Thursday, September 23, 2010

Reviewing my first year as Capt'n of my own Blog

A Spring Stocktaking ........

It is now 12 months since I figured out how to make my first posting on NZ in Tranzit. Yes it's the talkative wabbit's birthday!  I suspect this may be boring to others but a time to do a spring stocktake for me ...hardened readers may find it of mild interest!

Since September 23 2009  I have made 117 postings, not counting about a dozen entries on the "Pages". I get very little correspondence - about 50/50 online and privately, and about 50/50 junk mail/serious. In a way I suspected right from the start I wouldn't get much correspondence because such a high percentage of readers are probably employed in some way linked to public transport and it would be difficult to express opinions without compromising ones' job security or advancement. I luckily stand outside this, though with many casual and informal connections to various people and facets of local infrastructure and transit and a depth background in both. The dwatted "wabbit" alter ego stuff, a photo found from my youth, preserves a small degree of privacy for one who works on counters dealing with thousands of patrons a year....the astute Fudd-like hunter maybe able to find a far less debonair truth deep within these pages. 

I have received roughly about 70 communications in the last 12 months, the most valued generally from local polticians and community activists. This is partly because, if I write about bus services to a particular area of the city I often send all local community board members/Councillors/known local community activists/appropriate journalists etc an invitation to read the posting and the little blip in readership in the next 48 hours suggests at least some do so. My main interest is to raise awareness of public transport options, foster wider understanding, stir up thought and debate. Although I'd like to think that I have some bloody good ideas (spouting off so much as I do!) it is more raising the issue that matters, public transport is actually a vast and multi-faceted field with many contradictory factors to balance so there is never any absolutely "right way". Ideas  promoted in NZ in Tranzit are only some amongst many possibilities. Careful analysis beyond my capacity or professional cost/benefit studies may reveal better ideas than those suggested here,the key thing is to see the issue itself gets addressed.  

Unfortunately it often seems public transport decisions (that affect the lives of thousands) are being made on the basis of some political whim or kneejerk reaction to a vocal minority rather than indepth research and strategic criteria. Typically the complexity of doing public transport well is completely under-estimated by members of the public or politicians (for example check the complexity of doing bus stops well, see recent postings here,  here,  or here).  Because everybody has seen or even ridden on buses or trains members of the public or elected officials presume an expertise - without any further study or research. The public hold opinons about public transport - simple authorative statements like "We need rail" or "We need smaller buses at night" with a confidence  they would never presume about what type of wharf cranes or wjhat type of medical equipment other public authorities (also partly  tax funded) should be buying!

In reality a large percentage of the public don't understand the most basic realities - transit is a largely tidal flow system and empty or part empty buses/trains is inherent in the system, just as empty coal wagons are inherent in trains returning to the mines on the West Coast rail line! Also, the main costs of buses are labour and maximising bus capacity (larger buses even if only part filled most of the time) is far cheaper than running smaller buses in almost every context. Not least it avoids the added capital and operating costs of running two sets of buses for different times of the day. Underlying these factors - transit is also an "averages game" - cut out evening or weekend services and you will lose a certain amount of everyday day-time users (including some 500 trips per year plus commuters like myself) people who won't rely on public transport if it has limited hours, leaving them stranded. They will create other systems, socially and personally less effective. In this sense there are always a few are ghost riders on later or lightly used services - they may only ride these later buses tend times a year - but full time use at other times pushes up patronage figures, levers the average.  The key marker of success is the average passengers per trip or per kilometre across the year, not any one trip. As with many small businesses, the most successful can often be the least ostentatious, with factors such as route length, group tendering of routes and scheduling patterns able to bring better economies of use on some routes [irrespective of patronage appearances] than others. 

Getting back to the blog, until I discovered how to install a visitor counter I was fairly much under the impression I only a few readers. At times I despaired "What's the bloody use!! A voice in the wilderness...dancing around his juniper tree like the mad holy man in "The Life of Brian", you're nuts man, give up". But I like blogging and a few supportive gestures and comments held me there.  My shock on installing a visitor counter about late February was to discover about 150 visitors a week. Oh my God!

Still, I thought, the internet is so vast, surely these are in great part random hits occurring across the world (perhaps 5% NZ) from people cruising the internet.  About three months ago I found Blogger was offering a simple statistical system for analysing page hits per day, week, month etc and could also identify country of origin. Upto yesterday, since February, the counter had clicked over 7000 page views with currently 50.5% of these originating in NZ, 22% in the USA; 7-8% each Australia, Canada, UK; followed by Germany and Brazil, and then China, Russia etc in tiny numbers. Last month (28 days) I received 1,966 page views...over 900 hundred from NZ readers ... an amount I find astounding for a subject like public transport!  It bodes well for the future of our society that there seems to be so much active interest in this alternative to private car use or ownership.

