Thursday, February 25, 2010

Art in Tranzition (3)

Just keeping the engine on idle till I get back from holiday; trying to photograph public transport in ways different, interesting or artistic is a sideline challenge of having a camera for the first time in over a decade (and my first dgital) ; this at Hamilton's Transport Centre

Monday, February 22, 2010

Holiday Break

The erstwhile (whatever that means!) rabbit has not gone to ground but rather hopping around the North Island on bus and trains, visiting friends and relatives and catching up on places some last visited over 40 years ago. Of course those floppy ears and beady eyes never stop checking out the environment, not least public transport systems of all sorts encountered upon the way. Heaps of material to digest, and an ever mounting stock of photos, to grace the NZ in Tranzit blog, when he gets back to work. I write this merely to quell the anxiety of those who can live without the regular input of pure carrot gold transit commentary!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Establishing consumer benchmarks of service quality in public transport

Getting a consistent frequency and even spread of services across each hour is a key factor in quality benchmarks from a consumer viewpoint. Not such a problem on Wilmslow Road in Manchester, claimed to be Europe's busiest bus corridor with buses every 30 seconds at some times in some sections. [Even so it appears one old codger losing his specs in the doorwell of a bus can bring everything to a halt!]
Photo Wikimedia Commons

Recently I raised, again, the issue of quality control in public transport planning, particular in regard to south Christchurch Saturday night and Sunday services. This article takes that thinking a little further

I gave up cars ten years ago, after my kids became adults. I also often lived without a car, in three different cities before they were born, whilst I was still in my twenties. So I am an expert in this field! I am not entirely joking. Who knows better the quality of a bus service than the consumer? Anyone catching buses on  a regular basis, day, night and weekends too, soon becomes intimately aware of the nature and quality of service to their area and its various quirks.

Everybody in the world knows the common phenonema that you wait and you wait and wait for a bus, and then two or even three buses arrive simultaneously. It is a standing joke, part of the derogatory bias that allows the average person to dismiss buses as a second rate or impractical form of transport. Of course in big cities or in peak hour service intensity it is probably symptomatic of buses bunching up - as one bus service gets later it starts to pick up more and more passengers, including people that would normally have got the following bus service; and of course the next bus service load gets lighter and lighter until that bus catches up with the bus in front. This can involve multiple buses if services along a corridor are only anyway a few minutes apart. Leo, a bus driver I worked with in the 1970s told me when he drove buses in Los Angeles back in the 1950s on certain street corners they had men stationed as timekeepers who by pointing upwards or downwards signalled to a bus driver to speed up or slow down to maintain a consistent flow pattern and gap between buses. No doubt minature computerised traffic lights, discreetly located on a power pole, or indeed, on the dashboard of buses, could achieve the same effect today in cities where multiple services along the same corridor may be only minutes apart (friends who lived a year and a half in Manchester said there was a bus every 30 seconds on their local corridor - said to be the busiest in Europe). ps Such is the wonder of Wikipedia, the most amazing encylopedia in history, I discovered even this obscure claim has an article -here and photo above

In small cities where services are typical less than 8 per hour (a bus every 7-8 minutes) on any one corridor the phenomena of all "long gaps, several buses at once" comes back mainly to delays brought about by traffic congestion and/or - if the corridor route served by multiple buses services is longer than a kilometre or two -  poor scheduling. 

People often say "we have a good bus service" (of course that doesn't mean they use it!) but I think compared to what? What standards are we measuring against - other bus systems? the bus systems of 50 years ago?  the expectation that buses are only a supplementary sort of transport, a sort of social charity for which ever person dependent upon them should be grateful?  I tend towards the thought that all forms of transport are heavily subsidised, with enormous double standards applying to support car addiction, and public transport could step up to the plate and be many many times more effective than its current minor supplementary role. But it still operates with a large element of "old fashion public service, good enough for the peasants" attitude, seen as a collection of disparate routes and varying times, even it seems by planners, rather than a sophisticated and dedicated, holistic network, of predictable system wide patterns, intermeshed like cogs in clock, so well done that it can be taken for granted, understood even by those who don't use it. For me this includes - indeed requires -  a bottom line commitment that within time bands [Sundays; or before 9 am weekdays, evenings etc] there is a guaranteed consistency of service.

