Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Airliners of the Road?

....but don't let's fool ourselves, the technology here will quickly mutate into tomorrow's urban express buses, the shortest haul airliners, airliners of the road.

A Neoplan Megaliner at Osaka 2007 Wikimedia Commons

I am an old fart myself, but I do stay young in some areas of life. One of them is bus technology. 

I may be mistaken but I have a very very strong sense buses rather than light rail will become the real carriers of modernistic transport in the years to come. It is more a whiff in the air than a provable scent!  But I have been reading public transport on internet for 15 years, I trust my intuition here. Too many threads in the wind to ignore. It is only the timelag - the way the older generation trapped in a past reality sees things (eg stinky slow buses) that blocks this realisation more fully.

Most things light rail does can now be matched by buses, far more cheaply with superior frequency for the same dollar invested. Need it be said buses also offer  far more potential choice of direction  and, increasingly, greater comfort and cruisy smoothness. The principals of hybrid engines do not appear been 100% cost/effective or successful with all bus systems, but who can doubt - reading around the traps month by month - that very very quiet buses, with effortlessly trolley bus like acceleration and deceleration and whose engines stop and start where todays' buses idle are likely to be the norm for new buses within the decade. On present trends many of these buses will likely run mostly on "grade separate" (segregated corridors)  rarely interupted by other traffic flow along special smooth road surfaces. Who can doubt this will become the industry standard within a decade now urban and long distance buses are getting decent levels of  investment and research?

One thing though, capacity won't change much, the human bum stays the same size!  In other words even the most modernistic 64-seater tram still seats 64 passsengers. Strangely (so odd!) a 64 seater bus does as well! The difference - the much vaunted "greater capacity of trams" - used to be standing passengers, trams with their heavier bodies could hold more standees. Well we are talking decades old heavy rail technology - the modern alloys, carbon fibre and many other materials used in bus construction and the vastly superior diesel engines can now carry the same loads at much lower body weight, articulated and bi-articulated buses typically carrying 100-200 passengers, as a norm in many cities with some (well, at least one, in Shanghai) carrying 300 passengers.

But do we really want to go back to standing passengers??? For goodness sake - hey people let's go green - get out of those comfy car seats and get squashed by total strangers in a 20 minute standing journey before and after work each day? Fantastic prospect!! Perhaps a necessity in big cities but in Christchurch ??  Come on, come on - wake up! We are living in the 21st century! Even today, already, we have the technology to give every passenger a quality leather armchair, footrests, coffee tables, wi fi, choice of ten channels (or none) - we have the capacity to shift public transport from bottom order transport to the best - sit back and relax, bliss out - that interlude between home and work could offer the best part of the working day!

Our culture (or perhaps it is only the culture of the older, 30 years plus generation)  is so used to thinking of public transport as a bottom order system (albeit modern urban buses are light, warm, smooth  and attractive). And yet, it is more of a mindshift that a financial one, to leap into saying public transport is a system capable of beating cars at their own game, cheaper and better, faster and more relaxing. Fun. Why spent $4 million (the current price Melbourne is paying for each new smaller tram) for a new 64 seater tram when that same money will buy four top quality articulated buses SEATING 400 passengers in what could be extreme comfort?

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) corridor bus in Stockholm Photo Karl Fjellstrom IDTP

For the price of a few kilometres of light rail Christchurch could have buses that depart every 5 minutes (12 per hour) along major trunk routes rather large light rail  trams, but which only run every 15 minutes [unless we spend absurd amounts].

Instead of light rail services lrunning to  huge "park and ride stations" of around 500 cars - overseas often a source of irritation if near suburban neighbourhoods, with  car doors slamming from 6am, traffic jams in quiet streets, or worse overflow of cars parked outside the houses all day;  instead of running to a car park along a single line we could leap into the future to realise the huge potential of modern buses. At the end of the express trunk bus (or BRT) route - along which the outer-suburb and rural buses have only stopped at a two or three platformed bus stations and never at traffic lights - four of those 12 buses per hour each peak hour veer left to serve neighbourhood A (with a 15 minute service), four go straight ahead to serve neighbourhood B (with a 15 minute service) and four of them veer right to serve neighbourhood C (with a 15 minute service).

Here is a U-Tube about the new Neoplan double-decker long distance coaches. [note -Neoplan is a cutting edge subsidiary of MAN, engine makers to many of Christchurch's Designline-built buses].  Sure they they look a bit weird, as all modern technology first does, but I don't doubt we are seeing the future norm. These are top line European tour coaches [even if  their interiors win awards in bad taste] but don't let's fool ourselves, the technology here will quickly mutate into tomorrow's urban express buses, the shortest haul airliners, airliners of the road.

The sort of shift in younger thinking which has helped boost very rapid growth in the Megabus inter-city systems in the USA and UK  - as in news item below -  also transplates into urban city transport for the city transit leaderships that can recognise it and repond

"Fifty-five percent of MegaBus' passenger demographic is made up of 18 to 34 year olds, whom they categorize as "young professionals." This group tends to watch their spending on travel and is looking for value, convenience and amenities such as free Wi-Fi plug-ins for cell phones and other electronic devices; they want all those features that currently they can't always get on other modes of transportation, Moser says.
At 60 percent, the majority of the customers who use MegaBus tell the operator they would have otherwise taken their car for their trip. "We're getting what we believe to be a modal shift, getting people out of their automobiles. With fuel prices, the cost of driving your car, parking in these cities, wear and tear on your car, and just the hassle of driving in some of these cities has [caused] people to look for alternatives," Moser says. He adds that these amenities allow riders to keep their connectivity with the rest of the world while traveling economically when going from one city to another. In April 2006 MegaBus operated in seven cities in the Midwest. Since then, the carrier has grown its operation to 40 cities in the Midwest and the Northeast."
Metro Magazine July 2010

UK Megabus Photo- Wikimedia Commons

OR consider another recent observation, in a New York Times article

"We're starting to see briefcase-carrying travelers use the buses because of their cutting-edge image and Wi-Fi," said Joseph Schwieterman, a professor at the Chaddick Institute who has studied intercity bus companies. "We did focus groups with people in their 20s and when we brought up Amtrak, they rolled their eyes."

"Thinking Outside Rails and Runways, And Taking the Bus" [Business Travel] Ken Belson.
New York Times May 6th 2010

USA Megabuses waiting outside Penn Station NY    Photo. Wikimedia Commons

The moment enough people in Christchurch realise this, the the future lies with buses, especially outside huge and dense cities,  is the moment that Christchurch becomes a world leader in high quality multi-direction, computer networked, public transport, the first real city to comprehend buses done well, very well, with all thetechnology at ourfingertips, will encourage people to leave cars at home, cars left purely for casual pleasure and social travel, because bussing is so much better, offers superior experience, more relaxing, quality peak hour transport.

London based Neoplan (note Wi-fi  access advertised on frontage) Source; Wikimedia Commons

InterCity double-deck Scania coach at Taupo on Auckland-Wellington run - a smoother ride than rail?
Photo D Welch

1 comment:

  1. A downside of using double decker buses in a "single decker culture" or with casual, non-fulltime or inexperienced drivers must surely be the occasional horrendous cases of drivers that go off route and/or forget the added deck above them when passing under an overbridge. A very recent case occurred involving a Megabus, as described above, in USA -