Saturday, January 30, 2010

Art in Tranzition

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Seattle Down now! Of real-time and past times.

The Mayor of Christchurch and a couple of senior cohorts recently went to several large cities, all over 2 million metropolitan population, in the USA and Canada to "study" amongst other things public transport. One of the cities visited was Seattle. The following story doesn't mean anything in the greater universe but the irony kept me mildly amused on a late night bus ride home.

Catching a bus after 11pm outside the Casino a few weeks ago I came across a woman of about thirty who was dancing around the bus stop, trying to read and evaluate the multiple timetables and route maps that festoon various poles in this area, whilst not turning her back to any potential bus that might roar past. She looked quite agitated,as tourists usually do (there is no simple user friendly information available for visitors at bus stops).  I said where do you want to go? As with most tourists around this corridor she said -  with an American twang -  "Papanui Road". "I'll see when the next bus is due, " I responded pushing my thumb on the screen of the real time machine. The little red light flashed up a wait of four minutes. I don't think I could have got a more rapturous response if I'd suddenly pulled a rabbit out of my hat - American's are nothing if not enthusiastic.
"Wow" she exclaimed, "that's amazing! We have nothing like that in Seattle!"

The machine is relatively simple, solid and vandal proof (apart from rare cases of sprayed graffitti on the front glass). The sample shown here is in the country town of Rangiora, 12,000 residents, and only lists one route - more typically, including the one in the story above, city machines list mutliple routes. The heat from pressing the thumb on the route label, after a wee think, produces a flashing light indicating how many minutes away from arrival is the next service on that route, at that particular stop. They are certainly not 100% reliable - sometimes they will flash at "Refer to Timetable" - which normally indicates a service is more than 28 minutes away - when in fact a bus is due. I have suggested the wording be changed to "Refer to Timetable or Try Again" often on the second attempt the service/s due will show. I have seen many incidents where people push the button once, get no service showing, shrug their shoulders and start walking - they give the bus an irate flash as it roars past them two or three minutes later!! Ocasionally the bus itself will not register on the screen. Locals get wise to these quirks, most tourists haven't got a clue how they work - there is no other signage to explain.

It makes a surprising difference, a real qualitive difference to know how far away a bus service is. The most obvious one, if you arrive close to the departure time, is knowing for sure you have not missed the bus, always a bit of a worry in the old days. And if a bus is still 10 minutes away then you can relax, read or daydream a few minutes, checking the arrival time again a bit later. It takes much of the tension, anxiety out of waiting for buses, reduces somewhat the dependency feeling. If there are multiple routes and, for example, you live at more or less equal walking distance between routes or can use either or all , you can compare the options. At major stops and in the Bus Exchange these are replaced by plasma signs listing upto 18 buses due, by route name and minutes before arrival. Real time signage of one sort or tother is certainly the coming thing in bus and tram systems around the world, so curious I checked out Seattle's situation, very briefly I confess.

They do appear further back down the trail. One of the approximately 500 core elements/pieces of knowledge involved in public transport planning evaluation I imagine not appreciated by Mayor Bob Parker; it is often easier to implement new technologies in small systems than in larger complex ones. For instance the debacle about computer chip cards in Sydney, which has 14 local authorities and several different transport modes, and will now have to wait several years to get the equivalent of the Metrocard system implemented in Christchurch about six years back). Front runner in new urban technologies are not always the bigger cities.

However Seattle is no slouch. Some of you, amongst the vast multitude of readers of this blog were probably over-stimulated by the trip around Baltimore [previous blog] and are having to rest up. For those of stronger spirit, come to Seattle and try out - what a fabulous word -  the emulator

I now offer real time so real that we can see when the next bus is due, literally, at a stop in Seattle. (If possible I'll include a U-Tube of paint drying on a recently painted bus next posting!!).

