Thursday, October 29, 2009

Effective Metro Bus Services to Merivale, Bryndwr and Papanui? Almost

As a regular bus user, at all times, it has long been a source of great annoyance that so many services aren't integrated better. Too often several buses run along a shared corridor close together in time leaving a long gap to the next set - an obvious waste of resources especially after hours when service levels are reduced. For people who depend upon buses it can waste hours of their life and impair their freedom and social mobility. Ineffectively timed services are hardly likely to meet Environment Canterbury goals of attracting people away from car use. Scanning the planned Metro route and timetable changes for 2nd November 2009 to the (mainly, north-south axis) bus services I was at first hugely impressed. The Airport-city connection, for example,served by three routes (some No. 3 route services and all No.10 and No.29 route services) now runs every 10 minutes, with the three different half hourly services departing in alternating sequence, to get a virtually no wait service to and from city connection.

Closer to home I have checked out the west Merivale [Rossall St]-Bryndwr corridor bus service imetables. This corridor will now be served by route No 9 and route No 15. Route No. 9 Wairakei is essentially the former No.17 Bryndwr route, but now running to and from Hoyts 8 only. The most obvious other route change here is that the No.15 Bishopdale route will no longer run up Winchester Street/Rugby Street but, in concert with No. 9 Wairakei will run along Carlton Mill Road and Rossall Street. This is consistent with the successful practise overseas, of not fragmenting into too many minor routes, but rather creating significant corridors within 500 metres of most residents that can offer frequent services. Metro has increased services on the route serving Wairakei Rd by 50% during weekday daytime services - from half hourly to every 20 minutes. Even better they have also integrated it to run in an alternating departure time pattern with 15 route. For instance the middle of the day, weekday, services depart the Rossall St/Leinster Rd timing point for the city in a sequential pattern of 10 25 30 50 55 minutes past the hour (route No.9 services underlined). There are only five minutes in each hour when a bus is more than 15 minutes away. More commonly, anyone heading for the stops can usually expect a bus in less than 10 minutes. Outbound a similar frequency and spread of services operates 06 11 26 41 56 from the Bus Exchange. This is an impressive level of service, no timetable needed in most situations, along a residential corridor from Carlton Mill up towards Bryndwr and Bishopdale, areas in which many residents are within easy walking distance of either route.

Weekday evening services also alternate to give an inbound to city pattern of 10 and 40 minutes past the hour from Rossall St/Leinster Road timing point; and outbound from the city service at 18 and 47 past the hour. The pattern is less user friendly on Saturday nights and throughout Sundays - inbound around 40 and 57 minutes past the hour; outbound at 02 and 17 past the hour. The problem of integrating times at both ends of a through route an sometimes mean not all areas can get an absolutely precise alternating pattern with other routes sharing the corridor. As the route No.9 Wairakei will terminate and depart from Hoyts 8, and presumably could operate at any time, it is obscure why it can't be timed in conjunction with No.15 route on Saturday evenings and Sundays to create a consistent and more useful 30 minute service, at least in one direction! Despite this, for most of the week and no doubt for most bus users in the west Merivale-Bryndwr areas an attractive expansion of services, as much achieved by more effective use of resources as by actual expansion of frequency on the route serving Wairakei Road.

For those living closer to Papanui Road there are also service improvement, with five routes (not counting Northern Star, Rangiora services which run express) now using the Papanui Road corridor - variously; routes No.s 8, 10,11,12,22 (some services to the Northcote/Redwood/Belfast area have been redesigned hence the new route numbers 8 and 22). This means an extra route using this busy corridor and services are even more regular during the week day day times than previously - no gap between services longer than 10 minutes, and in some cases only 3 or 5 minutes apart. There is now even less need fror Merivale residents to use a timetable during these hours, remembering the route numbers above will be sufficient.

The general weekday evening outbound pattern is 07 09 23 39 54 and the inbound services, times from Papanui/Northlands 02 08 17 30 46. Anyone who uses current evening services up Papanui Road (with a 28 minute gap in services between 05 and 33 past the hour, outbound!) will welcome the reliability of this pattern, which is essentially a quarter hourly service in both directions, with an extra bus and this at a good time for many evening shift workers finishing work "on the hour". For those living further east of Papanui Rd there may also be the option of the No.18 Northlands (via Springfield Rd/Rutland St etc) at 05 past the hour from the city. In bound this service departs Mays Road timing point, at 48 past the hour weekday evenings. If I have a moan about the Papanui Road corridor week night services it is that the last service, Monday to Thursday will now run at 11.09 (currently 11.40pm). This said Friday and Saturday evenings services continue through to midnight.

