An Obscure Rule About Bus Stops Can Make Riding At Night Safer

As transit agencies cut bus stops to speed up service, many riders are left behind. But a rule that’s been at most agencies for over 40 years could make transit safer and more accessible.

(Photo by Lucas Quintana / Unsplash)

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As transit agencies across the nation deploy projects with fewer stops so riders can get where they need to go faster, they’re also leaving some riders behind.

Take north Minneapolis resident Rosie LaFond. Before Metro Transit debuted the highly-anticipated D Line rapid bus last December, she frequently rode the agency’s Route 5 to one of her three jobs in Downtown Minneapolis.

With fewer stops on the new D Line and Route 5 running just once an hour as of December, LaFond, who is worried about navigating icy sidewalks as well as crime in her neighborhood, is effectively stranded.

“When I’m going home, it’s always after dark,” says LaFond, a lifelong North Minneapolis resident and grad student. “One night when I was walking home at around 11:30 p.m., I heard semi-automatic gunfire. My biggest fear is the shootings that happen and getting hit possibly by a stray bullet. Or … if I fall and slip on the ice that I can’t easily get myself back up and get myself home.”

Fortunately, LaFond was once able to take advantage of a Metro Transit policy through which riders can board and disembark from the system’s bus routes between stops, within reason. The transit agency is one among many in the U.S. that has these policies, called “request stops.”

Generally, riders can leverage the policy by asking their bus driver to make a stop along a route between two regularly-scheduled stops. Although studies have shown the policy helps female riders who feel uncomfortable walking long distances at night alone, transit agencies struggle to get the word out and develop clear, consistent policies.

The policies appear to exist as early as the 1970s, with researchers Dorothy Schultz and Susan Gilbert noting in their report “Women and Transit Security: A New Look at an Old Issue” that it was introduced as a way for the community to make themselves feel safe riding transit. San Francisco’s policy dates back to as early as 1971; King County Metro’s policy dates back to as early as 1983. Portland TriMet’s policy goes back, according to agency spokesperson Tia York, “as long as almost anyone can remember.”

A 1991 study done by Sylvia Trench, Tanner Oc and Steven Tiesdell in the United Kingdom found a majority of women surveyed felt uncomfortable walking or otherwise going to town at night. The researchers found the request stop policy implemented in Stockport, a suburb of Manchester, resulted in a ridership increase.

Struggles to get the word out

Rue Haji, a Seattle-area high school student, says offering a request stop service would make her feel safer while riding King County Metro.

“I like not having to worry about having the bus stop too far away from my house,” Haji says, while waiting at the Tukwila/International Boulevard Station one Friday evening on her way home from a shift at a fast food restaurant. “If something happens and I don’t feel safe, I’d be able to run towards my house if they drop off closer to my house.”

And although King County Metro and other agencies market its request stop policy – King County Metro doing so on its website and transit schedules – Haji had never heard of it. Use of request stop policies at King County and elsewhere has been limited by inconsistent marketing efforts, inadequate training for drivers and confusion over specific procedures.

Back in 1995, the San Francisco Examiner reported that the city’s drivers and riders were unaware of the policy. That remained true when I visited in January of this year.

I rode Muni several times in the evening during my visit, and asked some bus drivers to let me off in between stops so I could get closer to where I was staying or to where I needed to go. In one instance, a driver obliged. In another, a driver told me they did not recall hearing of the policy during training and called the agency’s Central Control to confirm, obliging after getting confirmation that they were able to do so.

One San Francisco Muni driver, who requested that Next City not publish their name because their policy prohibits speaking to the media on work-related matters, suggests one reason drivers might not know about the policy: Muni’s bus driver rulebook was last updated in 2000 and has only been amended by a slew of bulletins since then, making it difficult to stay on top of the agency’s different rules.

As of this publication, the policy as explained on the website also differs from what is explained on the rulebook. The rulebook, unlike the website, says riders cannot simply get off anywhere between most scheduled bus stops – drivers can only let them off at corners before the bus crosses the street. It’s also unclear if the policy applies to its express and rapid bus routes. The SFMTA did not respond to repeated requests to clarify its training practices or the differences in its explanations of the policy.