Apart from the odd letter to The Press,  which only allows any idea a couple of paragraphs, all my ideas in the past have never got much beyond being read by a few (usually unknown) planners or politicians sitting in session on route change or strategic long term planning reviews. Often response was minimal or non-at all, a pretty tough call on the heart and soul when the submissions had taken weeks and dozens of hours to prepare. In a way many of my submissions were "ideological" ...arose out or promoted some larger concepts such as Bus Rapid Transit or intelligently integrated services or bringing information about ALL bus services (public/private, urban/long distance) under one umbrella. They were too big for the scope of the review or the understanding of planners who may be too overworked handling nitty gritty details to have time for the larger vision.  A blog is so much more suited to this "inspirational" or "political" role, not least because new concepts need to get a foothold in the public imagination before politicians or planners are likely to call for their investigation.

A key example; Bus Rapid Transit is advancing (appropriately) at a rapid pace around the world as an alternative to conventional bus systems and to light rail . In Auckland over five years ago two different busways received Government funding of $220 million in total whilst Christchurch politicians were looking the other way busily discussing the pros and cons of a hypothetical rail system. I find it bizarre (and ultimately appalling) that to the best of my knowledge the busway concept has never been seriously investigated by either of the two main public authorities in Christchurch though it obviously has huge potential to move far more passengers than any rail system city wide, and at a fraction of the cost and social disruption. Instead we have had an excruciatingly slow and painful process dating back to 1997 to achieve three part-time part route bus laned routes (with an 18 month detour into the "bus boarder" which was never going to be "politically acceptable") with Government funding now severely cut for future routes! "Mass rapid transit planning is by nature linear - rail, light rail or busways or heavy bus use corridors and need an extended free run alignment - planning  must be started years in advance to achieve good results. Beyond some part-time bus lanes, or a few extra express buses, - our city doesn't even have a significant mass rapid transit strategy. In fact it doesn't even run buses to some key employment zones! 

Although the Blogger stats system only reveals the number of visitors to a list of the 20 most read postings, it is extremely reassuring to me to see four out the five most frequently read postings are postings about the Bus Rapid Transit concept and its potential in Christchurch. The single most read posting,  day after day,  is "City to Burwood, Prestons - fifteen minutes by busway? which perhaps best expresses the BRT concept in application. Readers presumably include many Christchurch residents, the audience I most seek. I have also seen reference in the last few months to busways or bus rapid transit in newsmedia by journalists and politicians - usually ineptly and poorly understood, but at least the concept is finally getting presence in local debate.

Posting referring to quality standards in bus scheduling - a little dry as a subject perhaps but surprisingly one that  attract significant interest, perhaps from those who rely upon buses most and identify with issues raised.  Items about "Designline" (bus manufacturers originally from Ashburton) and another about new approaches to buses in New York, both feature in the "top 20" and get many visits (presumably from US readers). An fairly early article about regional commuter services from Timaru to Christchurch  and Christchurch Airport (not rocket science to create but currently none!) is another posting fairly constant in the "most read" listings. New boy on the block picking up extra readers most days is the very recent postings about the potential of a western-airport rail corridor. Suprisingly the earthquake postings - included as much for general overseas/other centre interest as relevance to transit - get very few visits, and therefore do not distort what appears to be a genuine interest in public transport or rail or buses from most readers. It is gratifying too that amongst the recently started "Pages" (on sidebar) the NICERide concept gets by far the most visits of these pages, the idea of bus services being a disparate group of routes is an anachronism now that modern technology, bus reliability and fast loading, lanes and bus based traffic light controls, communications and GPS tracking devices, make an integrated mesh or mosaic system possible, particular in smaller cities with less regular services.  

I get a lot of fun out of blogging and enjoy reading a range of other blogs that have a good mix of personal character, humour, information, analyses and criticism and a wide range of bits and pieces - it is a unique new form of journalism, partly magazine style very much "in the moment" ( a photo taken on the street and posted ten minutes goes world-wide instantly) and yet also offering an enduring encyclopedia - posts written months or a year** ago are still being read every day, the gift that goes on giving.  All in all blogging is so suited to my (verbose!) character, love of storytelling, writing and tying together quirky things and my deep and nosy interest in local infrastructure, architecture and public systems!

After years of frustration it is nice to know the little man can still have some influence on public life. At last Joe Bloggs has a voice!!

Thanks to all, readers and contributors, and fellow transit fans and bloggers .

**from tomorrow

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