Saturdays - Daytime services on Papanui Road on Saturdays (and most public holidays) are never more than 12 minutes apart - often far less. A very attractive service frequency for those in the Merivale-Papanui area. Weekday services, weekday evenings, Saturday day services - so far so good .... but then...??? All too good to be true? Alas it seems so. Come Saturday evening many of these services evaporate leaving an in-bound pattern (departing Papanui/Northlands for city) of 25 45 52 55 and 58 minutes past the hour - a most unattractive bunching of services (three services within 6 minutes for goodness sake) with a 26 minute gap with no service at all. Getting home or back to the motel again the pattern 04 07 24 50 58 minutes past the hour operates, with a 26 minute gap in services. Saturday night is a time when off-peak buses are often well patronised, with buses often half or more full (on the odd occasion, standing passengers). Passengers are often in a relaxed, festive or happy mood (passengers themselves may be half or more full!) and bus services attract many casuals from restaurants and bars, groups of people going out for the night (nowadays heading out anytime from 6pm to 12am) or later returning home, who wish to avoid drinking and driving. Despite the media talking up occasional violent incidents, Saturday night before midnight, anyway, is usually a relatively relaxed and jolly time, on the street and on buses. What a dismal response,service level, frequency, and poor "pulsing" of service Metro's new pattern offers!

Sunday daytime inbound services are no better - 28 44 45 50 and 58 minutes past the hour - four services within a 14 minute spectrum, followed by a 30 minute gap! Out-bound from the Bus Exchange up Papanui Road Sunday day-times 01 29 50 54 58 (in the evening, after 6pm the 54 departure is replaced by an 09 departure) - again less than satisfactory. Services on 18 route offer a part alternative to avoiding these long gaps, for those living close enough to take advantage of them, outbound Saturday and Sunday services both around 36 minutes past the hour. Less useful is the inbound from Mays Road timing point at around 20 past the hour. This drastic reduction in service frequency contrasts with the excellent Saturday day service and occurs at a time many people attend major events (such as Summer Times), go out with children to parks and beaches, or if elderly visit friends, and in many cases make trips involving transfers - all very vulnerable to being stuck in town [as currently!] with a 30 minute no service period. On an hourly route or thirty minute route corridor, so be it, the city can only afford what it can afford on lightly patronised routes. But frankly it seems ludicrous that a major corridor having five bus services sharing the same pathway for over 3kms and serving so many functions - City, Hagley Park, Town Hall, Casino, Merivale, the multiple Merivale rest home/hospital sector, Northlands, major weekend shopping zones, supermarkets and a major tourist accommodation sector - is so poorly coordinated.

Like everyone else I welcome the many good changes being introduced by Metro on November 2nd but can't casually ignore shortfalls in service quality which will effect my life and that of hundreds or thousands of other people - elderly and disabled included - for several years to come, until the next review. I believe steps should be taken now to ensure frequency of services on Papanui Road is not less than every 15 minutes, and those on the Rossall St-Bryndwr corridor every 30 minutes, at all operating times. Retaining the 30 minute pattern on No.10 from the Airport via a Papanui Road which applies Saturday day times, into Saturday evening, and on daytime Sunday services, seems one possible option, the 14 minutes past the hour bus from Papanui, and 18 minutes past the hour to Papanui maintaining a credible, no timetable needed, spread of services if integrated with the patterns above. Likewise ratcheting No 9 Wairakei departure times, to operate at 30 minute intervals alternating with 15 route, Saturday night and Sunday seems more than justified. No doubt Metro will say it can't be done, because of tenders and timetables completed but why should patrons suffer three years of inferior services, hour after hour, to save administrators a few hours of discussion, renegotiation and reframing to deal with an issue which rightly would have been met, from the very beginning of if Metro had standard goals and criteria to evaluate route changes against. In this light it would be farcial to think a route corridor that has ten services an hour middle of the day week days and forms a major tourist introduction to the city (and its image of being friendly and accessible) would be set to meet criteria of (de facto) a 30 minute evening service, and otherwise poorly timed and erratic service, on Saturday evenings and all day Sundays!

As a hangover of last century, when bus services were often seen as a sort of de facto social welfare system for the young, elderly and poor, some people may think bus users should be greatful for whatever services they get. It is not an attitude I subscribe to. We all pay rates and taxes towards public transport (and substantially more taxes to subsidise all transport in general according to the Government commisioned Surface Transport Costs and Charges Study undertaken by Booz Allen and Hamilton, international transport consultants, between 2005 and 2007). The general taxpayer - including Canterbury residents are also contributing towards hundreds of millions of dollars in upgrading commuter rail and busways in Auckland and Wellington. In one way or other, I like most people pay rates, taxes and fares, and expect quality service and effective use of public funds.

