Inching toward better bus service

Feb. 11, 2013 @ 05:12 PM

If you’ve ever been late for an appointment or meeting because you underestimated how long the trip would take – perhaps unable to foresee the unforeseeable accident and traffic tie-up on the freeway – you have some sense of the problem of running a mass-transit system on time.

Any number of events can stymie a bus driver’s effort to hew to his or her timetable.

But Durham Area Transit Authority officials realized last year that an on-time performance that sank well below 50 percent on some routes was unacceptable. As Triangle Transit took over running the city’s bus lines, its managers set out to overhaul routes to better match ridership volume, and to set forth realistic timetables and to meet them.

In December, with many changes in place but some key ones not taking effect until January, Triangle Transit officials were able to cite substantial improvement on many routes. And last week, with the full overhaul in effect for a month, they could point to still more progress.

Overall, buses in January were running on time for 82 percent of their runs. That’s 21 percentage points better than the 61 percent on-time achievement before the system set out to overhaul its routes.

But it is still shy of the 90 percent goal transit authorities have set – acknowledging that events beyond drivers’ and managers’ control make achieving 100 percent virtually impossible.

“We’re pleased; we are not satisfied,” John Tallmadge, Triangle Transit’s director of commuter resources, told The Herald-Sun’s Ray Gronberg last week. “We’re going to continue working on it, but we think we’re on the way.”

Two well-used routes continue to be particular challenges – Route 6, which serves Duke University along West Chapel Hill Street, Erwin Road and Neal Road; and Route 1A, which loops northward from Northgate Mall.

Officials had hoped implementing the full system overhaul in January would make a marked improvement on those routes, since they had been impacted by frequent delays on routes that tied into them.

But the delays persist, and transit managers realize they have to continue to analyze that situation.

It’s clear that one solution to the congestion and environmental impact of our car-centric culture is to persuade more people to use mass transit.  One key to weaning folks from the convenience and flexibility of taking their cars, often with only the driver as occupant, for every trip is reliability of transit. Explaining you are late for work because the bus was 20 minutes behind schedule is not a pleasant experience.

So we applaud Triangle Transit as it wrestles – mostly successfully – with the challenge of restoring reliability to a bus system that too often lacked it.