Ps (and now for something completely different) -  I am having a few days holiday in a country town, including visiting a friend with a house bus - one of the old NZR Bedfords that operated much of New Zealand's long distance bus network between towns and cities in the nineteen fifties and sixties. It is amazing now to realise how small and narrow were the windows for passengers to look out, it feels vaguely like travelling in some sci fi movie (20,000 leagues under the sea, or something) with underwater viewing windows!
As Jarret Walker of Human Transit webblog recently pointed out, efficient rear engine bus designs have not only made low floor buses possible, they have also made possible much greater headroom and larger windows in buses. I imagine too the actual level of engine noise that was taken for granted in that era would astound later generations. It all brings back youthful memories of NZR buses crawling up the Mangawekas, winding around each tight bend at about 20 miles per hour top speed, the driver changing gears constantly, a long tedious crawl to the top. Almost all those long and winding hill roads (and long wooden truss one way bridges) have gone now. I know it is called progress but somehow too much comfort and convenience destroys the very texture and character of life - one reason why I prefer bussing to car use - the feel, smell, taste, temperature of actual life, nature, the seasons, the community of real people in all their unbelievable variety on the street, at the bus stop or Bus Exchange, on buses - it is a high price car junkies pay to travel in a bland metal box cut off from the world hearing only their own music.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Ash Vegas hits Downtown Baltimore

Well this is just parochial pride, one of life's sillier ways of boosting the ego, taking kudos merely for living in an area adjacent to someone else that has achieved success. But damn it all, I feel a big beam of local pride, I am going to hop on this bus as it goes past!! Good on yer Canterbury! Good on yer Ashburton. Good on yer son of Ashburton John Turton. Yep Ashburton has extended its mark - indeed its tyre print - upon the world, cutting it with the big boys in New York and Baltimore!  What next, redneck Ash Vegas racing for leadership in the the greenest of green public transport!!  A few months ago it was announced that New York Metropolitan Transit Authority has extended its trial of Designline hybrid gas turbo buses, from one bus to 30,  a significant step towards future sales. One person who rode on it described it as quiet as a library (he obviously hasn't been near a library for years!!).  Just recently Baltimore launched a new central city circulator, filling a similar role to The Shuttle in Christchurch,  and, hello, that front window configuration looked very familiar - yes it's a Designline bus - a Designline Hybrid Olymbus. In fact you can even take a virtual ride on it per u-tube  -
Designline Bus in Baltimore

The only things slightly askew with the fairytale is that to get the foot in the door of the USA market, original owner John Turton had to sell controlling interest in Designline to an American bus manufacturer some years ago, albeit he retained a major role himself. Second rat pulling Cinderella's carriage is that "small town does well and then gets dumped" - it happens so often and is such a crappy part of capitalism's so called success.  Instead of development being balanced and spread, offering prosperity across a nation, allowing sensible development that doesn't squash every thing, and everybody in one place, the need for maximum profits ensures big fish eat little fish. Anything of any quality that develops or grows in the provinces that can possibly be asset stripped and moved to a bigger centre will be plundered. So it is with the move of  Designline's New Zealand plant from Ashburton to Rolleston, to be closer to a guaranteed labour market and presumably also to major bus operator customers and the port to the North Island. Sooner or later, give another decade or two, no doubt the same plant will relocate to Manurewa, or if they can crack Australia, the NZ bus building industry will become based in North Sydney!! Getting labour was a constant problem in Ashburton, at one stage fifty workers were brought out from China, so this was no small problem, but it is still very sad to see all this concentration of jobs and industry in major centres, loss of a major employer in a small town. 

In the meantime for no justifiable reason I'll share in a wee bit of pride that a kiwi could come up with a hybrid formula years ahead of some of the world's biggest bus manufacturers, not only the gas turbine but also the idea of the supplementary engine itself generating electricity rather than running in concert or alternating combination with a diesel engine.   I'll go along for the ride [a cheeky 18 year old in the room describes the virtual trip around Baltimore as the world's most boring u-tube...have to agree it is a pity they don't run a circuit bus around Ashburton, I imagine it would be a more interesting downtown!!]

Monday, January 11, 2010

Simple Effective Transit

I am a great fan of building bus rapid transit corridors. What this term "bus rapid transit" exactly means is not 100% clear, it is a relatively new technology (at least in its wider world embrace) and meanings haven't fully sorted themselves out. In some cities it is used to refer to roads used by express buses, or to on-street bus lanes marked separately but not otherwise segregated. In others BRT corridor means an exclusive lane - or indeed separate length of road, trench, underpass or tunnel - for exclusive bus use, or at most shared only with cyclists, pedestrians and emergency vehicles.

