How Do Bus Routes and Schedules Get Planned?

Bus, downtown San Diego, California, USA
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How Do Bus Routes and Schedules Get Planned?

Although the Operations Department of a typical transit agency drives the buses you see on the street and the Maintenance Department repairs them, it is the responsibility of departments variously known as Scheduling / Planning / Service Development that actually decide what service is operated. Transit planning usually encompasses the following sections:

Long Range Planning

Long range planners attempt to predict what the metropolitan area will be like in twenty to thirty years (population, employment, density, traffic congestion are a few of the variables they are examining) by using complex modeling software that begin to operate forward from the present using different baseline scenarios. To qualify for federal transportation money each MPO (metropolitan planning organization) or similar rural entity, which have designated transportation planning control over a given area, must create and periodically update a long range transportation plan. In the long range plan, the MPO typically describes what kind of environment the area is expected to have in the future, how much transportation money is expected to be available, and the projects that the money will be spent on. Major projects are described in detail, while minor changes are usually described in general terms.

Generally, to be considered for federal funding, transportation projects, both transit and automobile related, must be in a region's Long Range Transportation Plan. As you can see from reading Los Angeles's most recent Long Range Transportation Plan, the document is as much a marketing document - designed in a way to generate the political support that will hopefully come with funding - as it is a planning document.

Grant Applications

In addition to the usual sources of funding that transit agencies count on every year by law, there also are additional funding programs that are awarded on a competitive basis. Many of these programs are administered by the federal government; in addition to the New Starts Program , which provides funding for rapid transit projects, there are many others; the grants program page on the Federal Transit Administration website lists twenty-one different programs in addition to the New Starts program. One of the most useful programs was the JARC (Job Access and Reverse Commutes) program, which provided funding for transit service at non-traditional commute times (for example, late night service or service which helps inner-city residents access jobs in the suburbs).  Unfortunately, as of 2016 the JARC program is no longer in effect for new grants; the funding has been rolled into more extensive formula grants.

Transit planners spend time preparing detailed applications for funding from these various programs.

Short Range Planning

Short range planning is what the average consumer of public transit is most familiar with. Short range planning typically involves preparing a list of route and schedule changes by service change up to a period of around three to five years.

Of course, any route or schedule changes are limited by the financial cost of such changes in comparison with the expected agency operational funding available for the given period.

Route Planning

Major service changes, including the addition or subtraction of routes, changes in route frequency, and changes in the service span of a route are generally worked on by agency service planners. Ridership data generated either from schedule checkers, who manually ride every route and record all ons and offs, or from Automated Passenger Counter (APC) systems, is extensively used by planners to ensure that agency resources are deployed in the most efficient way possible. In addition to ridership data, planners also use demographic and geographic data, often viewed through cartographic software such as ESRI to identify opportunities for new routes.

  Occasionally, transit agencies hire consulting firms to conduct Comprehensive Operating Analyses that sometimes result in widespread route changes.  A 2015 example of such a change, meant to improve ridership, occurred in Houston, TX.

Unfortunately, the economic climate of today has meant that most major service changes are service reductions; planners use specific service cut strategies in an attempt to minimize ridership losses accruing from the cuts.

For much more information about how bus routes get planned, please see my series on Designing Bus Routes and Schedules, beginning with Part I .

Schedule Planning

More routine schedule adjustments are generally made by agency schedulers. Examples of such adjustments include adding additional running time to routes, adding additional trips during periods of overcrowding (or removing trips that have low ridership), and adjusting departure times in response to changes in circumstances along a given route (for example, a high school may change its dismissal time).  Optimization of vehicle schedules and driver runs sometimes requires the change of trip times by a few minutes regardless of any outside factors.   At most transit agencies, schedulers are given "ownership" of a line, and are expected to keep up with the ever-changing dynamics of the route. For much more information about what scheduling involves, please see my series on Designing Bus Routes and Schedules, beginning with Part III .


Because a public transit agency is a unusual hybrid of private business (because the agency wants to attract more business by increasing its ridership) and government (because the agency needs to provide basic mobility service for people who cannot drive or who cannot afford to drive), transit planning is a difficult profession. Should transit focus on providing transportation for those with no other choice, or should it strive to become a competitive alternative for the car? Unfortunately, it is difficult to simultaneously serve both alternatives.

This difficulty is frequently aggravated by political interference in the transit planning process, which often forces transit agencies to operate inefficient bus routes and to construct sub-optimum rapid transit projects.