Curse of the Lollipops (A Route Structure That is Usually Not so Sweet)

lollipopI am no fan of lollipops.

I’m not talking about the sweet kind, they’re great.  Instead, I mean the route structure that looks like a lollipop: the cases where a bus route leaves an otherwise lovely linear path to take riders on a journey twice.  Up a stick, around a loop, and right back down the stick (or road) they came from.

Routes with lollipops in the middle violate a key transit planning principle: try to be as direct as possible.

A classic "lollipop" route structure: the Parklands loop on the Victoria Regional Transit System's 24 Admirals Walk route. (Base Map: BC Transit)

A classic “lollipop” route structure: the Parklands loop on the Victoria Regional Transit System’s 24 Admirals Walk route. (Base Map: BC Transit)

A lollipop route structure means that the bus travels up and down the same road segment twice; anytime as a transit passenger I cross the same point twice, it feels like I am getting nowhere (which may likely be the case…).

I’m keen to highlight the drawbacks of this route structure because I have noticed a trend over the past decade where communities are increasing their residential densities (which is good!!) but often placing that increased density on a road structure that only has one way in and out (which is a lot less good).

Trying to serve new density on a road structure created like a lollipop becomes even more frustrating when:

  1. The main activity centre of the development is placed more than 400 metres away from the main collector road where transit might typically run. (400 metres or 1/4 mile is typically used as the “walk limit” for regular non-express transit).
  2. The hub of the development is centred around a use that would generate a lot of transit riders (seniors residences, post-secondary school, hospital, etc.) who will be pretty upset if the bus isn’t coming by their door.

All too often these characteristics align and transit planners and communities are forced to make the hard choice between not serving an area of increasing density or serving it with a lollipop route structure that will inconvenience other existing passengers.

Now, in some cases what looks like a lollipop isn’t a problem.

A bidirectional or two-way route that uses a loop to turn around at its terminus point is a pretty standard and positive route design and not an issue.  That’s because in that case, passengers would normally be travelling in one direction or the other and never experience the same point twice in a single trip.

Where lollipops create havoc is when they occur in the middle of route, particularly when their travel time is long or when the majority of passengers on a bus are not travelling to or from that destination.

So what are some strategies for dealing with lollipops?

Now, this blog is most definitely separate from my day job and employer, but thought it might be fun to go on a tour of transit in B.C. outside the lower mainland to explore this a little further.

Strategy 1 is don’t build roads like lollipops to start with. If I can make one plea to developers and my land-use-planner sisters and brothers, it’s ensure that there is a path through your neighbourhood or major destination.  Give yourself a back door in your road network and not only will the task of transit be easier, but you will have also created more resilience for your future community if an emergency situation closes off the other way in.

If I can make one plea to developers and my land-use-planner sisters and brothers, it’s ensure that there is a path through your neighbourhood or major destination.

And if you can’t give yourself a back door (due to topography, water or other barrier), place the key mass of density of your development as close as possible to where the “stick” of your development hits the collector road, not at the end of the loop.  Putting key destinations close to the main road reduces the need for a bus to leave its direct path to serve them.

Strategy 2 is think long and hard before you implement a transit route that includes a mid-route lollipop.  One of my main rules is “never do today what you will likely undo tomorrow.”  This is because once you give people transit to an area (or a no-transfer trip, or a closer access point), it will be very hard to take it away later.  So be very clear what your long term game plan is and what your realistic ridership will be and if either of these are sketchy, don’t do it.

And if you are stuck with the need for a transit lollipop, there are ways to minimize its impact on passengers:

  • Squamish Transit's 4 Tantalus route. (Base Map: BC Transit)

    Squamish Transit’s 4 Tantalus route. (Base Map: BC Transit)

    Turn it into a terminus.  Put a lollipop at the end of a route and its no longer an issue, which was the strategy used with the  4 Tantalus route recently implemented in the Squamish Transit System.

    • Just be aware that this solution has its limits.  Sooner or later development will move beyond that point and your “terminus” will no longer be at the true end of the line.  It also likely means that you will needlessly use more resources to serve an area than you would if the road network enabled more opportunities to join it with other routes.
  • Reduce the feeling that you are crossing the same path twice.  The Kelowna Regional 97 Okanagan RapidBus line leaves its linear path to serve the very important destination of the system’s main downtown Queensway Exchange.  It minimizes effects on passengers travelling through this point by taking paths that reduce the amount of roadway that is duplicated.This is particularly the case in the westbound direction, see below.