The key to me is the word rapid - it doesn't really matter the device so much as the the status given the passage of the bus service - traffic signal priority, frequent predictable pattern service, longer distance between stops, better bus stop facilities (mini-stations with door level platforms), real time signage as to when buses are due, top of the line vehicles. Of course a major advantage - probably the most profound - that bus rapid transit corridors can offer is that once a clear run is available for buses on a dedicated service, in peak hours (or other times as deemed necessary) the same corridor in many cases can be utilised by buses feeding off other routes to gain direct access to the central city or the key locations served. This means the fast direct (no transfers) access offered by BRT systems can extend across a whole city, in a way light rail can not. Brisbane's exclusive busways are used by 117 different routes (presumably some of these are peak hour only) and the 3.5km exclusive bus transitway being built through the heart of Winnipeg is the access corridor of 17 separate routes.

However even as a singular route in itself, with a dedicated frequent service, a bus rapid transit corridor can offer an attractive and cost effective alternative to light rail. I love public transport (as a full time bus user for at least 17 years of my life, and bus driver for 14 I have more or less lived on public transport for a sizeable portion of my life!!) but it is after all a utility - I am not sure it needs to be too damn precious, not an absurdly glamorous state of the art expression, as seems to be the wish of some light rail fans. Attractive, clean, efficient, renewable (regular vehicle/infrastructure maintenance, upgrading) that seems enough for me! Jarret Walker in his webblog Human Transit draws attention to a bus service of this nature operating near Seattle. Check out the wee propaganda u-tube - it is nothing too precious, glamorous or glorious, just good old public transport but done well. A similar system in Christchurch, where bus usage rates per capita are typically much higher than USA could probably see the same service operating at 10 minute frequencies. I would rather see about 6 or seven bus corridors of the nature here (some with added underpasses or "cut through" bus boulevards between streets etc to by pass congestion) serving all corners of the city than a single 12km glamour light rail line serving one section of the city only. During peak hours a number of express services from outer areas might also use the same corridors, but the key corridor service themself would offer fast effective access between outer areas and the CBD, university, airport and major work zones.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

More talk than walk!

Whatever bugs you! The dwatted wabbit's quote of the week

"In the midst of these multiple urban crises state governments continue to churn out regional and city plans to direct growth. In every case these documents have some sound data and useful mapping of urban phenomena, as well as soft-core urban photography of happy families and happy workers creating instant new communities. All the big issues, from homelessness and the erosion of green space to the fate of people who have no access to public transport, are subsumed in descriptions such as "strong communities" and "smart growth". These documents become more fatuous with each iteration (the favourite word in an era in which government pronouncements must be tweaked by wordsmiths who will be held accountable if they fall into the mortal error of making a testable promise)"

Peter Spearritt quoted in "Planning failures crippling our cities"
The Canberra Times. Canberra, A.C.T.: Oct 24, 2009.

Peter Spearritt is professor of history at the University of Queensland and the author of Sydney's Century: A History (UNSW Press, 2000). This article is published on Inside Story ( by Swinburne University of Technology in association with the Australian National University.

A complementary story; A couple of years ago I made a submission to a regional transport strategy review. I suggested that if the intention was to get people away from using cars it was important to have information about all alternative systems to car use in an easily accessible format and location. In particular, I suggested that Environment Canterbury through one of its departments, such as the Metro Marketing or Smart Travel list departure journey time information for all city-to city and regional bus services, departing and arriving Christchurch, across the week. These were privately operated services but nonetheless an alternative to car use. Actual bookings etc would done by linking to the appropriate website of the service provider, requiring no effort by ECan.  The idea was in part inspired by the wide embrace of the excellent CommuterPage offered by the Arlington, Virginia transit system. If I read the situation right, Arlington a smaller sub city of the Washington Dc spawl, developed such a competent all inclusive web page (transit/public interface) that it became an extremely popular transit info source, for all residents of greater Washington DC

Any carless person or tourist knows what a hassle it is having to flick back and forward between InterCity, Atomic, Naked Bus, Knight Rider and Southernlink [where applicable] to find a best departure time/best price option for travelling southwards. Of course, most people and most tourists won't even know all the options, they may leave earlier or later than intended, unaware of all options! So much for user friendly tourist info. Why these can't be listed in chronological departure time as some sub-section of the Metro web page is obscure.