I have played around in my mind for a long time with whether it is possible to arrive at some rule of thumb benchmark for quality standards in small city transit services, what the passengers (and taxpayers, local tax or ratepayers) might deem a minimal standard for service consistency and effective use of resources. Perhaps there are industry standards existing somewhere in the world but if there are, they are either not being applied in Christchurch or fall woefully short of what I'd consider bottom line expectations for consumers and tax payer funders. It came to me yesterday that a good formula might be expressed as "no gap between services serving the same or similar key functions on significantly shared route corridor or from a significant shared junction should be greater than one third in excess of the averaged even spread headway ratio of total services per hour." Phew!!

This sounds very complicated but is actually absurdly simple - if there are two services an hour then the averaged (and ideal) even spread headway ratio is a service every 30 minutes; a quality control measurement would insist that the gap between services should not be greater than one third longer in time than of 30 minutes = 10 minutes. In other words if the pattern of combined service delivery is greater than 40 minutes it is not deemed an effective use of resources and falls below the quality service benchmark. In this scenario if the ideal of a service every 30 minutes exactly can not be met, the goal must nonetheless be to achieve a service frequency of no greater inbalance than service A being followed by service B at 40 minutes or less. That is to say; in  worst case scenario local residents would have a pattern of service A - wait 20 minutes - service B - wait forty minutes -service A again. If not they might justifiably say they are not getting a quality service. Nor are their taxes(rates) funding effective resource use.

If there are 4 services per hour then the same quality benchmark (maximum excess of averaged headway no greater than 33%) would be 15 minutes ideal, variance no greater than than 5 minutes (one third) or a pattern of A - ten minute wait - B twenty minute wait -C ten minute wait -D - twenty minute wait - A ... (next hour etc). In the case of eight services or more per hour along a shared corridor then average ideal headway is 7-8 minutes and the quality benchmark would be in no case is there a gap of longer than 10 minutes.

I doubt whether many schedulers would embrace this idea - indeed I can imagine schedulers and planners and administrators squealing like stuck pigs with such conditions imposed!!
I imagine it is difficult enough job already, trying to match up the many variables involved, without adding these further conditions.  We are talking trying to achieve perfection here, and as the saying goes perfection takes a little longer! Or perhaps something a little closer to perfection takes twice as long to arrive at solutions as conventional scheduling. In the ultimate situation to get a top quality bus service in Christchurch involves a pro-active holistic approach, including route patterns,, and identifying every key shared corridor, or major intersecting point (mainly malls) or larger facility served by more than one route. It would mean looking at a whole city network, instead of a piece meal approach, a time consuming exercise that is probably no where covered in any annual budget and runs contrary to the whole pattern of renewing tenders for routes (and making route changes on those routes) in clumps of every 3 years.

As a full time bus user I run up against constant anomalies (in what is generally a fairly good bus system) that seem to me would never pass muster if quality controls were being rigorously applied. The sort of benchmark suggested here is achieved in some parts of Christchurch, widely breached in others. This is particularly so, of course, outside peak hours when service frequency on any route is lower and therefore gaps between services are anyway going to be much greater. A time when good integration and fierce commitment to meeting quality benchmarks is particulary important if public transport is ever going to make inroads into car usage. When that doesn't happen the syndrome "there's a really long wait then they all come at once" ridicule that discredits bus services is being directly fostered by the planner decisions, undermining their own efforts to promote bus use.

I doubt whether the measurement above will mean much to anyone in the bureacracy but I will certainly promote and apply it, a consistent formula for myself and any other interested consumers to really evaluate the quality of a service or resource use being offered.

