Saturday, May 14, 2011

Too Many Buses? Time for an integrated service.

From the mists of time.....or rather the faded images of a newspaper cutting about 45 years old.  This photo came to light during the preparation for the Christchurch Transport Board staff reunion (and 100th Anniversary of the establishment of the CTB) in 2003 after a call was made for old photos. This photo presumably appeared in one of Christchurch's major papers, but no original clear quality copy was found amongst archival photos of local trams and buses held by either paper.  Various clues in the image suggest it is taken in the latter 1960s. 

From  about the 1870s until the early 1990s, Cathedral Square at the centre of the city, was also the hub of the city's public transport network - from horse drawn buses and then steam trams and electric trams, then from 1954 buses. Now the oddly  designed and unsafe narrowed roading through Cathedral Square is merely a through point for a continual line of buses.  The problem for a transit network is the same as for all vehicles - if multiple vehicles all head from a wide area into a central area it goes without saying, the closer they get to the city, the greater the concentration of vehicles per roading or parking area available. 

Ian Athfield, the architectural ambassador sent to advise the city on its town planning has said of Christchurch "We also run a lot of buses around the city with not many people in them". As Christchurch Transport blog so aptly put it "This seems a rather generic and ignorant statement " allowing " but could have been portrayed in the wrong context in the media".

I won't mention (oops I did) the fact that this sounds a bit rich coming from a Wellingtonian with Lambton Quay, Willis Street, Manners Street etc a perpetual queue of buses often equally sparsely patronised at central points. Then again maybe Athfield feels the same about the windy city and it's narrow streets. 

Certainly though, if you are going to plan a new city around accessible transport  it helps to recognise that whatever the size or capacity of trains or buses,  full capacity is only utilised for a relatively small part of the week, and that typically in only one direction (peak hour tidal flow) and that is the ergonomics or dynamics or economic success of any particular route can not be realised just by casual observation.  Excess capacity is a fairly minor expense in the over-all dynamics of public transport where capital costs, administration costs and labour costs (including repairs) remain the largest factors.

But all that said and done, I too believe Christchurch has too many buses coursing through centre city streets. And I depend upon my buses. as other people depend upon a car, to get everywhere. But there comes a point when instead of adding to the life of a city, it feels to me,  multiple queues of buses, buses crowding bus stops, become exhausting, kill the whole quality of life feeling of the streetscape. And this a huge problem for the city, with Metro believing it can coax patronage up to almost double present bus usage in the next ten years. Some of this can be absorbed into existing capacity and some of it can be absorbed into cross town routes, but even a 33% increase in buses trailing through the city centre would be almost unbearable. It looks clumsy, it looks stupid, it does nothing for the feel of an effective efficient bus service. And as the photo above shows (I count 13 buses visible) it is hardly a new problem.

The Metro/city planning policy across the years has been to add on new routes and services, increase some services from 30 minutes to 15  minute headways. It appears to me this is done largely on an ad hoc basis, there is not a systematic ground plan, or at least not one that is fully integrated.  In many cases timing of one route is completely unrelated or competing with other services serving the same area (as here!) The system often has buses running simultaneously (indeed timed to run simultaneously) while leaving long gaps to the next (two or more) simultaneously departures. There are key areas and directional flows that remain without any service whatsoever and when Auckland and Wellington were receiving hundreds of millions in Government funding  for rapid transit options (rail and busway) our city was asleep at the wheel and sought and received next to nothing.  Yet without much greater capital investment - for example in "queue jumper" lanes for buses at key congested intersections - no reliable timing can be achieved. Under the piecemeal strategies typical of the last decade, more of the same means too much of the same, including too many buses in the city centre.

I believe  instead, the city should be looking at creating a fully integrated system as its core service. 

On Papanui Road for instance ten buses an hour (on five routes) and two on express service travel in each direction, minimum, on a normal business day. Often they run nose to tail  though only carrying a handful of passengers, and only diverge near the last  third of their route,  a relatively wasteful service. I think 8 per hour (4 x 30 minute routes)would be more than adequate, if consistently patterned and evenly timed.

