Saturday, October 2, 2010

Simply no excuse

"I have no idea how they plan bus schedules but there is little to suggest the classic service motto "the customer comes first" is being applied"

Even though I dress on the left and occasionally wave a tattered red flag, I must confess I also enjoy the humour, pungent insight and pithy comments of right-winger P.J.O'Rouke. It is probably a dangerous thing to quote a passage read ten or much more years ago from memory - the most fantastically inaccurate part of the brain. But....but I remember one article I read in (I think in his highly "objective" study of economics "Eat the Rich") where he describes his trip to Soviet Russia not long after perestroika opened up this semi-secret empire to western ideas.

Our man on the spot "P" (I hope I'm not sounding too familiar here!) goes to a Moscow restaurant considered up-market. I can't remember the precise details, but you know the sort of Soviet era thing, the long wait, the need to have certain papers or something, the large number of state paid waiters standing around doing nothing, the appalling quality of the food and service. And this was considered at least by visitors as one of the better restaurants in the capital city (7 million residents plus) of the Soviet Union.

O'Rourke ruminates as he digests his unattractive food on the Soviet system, and speaks with his mouth full (metaphorically - nobody got sprayed) about how Russians developed sputnik, put a dog in space and are world leaders in small aircraft design and a higher percentage have university degrees than the USA .....or something like this.....but at that time they could not do something as simple as run a quality restaurant with good food and service to match. Says O'Rourke (or words to this effect) "We are not talking an impoverished third world country here, we are talking of a country of reasonable wealth and high science achievements and education levels; in the end there is simply no excuse."

Irrespective of whether O'Rourke actually said half of these specific words (I see copies have gone from the shelves of our local library system so I can't even go back and double check for accuracy) hopefully you get the ghist. Attitude can determine outcomes regardless of technology.

Tonight I stumbled out of my favourite watering hole (what lies! I trot gaily like a happy little piglet after a couple of drinks!) north of Cathedral Square around 11pm. I was aware being Saturday night there would be two or three buses to go before the last service up Papanui Road. Route 22 went past before I could get to the stop but I know the departure times on Saturday night are anyone's guess, so kept watch over my shoulder in case another route I could catch went by. The big fear of course is that I will strike the almost half hour gap (26 minutes) or more with no bus services, as happens every hour on Papanui Rd on Saturday night and every hour (28 minutes) on Sundays. I had a positioned myself strategically beside the real time push button machine - for years the worst in Christchurch for reliability, so often showing no bus coming for over 30 minutes when in fact one is only a minute or two away. Now at last it has (almost) gone straight and stopped pretending, for several weeks a paper face saying out of order or under repair.

First bus to hover into view is a 14 Harewood via Cranford Street. I toss up with flagging this down and an extra six minutes walk cross the St Albans area versus taking a chance on a faster Papanui Road bus coming soon. Then like a smoked haddock slapped across the face it suddenly strikes me! Route 10 to the Airport runs via Harewood Road, and offers service to the Harewood Area and so does Route 14 - didn't I expose in one my earlier Tranzit postings, that in a masterpiece of Metro planning (or is it the evil genius of Redbus chasing lucrative airport fares? I still am not sure who has final say in scheduling) these bus services both run Saturday night and Sunday night ONE MINUTE apart (Sunday daytime 10 minutes apart). Thus by brilliant wabbit deduction a No 10 via Papanui Road bus is due, Sure enough number 10 slides into sight soon after it.

It is a sad statement on life when services on route with five buses an hour are so higgledy piggedly they don't come instantly to mind (10,25,40, 55 or 5, 20, 35, 50 etc) and in fact have inconsistent and lengthy gaps in service. It is a sad statement on bus scheduling and marketing when most memorable patterns are those services that duplicate each other's functions at the expense of a spread of frequency.
I have no idea how they plan bus schedules but there is little to suggest the classic service motto "the customer comes first" is being applied. In a sense literally first - work out what works best for the customer then try to deliver a cost-effective operation plan to supply it. Planning would start from logical premises such as - what is the easiest and most consistent pattern for patrons to remember? Are we giving a reasonably even spread of services to all areas? How can we avoid duplicating services to the same area, ensure that people living between two routes don't have services running either side of their area simultaneously? And half a dozen other relevant criteria. If the "customer comes first " applied so too would be baseline expectation, what in most industries would be called professional standards.

Let's look at Papanui Road bus services through the fantasy telescope of a world class bus system!!