I will in my tiny way continue to campaign for quality transit benchmarks - the opposite sort of benchmarks from the ones you get on the bum from sitting at a bus stop too long! Unnecesarily!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

New Face of Welington Transport

Thanks to Simon Atkinson - a well known Christchurch bus user, bus enthusiast and worker for better mobility access for disabled  persons, who passed on this  photo he took of one of the latest Designline Go-Wellington trolley buses last year. Considering what a tiny country we are, in terms of population, city size and public transport use, it is not unimpressive that the bus design is local; as are the carbon fibre poles which I believe have virtually eliminated the (well remembered!) tendency of Wellington trolley buses to regularly come off the overhead wires. These allow buses to change lanes or drive easily around obstacles without losing contact.
I imagine few Christchurch people would be happy about returning to a mass of overhead wires in the central city area but given their greater pulling power, smoother acceleration and less intrusive presence in built up areas, the possibility of using trolley buses on one or two Christchurch busways with minimal CBD corridors can not be entirely dismissed

Wabbit runs amuck in a fruit shop of metaphors!!

Red Bus About to head east from Hornby Mall, to city, New Brighton and Southshore - a meaningless photo not related to the article below!
My thinking is a fruit shop sells a range of fruit and veges - its nice to have a good clean shop, friendly service, good prices etc. But in the end what is being sold in the specific bit of fruit or specific vegetable. If that item is rotten, old, stale, gone sour, it's crap - the shop is selling crap. It doesn't matter how friendly the service; how modern the shop, the product is still crap.
A transit authority exists to provide trips by public transport - it may be "mass" transit but the actual product at bottom line is selling/providing each trip a passenger makes to give him or her the best possible total journey. The bus, tram or train trip itself - each one for each passenger - is the ultimate product. It should be designed with great care and thought (if part of a patterned, same minutes past the hour service, this too should have the same care). How these services interact with every other route is important too - do they serve similar similar functions (run to same point such as city centre), are they pulsed to create an even and consistent frequency; is the ratio of services per hour to the frequency on the shared corridor logical and reasonable; how does this pattern effect transfers at each major junction; what options exist on adjacent routes; how does this effect things if a through route; are these services readable and predictable; are their uncomfortable or danger zones for passengers. 
To get the choicest fruit, great care and commitment to consumer welfare is the bottom line. Needless to say this takes a huge amount of work, particular to schedule driver hours, changeovers, bus movements, within a cost effective framework.  But what is the point of a fruit shop, however flash or fancy, that sells unripe or rotten fruit? 
To the extent these factors are not met, and especially if it appears they could be, a bitter taste is left in the mouth. To rudely discover, for example, under the new Metro schedules that there are nine bus services going up the Papanui Road corridor during the hour 6pm-7pm week nights but despite this, a  seemingly very generous level of service, people coming from work, working late or after work drinks or functions at 6.39pm still have a twenty minute wait to the next service at 6.59pm, is indeed a sour lemon to suck upon. By my calculation, despite the fact that Environment Canterbury is employing, conservatively, $3 million dollars in capital equipment during that hour, bizarrely it is still unable to achieve a reasonable and even spread of services, so that workers can trust there will be a bus as needed, logically every 8 minutes or less.  How can people respect public transport when they get dished up a bowl of apples with rotten fruit in the middle?
Millions of dollars are poured into everything except the product itself - getting schedules organised to a more sophisticated and intelligent level!  The difference between waiting 3 minutes for a bus and 12 minutes is significant; between 10 minutes and 20 minutes very big indeed [suggestion; policy makers, bus operators or planners can test  this easily - wait the times described beside your car door next before you drive off!]. D-Day was the greatest invasion in history but it was a battle won by millions of minutae of getting organisation right, of fighting metre by metre across beach, field and hedgerow. The battle of public transport is fought not  just in grand visions, big projects, flasher buses etc  but in precise minutes, frequency, consistency and reliability. Every little bit is a step forward. Every minute shaved of waiting or journey time is an exponential step towards making public transport a major attractive player in city life; in protecting our prosperity come fuel rises; in trying to modify the effects of global warming, already far beyond anything originally predicted.  The battle for good public transport includes the industry setting bench marks and quality control mechanisms and evaluative filters in place to ensure that stupid anomalies like the disjointed break above do not occur. Nor could the running of bus services to South Christchurch (Beckenham shops, Thorrington, Cashmere Hills, Takahe/Victoria Park areas) on Saturday night and Sundays at virtually simultaneous departure times occur.
When the consumer comes first in transport planner thinking - and every trip is precious, maximised for benefits  - when the fruiterer takes care of every bit of fruit on sale -  running two different routes simultaneously. and in what is de facto an hourly pattern, would and should rightly be booed of the stage, with the rotten fruit coming thick and fast!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Bus Diary - Life on the streets without a car (1) Sockburn to SaveMart

