Friday, October 22, 2010

Cruisin' past the bus lanes, via Papanui Road, via Manhattan

Automatic Pre-Pay bus ticket machines on a Select Bus Service route in New York.

Passengers purchase ticket from these and board articulated buses through all three doors (mass loading in less than 30 seconds). Regular checks by inspectors and police and heavy fines for having no ticket work on the "proof of payment" system common on European transit. Systems like this - or even computer chip cards only - ensure fast boarding and remove the slowing effect of complex driver-passenger interactions. On-street bus lanes need to be heavily policed to work well in creating rapid bus transit, as New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority recently found out. (Image Wikimedia Commons)

In a recent posting "Metro Strategy Delivers" I said I felt the latest Metro Strategy update, for 2010-2016 has more vision and yet is also far more specific than previous Strategy documents of the last decade.

In that posting I identified four areas where to me the Strategy spoke with either a completely new voice or with stronger and much more specific emphasis than has hitherto been the case. These areas were the openness to identifying further cross town routes; services to country areas; focus on high activity hubs for suburban interchange points and - the biggie -- the specific inclusion of investigating Bus Rapid Transit (along with rail options) in future mode and corridor options to be nvestigated.

Another piece of wording I like, in combo, is that in the outline of the strategy presented to local councils which reads as follows - "A new target (No. 3 in Attachment 2) to ‘average bus travel times to match or be lower than car travel times on high demand corridors every year’ has been added to look at other ways to improve bus travel times relative to cars and make it a more attractive travel option". [My bolding]. I read this together with a target further down the document; "The wording of target 33 was altered following a strong response from the public about progressing with investigations about future mode and corridor options, consulting the public on options and protecting corridors".

This might seem all very obscure to the average punter but to me it is a great step forward from previous documents that seemed to rely almost entirely on a strategy of bus laning arterial roads and bus laning arterial roads only. The word corridors is broader than lanes and even if the current vision is only streets as now, it opens the way to creative links going "off road", judicious purchase of a corner section to allow an always free left turn (into a permanent bus lane) so buses never stop for lights at a busy intersection. Or allows for purchase of several houses in some part of town that would allow a bus only (and bike, pedestrian) boulevard to be built straight through linking major streets not normally arterials in a way that allows buses far faster movement and more direct routes across the city. It is ludicrous to me that hundreds of millions can be spent on passenger rail yet a couple of million to straighten and speed up various bus routes is not considered - part of the devaluing and under-investment in bus services spanning decades, a space in public attitude which allows inappropriately expensive and ineffective rail and light rail fantasies to flourish like weeds in a neglected garden!

All my reading suggests that (a) on street bus lanes can play a big role in enhancing public transit (b) as a technology of rapid transit and a truly sophisticated service delivery they have their limits and can't in most circumstances - by themselves - deliver a quicker than a car freeflow journey with quality infrastructure (platformed bus stations, preloading payment etc) and high capacity (for example multiple articulated buses).

Three recent examples of the limitations of bus laning (only) as a technology spring to mind.

On the opening day of the Papanui Road Bus Lanes - Christchurch's first proper bus lane - a year ago, a passenger was quoted in The Press (07/10/2009) as saying there was no change to her city-bound journey at 7.15am. "It was exactly the same speed as it always has been, but there was no-one parked (in the lane) and everyone was very polite," she told The Press reporter. In response Council Project Manager Christian " Anderson said bus reliability was the intended purpose. "It's really getting consistent times down Papanui Rd, rather than trying to make it any faster." Buses fitted with global positioning system receivers would be tracked to see if improvements had been made, he said".

No one can deny the prime importance of buses running on the times they are shown to run, not ten or twenty minutes behind time, making passengers late for work and school and appointments. It is core value stuff for a bus system. And being able to achieve committed times is the basis of an integrated service. But it is hardly rapid transit!

A bus service loads passengers at twenty stops along the route AND stops for traffic queues ahead or for the occasional traffic light which can not logically or sensibly altered by a bus transponder (eg crossing a phased one-way flow). Even with bus lanes this adds bout 15 minutes to the equivalent journey by private car over 10km journey. In contrast a segregated busway may only stop at a dozen stops and its route and technology (such as over-passes or underpasses of busy roads) means it never stops at all for other traffic. I have been advocating such a busway in Christchurch tofro the city from Belfast for several years - as suggested the first "other cross traffic" stop where the buses had right of way only 50% would be Salisbury Street - about 8 km away from Belfast! By such devices the partly segregated busway gains hugely in journey time and quality over conventional traffic and also over other bus services operating only on lanes.

Christian Anderson identifies one limitation of bus lanes; two other limitations - the invasion of bus lanes by motorists in practice and/or by political campaigns to have bus lane access extended to other groups of motorists are two other de facto but very real ever present restrictions on bus lanes.