Some departure times listed above that move slightly (>2mins) during the day eg from 7.44 am to 10.45 am and back to 4.44pm etc are adjusted down to earliest common time for simplicity of argument.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Hidden Cost of Bus Lanes

The Papanui Road bus lanes appear to be working, not least the vastly improved safety zone implicit in the cycle lanes. Despite some publicly expressed worries, and the vaguely confusing, vaguely zig zag quality of the road corridor itself the underlying concept seems simple and sensible. The lanes precede queue points at traffic lights, in both directions (according to the time of day) and to achieve this the centre line permanently shifts along the course of Papanui Road to accommodate both a lane of in and outbound motor traffic and a combination of bike and bus lane heading into the sticking point.

The saga of bus lanes in Christchurch is a sad one, bordering frankly on the pathetic. Some decades after other small cities began building bus lanes (by way of an example I recently came across the first bus lane in Gatineau, Canada, a city two-thirds the size of Christchurch was created in 1971) attempts were made to bus lane Riccarton Road in 1997. So fierce was the shopkeeper opposition that transport planners had to retreat licking their wounds. Bus and Coach Association (BCA) excutive director John Collyns told a city transport committee in 2003 - six years ago - that Christchurch was lagging behind other cities, citing 52 bus priority projects already operative in Auckland, with 25 more planned in the next two years (The Press 11/6/03). However before bus lanes came trialling the bus boarder - an intrusive device in the middle of Hills Road allowing the bus to stop without leaving the lane, and the queue of cars behind it to stop as well! This was a 18 month trial, presumably with the hope of saving on the cost of bus lanes, which City Councillor Chrissie William's identified in an opinion piece in The Press as a big city device, used in narrow streets of high congestion, not appropriate to Christchurch. The rabbit's flightpath doesn't normally include Hills Road, but he recalls a Saturday afternoon trip, when Hills Rd traffic is constant, and the minute and half debate/argument between the driver and a passenger who had joined at the bus boarder, about the fare or route direction (rabbit was too far back in the bus to hear which). Thinking of the long queue of cars banking up behind the bus - on a Saturday afternoon for heaven's sake - the rabbit's insight?  "This system is never going to work!".

Decades behind many other cities, and 12 years after the first attempt on Riccarton Road in 1997, finally Christchurch get's its first corridor long bus lane's on Papanui Road. When a reporter interviewed a passenger, on opening day, and she said the bus trip was the same speed as it always was, Christian Anderson Council Project Manager responded "It is really about getting consistent times down Papanui Road, rather than trying to make it faster" (The Press 7 /10/09).

The cost that worries the rabbit is the inordinate amount of time the city is taking to arrive at a mass transit strategy capable of lifting public transport's share of peak hour commuter traffic up above the 4.5% figure. This is world class only in one way - it is an inordinately low percentage for a city of our size!    And the hidden financial cost - the lost opportunities to date, the tens of millions in potential Government funding towards commuter transit projects that Christchurch had a strong political case to receive when Wellington and Auckland received hundreds of millions between 2000 and 2007. Christchurch received no comparable funding because we had no plan and no projects to fund, even the Bus Exchange being funded locally.  

And the cost to the future when this city finally wakes up to realise rail and light rail are (a) hugely expensive (b) can only benefit a small portion of commuters, and even more so in a city of our geographic footprint (b) can not be effectively built in places that can be utilised by both local commuters and tourists, the latter fundamental in most cities to sustaining mid day and off peak use that helps sustain light rail (d) that will, unless routes are expensively long (including operating costs), not travel far enough out from the city centre to make park-and-ride a cost or time effective option for city or individual commuters. Meanwhile opportunities to create rapid transit corridors - segregated from traffic in part - are constantly eroded.  The City Council itself has thrown away the Edgeware Pool site - perfectly located as an Edgeware transger station along the path of the easiest, most cost effective, and least intrusive potential rapid access corridor, between Northlands and the city.