    Westbound routing of Kelowna's 97 Okanagan routing turns a would-be lollipop into forward momentum.  Base maps: BC Transit, Google

    Westbound routing of Kelowna’s 97 Okanagan turns a would-be lollipop into forward momentum. Base maps: BC Transit, Google

  • Confine lollipops to targetted schedules.  If you’ve inherited a lollipop in the middle of a route–or you need to serve it for other reasons–you can minimize its impact by tailoring its schedule: only peak periods (in the case of a school or employment destination), mainly middays (in the case of a seniors residence) or potentially at a reduced overall frequency depending on ridership.
    • This is the approach used for the Parklands loop in the Victoria Regional Transit System example described above.
    • A drawback to this approach is that it reduces consistency in your system, which can impact ridership.  But it may be worth it if it improves the directness of travel for the majority of users.
  • Base Map: BC Transit

    Base Map: BC Transit

    Confine lollipops to specific layers of service. In tandem with tailoring schedules, another option is placing service to these areas on local or community shuttle level routes where there is some expectation they will be leaning towards coverage rather than directness, rather than on higher order frequent or rapid services.  Service to Whiffin Spit on the 63 Otter Point in Victoria is an example of this.

  • Make them demand responsive. 
    By Request service to Terrace's Tuck Ave. Seniors Residence. (Map: BC Transit)

    By Request service to Terrace’s Tuck Ave. Seniors Residence. (Map: BC Transit)

    The Terrace Regional Transit System provides service to a key seniors residence through an on-request lollipop.  Passengers either call dispatch to have the bus come to the senior’s residence or ask their driver to drop them off there.

    • The main advantage to this approach is that the bus only deviates off its main linear route if it there is someone actually there to pick up or drop off.  In a smaller community with adequate dispatch resources this can be a possible strategy.

So, with these many options to deal with lollipop road networks, should I really grumble about them so much?  Maybe not.

But I still like the sweet kind better.

Credit where credit is due: As with all BC Transit systems, all of the route examples shown here are the result of considerable collaboration between staff and partners of many organizations.  Matthew Boyd was the implementing BC Transit planner for the recent Squamish and Kelowna examples.

5 thoughts on “Curse of the Lollipops (A Route Structure That is Usually Not so Sweet)

  1. Jim Ramsay

    Gabriola’s GERTIE com­mu­nity bus team is con­sid­er­ing its future and this arti­cle is cen­tral to that direc­tion. Some of the team favours elim­i­nat­ing all lol­lipops, while oth­ers feel “if we are going to con­tinue to serve single-access Gabri­ola neigh­bour­hoods (e.g., Whale­bone and all parts of Tay­lor Bay/Berry Point) then we have no choice.”

    Is there a way to deter­mine what the impact on our rid­er­ship would be if we went to an express ser­vice only?

    1. Tania Wegwitz Post author

      Hi Jim:

      Great question. In fact, so great that my response to you started to get so long that I have just decided to create a post to answer it. Look for it later today. Thanks so much for your interest,

  2. Jim Ramsay

    Before your follow up post, here’s the complete quote from the GERTIE team member’s proposal: “Objective will be with two buses and two drivers (with one bus and one driver on standby, latter paid or not tbd) to cover as much as possible of the island’s population once per ferry every day of the week but Sunday, starting as we do now and ending on weekdays with the 6:30 pm ferry and on Fri’s and Sat’s at midnight from the Surf or SB, tbd. To make the once/ferry approach feasible, and as well to avoid passenger frustration and save fuel, wear, and tear, the Tashetego, Buttercup, Price, and Hess lollypops will be eliminated. Instead folks living in these areas will be encouraged to walk, bicycle, or organize park & ride with neighbours to get them to the main route stops. Decent stops with (covered?) bike racks and a schedule for each stop’s bus will be required at the main route p/u points. (Capital $’s req’d.) And Spruce will be a perfect place for an end-of-line break for the driver (per post).”

    1. Tania Wegwitz Post author

      Okay, Jim, thanks for this. I’d still like to frame this in terms of some basic thinking around transit planning (so your group can collectively work through the pros and cons yourselves), but I’m going to give myself a little more time to write this so that I can also provide background on your community and system in case there are others out there who would like to weigh in with a possible solution or come along for the ride. Look for a post in the next few days.

  3. Pingback: Going Less Loopy: The Route Basics Behind TransLink’s SkyTrain Changes - Connecting Dots . . .

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