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How do you evaluate Metrobus performance?

Previously, I looked at WMATA's Metrobus performance data for 2007. Metro highlights the "worst performing" lines based on ridership and financial performance data. The criteria for good performance are:

Photo by Wayan Vota on Flickr.

  • More than 300 passengers per day
  • More than 10 passengers per trip
  • More than 1.3 passengers per revenue mile
  • High cost recovery ratio (>12.4%)
  • Low subsidy per passenger (<$4.80)

In September, a Washington Post article by Lena Sun discussed WMATA's new ability to track bus on-time performance, and reported that WMATA has an overall system on-time performance of 75%. This figure is based on showing up at the published time points between 2 minutes early and 7 minutes late. Almost immediately after the article, I requested the on-time performance figure for each bus line in the system.

Based on the information reported (MS Excel file), the worst performing routes in terms of WMATA's ridership and financial criteria are better than average for on-time performance, probably because the routes operate in lower-density areas and don't have to slow down as often or as long to board or alight (drop off) passengers. On the other hand, WMATA's best performing routes have lower than average on-time performance, probably for the opposite reason: high traffic and congestion as well as ridership-driven delays due to boarding and alighting.

This brings up an interesting idea: How do you evaluate transit system performance? From the look of the WMATA productivity report, the only performance data highlighted is financial and ridership based. For a board that's is concerned with trying to ensure the region gets a reasonable bang for its subsidy buck, that makes sense. But for the ridership, is it really the best measurement of system performance?

Compare this to a transit system that is a leader in reporting performance data to its ridership: the Chicago Transit Authority. When CTA publishes its "dashboard"-style performance data for the system, they track six categories of system performance:

  • What's the ridership?
  • Is it on time?
  • Is it efficient?
  • Is it safe?
  • Is it clean?
  • Is it courteous?

Chicago publishes a monthly performance metric report, prominently linked from the home page. In the report, they state the performance goals and show the system performance for many months, highlighted in green when the goal was met, and in red when it was not. The report describes each item they measure, so you know what they're talking about. For example, one of the metrics is "% of bunched intervals, bus", which they define as "Number of weekday bus intervals (time between buses at a bus stop) that are 60 seconds or less divided by the total number of weekday bus intervals during the month." They have a goal of 2% or less, and it looks like they are not meeting it but with no strong trend up or down.

The Metrobus Performance Report appears to ask only one question: Does it carry a lot of passengers compared to how much we (WMATA) have to pay? That's a good question to ask for a system efficiency standpoint, but I think the riders of Metrobus deserve to have Chicago's five questions asked and reported too. I only have the Metrobus performance report and I do not know whether there are other reports out there that are as comprehensive as Chicago's. The Customer Service Operations and Safety Committee receives a monthly report on system on-time or reliability performance, and also a report on safety, but that report still does not delve more deeply into the on-time performance beyond WMATA's one top-line statistic. If there are better comprehensive reports, WMATA isn't presenting them to the board or posted for public consumption.

Here's the data. The first table is for the previously reported worst performing bus lines, and the second is for the best. The data covers the month of August 2008, which is from a different year than the 2007 Performance Report WMATA has released. I've been asking for the 2008 report for a couple of months through various channels and have not gotten a response.

There are a couple of bus lines missing from the reliability data because WMATA does not track on-time performance for them, and there are a couple of lines that are no longer operated so I can't make a direct comparison. Also, if you look at the Excel spreadsheet linked above, bus lines ending in "99" are employee shuttles not open to the public.

The "worsts" for ridership:

Bus Route # Reliability
24T 81.56%
98 49.41
E6 89.13
15K 73.90
15L 78.95
20F 87.25
20W no data
20X 73.35
17A 85.29
17B 74.07
17F no data
17M 89.52
N8 no data
18E 86.08
18F 91.67
3T 85.84
C7 78.79
C9 69.79
System average 75.33
This group average 79.64
System median 78.79
This group median 81.56

And the "bests" for ridership:

Bus Route # Reliability
30 Restructured
32 no data
34 Restructured
35 Restructured
36 75.65
X2 76.85
C2 73.62
C4 66.07
11Y 69.17
System average 75.33
This group average 72.27
System median 78.79
This group median 73.62
Michael Perkins serves on the Arlington County Transportation Commission, though the views expressed here are his own. He lives in Arlington with his wife and two children. 


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Great post, thanks for sharing this info.

For what it's worth, I'd like to note that 2 minutes early and 7 minutes late is a pretty wide window by industry standards.

by EvilOlive on Dec 10, 2008 9:54 am • linkreport

I get frustrated when I see WMATA spend so much time focused on the bus schedule. I would much rather they focus on maintaining an even headway and implementing Nextbus. Who cares whether your bus comes at some arbitrary time? Wouldn't it be better to know that there's likely to be another bus in X minutes and that you can check online before you walk out the door to know when the next bus is coming?

They could up the on schedule performance to 80%, and you're still talking about being more than 7 minutes late (or just plain missing the bus) one out of every five times you ride the bus. And for the other four times, you're still talking about a bus that can be up to 7 minutes off schedule and still be considered "on time". It's a useless goal.

Knowing for sure that a bus is going to arrive at X:XX even if that's "off schedule" is much better than thinking a bus is going to arrive at Y:YY and being wrong at least once a week.

As for bunching, I don't see why we couldn't establish express corrections like they do for the T. When you're riding that B train to Allston, getting the hell out of Boston*, sometimes the trains go express to ease up the bunching. What they do is announce "This car is going express to Harvard Ave." If you want to get out before Harvard Ave., you have to get out there and catch the train behind it. There are some reasons it works better for the Green Line than it would be Metrobus (the express is mostly for outbound service, and there's no charge for outbound service so there's no problem with double paying; plus the Green Line is a light rail which can hold more people than a Metrobus) but I don't see why something like that couldn't be tried here with the right lines.

*Yay Allstonians!

by Reid on Dec 10, 2008 9:54 am • linkreport

I've gotten to the point where if I am taking the H2/H4 in the evening, I recognize that I have a better chance of getting a bus if I arrive 10-15 minutes after the scheduled stop time than at the scheduled time.

by Nate on Dec 10, 2008 10:19 am • linkreport

Efficiency is a useless term because it does not say what efficiency you're looking at.

Finance? Material? Personnel?

Or perhaps getting a customer from A to B in a short time. Getting from National Harbor to Alexandria is a disaster using metro, even if the buses and trains you use are clean, on time, full, safe and very polite.

BTW: @ Reid: It does matter that buses are on time, for us who live in areas where buses come only once every half hour.

by Jasper on Dec 10, 2008 2:22 pm • linkreport

Wow, The Y5 bus is on time 734.005% of the time! Considering the traffic on Georgia Avenue, that's amazing. I'm stuck on a bus that's on time only 81.95% of the time.

by Stanton Park on Dec 10, 2008 5:31 pm • linkreport

Whoops. Sorry. The Y5 is on time 7345.00% of the time. My bad.

by Stanton Park on Dec 10, 2008 5:33 pm • linkreport

I just wanted to commend the Metrobus drivers this week, (2/15 through 2/19), for the excellent service they have provided to the passengers through a very, very challenging week of traffic. I've had to travel by bus in Montgomery County, MD and in the District of Columbia, and every driver has been courteous and helpful, be it early in the morning when they are fresh on the job, or in the evening after having been on the job for hours dealing with all types of traffic headaches with all the snow, ice and traffic jams. Just in case no one else appreciates your efforts during this tough week, I wanted to let you know that I did. Great Job!

by Rita on Feb 19, 2010 7:50 am • linkreport

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