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.

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