To get SEPTA buses moving faster, make it easier to get on board, transit experts say

Mayor Jim Kenney (from left), SEPTA general manager Jeffrey Knueppel, Mike Carroll, Deputy Managing Director for Philadelphia's Office of Transportation and Infrastructure Systems, and others gather in front of the new SEPTA Boulevard Direct bus at the stop at Cottman Avenue and Roosevelt Boulevard.

Getting on a bus isn’t something riders think much about. You stand, wait, then queue up when the bus arrives. What’s there to think about?

The New York City philanthropic foundation TransitCenter, which is putting a lot of thought into bus boarding, says the way people board could have a lot to do with getting the bus to your stop on time.

SEPTA is looking at reinventing its bus routes over the next two years. A priority is finding ways to make them more reliable and frequent, so boarding could matter in Philadelphia.

In New York City 13 bus lines allow passengers to board through all doors, not just the one next to the driver, said Tabitha Decker, of TransitCenter.

Decker’s organization found that in the city, buses typically spend about 22 percent of their time at the bus stop. On the routes with all-door boarding, time spent at the stop drops by 40 percent.

“Instead of riders winding up in a single file and paying the fare one by one, if you can allow them to go through two — or even three doors if it’s a very large bus — you can really cut down on the amount of time it takes,” she said.

The benefits of all-door boarding were emphasized recently in a bus study run by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority in Boston. That study found that the more people were boarding a bus at any one time, the more significant the shortened dwell times at stops.

“Dwell times at stops with 30 or more boardings were cut in half during the pilot, saving roughly one minute each,” the report found.

That study also found those routes with all-door boarding left stops on time more often during peak travel hours.

Three of New York City’s transit unions participated in a news conference Thursday, prompted by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s plans to introduce a new fare card, and they noted that bus drivers are often put in the position of enforcing fare payment, which leads to conflict and assaults on drivers.

“It’s not as if the driver is supposed to be an actual enforcement agent,” Decker said. “Simply asking someone for the fare is asking a lot of the driver.”

The risk of all-door boarding, of course, is that there’s no one to check that everyone pays the fare. There are ways around that, though, Decker said. Alternatives include having random checks on buses or counters installed at doors to record whether fare revenue matches the number of passengers boarding. Any alternative, she acknowledged, would likely cost some money.

In San Francisco, where all-door boarding has been the norm since 2012 and there are random fare checks, fare evasion dropped by 17 percent, she said.

When SEPTA installed readers for its new Key fare card on all its buses this summer,  they were put only at the front of the bus, making all-door boarding an impossibility fleet-wide for now. This Sunday, though, SEPTA will begin the Roosevelt Boulevard “Direct Bus,” an effort arranged by the city and SEPTA to create something like express bus service along one of Philadelphia’s busiest corridors. The idea is to make that service frequent and reliable.

SEPTA officials said that in pursuit of that goal, all-door boarding would be considered for the express bus. A decision on new schedules could come as soon as February. SEPTA officials clarified Friday that all-door boarding wasn’t expected to begin that soon, it is a possibility being studied for this new bus line.