My niece heading south to a polytech course, stayed over in Christchurch last weekend. She needed to buy some items for her specialised course from a discount supplier in Christchurch. I checked out the location of this discount shop - oops right down in the heart of the Parkhouse Road industrial enclave. No direct bus service into that area, and probably wouldn't be anyway on the weekends, even if Metro did run bus services to this major industrial/office park area. On the other hand the Metrostar would carry us right across the city to near that area; and I happen to know that tucked away behind Alloy Street, near Sockburn roundabout there is a footbridge across the railway line, that will cut walking distances in half. It is perhaps the most hidden, least signposted piece of non-vehicular  infrastructure in the city - even when we got to the entrance alleyway I had to stare hard at the pattern of wirenetting fences to figure out where the actual pathway was. While my niece went shopping down Hayton Road I went cruising around the footbridge, the Sockburn overbridge and the underpass that runs under it, taking the odd photo.

Amongst all the other opportunities being  lost or potentially lost by Christchurch civic authorities, in having no visionary rapid transit plans is the rail corridor south of the station itself. It seems to me there is a great deal of under-utilised land on or immediately adjacent to this corridor, that could be restructured to carry a guided busway, a light rail corridor, or just a dedicated commuter line, between Christchurch Station and Rolleston. There is even an unused bay in the portals under the Sockburn Bridge (see photo above ). No doubt KiwiRail will say sharing this corridor in any format whatsoever is a non-starter. No organization wants to reduce their options or share space with other systems, but as the bus lanes on Papanui Road underscore the point; when a city moves from the provincial to the metropolitan every bit of space becomes contested by multiple different users, and much tighter, and more specifically designated land use is inevitable.

Needless to say I am more a fan of the guided busway idea than rail - very smooth passage (the new guided busway in Cambridgeshire UK claims passengers can drink coffee whilst the bus is in motion). Such a busway might need to be ramped onto some sort of embankment, to give a safety margin that running closely alongside trains would otherwise not provide, but could also pass over intersections, or shift from one side of the rail corridor to another. Mega bucks, but not absurdly so, given the hundreds of millions being spent on rail commuter systems in Wellington and Auckland.  And of course buses can feed onto or off from the high speed guided section of the busway onto conventional streets. Indeed the one-direction only (outbound) underpass that runs down the side of the Sockburn overbridge and then turns right underneath it, and up into Racecourse Road offers an added point where access to a busway built beside the rail corridor could be immediate and useful.

Top photo shows this one way only underpass; and a few metres further along the same built up ramp the rail underpass portals. This would raise some very interesting dynamics for a busway -  presuming such a corridor could be created; routes from the city might run the entire length to Rolleston, but services via University and Church Corner, and to and from Hei Hei or industrial areas could join or leave at this point.

