Thursday, November 26, 2009

Not such a NICERide after all!

In my long experience, members of the public making submissions to reviews (let alone random unsolicited suggestions) to large bureaucracies is about as effective as a mosquito trying to bite the bum of a hippopotamus!

About a year ago I received a rather off-hand response from Metro to to a concept I developed called NICERide (running all evening and weekend services to the same integrated pattern, with the pattern itself designed to achieve optimum spread and even flow of services through each area and to and from the city). To prove it was possible, I spent several months, entangled in a huge sudoko, ratcheting current running times back and forward to arrive at the optimum, symmetrical and logical pattern. This took months, because each route interacts with about five others, and also I was trying to get arrival and departure times from weekend employment zones to work well. Although there were logistical problems in this concept, none of them seemed insurmountable. The benefits of such a memorable -same minutes past the hour every hour off peak -  and consistent pattern (including same transfer pattern every hour) seemed huge enough to warrant more substantial investigation. Alas not. I was told (3 months later, after I solicited a reply) the public would not understand it.  

Despite this response, I sense the mosquito might have rumpled the rump a bit. In the last round of changes it is noticeable Metro in its recent route changes seems to be finally moving towards making off peak services better integrated. As commented previously, the Papanui Road corridor buses (5 routes) on a week night run in what is virtually a quarter hourly pattern. There are are quite few other successes here and there, two services along the same corridor running in a half hour alternating pattern etc. But it is also clear that planners ran up against many of the difficulties I did - and not having the immense amount of pressureless time I do (or having to fit timetables around driver hours or jointly tendered routes) - could not resolve many difficulties, leaving some dreadful anomalies as well. Looking just at Saturday evening and Sunday services - so poorly integrated on the major Papanui Road corridor - I find poor integration patterns all over the city. One of the worst of these is the service to Beckenham/lower Colombo Street and the Cashmere Hills.

I sometimes I pick up extra work Saturdays in this neck of the woods, and travel that way a few times a year, for other purposes too. It always used to be a piss off getting up from Beckenham to find three buses each hour, all ran in a 20 minute window - leaving 40 minute waits or a 25 minute walk to Sydenham in hope an alternate route might arrive. Well now that has been changed!! Great?  Only two buses now service this corridor, routes 10 and 12 . They depart the Bus Exchange only 6 minutes apart ("improved service" = now a 54 minute gap) on Saturday night; and depart simultaneously part of Sunday (4 minutes apart at other times) to Colombo Street south. In other words a de facto doubling up of services along a 3km shared corridor served by no other buses. This is coupled with the route 10 running to the Cashmere Hills only 4 minutes apart from the only other route to the Cashmere hills route 14 via the Somerfield St area (the routes intersect twice on the hill) on both Saturday night and all day Sunday. (And in case you're thinking, what about heading back into the city, both services depart the common terminus at the Sign of the Takahe also only a few minutes apart Saturday night and all through Sunday!). This is the terminus visited by many tourists and Sunday walkers wanting to hike up Victoria Park and the hill tracks!

I can't believe bus services can be planned so carelessly and with so little commitment to effective resource use and the patrons welfare. I will campaign for timing changes, as I do, in letters to community boards and other local organisations, and in the local newspapers. Ironically there seems more potential to change this absurd situation than most.

Changing the departure times of 12 and 14 is difficult (they offer reasonably integrated patterns with 15 and 18 routes to Bowenvale, St Martins and Huntsbury. and 14 a half hourly pattern with 16 up Cranford Street) ) The 10 route, coming from the airport, reduces down on Saturday evening and Sunday from half hourly to hourly, but runs in pattern with 3 and 29 routes from the Airport. Usually the big routes are untouchable but the irony seems to be that in continuing only one of the half hourly patterned services, the "wrong" one has been maintained (40 minute past the hour rather than the 10 minute past the hour has been continued). That is to say, the hourly 10 route would be more effective if run half an hour difference, and hourly 29 likewise. Switching the Saturday evening and all day Sunday 10 services with the hourly 29 Airport services would produce a significantly better (de facto half hourly!) service to Beckenham shops and Colombo Street south, the Cashmere Hills, the Sign of the Takahe and Victoria Park; also marginally better pattern down Papanui Road (longest service gap reduced to 22 minutes) and a more user friendly spread of services to those living between or close to both the 20 and 29 routes, around Clyde Road and north of Memorial Avenue (current 20 and 29 inbound services run virtually simultaneously and outbound only 12 minutes apart).