In an integrated system desired service levels of each road, to each area is pre-determined. as is the  pattern of directions available from each node point, and then the overall route pattern is  fitted into the desired pattern.  The pieces needed for the mosaic are figured out and then the routes designed to fit into a tight, frequent and consistent pattern, areas  in many cases will served by two or more routes with overlapping functions (for example access to the CBD) in a predictable alternating pattern. An eight minute service might consist of one 15 minute route, and two 30 minute routes, three routes that hit the same arterial toad into the city at a common point, in an integrated pattern that also relates to cross town route departure times along the way.

In an integrated planning, for instance, might be determined for example that nine of the busiest and most important arterial roads heading towards the city have a standardised setting,  8 buses an hour all Mon-Sat from the four km ring of malls inward (and serving the denser inner suburbs) and 15 minute service at other times. Also that in the lower density suburbs further out these branch out to offer a 30 minute setvice to town at all times but (by clever use of integrated loop shuttles) a 15 minute service tofro nearest large mall complex during the day seven days a week. De facto arrival at the mall zone is also arrival at a transfer point offering 8 services an hour to the city. leaving every 7-8 minutes. Consistently. Predictable.  

In that scenario of predetermined service levels and directional diversity one of the  five routes [excluding Rangiora Express buses] currently traveling down Papanui Road would be surplus and instead might travel via Matsons Avenue/Ccondell Avenue to run down through Idris and Rossall Street to complement route 15 and create a (predetermined as appropriate/needed) 15 minute access to the city,  based on these two routes alternating in departure time. This in turn might mean Route 9 Wairakei Road follows a slightly different pattern. etc etc.  At the same time a large sector of the northern area near Northlands, which is bizarrely with  no current bus access to the mall/high school/pool etc gets a service. Integrating departure times of the Matsons/Condell/Idris service with a west link shuttle from Northlands to Fendalton, Avonhead, Rssley, Hornby would then give a 15 minute consistent access between Idris Road area and Northlands Mall. And so on, city wide.

Instead of increasing buses into the central city, or adding more and more buses to existing over-bussed roads, such as Papanui Road or Riccartion Road, an integrated system would slightly reduce and stablise the number of buses, spread growth more evenly into other areas between the major arterials , create integrated shuttle loops between outer suburbs and midway malls, and offer access tofro the central city more evenly spread across different pathways. This sort of enhanced, top quality service, is not possible in today's style of planning (or budgeted planning). 

But underlying all this, at another strata altogether, I believe this city needs to build five or six semi-segregated busways, that in effect link all major outer residential areas directly to the city centre (and one or two other major work zones) completely by-passing congestion, mall areas etc and offering access to work at peak times of less than 25 minutes from Templeon/Hornby, Halswell, Sumner, Redcliffs, Southshore, North Shore/Parklands, Prestons, Belfast, and Styx. These busways would employ articulated buses, have platformed stations, and travel along virtually uncontested roading corridors, for example passing under QEII Drive and over Cranford Street,  or under Linwood Avenue at Worcester Street.  Where they travel on city streets, they would be mostly secondary arterials and feeder roads with minimal contesting traffic, and traffic lights on intersecting roads, automatically favour busway vehicles. Well designed busways can carry tens of thousands (overseas hundreds of thousands) of people a day quickly and smoothly right into the heart of a city without having to stop  at all, even in peak hours. 

The lesson of such busways in Sydney and Ottawa,  however, is that it is very important to have inner city entrance routes, equally free flowing, and with room for multiple buses that does not compromise commercial life and, yet again, put too many buses in city centre streets.  

Services that "jump across" the inner suburbs can be key players in jump starting a city centre that has been losing out to suburban malls for the last two decades and now taken a savage blow from an earthquake of rare and devastating ground acceleration rates.

I believe Christchurch still has some excellent potential pathways to bring multiple buses  (including longer articulated buses)  into the city central areas with minimal impact on traffic flow or commercial activity.  These will be explored in  the next posting.

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