Frequently Asked Questions

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Q: I often see empty buses and why is METRO running the service during the hours in which there is low ridership?

A: This is a common question. Knowing a little more about the logic of the service may help to answer the question. Bus service in general is structured around the morning and evening peak weekday hours in which most customers are using the service to get to and from work (core business). Each peak hour typically has a peak direction. Therefore, if customers are riding the system to go north to work, the northerly commute buses will have more customers on the bus than the southerly commute during the same peak hours. Keep in mind that we don’t run buses in one direction and park them. The northerly bus trip that delivers people to their work locations must then turn and service stops in the opposite direction where there are fewer riders during the same peak hours. That is to say, the bus may look like its running empty. The same occurs in the opposite direction during the evening peak hour commute home.

During the mid-day, when there are fewer riders on the system, we provide service that often targets customers needing to get to the grocery store or doctor’s appointments. During this “off-peak” part of the day, we tend to run fewer buses and we stretch the bus headways (time between buses) out to provide less frequent service.

During the later evening off-peak hours, we tend to provide more of a lifeline level of service in which, similar to the mid-day off-peak hours, we run fewer buses and stretch the headways out to provide less frequent service.

Another point to consider is that a bus may be empty because the headsign says “out of service.” An out of service bus is “deadheading.” An out of service bus may be starting or ending a run out of service. The bus may be starting the day and “deadheading” to the start location, or, the bus may be ending the day and “deadheading” back to the bus yard.

In summary, depending on the time of day, the direction of travel, and other normal operational considerations, one might see either a bus with many customers aboard; a bus with few customers aboard; or a bus with no customers aboard.

Q: Why run these big buses when there are fewer customers, and instead, why not purchase smaller vehicles that carry fewer customers?

A: This is a very common question. The answer is complicated and multifaceted. In part, our core business is to provide service for the peak commutes, primarily people headed to and from work. In the peak hours, driving one bus that carries 40 customers is more cost-efficient than driving two or three smaller vehicles carrying 15 people each (one bus driver versus the cost of two or three bus drivers).

Sometimes the question is expanded to ask why we don’t park the larger buses in the off-peak hours and drive less expensive smaller vehicles. The answer is that it is not cost-efficient to own two fleets of buses that would operate on the same routes during different times of the day. Not only would it be a challenge to store two fleets of buses overnight, but the maintenance costs associated with two fleets of buses would be costly and the overall capital cost of replacing two fleets must also be considered.

Sometimes people will ask why we don’t own smaller buses and run them only on routes that don’t have high peak-hour requirements. The answer is that we run the service with an approach called “interlining.” A simple version of interlining goes like this. We run buses on a particular route with a higher frequency of service during the morning peak-hours, but after the peak-hours, we drop the service level on that route to less frequent service and move (interline) the extra buses to other routes where we maintain a higher frequency of service. If we ran smaller buses, they may work in areas with lower capacity needs, but they may be overloaded when they are interlined over to another route later that morning.

In yet another observation, sometimes people will suggest that we just park buses in the off-peak hours when there is less demand. In fact, we do as much of this as makes good business sense, and that the Union collective bargaining agreement will allow. For example, if the bus route requires four buses in the peak-hours to provide ½ hour frequency of service, in the off-peak we might park two of the buses and reduce the frequency of service to one-hour. However, the Union collective bargaining agreement requires that not less than 60% of all weekday assignments be “straight assignments.” Straight assignments are assignments where the bus operator drives without parking the bus for eight or more hours straight. In contrast, a split-shift assignment is one where the bus operator drives for say four or more hours, parks the bus for between 3 - 5 hours, depending on the assignment, and then drives again for another four or more hours (never exceeding ten-hours of driving seat time). In this example, the bus operator does not receive pay for the 3 - 5 hours of break or split-time between driving events, but does receive an additional ½ time pay for all hours worked over a ten-hour spread. Spread-time is the total time from sign-on to sign-off, including the unpaid break/split-time between driving events. These examples are provided in an effort to show a small example of the many complexities of providing the service. Some of these complexities are directed in law, such as the ten-hour seat time rule, and some by the Union collective bargaining agreement.

Finally, bus purchases are paid for with capital dollars. Regardless of whether we operate a large bus or a small bus, the bus requires a bus operator. Therefore, the labor costs of driving a smaller bus versus a larger bus are similar. In addition, smaller buses are not built to take the same beating as larger buses, and therefore result in higher maintenance costs and a shorter lifecycle.

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