Many of the cities that years ago adopted on-street bus lanes (road markings only) are moving towards creating such bus corridors, not least the aforementioned Gatineau utilising the land beside a rail corridor to build an 17km bus only east-west traverse of the city.
[More about why Gatineau chose busways over light rail, click title box above]

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Thinking outside the circle

Nope, the rabbit hasn't got one foot nailed to the floor, he is just trying to be logical (not his best suit).
When people - local politicians, people writing letters to the paper, local residents in casual conversation - talk of public transport growth in Christchurch the words Rolleston and Rangiora slip easily from their tongue. Lazy thinking flows along the easiest path, which is to transpose the situation in Wellington on to Christchurch. Sure, the outer areas are growing rapidly. Rolleston is one day expected to be 14,000 and the Waimakariri District expects to reach 46,000 by 2016.  For all that, pretty small bickies, no massive urban sprawl. My thinking is that we have to be very careful of not talking this situation up, out of proportion.

By and large Christchurch a fairly compact radial city. One contiguous housing area radiating out from Cathedral Square is home to the vast majority of our population. In contrast, Greater Wellington has almost half of its 410,000 population living up either the Hutt Valley (110,000) or through Porirua and the Kapiti Coast (85,000) - it is a very linear pattern, a vee shape with the Wellington CBD at the apex of the Vee. This sort of footprint is very favourable to rail, because of the distances and numbers involved, and the relatively narrow character of the corridors served. 
If we want to do any transposing, lets get off the train and have a look at the actual landscape we are living in. Let us take the equivalent of Wellington's 50% of the population living furthermost from the centre (up those corridors) and say where does the 50% of greater Christchurch population living furthermost from the centre reside?  Currently we have about 340,000 in the city and 40,000 around it, mainly in the peripheral towns. Hey, that's less than 12%  in the commuter belt beyond the city boundary. The 50% of greater Christchurch residents living furthermost from the centre aren't out amongst the cows, they are mainly found living in the outer suburbs of Christchurch itself. About 38% of our outies are actually inside. It appears (particularly with the focus on the Urban Development Strategy of intensifying central city residential growth) that this ratio will not change significantly as we grow. 

That is to say three out of four of our outermost residents (our Hutt Valley/Kapiti coast equivalent) residing  not across the Waimak, nor in the mystical land beyond Cookie Time, but in the collar of suburbs roughly outside the circle formed by the route of The Orbiter if the circle is carried across to Breezes Road. This includes western areas beyond Church Corner, and North Western areas beyond Greers Road, northern areas beyond QEII Drive, north eastern areas around Parklands, and the hill suburbs from Sumner across to Westmoreland. It will also include the southwest area planned for major residential growth, Henderson and Awatea, And, the other quarter, of course, in Rolleston and Rangiora etc.

Anyone who read my posting "Missing the train in Halifax" will realise Wellington is a rare city in CANZUS demographics in having its own commuter rail network. The argument of course is that it probably doesn't have much choice given its geographic footprint. Metlink commuter trains in Wellington carry 11 million passengers a year from a catchment base of about 220,000 population (adding in Wairarapa towns). Presuming that Rolleston and Rangiora/Kaiapoi reach a combined 50,000 population, still some years away, and - absurdly optimistic - commuter trains were used as heavily as Wellington, this might, just might, generate 2 million trips a year. As most trips are return journeys, or daily commutes this equates to about 40,000 trips a week made by, probably, about 5000 actual individuals.

"Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker has made the return of commuter rail services to Christchurch one of his "most important and determined" goals. Estimates show the move could cost at least $250 million" according to a report in The Press (7 May 2008). Leaving aside the figures which look curiously low beside similar projects elsewhere, this seems rather a lot of money to spend on transporting, optimistically 5,000 people, or about 2.5% of the population by that point in time. And of course it is the other 97.5% people in greater Christchurch that will have to pay, in rates and in their portion of taxes for a system that few will be able to use, though doubtless the rest of NZ may also chip in some tax funding too. Of course, the rail line passes through Belfast, Papanui or Hornby (etc) so there will be a bit of local city patronage, but given the relatively short distances involved in driving to the city, and the ratio of time waste involved in driving or busing to Belfast station, waiting for a train, getting off at a station in town, and catching another bus into the c'mon!! Too many en route stops will anyway nullify the speed value of railing from greater distances.  

The alternative is we could create a fantastic multi-direction rapid transit network to serve the whole city!