Probably more than anyone in the city, perhaps more than even the Metro planners,  I know just how complex it is trying to integrate 33 routes that all interact with five different routes minimum - mind boggling at times. Adjust one time and about three others have to be addressed, then three more etc  Back to the drawing board dozens of times over! NICERides do not come easy. I think perhaps it also gives me some platform to being righteously scathing of sloppy integration!! 

How much the absurd overlapping of minimal level services  is fall-out from the curious mixing of subsidized services and commercial services at the airport end, which I believe Metro don't fully control I don't know.  But does it matter to the consumer what the causes?  We pay taxes, rates, fares - we get stuck waiting for these buses, however carefully we try to plan around the flaws. These running times - to coin an old expression - are just plain crap. .

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Putting transit through the Mill

One of the very big network shifts in the recent Metro route changes has probably gone unnoticed by the general bus user, but I suspect over time will become very popular with the many who will benefit. This is the large number of city areas now linked to Addington.

From the east comes 21 Ilam route Mount Pleasant, Linwood Avenue, Gloucester Street, and all of Colombo St down to Moorhouse. This also, of course, links Ilam and the University transfer point to Addington, a service also offered by The Orbiter, which connects many areas of the southern Spreydon-Cashmere-St Martins area of the city as well. Links from the northeast - Parklands, the Burwood area and The Palms - are achieved through 70 route, now combined as a 15 minute through route with the main Lincoln Road route, 7 Halswell. This is complemented by the vastly increased services to Kennedys Bush, running along much of the same route, but leaving the Bus Exchange via the former 7 route (Colombo Street/Moorhouse Avenue) - the 7 now running via Hagley Avenue and the Public Hospital. From the north the reconstitured Redwood service, 22 Redwood-Spreydon runs through Northlands and Papanui Road, offering direct connection to the Public Hospital and touches the same Addington area (at Grove Road) before linking the Selwyn shops and Spreydon to the same corner.

Addington? Are you joking do I hear you say?. That depressed conglomeration of narrow streets, aging houses and old shops, attracting, south of the railway line anyway, so few of those monotonous chain shops that make every mall the same as the next.  The Addington that when  I first came to Christchurch forty years ago looked like a replica of Sydenham, double storey Victorian and Edwardian buildings lining the street from immediately across the railway line southwards -  but now looks like a grenade has scattered all coherent historic ambience to fragments.  No. Not that Addington. The Addington of which I speak is still being born. The new (re-routed/linked) bus services run via the potentially busiest, most intense "industrial" and housing area of the city. Along with the Tower Junction big box centre north of the railway line, Westpac Stadium, and the (currently under-utilised) railway station the Addington area is (a) going through a major identity change, including home to three major office park projects expected to provide work space for almost 6000 workers (b) has the largest single contiguous triangle of inner city land - between the railway line/Whiteleigh Avenue/Lincoln Road - that is almost totally derelict and/or filled almost entirely with very old and substandard warehouses, yards and housing. In other words, a rare section of the city on a steep upward trajectory where total area-wide planning, rather than piece-meal development, is ripe for implementation.

