Sunday, April 3, 2011

"The Orbiter" Service Review - a chance for greater route integration?

Before the February 22 earthquake ripped most normality from our lives Metro was holding a service review of the two cross town services "The Orbiter" and "Metrostar". Whether the "send-in your comments" date has passed, or this review has been suspended in the meantime I am not sure, the promo bit on the website has disappeared.  One could hardly blame Metro for putting in the non-urgent basket as they struggle to try to restart some sort of temporary service pattern that operates without the core central city exchange.

As remembered the wording for this review was somewhat guarded, words and hints to the effect "it should be realised major changes in such popular routes are unlikely". It is hard to mess with a winning formula, I know,  but I do see one thing I believe that must be done if Metro (and CCC) are going to meet their commitments to creating transfer stations in the coming years.

Currently much of the Christchurch system is fairly radial - heading in and out of the city, sometimes with a bit of sideways travel towards the outer terminii. It is not a particularly good system for getting across the suburbs, directly and without having to go into town and change buses to travel back out again. That said the introduction of "The Orbiter" (orbits the CBD via the suburban malls and areas about 4km from the centre) and "The Metrostar" (travels far east-to far out west tofro passing about 2km north of the CBD) has transformed bus travel in Christchurch in those broad areas through which they pass. These are both branded services with distinctive livery, frequent services and own coloured timetables and distinctive stops. In the nature of such services stops tend to be slightly further apart and the routes avoid fussy or winding sections, keeping mostly to straight running arterial roads. A major role these cross-towns play is a "connecting link" - if one travels outwards [or inwards from outer suburbs] on the radial route nearest home or work it is sure to cross "The Orbiter" and transfer tofro this gives access to a wide range ofareas and facilities without further transfer. A key aspect of every major transfer station - ostensibly planned by Metro and Council - will sensibly be the inclusion of at least one and possibly two or more cross town routes, brought into conjunction with the other city-suburban radial routes.

One of the key transfer station locations, servicing the whole south-west of the city, will inevitably be at based at Barrington Mall. I don't think it needs a presumptious dapper looking know-it-all rabbit to guess this - the bus stops in Athelstan Street, beside the south entrance to the mall,already offers services from multiple directions from several intersecting routes (11,8,20, 22). But the actual stop itself is bypassed by The Orbiter, which stops out of sight on another street (Barrington Street) about 200 metres away and for northbound Orbiter buses involves crossing a very busy river of traffic to get to the stop opposite the public library.

Athelstan Street offers a perfect setting for a transfer station, because being hardly more than a side street with few private residences and is mostly a de facto driveway in and out of the carpark. It would allow a bus transfer station to be built relatively cheaply - no need to build pedestrian/passenger links over or under a busy road to connect bus services flowing in opposite directions. Rather a simple but attractive palazzo system of raised islands and larger shelters with a reduced traffic slowing through pass for private cars would suffice. This can't sensibly be built on super busy Barrington Street so it makes sense that The Orbiter needs to travel via Athelstan Street as well. Anything less will be a grossly inferior transfer station, indeed almost meaningless. Asking people to drag kids, shopping trolleys, through rain etc - to a stop around the corner or across a busy road a couple of hundred metres away is hardly a transfer station!

To achieve a really user friendly popular transfer station The Orbiter travelling southwards probably needs to turn left off Barrington into Coronation Street, right into Simeon Street, then right into Athelstan and then (as do other buses) left into Barrington Street and resume the current route. About an extra two minutes, if that,  in travel time and disadvantaging few locals (whilst - a bonus - greatly increasing acces from a much larger local catchment including access tofro South Intermediate School). As The Orbiter  often struggles so often to run on time I imagine it will anyway need time adjustments so expansion by a minute or two can be factored into the new timteables originating from the current review. Some roading management changes may be needed, Coronation Street has been narrowed (years ago) towards Barrington Street corner in a rather pointless and unattractive way and this short length long term could be better designed for easier bus movement, and lights may be needed at Barrington.  Another alternative (far less useful, attractive or logical) is to dogleg The Orbiter via Althelstan, Simeon Street and Milton Street.

For many peak hour commuters good transfer stations will be hugely useful - for full time bus users, who need to traverse all corners the city with at least some degree of comfort, clarity and speed matching the freedom of a car they are absolutely crucial. The more intersecting points from which passengers can travel in six or more different directions the greater the fluidity, mobility and options for bus travellers. Indeed, We do not begin to move buses into the 21st century until we realize (make real) the potential inherent in modern technologies to deliver an integrated network system of multi-directional travel.

Understandably in the midst of catastrophic earthquakes and budgetary blowouts for council and Environment Canterbury the move towards a multi-nodal integrated bus pattern might get a bit lost. But we have seen how poorly Christchurch fared in the first decade, taking 12 years to get three part-time part-route bus lanes, and then lost even funding for those,  while Auckland and Wellington received hundreds of millions in rail and busway funding. These cities were able to take advantage of a sympathetic Labour Government (and prosperity) in a way Christchurch could not because they already had a mass transit strategy in place. This sort of funding is no longer available but it is amazing how often if one has a strategy "things turn up". In Christchurch this includes two very violent earthquakes, and shrewd far sighted strategy - if only we had one - could take advantage of roading rebuilds, widened intersections by virtue of lost buildings etc. to hugely enhance the viability and effectiveness of public transport in Christchurch.

As a city we must have a more forward thinking, active and assertive policy on public transport than has been the case to now, not least because many changes can be piggy-backed onto improvements and restorative work post earthquake.

Although Christchurch lacks the larger vision - such as already determined busway corridors and long term commuter rail strategies - it has at least committed to creating suburban transfer stations. The Orbiter review offers the city a good chance to start putting this policy into practice.

View from the current Athelstan Street in-stop at Barrington Mall on a wet Sunday morning.
Lots of room for vision here, but can Metro-city transit planning rise to the occasion??

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