Monday, June 7, 2010

Hare for the NICERide

.... public transit is first and foremost about moving, mobility, flexibility, options to get places, options to avoid waiting.

Foreword by the Zen Wabbit ....

The best ideas are often the simplest.

In engineering as in artistic media close relationship of form to function, symmetry and sense, harmony of all working parts, repetition of themes, all play a part in creating beauty, instinctive understanding, ease of use and appreciation.

To create simple ideas, the most effective ideas, paradoxically can take great depth of understanding. Rarely are simple concepts made real without great complexity of prior development.

(Pssst - You may now clap politely with one hand if you so wish)

Main Article

I believe the greatest gift Metro could give Christchurch is to create an integrated bus route pattern and a co-ordinated departure time pattern, city wide, covering 90% of operating hours.

By integrated and co-ordinated service I mean buses would depart the Bus Exchange at the same time every hour (every hour) and if several routes run along a shared corridor such as Papanui Road or Riccarton Road or Linwood Avenue (Bromley), or through a common major intersection (such as Eastgate or QEII), or through adjacent neighbourhoods, then every effort is made to ensure these services run in relationship to each other, in a consistent alternating pattern with an even spread of departure times. Not least operating adjacent routes in a staggered alternating pattern means thousands of residents living the greatest distance from a route (more or less equally between two routes) and getting the lesser quality access suddenly get as much as 50 to 100% more option, in some situations 15 minute access to and from home by route A or B, even on Sunday evenings.

In an integrated system as far as possible services are organised to ensure buses arrive at and depart major employment and study zones at times useful to those starting or finishing on the hour, including weekends and evenings. Departures from such key zones at two or three minutes past the hour etc - leaving most of those just finished stranded for another 15 or 30 minutes - do not happen in a carefully integrated system.

This system also makes possible consistent transfers, not only because the same pattern applies every hour, but because as far as possible interactive routes are timed to pass through the common junction never less than 7 minutes apart. Transfer options are simple, consistent and protected, as far as any such option can be in the world of transport. Delays may occur, as now, that is inevitable but consistent times can also highlight consistent delays and be addressed. With consistent transfer patterns regular users - such as teenagers, tertiary students and gold card users - would soon become very familiar with multiple options for journey pathways, even those where three buses/ two transfers are needed, if they can be trusted to get passengers from A to B, or E or M, much faster than wasting time travelling into the Exchange. Amazingly - in an integrated system what works in one hour works in another!

This system of having a consistent core pattern also makes it possible and in some cases necessary to operate additional services, for specific time periods such as after school or evening peak hours, or Fri and Sat evenings, or the middle of the day Sunday. In the current system reliable departure time patterns, such as x and y minutes past the hour 9am -3pm, often erupt after schools come out into a mishmash, often more frequent, but inconsistent in gaps which destroy transfer consistency with other routes that don't change frequency. A key difference from the current system, in an integrated system the underlying pattern itself does not change. A service every 15 minutes on school days might become every 7.5 minutes, or even have a doubling of buses on the same departure time between 3pm and 4.30pm, but these are structured as an overlay - the core pattern itself always continues 100% reliable, not exchanged for a mishmash of departure times. Equally, additional services to entertainment zones and venues, for example on Friday and Saturday nights can be threaded through existing patterns to create optimum spread - a half hourly service between 10 pm and 12am to and from the university hostel areas could for example be made a 15 minute service for an experiment - or dropped again if unsuccessful, the core pattern remains solid.

The integrated system of consistent departure time patterns also makes possible threading cross town buses services, or special event services, or peak hour industrial express services, etc through the system in a logical pattern of optimum connectivity and benefit to patrons.

In general the effect of system wide integration and co-ordination is like a giant clockwork motor with hundreds of cogs turning and interacting every minute of the hour in a consistent and predictable pattern designed to be of optimum benefit to consumers. Of course I realise Metro services already often work to patterns on each route (same minutes past the hour departure) and already have system-wide patterns - it is just these patterns change several times during the course of each day and across each week, making a reliable departure time difficult to remember and undermining transfer fluency. In general, as anyone reliant on bus travel knows, Metro services offer very patchy, indifferent and often poor integration, with rarely any obvious gain from such poor co-ordination. What possible benefit can there be running both the 40 and 5 routes (both offering quick access to the city and to Eastgate, and within walking distance of each other 80% of their route) from New Brighton on an identical schedule, and the next quickest option, via route 83, departing one minute later?  Ten buses an hour being used, de facto, to offer 4 departure time options an hour! It would be laughable if it hadn't (unnecesarily) wasted several hours of my life,  some of that in a cold nor-east wind.