Being an amateur busspotter, a keen amateur not tied to any bureaucracy or busy defined work schedule, has all the playing-God-in-a-small-domain fun of creating a model train set. But a virtual one using the whole city as a canvas and calling forth all sorts of interests, options opportunities and limitations. And God knows might bring forward some idea of social value that can benefit the lives of thousands, and the environment. I dig the word "model", as in Christchurch becoming the model of one of the most superb small city transit systems in the world (goal) but the word "train" shakes my head in doubt. I have read enough about rail and light rail to see these are shooting far above our city's weight, and anyway can not offer rapid transit access to the whole collar of outer suburbs, in a way that bus corridors can, or at a much greater frequency. Unlike a rail variant along a single corridor bus rapid transit can offer a 15 minute service around the operating hours clock, and be complemented by a dozen or more other peak hour routes (express variation) feeding directly into these corridors and running key stops (2 or 3 at max) directly into the city. Potential 95% of the outer areas get a home area, direct service (no car parks, no transfers) faster than car travel utilising judiciously designed and landscaped bus corridors. This is a very impressive model train set indeed, but a more apt one adopting the US slogan - think rail, build bus. (to see a model on a larger scale check out the Human Transit site, listed in my rabbit-like profile, and take a tour of the Brisbane Busway)

In search of a potential western or southern rapid transit corridor, and to correlate what seemed at least possible on Google maps (no doubt becoming the bane of public transport reviews!), I often go walkabout. One absolutely bleak grey winter's Sunday morning, last year, with a chill chill wind scudding spits of rain and crumpled newspapers across almost empty city streets, I caught a bus to Addington and went for a wander. It says something for the state of this area that large parts, out of sight of the public eye, were unfenced and accessible with little sense of trespass (though presumably someone owns the land) - particularly the wide corridor between warehouses and the old Woods Mill landmark, formerly a multi-track rail siding. Old corrugated iron warehouses, loose sheets banging in the wind, the weeds and incipient broom colonising the old railway gravel, a yard filled of seized cars, the various For Sale signs - behind the old five or six story brick flour mill, there was enough material here for at least three different songs by Tom Waits! To the south there is a large residential area, of in most cases very old (without being historically charming) houses, often flaking paint or rusted roofs, adjoining Whiteleigh Avenue, barely as yet penetrated by the new two or three storey block of flats. I am an intuitive thinker [Carl Jung's definition of "intuitive" = seeing the possibilities in any situation],a joiner together of dots. The pokie machine in my brain was running all the high scoring symbols on the one line, lights flashing and bells ringing simultaneously. Wow - what a unique opportunity for the city to build a bus-rail centre by going under the line at Clarence Street; by factoring in routes and public transport infra-structure before redevelopment; what an opportunity to complement the intensity of office park development with urban redevelopment of medium rise apartments, four or five storeys, small shops and cafes below, a la Paris, in the European style, perfectly situated to access university, hospital, central city. Yeah, sure there is a nearby railway line, just as in thousands of parts of Europe and Asia, people who attracted to vibrant high density living will hardly find this a major deterrant, even if presuming sound can not be mitigated and broken up (indeed some of the most expensive houses in Christchurch near Mona Vale are built at eye level with adjacent rail!).

Strangely this area - with all its potential to address sustainable transport goals; intensification of inner city housing and with (by virtue of adjoing office park areas) a forseeable evolutionary path unfolding as day time gift shops and boutiques and office worker cafes> night-time restaurants>boutique hotels related to conferences and business travel - doesn't even feature on the published maps of expected city housing intensification. The one area with the greatest potential to pre-plan an attractive infrastructure - building entirely new lanes or new streets - is a blank. Likewise exactly how such a small area twice intersected by the railway line on major arterial roads (Lincoln Road, Whiteleigh Avenue) will absorb the 4000-5000 extra cars a day, that on current commuting patterns will be needed to convey the workers to these office parks, plus the increase in traffic coming from new subdivisions at Halswell, Awatea and Henderson, is obscure. These streets are already congested and the new overpass to Blenheim Road is filling with cars as fast a hole in the sand fills with water. Whether the city should be trenching the rail corridor, or tunnelling the roads under the rail or building more (awkward ugly) overbridges seems to be nowhere raised in the public arena. Whether the city should be creating bus underpasses - hardly rocket science and relatively cheap technology - doesn't seem to be on the horizon either (that irritating rabbit suggests underpasses are never on the horizon but I'll ignore him!)