Note for instance the extraordinary number of illegal entry into bus lane offences committed by motorists in Auckland last year. According to an report in the NZ Herald 29 July 2010 the four cities of roughly equal size (200,000-400,000) that were recently subsumed into "Auckland Supercity" issued bus lane offense tickets to motorists in the following ratio;

Waitakere
- with only short "bus advance" [queue-jumper] lanes at some big intersections - no tickets
Manukau
- with only 3km of bus lanes - 6 tickets
North Shore City
- with 9km of "transit" lanes (also for vehicles carrying more than 3 persons) 2639 tickets
Auckland City
- with 31km of bus lanes 41,169 tickets !!

One underlying factor identified in this disparity is the alleged obscurity of start point for motorists needing to enter a bus lane to make a left turn. This said, when signs were erected as guide points, the number of infringements remained fairly similar!!

The greater underlying aspect for me is embodied in a recent quote I read "Crime pays, if it didn't people wouldn't commit crime". In other words however large these figures they reflect only a portion of offenses. One would presume at very (very) most only 20% of offenders get caught, probably much less. Auckland has had bus lanes for several years now and yet can still catch 41, 000 motorists who are prepared to breach restrictions and probably not catch 200,000 plus - around 4000 a working week, more than enough to render bus lanes significant compromised! And it would be naieve to think the other three city's had no transgressions to slow buses and otherwise make lanes (with heavy traffic running very close to the curb) far less safe.

Before the supercity (ha ha) came into being the Auckland City Council was "pushing lawmakers to cut the $150 fine in half - this followed revelations that Mayor of the time, John Banks and his Citizens & Ratepayers allies targeted $12 million of bus-lane and parking fines this term in order to hold down rates. A poll reported in the NZ Herald 16 Sept 2010 found 67.1% of respondents believed cars with two or more people should be able to drive in bus lanes. (Though interestingly 37% of respondents thought there should be more bus lanes!)

That motorists can invade and yet bus lanes still be successful seems to be the opinion of many in New York where driving or loading in bus lanes is apparently seen as a right. This was brought home earlier this week when the MTA (Metropolitan Transit Authority) launched its latest "Bus Rapid Transit" route. M15 as it is designated is designed to use bus lanes, bus triggered favourable traffic lights and pre-pay sidewalk ticket machines that allows passengers to board at all three doors in less than 30 seconds, with a show on demand random, "proof of payment" checking by inspectors to police the system (more details here).

There could hardly have been a less impressive start to the system!

" MTA debuts its Select Bus Service on a workday and ... it's just an 'awful..." So ran the headline in the New York Daily. Journalist Peter Donohue was along for the ride and wrote;
"The city's much ballyhooed Select Bus Service was Slow Bus Service during its workday debut Tuesday. A trip from East Harlem to South Ferry took a mind-numbing 98 minutes yesterday morning - 27 minutes longer than its scheduled running time and 10 minutes longer than the service it replaced. Dozens of the specially marked M15 Select buses traveling in bus-only lanes on First and Second Aves. were greatly slowed in northern Manhattan and midtown by the usual culprits: construction, traffic and red lights".


The larger culprit was - bizarrely for any city - the system was started without monitoring and policing teams in place. Theoretically these will be implemented and all will be well, but as shown in Auckland it is a perpetual struggle to keep on-street lanes free and there is constant political pressure (in cities everywhere) to allow broader categories of vehicles - with three passengers, with just two passengers; if cars are hybrid,electric or gas....all diluting and undermining the potency of on-street (not segregated) bus lanes.

The recent Christchurch Metro strategy talks about improving travel times and protecting "future mode and corridor options"... . Obviously in central city areas and New York, it is no easy matter to create physically segregated lanes. But beyond the central city I believe eyes should be open to creative opportunities - the more off-road busways, cut throughs, underpasses or overpasses, or island separated bus lanes (with wheel traps or size triggered photos of cars trespassing) the more potentially effective will be bus services. Ideally most of these will police themselves. Just as it only takes one car to block a bus lane, so it only takes one segregated (impossible to use by car) section of a bus corridor linking conventional streets to physically impede or block out private invasion. If a road does not form a corridor for other motorists it will not attract traffic, and therefore the social impact of extra buses running through a neighbourhood (with moderm motors, or hybrid or electric buses barely intrusive) can be off set by reduced car through traffic. Segregated busways may also often offer political opportunity to avoid some of the more problematic busier roads or entering into unwanted and often confrontational situations with local businesses. (a Christchurch Transport blog posting carries an example of this latter situation in Riccarton!!)

In future postings I hope to hop around and identify some possible locations where I believe a bit of property acquistion or street and traffic control redesign could make a huge difference to service reliability and reducing journey times. The nice thing about being a loose unit rabbit is being able to go places no public authority or its employees can go, even in unofficial ways!!

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