Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Metro Strategy Delivers!

I have a mate who is holds a master builder certificate who worked as a carpenter, 18 months OE, for a big building firm in the UK. At one stage he pointed out to management that a wall they were building still needed to have internal plumbing and wiring (or something) fitted the response was "You do the building and we'll do the thinking [sonny]". The patronising attitude, "we know best" and the entrenched "top down" hierarchy of class system is of course legend in the UK ....needless to say a week later a perfectly good new wall had to be partly demolished and rebuilt to accommodate the missing elements!

Something of that same complacency and smugness, "you leave the thinking to us sonny, we know where we are going" it has felt to me has emanated from Metro and Metro strategic plans in the latter half of this decade, at least until very recently. I believe public transport has huge potential to be a key player in re-creating a more livable, community centred and environmentally sensible world. Every four years Christchurch city's public transport strategy is renewed, redefining or polished up setting the strategies and goals for the coming years. Alas reading the last couple of Metro strategies, 2002 and 2006 has been more a source of frustration than hope. Tied to a vision of a fairly conventional bus system with added technology, with fairly mundane targets mapped out years ahead, the last couple of strategy reviews seemed stodgy, complacent and without room or attitude to grasp opportunity. On the other hand all my internet reading and own experience suggested Christchurch bus system barely touches the true potential implicit in the new technologies adopted; and also that major opportunities to build and fund more sophisticated rapid transit systems were being missed, year after year. Such frustration was a major factor in creating this blog.

Just one a week ago I responded to an example in Auckland of "future proofing" rail corridors with the contrast that Christchurch seemed to have no vision of the future to protect. I suggested Metro's goal of 30 million trips per year by 2020 was an unlikely prospect without major investment and ".... sad, that a childlike "saying so can make it so" replaces strategic grunt and hard miles research."

There's a saying "if you want to be a maverick and run ahead of the herd you better be bloody sure you don't stumble!!" Or to switch the animal metaphor - "Oops this rabbit has tripped over his own big feet and has ended up with a bloody large dose of foot in mouth". Slagging off at all and sundry about "missing the bus" I missed a very important document myself!! Belatedly after all the dust has settled from the earthquakes (well not quite they are still daily occurrences!) I cruised back over City Council Minutes to see what I might haver missed in the last month or two. Ooops.

They were not delivered with a pharoah's fanfare but I consider they will one day be recognised a major landmark in the city's future. This are the latest Greater Christchurch Metro Strategy Targets 2010-2016 which were adopted (with a small amendment) at the Christchurch City Council meeting of 12 August 2010.

This feels a far more aggressive and committed document than any hitherto, with very precise amendments and additions to the previous 2006 (and ongoing) Strategies. At the same time it is far more open ended and visionary. I suspect only some one deeply involved or interested in public transport in Christchurch will realise just how big a gear shift is taking place here. Many of the issues and service gaps I have challenged and ear-bashed about for several years (including this last year via "NZ in Tranzit" blog) are directly addressed.

Here are a selection of additions and amendments

"the aim to bring average bus travel times down to match or be lower than car travel times"
...given the time it ALSO takes to walk to and from the bus stop a previous goal of 125% the journey time of a car always seemed incredibly conservative to me, and no incentive at all to create busways or express bus priority pathways that might slice significant time of the bus journey itself

"extend the Metrostar following a review of this service" (2012) ...committment to specific growth "and a new target for 2015 "investigate demand for additional cross suburban services and plan to implement if appropriate" ...while Metro gets and deserves kudos for the innovative cross town services The Orbiter and The Metrostar, the other side of this equation is that anyone selling fresh cool water in the desert is likely to do well. With the majority of people no longer travelling to the city central area to work, and with much work, study and recreational life lived in suburban areas, the question might be why do so many routes run as radial spokes to the city and so few cut directly across suburbs. Creatively tail ended city-suburban routes address this only partly. And while it is nice to have a distinctive branded service of The Orbiter type, I wonder is it really necessary to make every one of these a grand production - full seven day, 15 minute service?

Over several years I have put forward the idea of simpler LINK buses (Papanui-Bryndwr Burnside-Avonhead-Russley; Westfield - Birmingham Drive; Westfield - Parkhouse) with the idea that using the word "Link" in the destination/service title implies a specialised serice between points A & B and one which may run only at certain times. Links can be marketed as a generic concept as well as specific services and could still include very tidy little branded 30 minute services. But five years away seems far too long to wait!!

"in response to public feedback from outlying townships in Selwyn and Waimakariri to set up a clear process for investigating new bus services to those areas" I am a great believer that longer distance commuting by by bus can be a very attractive alternative to driving if the quality of the bus (coach quality - head rest, footrest, arm rest, leg room, stow room, overhead self adjustable lighting, wi-fi accessable, quiet powerful engine etc) is the basis. Instead of the longer journey stealing a big chunk of one's day it becomes a chance to study, listen to music, snooze, think, read and enjoy quality passive recreation time. A special time of day, without other calls upon our time, a bit of time out to which we can look forward!

To come in at this level and still keep subsidised fares in country areas I have suggested trialling the Express Premium Transit (XPT) concept, of split fares, offering de facto a luxury express service for higher fares from key stops only in areas also covered by existing services, such as from Kaiapoi or Rolleston (more here). At a 50% surcharge I believe there are people out there who can and will pay extra for the greater comfort, express service and direct access to added locations, such as Christchurch International Airport. For every two passengers the equivalent of three fares, in effect helping subsidise the cost of the total rural service, without slowing it down significantly.