Auckland's latest spend up the $409 million Victoria tunnel will off course be partly funded by taxes generated in Canterbury (say $40 million). The amount of money Canterbury taxpayers have now spent on upgrading Wellington rail and Auckland rail and new busways, hundreds of millions, is an impressive show of commitment to public transport by our province!! Alas the foresight to use our political clout, before it is completely lost to the "SuperCity", to help finance and build quality public transport and urban redesign infrastructure, over and beyond the Bus Exchange, right here in Canterbury, obscurely seems to miss our civic leadership. But bless their cotton socks Metro has at least realised where the action is gonna be, and within the parameters of a conventional bus service, very much put the new Addington in the loop, indeed in various loops. No transfer needed services from multiple points across the city and by virtue these travelling via the bus exchange - a multiplicity of services per hour between central city and the little tiger crouching around Woods Mill.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Language of Transit

One of the most interesting public transport web blogs is "Human Transit", operated byJarrett Walker, an international consultant in public transport who has led numerous major planning projects in North America, Australia and New Zealand. Walker also has a doctrate in literature and the arts, and writes on botany and Shakespearean drama , an interesting character by any standards. OK, OK, the Wabbit just can't resist this - a varied life but seemingly over obsessed with one essental question - (Route) 2B or nor 2B/ two bee or not two bee/ to be or not to be. (That is the question)

Back to normality! One of the things I most like about Jarrett Walker's postings is that treats the nitty gritty details of public transport with the committed interest and respect due, things like transfer patterns or timing of services, or the psychology of bus use, or prerequisites in urban development for different modes to be appropriate. When I tell people my main interest in life, apart from communal living and gardening, is public transport they do not yawn, they just look totally lost. How could anyone find any nourishment for the soul in a subject so mundane and dry I suspect is the underlying essence of their unspoken bewilderment. I have come to believe that any hobby or interest carried forward in depth offers a doorway to the whole world. One of course, one has to work hard to avoid monomania, being a bore or righteous paranoid delusions that there is only one answer (yours!) but this aside, a genuine interest will always call upon multiple facets of character, and developing knowledge in a dozen diverse fields intrinsic to mastering one's interest. Certainly public transport is bigger than a grain of sand, and it combines for me a lifelong interest in urban living, urban landscape and historic buildings (in part fostered by 15 years as a city bus driver and sightseeing bus driver whose intimate workplace was an evolving city) and history in general . In the late 1970's I interviewed retired tramwaymen whose working careers started as early as 1908, the rare honour of a window into a past world (running time of a tram, Cathedral Square to Stanmore Road, in the days before cars or traffic lights - time allowed 3 minutes).It brings in my interest in environmental matters, not least effective resource use. Following overseas transit systems, vitual travelling as a investigator rather as a tourist, is a bit like popping ones head up through the manhole in the middle of a different city - it experiences other cities at a very inside the system, underlying way. It has given me quite a feel for small city America, areas not normally even on the tourist periscope. Plotting out new routes, including schedules to match departure time patterns to key employment/education zones, is a complex evaluation of hundreds of variabilities and mathematical patterns that stretch my small intuitive brain, but an irresistible hobby (not least whilst sitting on buses). I would hate to do it under pressure, in the professional sense, because it often takes months before all those variables gel into a pattern. That almost nothing suggested ever gets past the bureaucracy does not surprise me, but I feel strengthened in my awareness confidence and knowledge of the city - often walking route proposals, discovering new parks and cut-throughs, examining attendance figures at event centres, and learning about proposed industrial developments. For me public transport is a very rich language, composed like the English language, of words derived from a huge variety of sources.And I believe it is a language we need now, and will probably need far far more in the years to come.

Jarrett Walker speaks that language and does it well - access his web blog by clicking on the title box above (I have to get a bit more computer savvy with my links, but that will do for now!). His recent posting on the cutting of services on the Portland light rail - the USA transit systems are being hard hit by loss of funding - is an interesting example, and of some passing relevance presuming the post-poned trip by Mayor Parker does go ahead.