Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Designer Bus Routes - Or Not?

As the Mayor of Timaru Janie Annear has so kindly noted running a bus service is not "rocket science". However it does involve a very very complex integration of several dozen factors, and many variables. In my experience very few cities do it well, possibly because the planning budget to spend hours arriving at a good solution to complex riddles does not exist, possibly because planners are not prepared to "sweat the small stuff" . Yet this is exactly what must be done to achieve quality rather than "so so" services.  One part of those many variables of bus operations is planning the bus routes themselves.

Below I list the 12 basic principles of bus route design that I believe should be applied in implementing every bus route - this is just relevant to timetable stuff, leaving aside special event buses, contracted school services, charter work etc.

The biggest significance of these criteria listed below is that they are often contradictory and therefore have to be applied in a holistic way. This can mean several routes with overlapping functions in the same broad area are evaluated for the way that each route contributes to the whole, how well the many "functions" and services to key sites is met and often requires priorities to be ranked, given not every goal can be achieved in every situation. For example one route may "pick up the tab" for functions done less well by another - it doesn't matter if a route is a little winding and complex if it is essentially playing the role of an auxillary route to several faster more direct routes, also accessible at various points by most residents living along the more winding indirect route.

The current Metro policy is very much one route fits all situations, and this route runs seven days and usually seven evenings to the same roading pattern. The advantage in this situation is that it is simple, memorable, consistent and I believe very much preferable to having route 20Y (this trips goes via Y Road) then 20 X (this trip goes via X Street etc) or route numbers like 836, 843, 839 etc all of which equate to subtle and often confusing variations of services within the same area.

The simplicity of Christchurch's Metro route system has been its strength in the rebuilding phase 1993-2008. But as with humans, "our worst weaknesses and best strengths are often the same thing" confidence becomes arrogance; tolerance becomes weakness etc...a strength carried too far becomes a weakness. So it feels to me as if Metro is really struggling to produce quality services in the outer suburbs because the extreme rigidity of always adhering to the one route for every occasion, no variation or peak hour only companion route pattern.  

Today's changes on the eastside routes (60,7,45,46, 40) try to combine complicated community access functions with work access and don't always succeed in doing either function well. Routes 45 and 46 serve several unrelated suburbs with the same routes travelling sideways (not often we see buses going sideways!!)  travelling in an east to west direction across northern suburbs mainly, it appears, in order to create a (good) intense frequency pattern in St Albans down Barbadoes St - meanwhile cheating some areas further east of direct fast services to the city. I believe - and said so in my submissions to the review preceding these changes   - the time has come to take one step away from "one size suits all" if there are situations in which this can not be achieved without such extreme distortions.

That is (on as few routes as possible) to create variations that run direct to the city in rush hours, operating ideally, between the  departure times of the standard route, the latter which may involve slower more circuitous pathways in order to provide better coverage and  more connection to various community facilities along the route,  across the day, evening and weekends.

The differing needs of "work and study" routing and "community access" routing are evident below. I believe these criteria may give consumer a useful tool to evaluate whether we are getting value for money in the service we pay for in fares,rates and taxes (whilst also subsidising private cars and Wellington and Auckland rail)! Doing buses well is no easy thing!

NZ in Tranzit offers 12 Criteria to evaluate bus route design

To get people to work places and to major secondary and tertiary education sites and back home to their residential areas as quickly and directly as possible

1. Provide access to city central that fairly direct, limited stop or express from outer areas (estimated that over 25% of those employed in Chch work in CBD; nobody wants long, devious routes en route to or from work)

2. To provide crosstown services to major employment zones, or at least transfer hubs linked to employment zones. I have suggested to Metro informally in the past Metrostar should offer an additional peak hour service following the same route New Brighton to Riccarton and then via Claridges Road to Tower Junction-Birmingham Drive industrial area; also believe a peak hour Shuttle variant of The Orbiter should run between Opawa Road and the university cutting across through Sydenham, Addington, Birmingham Drive industrial areas

3. To maximise directions of access to more isolated islands of medium to high employment/patronage (eg hospitals,malls) with priority of route option and diversity of travel direction to the immediate surrounding 3km radius. People work anywhere but higher proportions of the workforce, including lower paid and part-time workers wll live within 3km

4. To provide at least some level of continuous service or route options across the day for work/study access (23% of those employed start work between 9am and 12 midnight in USA census; I don't think equivalent NZ figures exist, but imagine figures will be similar - and definitely a quarter of NZ work force work part-time, meaning they start or finish outside traditional peak hours)

5. To time all above services, as far as possible, to ensure arrival and departure times at major employment and educational sites arrive just before the hour minutes and leave just after the hour (and ditto around the "half hour" 7am- 9am) at times supportive to those starting or finishing work or classes. Working around the hour sympathetically is most likely to offer services useful to the greatest number

To provide mobility and access to community and recreational facilities for all persons, but particularly people with reduced access or in some cases no access at all to cars eg independent children 10-12 years old, teenagers, one car family parents at home, those on super increasing as they age, those disabled and out of town visitors and tourists.

6. To provide route patterns that run as far as possible through the centre of residential areas, maximizing the number of residents within easy walking access (500 metres) Christchurch has a very strong network in terms of easy walking access as a result of a deliberate goal 95% of residents within 500 metres walk (five minutes for able bodied); any further is a pain, and an added pain in bad weather, if carrying heavy objects or bags,if running late. The Eastside has many questionable  "one sided routes"

7. To provide route patterns that offer doorstop link to at least one supermarket, and preferably a major mall complex, and in most cases to the central city

8. To provide routes which link as residental areas to sites with primary and intermediate schools, playcentres and kindergartens, childcare centres, local community hubs with small shopping centres, libraries, medical centres, community centres, sporting fields and stadiums, pools and beaches, rest homes and tourist attractions. Why do all Eastside buses terminate at New Brighton, I have suggested 83 (which only copies Metrostar route for 5km) instead run up to past QEII to Parklands and Burwood Hospital to reinforce community links, with increased options and travel directions for all [in peak hours a much more direct to city version suggested] 

In general

9. To co-ordinate departure times (as far as possible as well as meeting previously mentioned criteria) so that services on routes running along the same corridors, passing through the same hubs and intersections or running roughly parallel closely together (eg less than 1.2 km apart) run at alternating intervals of time and consistently spaced apart, with special priority given to this patterning of services during evening, Saturday and Sunday and public holiday services.
10. Ensuring buses that pass through multiple route hubs and transfers stations run at intervals, ideally of not less than 5 minutes and not more than 15 to nearly as possible offer security of transfer without undue delay.
11. To avoid routes making right hand turns across two lanes of traffic at uncontrolled intersections on major busy corridors.
12 To use resources effectively to minimize unnecessary costs, including duplication of services , or prolonged recovery periods where vehicles are immobile, and to avoid other undue stresses upon drivers or passengers eg not having a bus terminus beside a known rough pub, or not having a bus stop or terminus in a dark isolated industrial area

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