Is That Bus Really Empty?

Rick for blog

Now and then I am asked, “Why does County Connection run empty buses?” One way to answer that is the comparison to highways and roads: sometimes they are wide open to the driver and seem ‘empty’ but other times bursting to capacity. But, that is an overly simplistic response. Here’s a more detailed explanation.

Route Design
Buses are driven on routes that go from point A to point B via prescribed routing and timetables that serve all the stops along a given route. Route design takes into account many factors, such as travel patterns, street patterns, and the location of various places. Most riders do not need to travel end to end. Rather, somewhere along the route the rider gets off before the route terminates, except in the case where the route ends at a BART station. As a bus traverses its route from end to end, the number of people on the bus at any single point along the way can vary greatly. Further, that variation changes throughout the day.

Recently, for example, a County Connection Route 10 (BART Concord/Clayton) trip departed the Concord BART Station heading eastbound along Clayton Road with 21 passengers on board. This particular bus can seat 38 and much more standing. As the bus made its way east on Clayton Road, the number of passengers on board dropped to three, as a result of people exiting the bus along the way. If you were to have observed this bus at that moment, you might think you are seeing an “empty bus”. Further along the route, however, more people got on this bus raising the passenger count to 14. By the time the bus reached its end point in downtown Clayton, the rider count on the bus was down to five people. This up and down pattern of passengers is very typical on County Connection buses.

On another typical Route 10 trip returning to Concord BART via Clayton Road, the bus departed downtown Clayton with four people on board. Somewhere along the way, the number of people increased to 23 on board. By the time this same bus pulled into the Concord BART Station, it had four people on board.

Let’s run through another example. County Connection runs Route 92X – an express service – between the Altamont Commuter Train (ACE) Pleasanton train station and the Mitchell Park ‘N’ Ride lot at Shadelands Business Park in Walnut Creek. This Route makes stops at Bishop Ranch in San Ramon, the Danville Park ‘N’ Ride lot off of I-680 and Sycamore Road, as well as the Walnut Creek BART Station. Though it is a very well used service, the buses are not at capacity the entire time while on the streets.

A typical trip on Route 92X leaving the ACE station in the morning often looks like this recent one, where 26 people boarded and were heading north. Most of those people departed at Bishop Ranch. The number of people left on the bus dropped to six. Further down the line up to 20 people were on this bus. By the time the bus reached the Mitchell Park ‘N’ Ride lot, however, there were only four people on board.

So, as you can see, the exact location where you observe a bus can lead to a wrong conclusion about how many people actually use that particular service.

Time Of Day
Time of day can be another factor. While a bus might carry a relatively high number of people on one trip, it might carry far less on the next. For example, perhaps between roughly 12:00 noon and 2:30 p.m. a bus on a Route carries a low number of passengers. That same bus on the same Route may later carry full loads between 2:30 p.m. and 4:00 p.m. as students go home from school. Then, the next trip or two may see low numbers of riders only to be full again after 5:30 p.m. as people go home from work.

For example, let’s look at County Connection Route 35 — a service that traverses between the San Ramon Transit Center and the Dublin BART Station. After leaving our bus yard in North Concord, Route 35 went into service at 7:00 a.m. heading south from the San Ramon Transit Center. Fourteen people boarded and went to BART. During its eight and half hour run, it had one trip that carried only six people on a San Ramon Transit Center departure bound for the Dublin BART Station. However, it carried 11 people on the 12:00 noon trip to Dublin BART. At 2:00 p.m., this bus carried 17 people between the San Ramon Transit Center and the Dublin BART Station, while carrying 31 people on the return trip back to the Center. Then the bus completed its day and went out of service. This one bus and one operator carried a total of 123 people during its roughly eight-hour run.

So then, you might ask: “Why not use a smaller bus, when you know which times County Connection hits peak ridership?” If we had used different buses of different sizes, based upon the roller coaster nature of rider usage, we would have needed not one, but multiple buses going back and forth from San Ramon to our bus yard in North Concord and multiple operators on the clock. Given our resources and cost to take this approach with not only Route 35, but also all our routes, it would be cost prohibitive. This is why once we send a bus out into service, it is a better use of resources to keep the bus out even though not every trip the bus makes will be well used by the riding public.

So, perhaps the next time you see a bus that is not full, you might better understand that one person’s empty bus is another person’s full bus somewhere along the route.

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