What revenue service hours can tell us about bus ridership in Richmond

researched and co-authored by Nicholas Smith

Recently, we took a look at the most recent bus ridership numbers from GRTC and saw how making a bus more useful inevitably leads to more ridership. We can also dig a bit further into those ridership numbers and get a sense of which buses are most productive and which ones...are not.

When we look out across the entire GRTC system, a few things are clear. First, a handful of buses are absolutely workhorses and should be our focus when thinking about investments in greater frequency and on-street improvements that give priority to transit. Second, a few of the region’s less-frequent routes could definitely benefit from a frequency increase. At a minimum, the City should expand its frequent, daytime service to at least 10:00 PM.

We’ll jump into the data in a bit, but, first, it’ll help to understand revenue service hours. Revenue service hours are a measure of how much bus service a system or individual route provides—it’s one bus picking up and dropping off passengers for one hour (not counting waiting time at the end of a line). Some bus routes are longer than others, so to compare apples to apples we want to see how many people are using a vehicle for every hour it is in service picking up and dropping off passengers. A quick example: It takes one single bus one single hour to run the entirety of GRTC’s Route #86. That bus leaves Southside Plaza at 5:40 AM, arrives at Ampthill Heights at 6:00 AM, and then returns to Southside Plaza at 6:26 AM. That is one service hour. If we wanted to double the frequency of Route #86 to every 30-minutes, we’d need to add an additional bus to the route. That’d be two service hours. That’s an oversimplification of the actual #86, but you get the point. More revenue service hours on a route (or in a bus system) means more bus service for riders.

Alright, with that in mind, here’s a graph of average weekly bus ridership by route from May 12th, 2019 through August 3rd, 2019.

Average weekly ridership by route.png

Clearly the #1ABC, #2ABC, #3ABC, and #5 are popular, high-ridership routes. This makes a lot of sense as they’re the most frequent local routes in the system. Again, if you make buses more useful—in this case by making them more frequent—more folks will ride them.

If we look at ridership data from the same time period by revenue service hour, things get a little more interesting. Remember, this is the number of riders for every hour an individual bus is out there picking up and dropping folks off. Frequent routes require more buses but should serve more people. Looking at ridership by revenue service hour lets us see which routes are the most productive, accounting for the frequency factor, and which routes need more investment.

Average weekly ridership per revenue hour 4.png

Again, the system’s frequent routes are at the top of the list with some really strong numbers. Consider the #1ABC, which requires ten buses to serve the entire line. With around 30 rides on each bus per revenue service hour, the combined #1ABC serves around 300 people every hour on average across the entire route. That’s awesome, and shows that GRTC’s frequent routes are excellent investments! In fact, when looking to expand and extend the Richmond region’s bus system, a good place to start would be to run these frequent routes later into the evening and on Sundays (currently, frequent service stops around 7:00 PM).

It’s clear that lots of folks—across many demographics and geographies—are already living, working, and playing near these frequent routes and that they would benefit from even more of that frequent service. Additionally, these frequent routes provide quick connections to the system’s less frequent routes, so riders headed to destinations all across the city would benefit from improvements to the frequent routes. And, don’t forget, like we saw in Henrico, extending frequent service later into the evening and on Sundays will make new trips possible and attract new riders. The City should do all it can to give on-street priority to these bus routes, which carry hundreds of people per hour, including more transit-only lanes, transit signal priority, and removing parking to install bus-boarding islands. Then, as ridership grows along these already-strong routes, we should start planning for increasing the frequency even further to 10-minutes—especially on the #1ABC and #5.

The next thing that jumps out is the strong performance of the #86. This hourly route serves a large portion of the city’s Southside, including parts of both the 8th and 9th City Council districts. It’s an area with a significant number of individuals living in poverty, a large Latinx and Black population, and a part of town that’s seeing a decrease in property values. It’s also a large area that’s only served by a handful of buses, leaving large gaps—sometimes almost spanning two miles—between routes. The #86 punches above its weight (or, rather, punches above its frequency) in terms of ridership per revenue service hour. It is the top candidate for a frequency increase from once an hour to twice an hour. Similarly, the East End’s #12, which serves multiple public housing neighborhoods and the new grocery store, would be a good place to consider an increase from 30-minute service to 15-minute service.

Express buses, which were not included on the above graphs are an entirely different situation because of their peak-only, inconsistent schedules. We’ll dig in more to the region’s express buses (and a bunch of other fascinating stuff) in the future. Stay tuned.

The Richmond region has seen a year’s worth of changes and improvements to its bus network—but we’re not done yet! There are easy wins to be had by giving on-street priority to our strongest bus routes and increasing the frequency of some less frequent routes that show strong potential. By far, the easiest, most beneficial change, would be to run today’s frequent service until at least 10:00 PM. This would give more folks more access to more opportunities for work or play, make new types of trips possible, and, ultimately, increase ridership.