In one way or other, specifically or explicitly I have made several submissions to Metro involving variations of this concept of a fully integrated service dating back to 2003. We have such a great, tight, route structure in Christchurch (give or take half a dozen gaps and the need for higher speed bus corridors to the outer suburbs - grin) and regular services spread across seven days and evenings a week. I am often made aware of how thorough our local network is when I read about overseas public transport networks (or Auckland rail) which will proudly offer a service to xx thousand residents "within a kilometre" of the line - what crap who wants to walk that far constantly as an option to owning a car!!

Christchurch has all the "assets" the situation just cries out for an integrated system to make that huge qualitative leap. I believe with computer technology, the more sophisticated machinery, communications, loading and vehicle tracking systems, and the market expectations of today the old "public service, ad hoc" approach is a dinosaur out of the 1950s. We should expect bus systems to be designed and operated, integrated in flow patterns, with all the precision of a major railway or airline system, with a sense of total integration, with a sense of symmetry and logic that feels at home in the heart and fosters great confidence and faith in our bus system to be there as needed.

I have been exploring this concept of integration in my mind for many years. I am sure there are plenty of other names possible, but because an integrated system acts a whole and needs a name, I call this concept NICERide [interestingly, funny how the unconscious works, the "concept name" just came out of the ether. It took me another week or so to suddenly realise that NICE, logically, must stand for Network Integration and Co-ordination Enhancement!]. A couple of years back I spent months (on and off) ratcheting current running times back and forward on each route in Christchurch in relationship to surrounding or overlapping routes, to arrive at a more user-friendly pattern [albeit applying off-peak only]. It was like doing a giant mind boggling puzzle every minor shift of one route produced effects on five others, then they on others etc! But even with-out any major modifications (I would liked to have swapped a couple of through routes to different termini) or any minor route alterations I believe it offered beyond argument, a vastly superior weekend and evening services currently in operation. This would be obvious to anyone familar with the multiple junction points I measured departure time patterns against, though only taxi drivers and people who once worked for the Christchurch Transport Board (when bus drivers did ever route in the city) would probably be able to visualise every point described. the filter sheets looked hugely complicated but it was no different than our current system "only the times were changed"

Metro already makes a few efforts to co-ordinate buses - for instance running No. 14 and No. 16 servces (which both run up Cranford Street) in an alternating pattern, at most times (but not all the time!). But for every success like this there are dozens of anomalies and DIS-integrated service patterns, some bordering on the farcial or indeed down-right insulting to local residents in some areas. Redbus - it appears - has created an great service every ten minutes from the airport to the city via (alternating) routes 10,29,and 3 with commercial (non-subsidised) routes but at the price of dumping grossly pathetic services to South Christchurch. It is my experience integration can't be done piecemeal or a bit by basis - a properly integrated system needs to develop a sophisticated holistic template based on every route as its starting base. There are thousands of variables or possibilities involved and they all have to be weighed against rankings of priority, fairness to all residents, driver hours and changes, and balanced one route against another. Perfection is not possible - a very very good bus service is!

"It Can't be Done!!"

The first response to anyone in the bus industry to the idea of creating system wide patterns I imagine will be "It can't be done". I worked many years in the bus industry and recognise several factors that may foster this belief.

(A) one pattern would be too clumsy, given services levels vary, for example between evening demand and weekday demand.

(B) Trying to co-ordinate buses before 9am is a worthwhile activity but must take second place to ensuring services arrive in the city in waves linked to common work start times 7.00,7.30, 8.00 ,8.30, 9.00am.

(C) During quieter periods, with less passengers and less traffic, buses need to depart outer teminii later to avoid waiting at timing points enroute - always a source of irritation for passengers. To have services running from the outer suburbs to the city, that depart the Bus Exchange at the same time every hour, means that buses must depart from the outer suburbs later at quieter times. This "foreshortening" also effects cross town routes, such as The Orbiter and The Metrostar

To address these three primary factors I suggest NICERide operates to just two core patterns - first pattern from 9am - 6pm Mon-Sat; the second pattern operating evenings 6pm - 11pm and all day Sunday 9am - 9pm. The NICERide system (all routes operating to a set integrated pattern) would not apply for any services starting before these times nor operating after these times,individual routes may (or may not) keep to the same departure time pattern on that specific route. Either by bold fonts or back-shadowed text, or some other indicator, NICERide pattern times are always clearly delineated from any additional services operating during NICERide periods, making it easy not only to learn and memorise, firstly, consistent patterns for every hour but also, probably to fix departure times for additional services into that pattern.