In general I see a big market for rural services in life-style block owners, who are often in higher paying professional, medical, academic, technical careers, and in secondary and tertiary students, currently at boarding schools or boarding or flatting in town, situations where weekly commuting costs even if not cheap might seem an attractive option cost-wise and more cohesive for family life. If only the daily two-way journey itself is not gruelling! Ideally the need to transfer on on arrival in the city should be minimised. Tofro the city via the airport; Sheffield Tech Park; the transfer point to The Orbiter link to University or Northlands; private schools near Merivale; Arts Centre/Hospital/Council HQ seems one access route likely to incorporate a wide range of potential passengers.

Still missing from the Metro strategy (perhaps by its very structure of its emphasis metropolitan area Christchurch) - investigation of a commuter pattern service for all of Canterbury - from Timaru & Ashburton and from Waipara or Amberly, all beyond the two districts named above. With a combined population of 68,000, Ashburton and Timaru, surely warrant some provincial service better than vans (however friendly and committed the service) or the first bus arrival in Christchurch city after 1pm. In terms of getting people out of cars, every return coach trip Timaru-Christchurch (and Christchurch airport) I would imagine is equalivalent to about 32 average city car journeys! It goes without saying too, that if tourists can get out of Timaru early in the morning, they are much more likely to include it as an overnight stop on their itinerary - mid day departures and arrivals tending to steal a day from travel time budgets.

"more emphasis on developing [suburban transport] hubs at Key Activity Centres with high levels of public transport activity and discussing opportunities for implementation of hubs with developers as appropriate" This is about as near the strategy gets to the NICERide concept of a fully integrated core service system I advocate, but it is a huge step towards it. The Metro network of inter-active routes in Christchurch is very good, 95% of Christchurch residents live within 500 metres of a bus route (and probably at least 40% within easy walk of two routes). A network so good it cries out to be taken the next step of consciously interweaving routes through a range of suburban hubs with a pulsed timing pattern to maximise flow, options and transfers. If we look for example at the greater Belfast area, served by routes 90, 12, 8, 11 - theoretically these services should be coming through one common interchange point [with another service added via the Airport to Hornby], offering a bus every ten minutes, even every 15 minutes off peak, to Northlands and /or city. As it is they all depart different points (or Express buses fly past) and even getting across the wide super busy road on the crossing can be a bit hair-raising. You can be standing at one stop waiting and see a bus appear and depart from another stop, only 300 metres away but inaccessible. A suburban bus exchange built into new developments in such a way as to keep through services fast flowing, all passing through a common station area, could be offer developers a guaranteed lifetime anchor tenant, as well as a way of maximising bus access while minimising intrusion of heavy vehicles.

THE BIGGIE...rabbits pick of the crop! ....(and so soon 2010/11 - as it should be to avoid losing more land use opportunities - not on some distant horizon!!)

Future Options....General (ongoing) phrasing typically vague and hardly likely to induce confidence, especially given the record of the last decade, was "Investigate, consult the public and plan for future public transport modes" A call to action? Yeah right let's go trampers!!
But now....

Addition reads
2010/11 Complete investigations into the costs and viability of possible future modes and corridors options for Greater Christchurch including but not limited to Bus Rapid Transit, Light Rail and Heavy Rail.

I love it! Completion date defined, corridor and mode as both key elements defined, focused but broad and far more sensible than the heavily agenda loaded instruction by the city Council to CEO Marryat to investigate rail options and not best public transport options ( transit pulled sideways by the Parker-Marryat locomotive or is it a steamroller?). Indeed - I might be wrong - but I think it might be the first time the expression "Bus Rapid Transit" has ever been used in a Metro Strategy document. For me personally a huge relief, after at least five years campaigning to get this well established overseas concept recognised as a major option in public life, public thinking and city planning of public transport. My carefully presented ideas for a Northern busway sent to then Mayor Garry Moore (and according to his response forwarded to city engineers) and Ecan back in 2005 disappeared without trace. In the last local body elections 2007 I circulated a document suggesting the same busway linked to a busway running westwards via Addington. I sent this to about 40 candidates, got a few "How interesting" responses, nothing beyond these. Various other approaches, suggestions and submissions and letters to politicians, planners, newspapers - zilch respnse one seemed to want to pick up this ball and run with it, investigate it further. What is frustrating is not necesarily that ideas I put forward were right, but knowing as the options I suggested were being rapidly built-out, so probably were other options. The city was throwing away a moment in time when rapid transit corridors - whether for bus or tram, or bus now and tram later - can still be built relatively cheaply and without huge social cost or intrusion (and then there for ever, so to speak).

Recently the bus rapid transit concept has begun entering public debate on options (though confused with on-street lanes only) and is - yay - now high profile in the Metro focus. As a way of linking outer suburban areas to the central city in very short travelling times (usually by-passing Malls served by the existing route structure) I believe top quality rail like bus rapid transit corridors have huge potential in keeping the city cohesive and retaining the vitality of the inner city as the major unique shopping and recreational zone. At the same time inner city residents would be able to whoosh through to outer area work places, no tiresome traffic queues involved.

These are just some of the vital changes in the recent sharpening up of Metro strategy ..more identified soon ..

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