Discussion begins in Fresno about prioritizing frequency over coverage on the bus network

Last month, the Fresno City Council heard a workshop on a proposed restructuring of the Fresno bus system (FAX), one that would allow for improved service on trunk routes, creating 15-minute headways in the corridors with the most transit demand. 

This type of restructuring is the bread and butter of Jarrett Walker over at Human Transit. You can read about a project he worked on in Houston here. Mr. Walker has been involved with FAX on and off for a few years now. He first gave a presentation at Fresno State in October of 2010, and was then brought in by the city to create the “Metropolitan Area Public Transportation Strategic Service Evaluation (PDF)” in early 2014. You can find more on that process here. The evaluation is in fact the foundation for this new restructuring project. Mr. Walker’s team was also involved in the current proposals, which offer specific and concrete recommendations, rather than an overview of possibilities.

The problem:

Bus service in Fresno is infrequent (20, 30, or 60-minute headways), ends early (10pm), and does not reflect current service needs.

The goal:

  • Providing 15-minute bus service in areas that demand it, which in turn creates ridership by providing an attractive and dependable service. 
  • Increase service on weekends 
  • Expand into evenings

The cost:

  • Coverage to the outer reaches of the system, direct service patterns 

Why the trade-off? Because the City Council has not shown any inclination to increase funding for the bus system. That means any additional dollar spent on Route A has to be taken from Route B.

The presentation points out that one issue FAX has faced is servicing sprawl.

The example given is that FAX could service Downtown to Blackstone and Shaw with 6 buses for service every 15 minutes.

BUT, with service running to Nees, it takes 10 buses to run the same frequency.

So the idea is that by reducing coverage in the sprawl area, you can spruce up service in the core.

However, there’s a major problem: The FAX system of today was designed in the early 1970’s, which was the last major restructuring. Since then, the system expanded only slightly to the north, to River Park.  That is, the “outer reaches of the system” may have been the edge of town in 1980. But today, the edges are much further north, west, and east. That means the cuts will come from areas that should probably get more service today, not less.

It’s hard to trim the fat when there’s very little fat! Especially because compared to peer cities, FAX actually has a higher productivity – more riders on every bus.

The 2014 report, which hypothetically eliminates many of the ends of service, directly mentions this:

For example, Route 45 was deleted, serving portions of West Herndon, Fruit, and East Ashlan. This route carries over 30 boardings per hour, which would be above average in San Jose or Sacramento, for instance. In the context of FAX’s system average of 47 boardings/hour, however, it is relatively low
and it contains long segments with very little ridership. For that
reason, a scenario attempting to push Fresno’s productivity higher must
delete Route 45.

This map shows the 1977 FAX bus network (blue) along with the 2016 bus network (red). The two yellow lines in the north are the only lines creates since 1977. Everything else has only involved slight modifications.

(Well there were a few lines created – but they were all eliminated – Routes 4, 12, 18, 56) 

Note: If you are unfamiliar with Fresno, the unreserved area to the East is Clovis, a separate municipality. Only Route 9 serves Clovis. Clovis has shown no interest in receiving more FAX service.

You can see the areas that have seen the most growth in the past 20 years have no bus service at all.

In the 2014 presentation, the creators highlighted that a “ridership scenario” could involve sever cuts to lines in order to provide much improved service on the core routes:

Fortunately, the 2016 presentation is not as drastic. Rather than taking a hatchet to the outer lines, it instead proposes some more modest route changes and optimizations. The changes do eliminate some service, but also straighten routes to improve reliability.

I believe that one reason for the smaller changes is that the upcoming “BRT” system includes federal subsidies for 3 years worth of service improvements. That helps ease the financial cost. However, I have no idea what happens when the federal money runs out. Around 2006, Fresno got a similar 3 year grant to run buses every 15 minutes. As soon as the grant ended, the city shrugged its shoulders and returned to 30 minute service, even though ridership had grown. 

This image summarizes the changes in the 2016 proposal. Note that the lines are color-coded by frequency, with yellow meaning the service is eliminated, while red means service comes every 15 minutes. 