Ironically while the Mayor and others may be held hostage to the romance of rail there is a new player on the public transport field, with systems being built in many of the world's largest cities - Lagos, Istanbul, Jakarta, New York, London etc - and carrying in some cities hundreds of thousands of passengers a day. Of even greater relevance is these same systems are being built in dozens of medium and small cities under a million in population. The systems are called busways (Australia) quality bus corridors (UK) or bus rapid transit (North America). In particular they are well suited to low density dispersed populations and areas of single unit sprawl, because they combine most of the advantages of a railway line - a clear run from city to outer suburb - with the advantages of conventional buses - being able to pick up and drop off at multiple points across wide areas once they leave the busway corridor. These systems often employ sections of bus lane on roads but their real success is largely linked to having key sections of their route in entirely segregated corridors, purpose built to by-pass congested areas (or go under or over them). As bus corridors - often landscaped and including adjacent pedestrian and cycleways are relatively narrow, two thirds the average suburban street, the numbers of properties that need to be acquired are relatively few, minimal beside houses consumed in building mall carparks and four lane throughways. Without need for transfers, or (except in very distant locations) park and ride facilities total journey times can be vastly superior to rail over short to medium distances. Until patronage reaches a very high level - which might then sensibly recommend a light rail, an alternative which can be factored into design - labour costs are not markedly different higher; more bus drivers but less subsidiary staff (track maintenance, or the conductors, and  transport police needed for longer units).

For the sorts of sums of money with which Mayor Parker believes he can built a single commuter rail line, five or six busway corridors could be built radiating out from the centre of Christchurch. Non-stop (or limited stop) peak hour buses would serve the outer suburbs, whilst extended services, outside these times, and/or services to intermediate locations along the corridor, would be met by a branded service, a la Metrostar or The Orbiter offering 10 or 15 minute services throughout normal operating hours. This system would allow peak hour services to get to outer suburbs, non-stop corridors, accessing Northlands, and Bower Bridge, Hoon Hay Road and Canterbury University etc in less than ten minutes - half the peak hour crawl time -  before fanning out to serve each locality at the top of the trunk.

I have been trying to raise the concept of Busways with the Mayor, Councillors, Ecan since 2003. These systems are not some weird aberration (though dressing as a rabbit might be!), they are mainstream trends, and major investments being made by many cities of comparable size and demographics to Christchurch, as well as those much bigger, after weighing up the options which also typically include rail.  Alas, above the rattle and roar of fantasy trains no voice can be heard. Everybody in this town seems to have a one track mind!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Airport bus service gains wings!

Who could fail to be impressed by the superb new level of bus services to Chrisrtchurch Airport, being implemented by Metro, beginning November 2nd?

Firstly, Metro has placed the Avonhead -Airport extension on as consistent and reliable base, a thirty minute service  - every second daytime bus service, and every evening bus service, to Avonhead continues on to airport.

In a geographic sense this gives an added wing - three separate routes approaching the airport from different directions - the most direct 29 route  via Fendalton and Memorial Avenue, the body of the bird, with one wing to the south, 3 route via Riccarton Road, University, Avonhead and Sheffield Park, and another wing to the north, 10 route via Papanui Road, Harewood Road. The latter two routes are the main tourist motel, hotel strips into the city, and 3 route also serve the university/prime student accommodation area.
But the most impressive thing - albeit it long overdue in many other parts of the city - is the absolute commitment to integration of timing. The three half hourly services depart the Airport in an integrated pattern that effectively gives a service departing the airport to city every 10 minutes, during the day and much of the evening, including Saturday.

The last weekday buses from the airport depart at 11.50pm (10 route) and 12.10 am and 1.00 am. (29 route)

A part from the 5 million airline passengers passing through Christchurch airport, a high proportion of whom probably just want to get to the city centre (or Bus exchange) the sooner the better, about 5000 people work in the area. The alternating pattern will advantage those that want to access The Orbiter, or The Metrostar - all three routes cross the path of these routes, at different points. Local users transferring to these cross town routes will have added choices, catch the next bus coming even if means joining the crosstown routes further back along the route, or wait for their specific more direct service in 10 or 20 minutes. Especially in cold or inclement weather, I'd rather be moving, sitting in a bus, enjoying the ride -if it is 10 minute wait versus a 10 minute extra bus journey, I'll take the ride almost every time. 

Although the wabit's ears are twitching about late night (Monday-Thursday) cuts on his home routes - earlier finish times of services on accessible routes chopping 30 minutes off his evening (or adding $10 plus cab fare) he is not going to be churlish about the airport service - definitely 5 carrot gold stuff!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Metro (Christchurch) releases new route and timetables

Metro has released details of route changes and timetable changes, to begin on November 2nd 2009. These mainly include (but are not limited to) North-South axis routes.

As someone who  enjoys Christchurch's reasonably good (by 20th century standards!) evening and weekend services hundreds of times a year, but is also sometimes victim of its anomalies and uneven spread of services it will be interesting to evaluate how much improved they really are. In the past the it has sometime seemed no checking against a set of baseline service criteria has been applied at all. Maintaining evening social visits to friends in the Spreydon area, for one example, was always a bit dicey - four services an hour from Barrington to city, but all in a 16 minute window of time, leaving an often inconvenient 44 minutes to fill, whether at a hosts, or at cold and exposed bus stop.  

