Sunday, December 19, 2010

My Trip to Switzerland

Like 1,900 other people, I imagine*, I received a very nice publication in the mail yesterday. It is the "greater Christchurch Metro Strategy 2010-2016" presented in an attractive, accessible, format.

As I have said in some past postings, to me this strategy has more grunt than the last couple of updates. On the one hand this strategy opened up to wider possibilities, on the other it targeted some aspects far more specifically. It is hugely impressive that so many people make submissions and suggestions, really impressive. We certainly love our buses in Christchurch.

I say this even though I am very suspect about the accuracy of using "feed-back" surveys. For instance on Page 7 it says "84% of respondents told us more money should be invested in public transport". To paraphrase Mandy Rice Davies' famous comment [from the famous Profumo call girl scandal involving British and Russian government officials in the 1960s] "Well they would, wouldn't they". (Obviously a high proportion of people relative to the total population interested enough to make submissions on public transport will be people who use and support public transport). Nonetheless surveys across the whole population in Melbourne and Auckland a few years back, both showed very high support for more public transport rather than roading, voting in the 65% realm even though many of those must obviously be car users. So it will not be a totally distorted statistic. **

Anyway, this letter in the mail from Ecan also included two Metro vouchers with free use for one trip on any service, including the more expensive ones on country runs or the Diamond Harbour Ferry. They made a nice top up to add to a couple of wee presents for some friends with whom I go to a weekly pub quiz and know my prospensity for busspotting. They'll laugh I'm sure, but I know they will also use them, although not regular Metro patrons. However it was the "ticket" to Switzerland that attracted me most. The came in the form of the jarring note when I read in the strategy document ..(speaking of the year 2008/09) .."this means that on average every Christchurch resident made 46 public transport during that year." The page continues,"In Wellington residents make an average of 77 public transport trips each year, and in European cities this can be much higher. For example, in Zurich, Switzerland, which has a similar population to Christchurch [my emphasis] residents make an average of 417 public transport trips every year, which is more than one trip every day".

It is great Metro should encourage local residents to be inspired by overseas examples but this one smelt suspiciously of , to coin a phrase "bobbing along, floating across the facts, no feet on the ground". So I imediately got on my high horse and galloped off to Switzerland (to the sounds of the William Tell overture off course)...the first place the flying horse landed was Wikipedia. Indeed the first and last place, opening sentence of Wikipedia "Zurich"

Zurich (German: Zürich) is the largest city in Switzerland and the capital of the canton of Zurich. It is located in central Switzerland [2] at the northwestern tip of Lake Zurich. While the municipality itself has approximately 380,500 inhabitants, the Zurich metropolitan area is an urbanised area of international importance constituted by a population of nearly 2 million inhabitants

I have never been to Europe but even ferreting around (as rabbits do!) on the internet for over a decade on a regular basis suggests central Europe, such as Germany, Switzerland, Austria and probably quite a few other countries have many, many small cities that are in reality just the largest of multiple settled areas in a relatively small region. It says a great deal that German public expenditure on public transport is met 60% by the national Government (as it used to be here under Labour) but then also 30% by the region, and only 10% by the city itself.

I can't imagine Canterbury as a whole would want to front up with 30% of Christchurch public transport costs!

On casual repeated observation, magpie research, most of these cantons, provinces, communes etc seem to be far smaller than Canterbury, much more likely to be similar to the size of the land area between the Waimakiriri and Rakaia Rivers in size, than the size of Canterbury itself, and typically seem to have anything from one million to ten million inhabitants. This seems to be the case with the Zurich canton - barely bigger than Christchurch in its full Banks Peninsula coat. This is an important factor because it means (a) their population and taxpayer and potential public transport user base is many times bigger than Christchurch (b) roading space may be limited (c)train services to the city will be excellent (d) where people get off trains they need to get around the central city and trams work well in that situation.

It is much less common to find intense tram networks in the middle to outer suburbs, or out lying areas anywhere (Melbourne's tramway network the third biggest in the world, has only 242 km of track. I'd guess this is less distance covered than the Christchurch bus network, though Melbourne population is over ten times larger).

A second factor is "unlinked trips" - if passenger trips per year are counted purely as boardings then in "cities with rail" scenarios it is often necesary for those travelling tofro the railway station (at either end of their journey or both ends) to catch a bus, so that each journey is counted as two trips, each way. I am presuming this is a factor in inflating Wellington patronage figures. At 77 trips a year per resident Wellington punches hugely above its weight -compared to most other CANZ cities under half a million. Indeed it is the only CANZUS city (of 120) under a million metropolitan population that actually operates it's own commuter rail network. Sucessful sure, but it may not be quite such an effective system as the stats suggests; with 4613 commuer car parking spaces "fully utilised" (according to a Greater Wellington Regional Council report) at stations this means car use, car ownership etc are necessary to subsidise - make accessible - rail systems, and therefore should be calculated in total journey times and costs. And of course, many of these feeder journeys are also by bus. These may be a perfectly valid systems for the individuals concerned given the terrain, total journey etc but they should be measured as costs and benefits, and the statistics, expressed accurately. In see no way that Zurich [which is also a capital city, a major generator of added transit use, worldwide] could be compared to Christchurch, even in service of inspiring greater bus use.

Statistics is a mine field (I have gone for a zig-zag through the mines by recently adding a new on-going page under the famous quotation, often attributed to Benjamin Disraeli [apparently falsely] 19th century British Prime Minister, "There are lies, damned lies and statistics" - see side box). It is so important to get the facts first and the facts right and so damned difficult because every field of stats will cut the cake a different way revealing different qualities. My trip to Zurich was amazingly fast - a matter of seconds - and no doubt misses other factors but simple research also made a fairly obvious statement. Wellington and Zurich each in their own way have admirable public transport systems but we always need to read stats carefully.

As the Zurich Swiss might say, in their own dialect "Aufmerksamkeit meine Freunde und Leser, ist alles, was glänzt Gold nicht!

* I made several written submissions on different subject, about ten pages; it is possible that full documents etc may have only be sent to formal submissions rather than those who made brief comments on feedback forms only.

** Then again just read this in The NZ Herald (Auckland) yesterday - last paragraph gives only a 51% thumbs up, albeit from a small survey base

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