customers have a choice of transit modes but fares are the same for each. In Germany, there are federations of operators that manage a common fare system. These federations, or verbunds, are described elsewhere in this report.
The Netherlands has implemented a national fare structure. The country is partitioned into several zones, and fares are computed on the basis of the number of zone boundaries that the customer crosses. Transport customers can purchase a 10-ticket strippenkart that is valid on all local transport in the Netherlands. Fare reimbursement to transport operators is based on passenger kilometers computed by a sample survey of customer boardings and alightings. There is considerable interest in maintaining this unique fare system and the introduction of a stored value debit card that would have the advantage of more accurately rebating revenue to operators.
Western European urban transportation systems are often more “seamless” than American systems. This is perhaps best demonstrated by the integration of taxi service and transit operations in many Western European cities. In the United States, taxis are usually viewed as competitors with transit. In many Western European cities, however, taxis are viewed as a complement to regularly scheduled transit service, especially in areas or time periods of relatively low transit demand.
A common use of taxi service in urban areas is the “sammel,” or group, taxi, which is used widely in Germany as a hybrid between bus and taxi service. During late evening hours, a bus-stop to bus-stop service is operated in place of regularly scheduled transit service. Taxis are dispatched from a common center either hourly or half hourly. Customers can board taxis at the common center and be transported to the closest desired bus stop for a fare roughly twice the regular transit fare. Customers may also call for a taxi pickup at bus stops for trips that do not originate at the common center. Taxi trips may not be exclusive, and customers may share rides with other customers. The stop-to-stop nature of the service differentiates it from a pure, exclusive-use taxi service.
In some cities, particularly during the evening, transit customers may request the bus driver to call for a taxi to meet the customer at a prearranged stop and time along the route. In Hanover, Germany, for example, this service is available at all times to disabled customers, but after 8:00 p.m., all customers may use this service. This is operated as a customer service, and there is no fare integration between the bus and taxi.
Western European transit operators are keen to explore new technologies. Although many of the technologies are also available in the United States, a key difference is the range and ubiquity of technologies in Western Europe. Sophisticated transit technologies can be found even in many small Western European cities.
Traffic-Signal Priority and Automatic Vehicle Location
Traffic-signal priority schemes, which give approaching transit vehicles preference over other vehicles in traffic, are slowly being introduced in the United States, even as they have become commonplace in Western Europe.
Among the oldest and most extensive is the traffic priority scheme in Zurich, Switzerland. Transit use in Zurich is among the heaviest in Western Europe, even though Zurich does not have an underground rail system, and thus all transit is on surface streets with very restrictive geometry. To facilitate this surface transit, Zurich has sought to create “green waves” for transit vehicles. About 90 percent of transit vehicles (buses and trams) that enter signalized intersections are met by a green signal. The city has placed four traffic detectors on each vehicle approach to an intersection. The first is located about 20 s before the intersection. Activation of this detector readies a green traffic signal in 20 s. About 6 s from the intersection, a second detector verifies that the transit vehicle is still approaching at the expected speed. A third detector at the intersection acknowledges that the vehicle has approached the intersection, and a fourth indicates that the vehicle has cleared the intersection and that the signal system should revert to its normal operating mode. At some intersections, the overall traffic cycle time (for all phases) is maintained but green phases are extended where necessary to give priority to buses and trams.
Ancillary to the traffic system, the Zurich transit federation maintains a vehicle location system that determines the location of vehicles to an accuracy of 10 m. When compared with published timetables, the punctuality of the vehicle can be determined and transmitted to the vehicle operator. This monitoring, coupled with the availability of spare buses and trams that can be inserted into routes with delays, greatly improves the reliability of the service.
Automatic vehicle location systems are used throughout Western Europe,even by many smaller bus transit systems. As in the United States,
a dramatic shift is being undertaken between signpost systems and geographic positioning systems (GPS). Signpost systems determine location on a route as the distance along the route path from the last time a bus passed a signpost. GPS systems use a satellite system to determine location.
From a vehicle location system, it can be determined whether a vehicle is operating according to schedule or whether there are systematic delays in the transit operation. These systems advise not only the dispatcher but also the driver of the current state of on-time operation. Some systems have introduced sufficient intelligence to advise drivers of late buses which connections at transfer points may be jeopardized.
Customer Information Technologies
A number of systems are available that improve the quality of customer information. Systems that are seldom used in the United States are used widely in Western Europe. Among these are real-time electronic timetables at major bus stops showing the expected (rather than scheduled) arrival time of the next bus on a particular route.
The Netherlands Transport Ministry maintains a national transit information service at public bus terminals, which is accessed by a telephone chip card. Fees are charged for each transaction.
Many Western European transit operators use low-floor buses, a technology that is also being introduced in the United States. In addition to providing greater accessibility for elderly and disabled riders, a motivation for use of low-floor equipment in Western Europe has been to reduce bus dwell times by hastening passenger entry and exiting. The prevalence of off-board fare collection allows boarding and alighting through all doors; therefore, the low floors, coupled with wider doors, enable the rapid interchange of passengers at stops.