For rabbits who hop about all over the city, all hours day and night, and other people who depend upon buses for freedom and mobility, each set a route or timing changes, is roughly comparable to sending the car to the garage for a tune up. Smooth moving depends upon it. The same set of frustration arises over poor bus service planning that doubtless besets a motorist who gets a car back with too many coughs, splutters and glitches. The eagle eye has yet to fully examine the timetables, in the meantime click on the title box above to judge for yourself your own often used routes.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Ding dong went the trolley - faintly

Mayor Bob Parker and two executives have gone to San Francisco, Portland Oregon, Seattle and Vancouver to "study" (it is hard to take this word seriously!) amongst other things light rail. 

One has to be immediately suspicious of anyone examining a specific mode of transport before they have assessed the over-all needs of a situation, as each mode is going to suit different situations. It reeks faintly of the Mayor of Wesport going to "study" container cranes.

Second point -  so obvious I am almost embarrassed to raise it - is that public transport is so clearly linked to city size and density and rises exponentially as cities get bigger.

 London at about 8 million people is only twice the population of New Zealand in total but its public transport systems carries over 3 billion people a year. If public transport stats related directly to population pro-rata, one would expect New Zealand transit systems to carry 1.5 billion a year, rather than the 115 million passengers per year (approx) they currently carry in total. Or expect Timaru district to carry 1.7 million passengers a year, because it is 10% of Christchurch (rather than c200,000 passenger trips). 

 Yes, size does count,to supply the passengers and - probably just as important - to spread the local cost, in rates or local taxes of major infrastructure and operating cost subsidies. It also goes without saying that if you cram tens of thousands or office workers into high rise buildings, there is also only going to be so much road space and parking available.

None of these US and Canadian study  (cough, splutter) tour cities have metropolitan area populations of less than 2 million. Whatever inspiration and ideas Mayor Parker & Co may glean it is hard to imagine their report - I am presuming ratepayers get one  - matching costs and ridership back to Christchurch. And hard to imagine that any of the party on this tour have the specialised background in public transport planning to adequately evaluate what they see (let alone number crunch the multiple different stats involved).

If these astute travellers had pointed their telescopes to some cities a little more comparable in size to Christchurch - surveyed CANZUS (the small cities of Canada, Australia, NZ, USA) they would have had to look bloody hard to find a light rail project in any city under a million!

In fact, checking out all 117 cities in these four countries, in the 300,000 - million metropolitan population band, a few tourist orientated heritage trams aside, I could only find a single small city which currently operates a modern light rail system,Tacoma in the State of Washington, USA. The Christchurch team may even visit there - it is only 51 kilometres south of Seattle, the major southern point of Seattle's elongated metropolitan sprawl. 

One of the many rabbit holes amateurs such as Parker and co. can fall down is city size - Tacoma city itself is only 203,000 residents - but it is also the county seat of Pierce County which has substantial urban areas. The land area is about 10% that of Canterbury with 805,000 residents, three-quarters of the local population outside the city boundary, mainly sprawling out to the east of Tacoma. (In similar vein,Seattle, the city itself, is only 602,000 population -the metropolitan area (within easy commuting distance) is 3.4 million - a tad larger than greater Christchurch).

As I said in a previous posting public transport usage in the USA is pretty abysmal, but there are some very progressive systems and Seattle-Tacoma etc are making huge attempts to lift transit usage in the State of Washington. Part of this has been has been the building of a light rail between the commuter rail station (services to and from Seattle) and parking building, and the downtown core area of Tacoma - all 2.6 kilometres. 

The line opened in 2003 and is free to use. The (excellent) Quarterly Report to the CEO, calculates the current cost per passenger boarding at $4.90 (spread costs excluding depreciation) and average daily boardings at slightly above 3000 (first quarter 2009) - equivalent to around $15,000 a day operating costs. The cost of building this short line - $US80.4 million - reflects both the high cost of installing rail suitable for the considerable weight of multiple unit light rail vehicles (as opposed to smaller "street car" level light rail) through built-up inner city areas and the fact that heavier rail has been built with the idea that this short line will one day carry vehicles of commuters from further afield. Each of the three Czech-built Skoda trams cost $9 million and carries 56 passengers (30 seated and 26 standing).

