Saturday, August 6, 2011

Kitchener-Waterloo - dispute exposes some key factors in transit planning, for Christchurch too

NZ in Tranzit finds common challenges in transit planning, Canada and New Zealand

Grand River Transit (GRT) is the public authority responsible for operating public transport in the Kitchener-Waterloo-Cambridge area of Canada, an area with a metropop of about 450,000.

It has recently announced it plans to open a new express bus route, aimed to directly link those living in the western area of Kitchener, traditionally a more blue collar city, with the rapidly expanding tech industries and Universities in Waterloo. It is part of the region’s largest expansion in the history of Grand River Transit. GRT already run an innovative express service in this elongated urban area called iXpress. The new service covering 15km will run every 15 minutes and take 45 minutes, with only 18 stops along the way.

Sounds good, but as usual in public transport, a great many factors have to line up to work well!

Peter Zinck the assistant regional director of GRT in told local news paper The Record “We want to have a very fast and frequent service for customers … so we are trying to avoid deviations off the main roadways”.

This comment raises the first three factors - arterial routes need to be straight running and frequent (in cities similar to Christchurch, without the density of larger centres, 15 minutes is usually the goal).

As raised in a previous posting about Christchurch's failure to begin building planned suburban transfers stations, attractive routes have no unwieldy deviations, off the main directional flow, deviations that feel cumbersome, and overly time wasting to through.

“We need to provide a fast travel time to compete with the automobile along that corridor,” Zinck continued. 

Factor four politicians everywhere relentlessly talk about the need to address congestion, reduce emissions that damage health and stimulate climate change, but in my experience spanning decades will not accept this can not happen until land use design and roading in built up areas is designed to make buses more competitive with cars.

This means millions of dollars need to be invested in widening intersections, in easy transfer hubs; in bus -only subways under major arterial roads etc as well as minimum subdivision design requirements and road usage criteria intrinsic to city plans.

Christchurch has done well to develop high quality bus tech, had a good central interchange (now because of earthquake damage to be demolished) and an effective new bus shelter implementation programme but has made little progress in other areas.

But back in Halifax - as elsewhere - public transport design is still not as simple as that.

The express route design has raised the ire of the 550 Grand River Transit workers. This expressed by Rick Lonergan, president of Local 4304 of the Canadian Auto Workers.  Three more factors are raised in Lonergan's comments.

At issue is the decision to forgo a northbound stop at the Highland Hills Mall, but not a southbound one; and the consequent removal of factor five access to toilet facilities for drivers.

"Because of the union concerns, Zinck said the route was changed to include a southbound stop at the Highland Hills Mall because it entails right-hand turns to and from the mall “which is a faster delay.”
A northbound stop at the mall could add up to five minutes to the route, he said."

Leaving aside that wonderful phrase-  and the new planning tool of public transport - the "faster delay" I interpret Mr Zinck's comments to mean that bus access in and out of the Mall was never designed by city or mall owners in a way that guarantees fast access and egress  for buses

Let us remember this is a city/region that has just committed to spending $818 million on light rail but does not appear to have been ready to spend a couple of million on maximising multiple route bus access to a key passenger traffic generator - yes as rude as racism  - "busism" at work.

This leaves a rather in appropriate choice - an arrival stop in one direction not matched by an equally safe and accessible return stop - in contrast quality bus services should offer factor six closely sited arrival and departure stops/zones. 

Assistant manager Peter Zinck  describes the situation - The closest bus stop at the mall is at the corner of Fischer-Hallman and Highland roads. It is a 160-metre walk from the bus stop to the mall using traffic signals at the intersection, Zinck said. 

Shades of trying to access the mall or transfer between buses at The Palms, or Eastgate, Barrington, New Brighton and elsewhere in Christchurch! In these areas the relationship between mall or supermarket access and/or  transfers points from one route to another offer only dispersed bus stops which means 100-200 metre walk for patrons, shopping or transferring buses. 

Union President Rick Lonergan, it seems to me,  represents the real and everyday experience of drivers when he says he's said he’s concerned transit riders will jaywalk to save time and ensure they catch their connecting bus.

“You have the safety concern of kids running across the busy road,” he said.  Zinck said it is impossible to prevent people from jaywalking to shave 45 metres off the walking distance.

This raises factors seven and eight in good bus route design, eliminating unnecessary the tension and anxiety; and safety issues when bus stop access is disparate but visible, in a busy area - particularly as in Halifax, separated by busy four lane roads. 

Being able to utilise a timetable service, only available in a limited window of time, is always fraught with anxiety, not least with buses - "has the bus gone though already? When will it come, has it been delayed/broken down/removed? Or if the bus is already waiting, visible, but some distance away, will it drive off before I get there? This is why transfer hubs that allow "hop off one bus -hop on next bus" at the same immediate location transform bus systems. 

Real Time signage has also made a huge difference in Christchurch, it completely removes the anxiety factor from waiting. Where it is displayed away from bus stops, such as in the concourse area of shopping malls, real time information allows passengers sensible choices (not going to run for the one in two minutes, I'll catch the next, or an alternate route that gets me within walking distance of home). 

Any situation that creates, fosters or allows a faster jay-walking option in a higher speed area, a child, teenage or younger adult run situation (sometimes too focused on catching the bus to look carefully) is not good bus planning either - as is the case at the stops Eastgate in Christchurch where east bound passengers sometimes make a desperate, diving,  run between fast moving cars on four lanes, in order not to miss an approaching bus on the opposite lane.

Without fully knowing the situation in Halifax, Nova Scotia, it is clear there is a lot to be learnt from other cities of similar demographics and nature to Christchurch. Not least the underlying failure to give buses with their city wide network systems  the same status and investment and technology and infrastructure support that is often given to a single light rail corridor.  And perhaps most of all, good public transport is as much about good land use as it is about the vehicles or drivers.

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