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Opinion: Making Montreal's buses run more efficiently

Let’s remove card readers from one route as a pilot project.

An STM bus waits at the 56th Ave. station during the opening of the SRB Pie-IX bus rapid transit project in Montreal Wednesday November 2, 2022.
An STM bus waits at the 56th Ave. station during the opening of the SRB Pie-IX bus rapid transit project in Montreal Wednesday November 2, 2022. Photo by John Mahoney /Montreal Gazette

The Société de transport de Montréal (STM) acknowledges that the city’s buses have been late almost 25 per cent of the time in September 2022, probably the worst since 2020. No wonder that satisfaction levels of bus users have been plummeting. The STM blames increased traffic congestion.

But traffic is only part of the problem. An important contributor to how quickly buses can get from one stop to the next is how long it takes to board passengers. Montreal’s buses have technology that both reads OPUS cards and updates card data. This takes time, typically several seconds per passenger, even longer for people unfamiliar with the process.

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It’s easy to see that wait time at a stop is proportional to the number of passengers boarding. When a rush hour bus is late, more people are lined up to board, so boarding takes longer and the bus gets even further behind schedule. Lateness increases exponentially as the bus proceeds along its route. Never mind that crowded buses also slow down boarding.

Of course, the problem is self-limiting. As more users become disgusted by poor service, they will abandon the STM and go back to their cars. This will increase road congestion, making buses even slower; a vicious circle.

And of course, fewer users means less revenue for the STM, making it harder to maintain quality service.

How to avoid this scenario? Here’s a thought. Suppose that there were no card readers on buses. That’s right, anyone can get on, for free, at any time. Now, instead of boarding in single file, passing slowly by the card reader, passengers can board by front and rear doors, side by side if doors were wide enough. Boarding times would drop, buses would be more on schedule, user satisfaction would increase, more people would use buses, so fewer cars on the road and less traffic congestion.

Aha, you say, but what about the revenue loss? Unhappy taxpayers would have to subsidize an even bigger shortfall!

Maybe not. Many Montreal commuters use both bus and métro on the same trip. Their métro fares would continue to provide revenue that might even grow with increased ridership. Ideally, transit should be free, but that is not yet financially realistic.

How about an experiment? Let’s pick a bus route that is heavily used in rush hour, connects with the métro, and has many riders using both. The excellent Transit app, developed by some really smart Montrealers, could help by providing essential data on how often buses are behind schedule and by how much. First, we collect baseline data on actual usage patterns. We then cover up the card readers, make it clear to users that they can board by all doors (always giving right of way to people exiting the bus, of course!) without showing their card, and see what happens to the lateness stats, to ridership, to user satisfaction and to revenues over time.

The new Bus Rapid Transit route along Pie-IX would be a good route for this study as it is less affected by traffic congestion, and therefore it is possible to isolate the effect on timing of removing card readers. The trial would need to last long enough so that a change in the number of users can become apparent, probably two years minimum.

I predict that such a study would demonstrate increased ridership, higher user satisfaction, shorter transit times and a minimal effect on revenue. And with fewer automobiles on the road, it will be easier for Montreal to meet its green targets.

A successful outcome should lead to getting rid of card readers on other bus routes.

The big question is: do our municipal politicians and bureaucrats have the vision and boldness to take such a leap? Let’s find out!

Henry Olders is a computer systems engineer and retired psychiatrist who lives in Westmount.

  1. The 427 Express bus at corner of St-Joseph and Papineau Sts.

    Yes, your bus is late more often than usual. It hasn't been this bad since 2020

  2. If one can get riders on the bus more quickly, then a bus can cover the same distance in a shorter period of time. This means that on a given shift, one bus and driver can make more circuits, which means each bus can accommodate more trips, Henry Olders writes.

    Opinion: Free public transit would make Montreal more liveable

  3. Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante and Quebec Transport Minister Geneviève Guilbault, right, take a selfie during the inauguration of the SRB Pie-IX bus rapid transit project on Thursday November 3, 2022, as STM board chair Éric Alan Caldwell looks on.

    Pie-IX bus rapid transit corridor 'will change the lives of many commuters,' STM says