The Tacoma Light rail service is fulfilling much the same "central business area circulator" role as Christchurch City Council's "The Shuttle". It operates at around the same frequency, but covers (by my loose calculation) a shorter distance. Whatever the long term plans and ambitions for the Tacoma area, after 6 years of operation this system currently carries around a similar number of passengers per year to Christchurch's central city circulator "The Shuttle" -  that is slightly over a million passengers a year. 

I don't know what the Christchurch City Council paid for the then state of the art Shuttle buses, also three in number, but even if it was a million dollars each, and infrastructure another half million, it comes in a long way below $80 million! It is rather easy to see why so many small cities in Canada, Australia and USA aren't catching the tram.

The operating cost in Christchurch is around a million dollars a year and patronage is also around a million. At the equivalent of a dollar a passenger carried, it is not only about one fifth the cost of the same passenger carried on Tacoma's light rail, it is one of the most successful (cost per patron) bus systems operating anywhere outside of a major centre. It is in of the few real successes of Christchurch City Council transport planning, which typically lags far behind Auckland and Wellington and many other CANZUS cities in key areas such as adequately addressing congestion.

The argument for greater capacity offered by trams enthusiasts often put forward is barely relevant in most smaller cities. Use of trams for carrying high loading patronage in central city areas is usually closely linked to a commuter rail system, where large numbers of rail passengers, have to be accommodated all at once, and conveyed through central city areas, over short to medium distances mainly within narrow windows of time (i.e rush hours).  

Melbourne with its 16 commuter railway lines and central area tram system is a good example, but it says a great deal,  that Melbourne has not extended its tramway system further out into the middle and outer suburbs. It is also worth pointing out Sydney has higher public transport use per capita than Melbourne! 

This rail-tram connection is also typical in France, Germany etc where cities as small as only a quarter of a million may have light rail - because a much larger population - typically over a million - is spread across a relatively small region (say less than 80 km from city with large numbers commuting to work in that city). The central government and regional population, in France, also foot 90% of the bill of building costs of light rail, the city itself gets of very lightly.

In most other cases, without the influx of thousands of commuter rail passengers (or a huge tourism Christchurch does not get)  this capacity can be met - and better met - by inserting additional bus services, which gives added frequency or other options such  as through routes to different points. 

As a full-time by choice public transport user for the last eight years I'd rather see a bus going my way every five minutes than the waiting for the momentary glamour of a 15 minute light rail service. At $4-10 million a light rail vehicle this is probably the maximum operational level possible in any small city, offering more than  a 2.6km route.

To date I have found only three cities in CANZUS under a million metropop, that have made the decision to actually build light rail - Gold Coast Australia; Honolulu, Hawaii and Kitchener (Waterloo region) in Canada. When the wabbit next gets a break he might just hop along and take a peek at their plans.

Ding ding ding went the trolley - or is that the just the sound of public money clunking down the drain?

Tacoma Light Rail vehicle, courtesy of Flick-r commons

This article was viewed almost 4,000 times and was updated slightly in December 2017, because the general arithmetic is still relevant!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Missing the Train in Halifax

In my ongoing trip to CANZUS (the cities 300,000-1 million metropolitan area - the area defined in the US census as easy commuting distance) in Canada, Australia, NZ and USA, I tried catching the bus, light rail and commuter rail in the cities along the way. It is not uncommon to hear Christchurch people say, in casual conversation, or in letters to The Editor, that we need a commuter rail system from Rangiora or Rolleston. Environment Canterbury commisioned a couple of studies of commuter rail potential for Greater Christchurch, in 2005, and more recently. Both came up nil match in cost effective terms. Rail is tremendously expensive to build and operate. Looking through the data base on "The Transport Politic" [see profile] which is very consistently updated, or the commuter rail listings on the APTA (American Public Transport Association) website, small cities under a million don't even feature.

I haven't consistently read all the lengthy strategic plans of CANZUS cities (my interest in transit is a part-time hobby!) but of those I have checked out, several feature sections describing how the possibility of commuter rail has been studied and found far too expensive, or/and in other inappropriate for that particular city. One of the most graphic illustrations of this is provided in a pamphlet put out by the Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, transit authorities. Halifax is one of our true sister cities, at 385,000 almost identical to greater Christchurch in population size and like most Canadian cities having much in common with NZ patterns. The pamphlet was responding to public pressure to utilise a disused freight line to create a rail commuter connection to the city. I won't say any more, because thanks to the marvel of the clever Mr Bloggs, that very pamphlet with its graphic graph is even this moment waiting behind the curtain at the side of the stage. Or rather, hiding nervously behind the title box of this posting, just waiting to be clicked on!