The answer I got to my submission gave me the impression of the momentary kerfluffle caused by an overloud farting amongst a group of elderly chooks. I could hear  the titters, murmurs, uneasy fluffing of feathers, the ancient voicer clearing phlegm -  couldn't work, can't be done, silly boy, falls outside our bureacratic discretion. Ha haa ha (phew, another review passed where we didn't have to get off our agendas!)

Nowhere did I hear that word YES! Yes, thank you, this is a gap in our system; this is an area of attracting people away from car use we have missed; this is an area that care and commitment to our ratepayer base dictates we must move to meet  as soon as possible, fully and attractively; yeah right this is an area we need to look at changing or extending ground rules to deal with  more effectively.

Nowhere did I hear yes.

In Christchurch we have a relatively good public transport system, it is a pity having come so far, we dont make it 100% better by an absolute caring for the environment and customer!
The only compensation is the laugh out loud deja vue response I felt when I read Peter Spearrit's quote above!

Also note that Warkworth, a small town north of Auckland, appears to make mincemeat of bigger cities, Christchurch included, in its clear easy to use listing of all bus services to Auckland (click on title box above) - albeit like Canterbury regional commuter times aren't very useful (for those wanting to be in town for work,study, appointments early, and not lose half a day to travel).

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Facts before Tracks

This photo is for entertainment purposes only and bears no relationship to anything in the article which follows!
Source US Library of Congress, commons.

Rabbit jump out at ya quote;
"I can't believe how much energy goes into surveying people already using buses rather the real market for growth - those NOT using buses!"

Over the years I have made several formal submissions to Metro regarding specific route change reviews, as well as several formal submissions to local or regional strategic transport plans. Sometimes I have just seen a possibility and sent an email to one of the senior planners or operations managers, floating the idea in case it has been missed. One such idea was the idea of "Spider Maps".

My theory - wild as it may sound!! - is based the idea work out where people are going to (by all modes including private car) and then build public transport to match - or if possible surpass - the ease of access offered by private car. Wendell Cox, US public transport consultant, claims only 25% of Christchurch employees work in the central city, a pattern consistent with many other modern cities. If Christchurch wants to really tackle congestion, pollution, time waste and unnecessary use of vehicles just for going to and from work, the city really needs to get far more accurate information about who is going where and when. I read or at least scan read a lot of City Council documents, include forecasts of growth in this or that area, or estimates of how many cars per day are expected along this or that road by 2015 etc. But it strikes me this information is still far too generalised for public transport planning. So many thousand cars per day through intersections A, B, C D etc, does not ultimately reveal where these journeys start from, where these journeys finish.

Trying to map these patterns and get a much more sophisticated picture of journey patterns in Christchurch would take enormous effort, perhaps a million dollar grant (from NZ Transport Agency!) but its potential to provide a much more precise planning tool, and a far more effective public transport systems, would make it money effectively spent. My concept is a targeted survey which includes a general broad map of all Christchuch, and a more specific map of say, 3km radius of the zone being surveyed. The survey might be undertaken by sociological students, on a part-time paid basis, working with Metro and people qualified in this field, in framing questions, organising systematic surveys etc. These would mainly be done at destinations (work zones employing 50 plus; study zones (from intermediate school to tertiary) ditto; carparks of major event centres). Several door to door studies of selected blocks might be done, just to see if they correlate from that end. In all about 10,000 people - a cross section of the city - might be interviewed. A key factor would be most them per se would NOT be bus users - I can't believe how much energy goes into surveying people already using buses rather the real market for growth - those NOT using buses! The ideal would be to repeat the same survey exactly after two years (partly to evaluate trends in growth and partly to see how radically patterns shift, if they do so at all) and then ever 5 years thereafter. I am assuming the size of the study would not see too many dramatic changes - if one in 35 employed persons living east of Marshlands Road work in, or near the Airport in 2010, I would imagine in 2015 this might be 1 in 37, or 1 in 32 - not suddenly only 1 in 100 etc

