Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Calgary Transit in catch up mode; tech rich Christchurch Metro system facing tough future

NZ in Tranzit viewpoint - comparing systems doing transit well in different ways

Calgary's famous C-Train, in latest livery, at the opening of Crowfoot Station 2009
 Photo:Wikimedia Commons.  Click on image to enlarge.

Opponents or those cynical about light rail often claim it is a "poster boy" system, stealing a lot of energy and funding from the broader bus network, or diverting a natural flow of bus systems into becoming feeders bringing passengers tofro the light rail stations. Whether this allegation would hold water in Canadian city Calgary is not clear - few medium size cities in North America have done public transport so well, the transit system of Calgary, which has a population of just over a million, carrying 90 million passenger trips year, or 88 trips per capita per year (for local readers, twice the per capita trip rate of Christchurch PQ*) using both an extremely popular light rail system and/or an extensive bus network.

So it comes as something of a surprise that Calgary is only this week launching a public bus service tofro the Calgary Airport, at 30 minute frequency; and Calgary Transit announce in the same week they are also planning to introduce Real Time information; and planning to introduce Smart Card type payment systems, over the next few years.

Christchurch has had public transit to the airport since the Christchurch Transport Board took over the service from private operator Midland Coachlines back in 1976. Through astute organisation by Redbus of the two commercial (non-subsidised) routes they operate to the airport with one other subsidised route they also operate, there is now (PQ) a bus every ten minutes to the city centre from the airport, every third one direct, with the other two routes slightly longer but each serving the city's two major motel (and some hotels) accommodation corridors, Papanui Road and Riccarton Road  respectively.

Real-Time signage was first trialled in 2000 and full implementation began in late 2002. By 2004 the system was claimed to be the most advanced in the world, with installation at 25% of stops (550) and access via cell phone  and website. The local real time system has its glitches and the push button versions at lesser used stops often misfire, on first push, or all pushes. In general, though,  it will fail to supply info rather than give false info (though there was a few years ago a ghost 18 St Albans bus from outside Ballantynes every week night, that never appeared, but showed on the plasma multi-route signs, apparently technicians at the time were not unable to eradicate it). Created and installed by Christchurch based firm Connexionz, it has performed well, and Christchurch seems to have none of the more major problems reported with Real Time systems in many other cities, including Auckland and now Wellington in NZ. What is probably little appreciated by non-bus, tram or train catching politicians and city administrators, and others who have not used public transport for years, is the immense difference real time information makes to the quality of waiting. When there is no way of knowing how long the next service will be, the tension involved, natural impatience and a degree of anxiety can greatly exaggerate the felt waiting time, ten minutes can seem forever. In contrast, when real-time signage is available, when one sees that the bus is eight minutes away it allows relaxation, disengage the mind, daydream for a few minutes, read a book or maybe chat to a fellow passenger etc and it is only when the bus is now shown as 2 minutes away that active waiting and preparation to flag the bus needs to re-engage the mind. When working well and service frequency is good, Real Time makes for a relaxed wait. Real Time is now (PQ) linked to a number of other computerised devices, such an inter-active map and texting and twitter links.

Christchurch has had a plastic computer chip-card  fare paying system since 2003. This a huge success in per capita uptake and (in combination with low-floor buses) significantly reduces speed of loading - according to Metro average dwell time has been cut 70% .  This gives a totally different flowing qualities to most bus journeys, trips that used to be so "stop-start" tedious. Metrocard is also a brilliantly conceived, user friendly, system with unlimited travel within a two hour period of travel; after that period has expired a second use of the card gives unlimited travel for the rest of the day. Once this pattern is applied ten times (five days) all subsequent travel is free - for students and adults who commute tofro each day this usually means all evening and weekend travel is free! Loyalty is rewarded. An added management device - often hugely appreciated - even just 1 cent value on a card will allow use, it just debits passenger the outstanding balance of the fare owing and deducts amount owing when card next loaded, spitting out a little "bill" as a reminder to top up before or on the next trip. On top of all this the discount is a very generous 25% of cash fares, amongst the best in the transit world, though this may not be sustainable in the post disaster crisis facing Christchurch.

A comparison below shows how rapidly Calgary has grown, on the back of an extended oil boom, but now facing its own financial and hugely expensive water and sewage infrastructure costs. Calgary is two and half times bigger than metropolitan Christchurch, with a different terrain, and many other factors.

A inner city street in Calgary restricted entirely to public transport vehicles,
note the attactive overhead walkways to station platforms
 Photo:Wikimedia Commons.  Click on image to enlarge

The exponential growth of public transport usage as city size increases suggests it would be very hard for a city as small (and "drive into city and park" accessible) as Christchurch to achieve 88 trips per capita per year.

But looking at the many cities, big and small, on adaption of new technologies to support and enhancing bus travel Christchurch scores very high and scored early. The challenge will be to sustain that and carry it across into a better, tighter (less wastage) and more sophisticated and multi-directional options bus network in the practical and cash flow stresses of post-quake Christchurch [if it is indeed post-quake yet!!]

Christchurch (city pop only)
First three population totals elicited from references in Geoffrey Rice's "Christchurch Changing" (2008)
100,000 in 1919
200,000 in 1959
300,000 around 1993
340,000 about 2009

100,000 in 1946
250,000 in 1961
400,000 in 1971
600,000 in c1989
1,000,000 about 2007

** PQ - it had to be done, the world we used to know encapsulated, abbreviated in some way! Wabbit wordsmith strikes again.  PQ = pre-earthquake (4 September 2011 and 7000 thereafter!), might also be read as short-hand colloquial expression for " in normal circumstances". Perhaps AQ for after/ since quake too?


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