It’s hard to tell from the image, but currently one of the Fresno service patterns is that a bus starts in some far-flung place, goes downtown, and then continues to some random far-flung place. This “through-running” service doesn’t really make sense in Fresno, because the ends of the route are so different. That is, no one will ride from end to end. In regards to service, this can also make the line unreliable, when a car crash up at Herndon creates extensive delays down by Jensen.

Southwest Fresno gets some big changes, which directly addresses this issue:

Southwest changes:

  • Route 30 is replaced by BRT (already planned)
  • 34 terminates downtown  instead of through-running
  • A new 31 is created to replace where 30 used to cover. This is a route that ONLY serves downtown to southwest
  • A new 29 is created. This is a route that ONLY serves downtown to southwest

Downside: The plan creates split routes, which can create confusion. Especially on a system with atrocious maps and zero technology integration. 2016, and still no “nextbus”!

Northwest changes:

  • Route 22 eliminated
  • Route 20 split into 2 branches

Really Northwest (Highway City, Herndon and 99)

  •  Nothing at all, still zero service

River Park changes:

  • Ending BRT at Fresno rather than Audubon (already planned)
  • Simplifies service of all lines to interact with “BRT” at River Park – maximizes connections
    •  Does this by eliminating all the loops

I think eliminating service on First is a poor idea. It is a very dense area. The logic is that there are routes nearby – but the lack of an interior grid makes that walk a problem. The elimination of service on Nees and Ingram also removes transit from a low-income area, a neighborhood that was established well before sprawl (Pinedale).

Doesn’t this look like an area with lots of potential bus customers?

Additionally, loops serve two purposes: to expand service (but in an inefficient way) and for operations purposes – it’s easier to have a bus make 3 lefts or rights than one U-turn. In this case however, Blackstone is wide enough for the U-turns. However, there is a chance buses might be delayed in doing so.


Some big changes here.

  • Eliminates entire Route 28 (Downtown – Manchester – Fresno State) and forces transfers
  • New 36 serves Downtown-Fulton-Manchester 
  • 32 no longer serves Manchester
  • 39 no longer serves Manchester 

This is a mixed bag for me. For River Park, they’re all about maximizing transfer opportunities. Here, they’re reducing them.  Yeah, Manchester is no River Park, and it is close to the downtown transfer center, but still, seems odd.

Additionally, one of the founding principals of this type of plan is that adding transfers is ok because the buses will come frequently enough – every 15 minutes. That’s the justification for eliminating Route 28.

On paper, I agree.

But in the real world? 15 minutes in Fresno means sitting in the intense summer heat (for half the year), and doing so in areas that may not feel safe.

Today, the 28 serves as a sort of “greatest hits” line. Fresno Pacific! IRS! Downtown! Tower District! Fresno City College! Manchester! Fashion Fair! Fresno State!

And it shows! It has the highest productivity of any line in the system – over 50 riders per hour.

So I’m baffled at eliminating it.

Meandering routes don’t make sense when they attempt to cover everybody and end up serving nobody. But Route 28 appears to meander in a way that gets riders to where they want to go.

Finally, Southeast Fresno

Minor changes here:

Really nothing to say there.

To view the entire presentation, download it through this link.

What’s next? 

Last time FAX proposed changes, exactly none of them happened, although some of the ideas were incorporated here.

Here, there is a little more momentum, again because of the upcoming “BRT” system. Although I find it odd that they’re only doing this NOW, when BRT was supposed to launch in 2014. However, as mentioned earlier, the process did start way back in 2013.

Anyway, the timeline calls for a consultant to be hired to gather community input through a series of workshops. And then return back in 8 months to talk to the council about what the people said, and how the other consultant team incorporated their feedback.

At that point, the council can approve the changes, which would probably kick off in Fall or Winter of 2017….

Or tell FAX to go to hell and scrap everything, as they did with BRT.

Remember, the council president at the time (who is still a councilman), stated the following:

The feds and the state will pay for this bus with your tax dollars, but
is that a good use of your money if we don’t need the bus?

Which reminds me, don’t forget to vote this November.

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