There are commuter rail services to a few small cities in the USA but, as far as I can determine, all exist as a "counter commuter" flow on lines that are maintained primarily as commuter lines to much bigger cities. In other words Tacoma, Washington, probably wouldn't have a commuter rail system by itself, if it was not part of the much larger Sounds Transit network feeding into Seattle (2.7 mil metropop). Likewise catching commuter rail into one the smaller cities of Connecticut, USA, is really a backflow (or passing through) benefit of commuter lines built to serve New York. Coming back to this side of the world, in Australia a similar pattern is found. The Illawarra Mercury [16 May 2008] noted " The figures show the number of people commuting from Sydney to Wollongong each day jumped 20 per cent over five years to 4300. While the number of commuters heading north from Wollongong was 19,000 - making it the largest single commuter flow between cities in Australia". It is impressive that the small city of Wollongong, 284,000 can attract over 4000 rail commuters. Undoubtably this reflects the popularity of rail over longer distances and the how well suited rail is to that area - basically a 40km long narrow resdential coastal corridor. But this said almost 80% of the traffic, is commuter flow to Sydney. Take away the Sydney factor and reduce the lines income to only 20% (possibly much less, analysing which direction attracts the highest portion of the longer trips)would drastically effect viability. A similar pattern will apply for Newcastle, which also sees commuter trains departing mainly from Sydney, two hour forty minutes away (the first at 4am having problems from drunks from the night before!).

So we arrive at last at only similar match smaller city in NZ, Wellington. When we fly over CANZUS - all 117 cities - we get a bit better perspective. I stand ready to be corrected but from studies of commuter rail listings and of individual cities, it appears to me that Wellington is the ONLY small city in these four countries with their similar transit relevant demographics to operate its own complete commuter rail network.

It goes without saying Greater Wellington has unique factors - a perfect breeze in terms of rail - almost half of its 410,000 population living up two very long narrow corridors - the Porirua-Kapiti Coast and the Hutt Valley. The alternative for many commuters is a lengthy drive along motorways that bottleneck at a single area (high speed roading corridors so vulnerable to long delays caused by fatal crashes on narrow sections that about two years ago the local head of Transit NZ, recommended car commuters always carry water bottles to avoid dehydration when traffic is halted for long periods on hot days!). Wellington as a capital is full of Government departments and various head office high rises (white collar workers a prime commuter group). The city has an uniquely dense major employment zone, narrow streets, limited and expensive parking. The central business area is elongated Lambton Quay to Courtnay Place - which fosters short hop bus use. Wellington also had the "sunk cost" factor of two existing railway lines - the Wairarapa line and the former privately owned Manawatu line - when the population expanded in the thirties the room to expand in the Hutt Valley was impossibly far from Wellington workplaces in days when car ownership was still not widespread.

Wellington punches way above its weight with commuter patronage - with 17% of people travelling to work by public transport and 34 million passengers a year, Wellington is pro -rata, the most successful transit system in patronage in CANZUS. There is a rider to this - in fact several million riders - the number of inner city bus journeys being taken by commuters coming off trains will significantly effect bus patronage figures. The portion of trips involving transfers will be much higher than prevails in most small city public transport patronage figures, where a higher percentage of passengers typically bus point to point.

Rail advocates will say Wellington's high public transport use proves the success of rail, and despite my love of buses,too much diesel in my blood, I agree. It appears rail will attract significantly greater patronage, if the right circumstances can be found to support its implementation. I don't think these exist in Greater Christchurch, and any chance to tilt the balance here, by designing Rangiora, Rolleston, and Pegasus etc, right from the start to foster commuter rail is past. As noted by former North Shore City Mayor [see Herald article in previous posting] industry now goes out to where people live, minimising the value of public transport systems relying upon concentrated locations. On present circumstances the relatively short distances of commuting, and relatively low cost of fuel, suggest that rail can not take enough people where they want to, in terms anywhere near cost effectiveness, cash or journey time.

Flying over CANZUS makes me realise commuter rail as an option features higher in popular imagination amongst Christchurch people than is realistic, by virtue of casually transposing the Wellington situation to Christchurch. I don't think too many people realise - I certainly didn't - that Wellington is a rather unique situation, a rare small city in countries of low density population with high incomes and high car ownership operating a big city electrified commuter network. It sneaks onto the radar because it has to - and hundreds of millions are needed to maintain and upgrade the rail system. Christchurch with a population size only slightly below Wellington needs to look for different solutions if it wishes to lift its fairly small portion of peak hour commuters using public transport (4.5%) to a more healthy level. Light rail? Wabit will catch a tram to CANZUS after a weekend trip to the West Coast