As well as answering a dozen key questions respondents are invited to mark with a felt pens the approximate pathway of their work/study journey across the city; on the smaller more detailed map the route by which they most often approach their prime work/study facility. It might not have the right public appeal, but I call them "spider maps" because if all these lines were fed onto a single map I imagine - perhaps quite wrongly - it would appear a bit like a spider. However most research results wouldn't need such a visual depiction, they could instantly accessed in a far more mundane but useful way. My thinking is that intrinsic to these maps would be a coded grid squares, and coded arterial roads, allowing information to be entered into a computer system systematically (eg D436VFVDVQA576) in which Dxxx is depart grid reference, V = via a coded arterial (vF =via Shirley Rd, vD= via Hills Road, vQ = Bealey Avenue etc) and Axxx is arrival (work/study zone). Theoretically - I am virtually computer illiterate but this doesn't seem like rocket science - it will be possible to pull up thousands of patterns from this data base. If 436 actually means grid box 36 in sector 4 then several levels of infomation can be obtained - how many sector 4 residents work/study in sector 9? Or sector 2? Or how many residents in the specific grid area 436 travel to A452 - the local mall - as their work place. And timing too. If 69% of people working in the Birmingham Drive enclave [a major employment area which bizarrely, currently has no bus service at all] start before 7.30 am, and 58% live within a 3 km radius then trying to get a shuttle effect, for instance from Westfield, offering a service every 10 minutes or less between 6.30am, may prove popular. Much more so than a half hourly service which comes from far greater distance (with only one really useful service, arriving at 7.20 am - but oh dear, miss that and not 5 or 10 minutes late, but a whopping 20 minutes late for work!!) .

It should be possible to find some very strategic links, possibly of an express (non-stop) nature, across the city. We know for instance that over 5000 people work at the airport, and current services to the city (routes 3,10,29) now offer a very effective integrated service (albeit at some cost, in creating a very poor service to South Christchurch/Cashmere on Saturday nights and all day Sunday). But to get to the Airport from Rangiora, Kaiapoi, Belfast, Parklands, Halswell, Hornby, Rolleston etc by bus is currently virtually a non-starter, who could be bothered!! And how many work part-time - is there a start time for afternoon or evening workers that is more common than other times etc A survey might reveal that a nor-western express service with only limited stops, but hitting five key areas where larger number of airport employees live, could be valuable. Or, if it was revealed, that 73% of tertiary students or perhaps workers in some more labour intensive industry lived within 2km of their study facility or specific workplace, a shuttle pattern could be integrated to reach currently unserviced areas or reinforce existing routes feeding to this point at the appropriate times.

A route with a service every fifteen minute service is not to be sneezed at, as a generalization, but this is too long a headway for those making shorter trips. There is a natural ratio of waiting time to distance travelled; if the whole journey only takes 5 minutes by car, who wants to wait up to 15 minutes for a bus that takes a further 7 minutes to reach the same point? If they have a car they will choose that option most times. On the other hand if a shuttle system was established just for that local area, phased to run between the existing timetable sevices from further afield, bringing access down from 15 minutes to every 7 minutes, or every 5 minutes, leaving the car behind becomes a much more pleasant option. I call these short length high frequency workday services, looping out and back to a key central work zone and then looping out and back on the other side of the same zone, perhaps in a double 8 pattern,  butterfly services,by virtue of the wing pattern. (Ok, ok, no more insects!). There are many options but the key aspect is to maximise the effectiveness of full time routes, supplementary services, and timing patterns. In trying to offer servives even remotely competitive with car use, needs absolute research commitment.

I am a great believer public transport is a science - and if it is not, if planners, operators administrators are casual about the fine tuning, consistent phasing of services, matching departure/arrival times to major work start times at all larger employment zones etc then they are just wasting the ratepayer and taxpayer dollar and treating potential passengers with a certain lazy contempt, which is always sensed and resented.

The current campaigns in Christchurch for light rail, or heavy rail, or even my tiny campaigns for bus rapid transit corridors, can only be childish conjecture. We don't know enough, to really create spot-on services, by any mode. Get the facts before the tracks!!!