Is your bus late? Find out why and some solutions to fix it

This is a continuation of my articles on Transit:
Part 1: A guide to a frequent, affordable, and accessible transit system in Guelph  
Part 2: Essential Elements of Good Transit
Part 3: Coverage vs Frequency: What is it and how can we make it work in Guelph

There are many factors to why your bus is late. From traffic congestion to car accidents, bus breakdowns, construction, emergency detours, higher than normal passenger loads to traffic lights. Some of these things are in the transit agencies control while others are not.

When I was angry, like many others, I’d vent about it on the internet. I had nothing to lose by doing that there. But as time went on, I wanted to find out and share some of the actual reasons as to why that bus was late or delayed and actual ideas to help keep them on time.

So why is the bus late anyways? Here are a select few (there are more!) of the different factors at play:

1) Traffic lights: Google Maps App shows when your bus is supposed to arrive in real-time. Sometimes it might claim that your bus is only two minutes away, however, if it has to get through a set of traffic lights it will either get through on green and be two minutes away or it will get stopped and be four minutes away. Put a few traffic lights together and you have timetable bingo.

If you live on a frequent route where buses are supposed to be every ten minutes, you only need some bad luck with traffic lights and boom! two buses are close together. (We’ll come to that later in the article)

Traffic lights in cities are good for people crossing the road, statistically, they’re good for road safety, but they’re terrible at everything else. Major cities have been taken over by them, and they make driving sluggish and unpredictable.

Don’t live in a section of the city with regular traffic lights? Substitute the traffic lights for someone crossing the road, a car doing an awkward turn, a truck driving really slowly. Whatever irritates you about the roads irritates bus drivers too.

2) Traffic and Weather: Car drivers aren’t timed to the minute. Sometimes it’s busy. Our cities are much more congested than they used to be. Sometimes buses will have to slow down because of construction, someone’s broken down, or there is a car accident, someone parked in the way of the bus or there are just a lot of traffic volume all at once. When it snows or rains, car drivers sometimes have a habit of not remembering how to drive proper slowing down everyone.

Gordon Street during peak time. Backed up in both directions.

3) There’s no money: There is only so much money that can be spent on spare drivers otherwise our city would go bankrupt. You can’t have a spare driver sitting and waiting to replace every driver you have. Sometimes, people will have last minute issues, or phone in sick, they will fall ill on the job, or they will have terrible news from their family while at work. You can’t always replace them all. If we could, we would have no money left! Transit Management is always working hard to find replacements when they max out the Spare Board of Drivers but sometimes they have no choice but to cancel all or part of the bus run due to unavailability or to give the replacement time to get into work (Most Guelph Bus drivers don’t actually live in the city like most Transit systems). There are also only so many spare buses available as a backup. If all the spare buses are in use, it may mean service from other areas will have to be reduced or even canceled so that those buses are reallocated to where they are needed the most.

*Join TAAG – Transit Action Alliance Guelph*

4) Things just go plain wrong:  Buses are used all day, every day. Bouncing around over every pothole and through construction and rough roadway. They are much better maintained than any car due to their daily use but sometimes mechanical failures do happen.

Buses have more electronic gadgets than any car. The sensor which checks whether the wheelchair ramp is pulled out isn’t working, the engine can’t start, the digital sign is wonky, the Automatic Stop Voice is speaking gibberish. Some days the engine will decide it doesn’t want to be switched on anymore and need to be replaced completely.

Example: If your bus has broken down, they have a spare waiting, and, if available, have a spare driver sitting on it. By the time that driver can get to your bus breakdown, it’ll probably be too late to do any sort-of rescue mission, that job will instead be given to the driver behind, who can then enjoy a five to ten-minute delay plus being twice as busy as usual.

5) People make mistakes: Transit staff include the people who put the fuel in and check the oil level, the people who clean and park them in the order they’re needed, the people who set up the Fare Box, the people who decide which bus is driving which route and organize the driver’s daily paddle (schedule), the driver who sets their personal alarm, the driver remembering which way to turn or what time they leave a stop. They will all make mistakes, and mistakes cause delays. We are all only human after all and life happens.