The main value of course is that was such a busway possible and was ramped or grade separated from other traffic and  had no conflicting intersections etc, it would allow a travel time from Addington to Hornby of about 5 minutes, or to Rolleston of perhaps 12 minutes, at 80-100km per hour.  Such times would be hugely competive with cars and traffic jams, particularly in the peak hours! Because buses can begin and end in people's streets, or outside their office,shop or factory, it would also be hugely competitive with rail systems, voiding the need for clumsy, expensive or intrusive park and ride journeys/bus to station journeys.  Given the relatively short distances involved transfers of any sort are to be avoided as far as possible.
A downside is some parts of the busway could only be one lane, operate in one direct at a time, but the short distances involved, good scheduling and a bit of train control style technology could presumably deal to that so no bus ever appeared to wait.

A downside for me, was to get the best shot of the overbridge portals I had to descend onto the track itself (extremely carefully, though no trains were about) - vigilant neighbours or cameras ensured two policemen arrived almost immediately. Yes it is illegal. I was firmly but pleasantly escorted off the line. Not being a spy movie they did not pull the film from my camera or grind the memory card under their heel.  Yehaa, I had the photo I wanted. I rejoined my niece.

After shopping at The Hub (mall) in Hornby, whilst I lolled around the simple but attractive multiple bus route terminus with its brilliantly large overhanging roofs in shade tint glass,  my niece decided she wanted to check out the SaveMart clothing warehouse in Shands Road. Another industrial area, and residential corner of the city not served by a bus route. After a very hot 20 minute walk - summer has got here! - we arrived to be greeted by a petition on the counter, already several signed pages in size, for a bus route to this area!

I told the lady behind the counter of the difficulty of getting response from Metro or Ecan - in my experience, across many years,  these bureacracies have their agendas and rarely move off them, even if the suggestion is coming from other organisations of presumably some political clout, such as the City Council, Transport Agency or bus or taxi operators.

Though I didn't bombard this women with such details I think much it has to do with the rotational nature of the tender systems - routes to an area reviewed every three years and then bound in contracts. From an outsider's view this seems to greatly impair opportunity for independent moves. In similar vein the rather "conservative in style" strategic plan plots everything out years ahead, but I suspect at some price of having little room for ideas not thought of back at the start. The city has spent 13 years struggling towards on-street bus lanes which have their role but can not deliver the top class direct city-outer suburb (in 10 minutes) type links that other cities are now creating with off-street, segregated (or segregated in part) busways. No provision has been made for this because no one - and particularly not the politicians or policy makers - is tracking the growth of this phenomena overseas. Beyond all these factors a simple fact is that extending a route even by a couple of kilometres can end up costing thousands, indeed tens of thousands in extra fuel, labour costs and vehicles needed, so it is not easy.

Back in 2008 I put forward the concept of shuttle buses from Westfield to Birmingham Drive; and Westfield to Parkhouse Road, to Metro. I thought it was rather a clever and well thought through concept, carefully timed, offering both frequent peak hour departures and continuous day time services (for part-time, late starts, early finishes, job applicants etc) using only two buses on each route. I was told it would be evaluated in a review in 2009 of services to this area (none to that immediate area at present, though workplace to several thousand workers). Well that year has come and gone, what ever rabbit hole that disappeared down it wasn't one known to this rabbit. I have also put forward suggestions at some other time that a service to the Edmonton Road area - another industrial enclave not serviced  - be tail ended onto one of the mainstream routes that currently terminate a Hornby. Indeed a fish hook shaped route could run down Shands Road as sought by SabeMart and their shoppers and back up Halswell Road to this very area, at least in working days.

What amazes me is not that a particular suggestion from one person is ignored (cheeky bugger what does he know about bus planning!) but that the issues that provoke the suggestions are not addressed, in anyway, year after year. There is a credibility gap here, on what is being said and what is actually being done. Complete lack of bus service to some fairly large areas of industrial and office park employment hardly fits with Environment Canterbury's claim to be trying to attract people onto public transport!

I hardly knew my niece previously and the sort of walk and bus, chat and shop, casualness, spread across several hours, that comes with catching buses offered a rare opportunity to spend some time with her. It was unusual, I think we both enjoyed it. There is a lot to be said for a day just mucking around on buses, an old fashion spaced casual quality of life that racing around in cars, do your shopping, race home, easily misses.