Saturday, August 27, 2011

Pressure to degrade Northern Busway

NZ in Tranzit - Respecting the importance of empty space

I see there is renewed pressure to degrade the bus only segregated busway on Auckland's Northshore by allowing HOV (High Occupancy Vehicles) to use these lanes. 

Most people seem chronically incapable of understanding empty space is as much a part of public transport as it is most businesses or public enterprises. Shop counters or aisles are empty much of the time with often only 10% of the floor space in occupation; school rooms sit empty night after night; people only drive their cars on average 70 minutes a day but to maintain that we have to spend billions on roading and "free" (somebody pays!) parking space.  Most the dump trucks and some of the general freight trucks we see on the road run are actual running empty at least half of the time, after dropping off their load. An even more ridiculous waste is having country roads - goodness sake they are being used by ten cars an hour!!

Perhaps the most gross waste in New Zealand is on the railways, tracks sitting empty for hours at a time and - this is an appalling waste of money and I intend to organise a campaign about it - every day 12 empty trains, not a single kilogram of freight, not a single passenger, travel from Lyttelton to the West Coast.

All this is so taken for grated no body gives a moments thought to it. BUT. See an empty bus or half empty bus or see a bus lane without a bus in it!!! Phew what an outcry.  So few people ever seem  to stop and think that the economy and effectiveness of buses or trains - as with stores, country roads, trucking firms or coal trains, etc and ad infinitum,  is not based filling every space, every moment.

Indeed public transport has a huge tidal component - in towards the major central areas and business facilities mornings, return evenings. A second factor is the simple logic that even a full bus or train discharges passengers as it goes along and typically averaged out across its journey length travels at half capacity. A third factor is "ghost riders" - a person who doesn't own a car may only use three or four times a week outside working hours, evenings and weekends, but catches a bus tofro work each day - circa 500 trips a year.  The fact a bus service is available across all waking hours is the reason he or she does not buy a car or a family a second car and maintains that annual patronage figure 500 plus trips patronage.  Even when he or she is not on the bus in the evening for example, in another sense they are on the bus.

In similar vein most routes get special events or have certain facilities in their area which cause full buses, or at least heavier loading, if only for two or three trips a year, or bolster certain trips every week. A bus that goes past with five passengers on may seem hardly worth running but add a couple of ghosts and spread patronage spikes across the service period and it may be seven or eight. Actually even empty buses carry much more....

In Christchurch every bus carries [or did pre-earthquake] around 15 passengers a trip**, regardless of whether empty or full....because that is the average across all trips. And that is how public transport - or the local freight carrying firm or corner dairy also figures out their relative success -  by averages. This sort of average seems to fairly common, or better than many,  in public transport outside central areas of very large cities.  Moving it up to 16 per trip would be a huge achievement - but when talking in millions of trips moving any average is a big task. In general,  an half fill or even nearly empty bus is not necessarily and unsuccessful bus. It is just part of the nature of the system. All transport modes including private cars operate with unused capacity much of the time.

Many naive people talk about using smaller buses, but this will usually mean buses too small in the peak hours or unable to accommodate a sudden rush of passengers, even in off peak hours because of some big event in the city or on the route itself.  These events or public response are not always predictable; operating smaller buses is less cost effective - it will mean leaving behind passengers at busy moments (and lowering the average across the year) and it also means two sets of buses and complicated and costly switching off vehicles three times a day, shifting between peak hours and off peak. As most of the cost of operating buses or trains is in labour (direct or indirect), fuel, capital costs and loan repayments, administration and marketing of information it will be seen a small bus will probably save only 5-10% of total costs, but could lose 10% of patronage measured across a year.
The average modern diesel bus I believe has an engine about three times the size and fuel consumption of a car, having lots of empty seats off peak looks weird and can be - but is not necessarily - some indicator of a failed bus system. Indeed for passengers it is more pleasant to not sit on crowded buses, especially in leisure time, but rather choose a seat and location within the bus that is comfortable - a certain amount of spatial option costs nothing extra (in one sense) but adds immensely to the quality of journey.

Many people also talk of the "higher capacity" of light rail - of course a $5 million 64 seater tram carries exactly the same amount of seated people as a $500,000 64 seater bus. By higher capacity is meant the greater strength of trams allows a bigger standing load - though the supposed greater capacity is debatable - 200 and 300 passenger capacity buses (designed for standing mostly) are in operation around the world.  I am silly enough to think quality transport should NOT be based on standing passengers if that can possibly be avoided; and the easiest way to avoid that in a small city like Christchurch is to buy several top quality buses (even double decker or articulated) rather than a single tram/light rail vehicle.

The much vaunted lower labour costs for multiple unit trams/light rail is only relevant if heavy loadings operate across all hours, unlikely in all but very busy or dense cities. When adding the spread capital costs (such as the $406 million in Christchurch) and dividing by standard 25 years infrastructure cost evaluation, and add labour costs, and operating costs etc it is very doubtful the saving in labour costs in a small sparsely used system [by Eurpoean or Asian standards] will recover enough to counterbalance the real capital cost per trip. Extra bus drivers are usually only employed (on split shifts) at high demand periods and most bus companies keep the over-all capital cost recovery ratio lower by doing a high portion of school trips to manual centres, sports events etc between the peak hours, something that can not be achieved by a fixed route system.

The relative success or not of public transport in any mode can not be determined by empty space but by averaged uses and effectiveness of delivery times.  And if those lines or lanes are compromised by other uses, in any way, this will push down the average. The Auckland Transport authorities have spent hundreds of millions of dollars  (mostly taxpayers) to speed up access to the Auckland CBD for the maximum number of people possible.  The only way to to continue to increase these averages is to have no delays and this is largely contingent on no other traffic using these lanes. Ditto for bus lanes in Christchurch.

It takes an unimpeded bus traveling at 50k-70km an hour probably less than 15 seconds to appear in view, whizz pass and disappear from view.

An empty bus lane is in many ways a successful bus lane!

** This a ballpark figure only, based on a submission by the Bus and Coach Association of NZ to a Christchurch hearing in 2003 - it has probably risen and declined again since!
This week the Bus and Coach Association (BCA) told the council's sustainable transport and utilities (STU) committee that introducing dedicated bus lanes on Riccarton Road would shave 15 minutes off bus journey times during peak hours.  Riccarton Road carries 630 buses -- about 9700 passengers -- daily.  "The Press" June 14 2003 pg A4


No comments:

Post a Comment