6) There’s a time limit: Bus drivers can only drive for so many hours. These hours are regulated under the law and within the contract between drivers and the city. If they exceed them both they and their employer could be in serious trouble. Bus Driver Fatigue is also a HUGE factor. You don’t want a driver who has worked four 10 hour shifts in a row to be called in to do another 10 on his or her day off.

And the little things you may not think about: Issues found on or around the bus when doing the morning safety circle check or a bus breakdown in front of another bus at the Transit garage thus backing up and delaying the first buses of the day. Emergency road repairs cause last minute detours, construction slows everybody down. If someone asks for help or directions should you stop to help them or tell them to sit down and shut up? Some passengers need a couple minutes to find the correct change or dig out their pass. Helping a wheelchair user use the ramp. Letting that elderly person sit down before you drive off. Picking up more people than you were expecting (Will get more into that one further down). It all adds up.

“This stuff doesn’t happen to my bus!”

How would you know, you weren’t driving it? If you’ve ever thought to yourself “I can’t believe we’re only here now” or “we got here quickly”, then you clearly weren’t paying attention to your journey, and you were missing out on some of the above.

“I’ve been waiting 15 minutes for the bus to show and 2 showed up at the same time or an Out of Service Bus just passed me”

It’s true! On frequent routes, this happens all the time.  Here’s what actually happens along a busy route:

Let us say the bus is due every 10 minutes. To keep it simple, we’ll say one person turns up at every bus stop every minute. In reality, it’s much more random than that – which is part of the problem – but we can’t blame people for not being synchronized with strangers.

For one of the reasons mentioned above, let’s say one of the buses is running two minutes late. No big deal. There’s now a 12-minute gap from the bus in front and a 8-minute gap from the bus behind. People arrive at the stop every minute. The bus is now picking up more people than expected, while the one behind is getting fewer people. One person gets on and asks the driver why they had to wait 13 minutes.

The two are now gaining on each other. The bus stops are getting busier. The one in front is now finding two or three times as many people as it was expecting in each stop. The gap between the two is getting smaller until they meet each other.

Repeat it a few times and you can get three or four buses running together. After all, once the bunching has started, it gains momentum and becomes bigger and bigger. Sticking with the original example, if the bus is two minutes late it will find 11 people at the bus stop where it was expecting 9. But if it’s five minutes late, it’ll find 14 people at the bus stop where it was expecting 9. If it was ten minutes late, it’ll find 19 people at the bus stop where it was expecting 9. The more additional people waiting, the later it gets. Say one of those buses broke down. Suddenly you’re finding 28 people at the stop where you were expecting 9, you’re 5 minutes late, and every passenger wants to ask you why they’ve been waiting 24* minutes for a bus that’s supposed to be every 10 minutes (* – 24 minutes: that’s 9 for the bus which broke down, 10 for the bus behind, 5 because it was running late).

How do you fix that?

People will always want to get on the first bus which turns up, which means that bus will never make up for lost time. One way to fix it is to cancel the bus and tell the driver to drive non-stop until they’re back on time. But if you’ve been waiting for ages for a bus, and then see one go past out of service, you’d be furious. You’d probably send an angry tweet too! So….

Jarrett Walker of Human Transit puts this question, among others, in an article about how if we want to win better service, we need to understand the broader landscape & direct our energy accordingly.

Q: When a bus is late, do you blame the city that decided not to have transit priority measures or do you just blame the transit agency?

So how can we get buses moving faster while stuck in the same traffic as everyone else? One solution: Implement Transit priority measures.

Why do we need Transit Priority?

Transit priority allows public transit to be a more attractive and viable option for commuters. Buses freed from congestion and on schedule provide an efficient mode of transportation. Creating a suitable choice of transportation for the public will ensure fewer cars on the road and among the benefits is a healthier city. Transit service slowed by congestion is counterproductive.

So what exactly are Transit priority measures?