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority has pledged to better promote its Request-A-Stop program as part of the agency’s Gender Action Plan. The plan, which aims to make transit safer and more comfortable for non-cisgender males, was quietly released late last October.

Back in Minneapolis, Metro Transit’s policy was for years unclear on whether it applied to its growing rapid bus system.

Although the agency did not explicitly ban the practice on those routes in their rulebook, drivers who performed those stops while operating those routes have gotten in trouble for doing so, according to a representative from their drivers’ union (Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1005). And LaFond, the North Minneapolis resident, says that her D Line bus driver honored her request to be dropped off close to her home on the day it opened as she had a panic attack.

While Next City asked Metro Transit about this discrepancy, the agency clarified its policy by reissuing a new bulletin banning the practice on its limited stop bus routes with designated stops and stations, which includes its rapid routes. (It made one exception for Route 54, a limited stop route operating on West 7th Street connecting Downtown St. Paul with the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and the Mall of America, because no nearby alternatives exist.)

“Allowing people to request stops between stations would make it challenging to maintain the travel time savings that make these routes attractive to many riders, and could lead to people waiting longer than expected,” agency representative Drew Kerr says of Metro Transit’s ban on the practice on its rapid routes. Kerr adds that the agency has located rapid bus stops where they’ve seen the most ridership, and that they have light, surveillance cameras and emergency call buttons to keep riders safe.

Metro Transit isn’t alone; MTA New York City transit also bans the practice on their rapid and express bus routes. TriMet also bans the practice on their Frequent Express route, the FX2-Division, on a technicality: It uses accordion buses.

King County Metro, on the other hand, extends the request stop policy to its RapidRide rapid bus routes because they treat it as any of their routes. “Even with its limited stops, RapidRide passengers can request to have the bus stop if there is a safe location,” says agency spokesperson Al Sanders, adding it provides negligible delay for other riders.

Filling the gaps

Of course, the policy comes with limits. Aside from San Francisco Muni limiting its drivers to making these stops at specific intersections, King County Metro, TriMet and Metro Transit generally allows drivers to make these stops anywhere so long as the driver believes it’s safe to do so. King County Metro also does not allow people who use wheelchairs to use the policy, nor does it allow drop offs next to highways, freeways or in downtown Seattle.

“Considerations in evaluating stop requests include line of sight (for other traffic), the road surface where the request for stop is being made, lighting, traffic flow and curbing,” adds Sanders, also mentioning riders can only exit by the front door and not one block before the bus makes a left turn – joining Portland’s TriMet – or before or during the bus crosses an intersection.

Meanwhile, understanding that its rapid bus service created a chasm of available bus stops in the Northside for those with mobility issues, Metro Transit last September began experimenting with microtransit service. The service, which initially began with a three-mile service area in North Minneapolis, saw its service hours curtailed but its service area expanded further north and east on Feb. 27. The service saw 6,800 rides through the end of January.

LaFond, who lives in the area where microtransit service will be expanded into, expects she may find microtransit helpful for her mobility needs. “What I can do is if I get off of the D, I could then have the micro meet me at the bus stop, and then they could drive me to my house,” says LaFond.

But micro service is being cut back to end at 10:30 p.m., with the agency citing low ridership. That means she might not find any use for it.

“I tend to take Lyft after 10 p.m. anyway because [where I am coming from in Downtown Minneapolis], after 10 p.m. gets sketchy and people are sometimes more rowdy,” she adds.

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H. Jiahong Pan 潘嘉宏 (pronouns: they/them/佢/他) is a Minneapolis-based introverted freelance journalist who reports primarily on their lifelong passion: transportation issues. Find them on a bus of all types, the sidewalk, bike lane, hiking trail or perhaps the occasional carshare vehicle, camera and perhaps watercolor set or mushroom brush in tow, in your community or state or regional park regardless of season. If you can’t find them, they’re probably cooking, writing, curating an archive of wall art or brochures, playing board games, sewing or cuddling with their cat.

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Tags: buses

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