Tofro the city and Papanui there are currently five non-express Papanui Road routes;
-Two (8,11) run to the city then via Colombo St Sydenham and Milton Street to Barrington Mall then via Frankleigh Street to Hoon Hay Road before each goes its own way; currently these buses are indeed pulsed at alternating intervals in the outbound direction only;
- tofro the city and Beckenham shops and Thorrington there are also two routes (12, 10) that travel the length of Colombo Street south before parting amiably in different directions. Typically run at the same time or very close together in time, especially after hours.
- A fifth route coming out of Redwood, route 22 runs via Northlands and Papanui tofro the city then via the Public Hospital, Hagley Avenue and west Spreydon areas to also arrive at Barrington Mall, by a longer route.

A more user friendly system (and who is the service for if not the users?) would follow a simple 15 minute headway pattern at all times after hours; eg (route A) to city and Milton Street etc... then 15 minutes later (route B) to city and then Thorrington...then 15 minutes later (route C) to city and Milton Street etc ...then 15 minutes later (route D) to city and then Thorrington. If there are logistical problems with varying route lengths in achieving such pulsed pattern, in both directions, then that is the core of the problem to address. A truly integrated system may mean different terminii are linked than currently, to get an even flow along the central Papanui - Sydenham Park corridor (and every other route corridor). Also as associated 14 route (which runs along Cranford Street rather than Papanui Road) goes to the same Cashmere Hills terminus as 10, and also goes to the same Harewood area (many common points walkable from either route) as 10, this surely does not need to run, in both directions, on virtually identical times to 10 route? How absurd that a major recreational area (Victoria Park) and landmark (Sign of the Takahe) are visited by thousands of local visitors and tourists each year on buses and never more so than at weekends but the only two bus services depart almost suimultaneously outbound and not much better inbound!!

It is very rare I'd say a route is over-bussed but I feel Papanui Road is, in both peak hours and off peak, the resources could be used more effectively. It is inconceivable - even allowing for motels etc along the route that the demand for bus services from residents near Papanui Road should be five times greater than the demand from residents living a kilometre east or west of this road, which is the current weighting given by Metro planning. Or that the same public transport rating should apply when services are so unevenly offered.

Actually it is hard to quantify five times more service versus no service to one quite large area! About 20% of those living with in 3km of the Northlands Mall/Papanui area, including High School and major pool complex, have no bus access at all because no routes run immediately south of the Papanui Rd/Harewood Road elbow, to the Blighs Rd and Idris Road "inner Bryndwr" area (incidentally also the southern part of the Papanui High School zone). To me it would make more sense for just four routes coming from Harewood Road and Main North Road to run a consistent service (between themselves) offering a weekday bus every 7 or 8 minutes up or down Papanui Road and every 15 minutes (consistently - yeah yeah!) off peak. This is more regular than current service and yet also voids the nose to tail duplication one often sees even during the less busy part of the weekdays (10,12 inbound; 8,12 like cojoined twins outbound).

In my mind the fifth bus route heading into town after departing Papanui should turn westwards into Blighs Rd, then down Idris Road and Rossall Street, around Carlton Mill Road and into the city via Park Tce, Hagley Park, Arts Centre, Hospital (rear entrance) and the council headquarters. If this was pulsed in with the route 15 or route 20 from about Idris Road this would tremendously improve after hours services, in this area, very erratically patterned. The deviation is not huge, an extra three or four minutes, but it also offers a direct link between Northlands as a transfer point and a whole range of traffic generators, study, employment, recreation, events, medical services for both locals and tourists. To me that is a major reason for transfer points, quick ways of short cutting tedious journeys into the Bus Exchange and then back outwards again. It is not only a service to a Metro neglected area but offers a host of secondary functions and transfer links in either direction.
Yes the Route10bus followed Route 14 bus soon after as I predicted, I didn't get stuck with the dreaded 26 minute (needless!) gap, here I was sitting on the ultra-modern new bus looking at what modern technology can achieve, and thinking of the higgledy piggledy weekend and evening schedules along Papanui Road (and the duplicated week days services). I thought about the millions of dollars invested in capital equipment and operating subsidies and how all this vast expense still can not produce an attractive, sensible and effective resource use.

To be precise I sat on the bus and thought "We are not talking of an impoverished third world country here, we are talking of a country of considerable wealth and high science achievements and education levels. In the end there is simply no excuse."

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