Transit priority measures are techniques designed to minimize delays to buses at intersections and along congested roads ensuring a faster commute time for passengers. The success of public transit requires an efficient system of mobility that can accommodate the needs of travellers.

Here are 3 examples courtesy of Halifax Transit (Click here for larger version)

Other Types of Transit Priority Measures include

  • implementing or enforcing parking restrictions along roadways;
  • physically improving intersections (i.e. roundabouts)
  • traffic signals that favour approaching buses.
Types of Transit Priority Measures.


Signal Priority

Signal priority allows buses to arrive and travel through intersections with little or no delay. Detectors identify and distinguish buses from other vehicles. The detectors then give priority to the buses by manipulating the traffic lights to give the buses a green light.

Transit Priority Signal Indicator

The transit priority signal allows transit vehicles to enter intersections ahead of other traffic. A separate signal located within the traffic light alerts the transit vehicle that it can enter the intersection. This “cigar signal” allows the transit vehicle to jump the queue and enter the intersection first. It creates the necessary space for the bus to merge into regular traffic. This also works in conjunction with Transit Bus Queue Jump / Priority Lanes.

This is a sample from Saskatoon Transit


Queue Jump Lanes / Bus Priority Lanes

The queue jump with advance stop bar allows transit vehicles to pull ahead of regular traffic that is stopped at an intersection. Stop lines are located back from the intersection. Vehicles stop further back from the intersection, which allows transit vehicles the opportunity to pull in front of the traffic when using Transit Priority Signals.

Where should Guelph put Transit Priority first?

Guelph Transit users know the traffic issues along Gordon Street between Wellington and Clair Road. This stretch of road sees a steady stream of traffic and ridership from sunrise to sunset.

This stretch of road should be the top priority in making sure the Route 99 Mainline stays on time and does not get stuck in traffic at major intersections or bottlenecks like Gordon St. Bridge.

The road between Stone and College can especially be difficult for Guelph Transit Buses.

The corner of Gordon and College has many opportunities to move buses. One example was presented in a report to Guelph Transit back in 2015 where transit priority lanes and signals would be installed at the intersection.

In 2015, the City did commission a Transit Priority Project (TPP) alongside a proposed BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) routing. This report was unfortunately shelved for an unknown reason. You can read more about that project here.

A copy of the report was posted with the minutes of the Transit Advisory Committee in 2015 and is below:



Transit Priority Measures: Transit can move faster

Transit Priority measures would improve transit and the overall rider experience by creating a faster, more reliable and convenient system. A better transit service can attract more riders and be a catalyst for transit-supportive development around stations. These features can increase the percentage of travel by transit in Guelph, which allows growth to occur without continued reliance on the car.

But these tools are only useful in the right circumstances. To get this measures, The City of Guelph departments need to work together.

Transit doesn’t control the traffic lights – that falls under Traffic Department. Transit doesn’t control where the lanes go on a road this is Planning and Traffic Services.

Transit, Planning and Traffic Departments should and need to be working together and studying a number of key intersections and corridors to identify the site-specific opportunities and constraints for speedier bus service.

As part of such a project, it should be investigating potential locations for transit priority measures at intersections and on road segments throughout Guelph where buses currently experience long delays and difficulty keeping on schedule during rush hour.

Before you tweet out complaining about the bus is late, remember to recognize the constraints your transit agency deals with every day – factors that are often outside the influence of transit agencies control – and focus your complaints to the right people.

Read more of my Transit articles:

Part 1: A guide to a frequent, affordable, and accessible transit system in Guelph
Part 2: Essential Elements of Good Transit
Part 3: Coverage vs Frequency: What is it and how can we make it work in Guelph
Part 4: Is your bus late? Find out why and some solutions to fix it
Part 5: Bus Stop Balancing 

Overview: Summary Of Jarrett Walker’s Book “Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking About Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities And Our Lives”

Opinion: Public Transit is Worth the Investment 

You can read about How to Engage With Transit Agencies That Resist Change here.

With files from


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