Starting after 9am every day not only gets around weekday morning peak variations, it allows greater flexibility in departure times on weekends and public holidays, before 9.00 am which can be amongst the quietest trips. Where services from outer terminii need to be foreshortened, during NICERide departing a bit later (for instance as is likely between 4.30 pm and 6pm on Saturdays) this is handled generically by including a statement; "Departure times from outer termini may depart slightly later than time shown, on some trips. I can't imagine anybody catching buses worries about a minute or even three minutes difference if the core service pattern is consistent and reliable within the parameter of those few minutes - do motorists note whether a journey from a to b takes them 11 minutes or 14 minutes on any particular day? Nothing looks sillier than seeing timetables such as (Sat afto) 3.20 3.51, 4.22, 4.54, 5.23 etc - get a life! Any larger variation is mostly covered by the breaking services into different patterns, at 9am, and at 6pm. Those in the outer-most suburbs and areas will see the 12 mins past the hour service Mon-Sat day time goes at 16 minutes or 17 minutes past the hour evenings and Sundays - but arrives at the bus Exchange same minutes past hour. It is actually the same trip as during other times, it just leaves later. Once the brain has anchor times, it is far easier to attach slight and simple variations of "the bus goes at 12 past the hour every hour - except when it doesn't" type - in other words, 12 is the memorable time 16 or 17 is the variation" tied" onto the 12, if 12 is the only remembered time you can't miss the bus. Lastly - a word from the viewpoint of a [former] bus worker - I think most bus drivers who care (or can't be bothered farting around en route) will leave a little later if everything is looking very quiet or dead, it is all part of the bus driver's craft to read conditions and fine tune the journey to suit.

It might also be argued this structured system would destroy flexibility - I think not, it may even improve it. Although many many hours might be taken creating the first NICERide templates, and they might offer a solid predictable pattern for several years, over time introduction of changes or fine tuning, evolution of city patterns is sure to slowly erode the major pattern and perhaps need an city-wide overhaul every five ten years. It will no more be a static system than now but ideally expected increases in service levels are already structured in, the gap in holistic pattern to be filled if patronage rises sufficiently. The current tender system (groups of routes retendered every few years) makes an integrated system more complex to introduce, I can't see it effects the tendering system subsequently. Secondly creating all services over and above the pattern as "additional" may be more expensive in the short run but allows great flexibility to adjust these services, add new ones, make cut backs (in worse case scenario) without disrupting core services. In many ways it offers more freedom to experiment.

Let's be honest - public transport is planned and promoted by national and local politicians, administrators and planners - who rarely actually actually ever use public transport outside of peak hour commuting (if that) and certainly don't rely upon it 18/7 for their primary form of transport. Often it is the big tangible projects that attract their attention - new buses, new Bus Exchange etc. But public transit is actually first and foremost about moving, mobility, flexibility, options to get places, options to avoid waiting. We have a good bus system in Christchurch but it includes a terrible amount of wastage and dumping on the consumer by virtue of poor integration. A system that sets ourt to maximise the viabilty of public transport for those without cars will inevitably create a system also much more attractive to the casual user. "Look after the pennies and the pounds look after themselves" (thanks Grandma). Or "Cast wide the net but keep your nuts tight" (thanks Granddad). Particularly off peak but at all hours NICERide (by whatever name) would have the capacity to vastly increase the effectiveness of Christchurch bus services with almost no added resources needed, just a lot of thinking and commitment to the consumer
Politicians love monumental projects (like Christchurch's very succesful Bus Exchange photographed here on a Sunday morning); but regular passengers want service quality and frequency, Both elements need to be given equal weight in investment and planning. Note to photo; Original Victorian an Edwardian facades retained - behind them also a classic of architecture, the late 20th century multi-levelled car park !

Despite its huge length (intelligent ideas take time to explain) this is only the first of several postings on NICERide and its multiple implications !! (wow factor - the unique phenonemon of people seen running from a rabbit!)


  1. Of course, a city-wide network of full-time bus lanes, with priority signalling, would enable scheduling consistent throughout the week - without much variation in travel time along a given route, regardless of the day or hour. But whilst bus lanes and priority lights are new infrastructure, and therefore require more expenditure than better planning, there's no excuse for planning inadequacies such as inconsistent gaps between current routes on the same corridor.

  2. I so totally agree Brent - I don't know if you read in one of my previous postings a while back (I think it was about Quality benchmarks for transport planning)that was about how on many weekday evenings I travel from town, the CBD, after 6pm and there are 9 different bus services up the road I travel in that hour. But despite this there is still a 20 minute gap with no service due - needless to say Murphy's Law kicks in more than not and I arrive just at the start of the 20 minute gap, at a time when I and the others waiting there are probably all keen to get home for tea. If it was only a 20 minute service, fair enough, but when resources are there but are used so inadequately - so wastefully for a supposedly environmental organisation - as you say there's no excuse.