Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Creating core service patterns for Christchurch bus services

Whiteleigh Ave. near Tower Junction. In a local authority supported bus system where the two cars in the foreground are turning would become a permanent bus only/bus queue jumper lane (the traffic island reduced accordingly) with an inside cycle lane. The footpath would be moved three metres sideways and a new left turning lane for cars would be cut into the over generous grass berm. Bus passengers here are waiting - as hundreds of thousands on this route do each year - for a Council committed to bus services!

But should the Metro seek to create a fully integrated system first and then look for the blockages Council so needs to address?  NZ in Tranzit gets right to the core of 21st century public transport !

I believe Metro and company are doing a revamp of city bus services.

Actually from what I gather they are downsizing services due to reduced income [consequence of the earthquake] and to a Government committed to "cost efficiency" in public and school transport [except for their rural voters!].

There is quite a lot of slack in the Metro system, potential to tighten things up, reduce mileage or even routes.

Changes in the last few years have been a mixed bag, with some attractive additions but also rather odd, lengthy routes running services through areas of minimal or no virtually residents - such as 60 Parklands, a 15 minute frequency service operating over 3 km of paddocks! I can't imagine the new system can tolerate too much of this sort of nonsense, but it is a big worry for those of us who depend upon or chose to use buses as our primary form of transport.

Most of all I worry the changes will be planned on a route by route basis, as now with only casual or indifferent commitment to creating a system wide network - one that is so sophisticated it is twice as simple as the current bus system is to use!

I absolutely believe (and experience every day in use) that it is not possible to plan quality bus services in isolation from each other. 

Yet Christchurch with its technologically advanced bus system and flat radial layout has more perhaps than just about any city on this planet has the potential to shift from a system part-integrated/part conflicting linear route patterns and overly radial orientated into fully integrated "go anywhere'core services.

I believe the city needs to operate a core level of service - same pattern every hour with buses alternating (shared route corridors with services evenly spaced) and criss-crossing with other routes in ways that facilitate transfers and increase travel direction options. Also inherent in such a system, options for getting to the same destination by different ways, inherently reducing waiting time, increasing frequency, mobility and journey speed. This does not effect any other, additional services, that may or may not operate, for example leaving High Schools after 3pm, but term times only, or seasonal extra November-March buses to beaches etc, except perhaps these are shown in timetables with a "bus plus" sign eg 3.10+ to indicate they are additional/conditions apply - not core, don't apply every hour, nor usually at all times.

I call this system which can be marketed as a packaged concept NICERide [the NICE stands for Network Integrated and Co-ordination Enhancement... but this said  it is not relevant for people to know or remember this!]. I suggest several core facets needed to operate a consistent core pattern concept, mostly drawn from my own experience as a bus driver and bus user spanning decades.

Core patterns start at 9 am each day. Never earlier. Peak hour services are orientated towards arriving at work places and the central city before 7.30 am, 8.00 a,m, 8.30 am etc (which is why buses come in waves) and are also far more frequent; trying to create a system wide integration at these times really would be a nightmare, though some areas of integration might be achieved. Before 9am most travellers are regular commuters and typically will identify specific transfers they need to make. Plenty of specific options but no system wide simplified pattern, - NICERide starts at 9am, every day.

And in contrast on Saturday and Sunday only some routes need to start at 6 am - usually linked to industrial purposes. Before 9am weekend services vary too  much. In all likelihood some services will operate to the same "minutes past the hour" every hour pattern they do during NICERide operating times, but a base-line is that the system as a whole - the network wide pattern known as NICERide  does not operate before 9am.

NICERide (or whatever name) I suggest could work with two core, system wide patterns, covering most hours of operation. For example;

Core Pattern A "Busy Day". 9am - 7pm Monday to Saturday;  
Core Pattern B "Eve & Sun" Monday to Saturday 7pm to 11pm  and Sunday 9 am - 9 pm.

This might vary from city to city but 7pm is a convenient time because there are usually always an excess of peak hour buses returning to the city centre, ensuring maintenance of a frequency pattern - possibly actually more than this time of the evening warrants, but simplicity sells.

During each of these patterns ALL included routes would operate to a pattern that was the same each hour with-in whatever pattern A or B applied. If you can catch a Metrostar from Clyde Road to Main South Road at 3.10 pm on a Thursday (and transfer to a Rolleston bound bus at 3.19 pm).  You  know you can do at this, at the same minutes past the hour every hour Monday to Saturday 9am - 7pm. You know you can supermarket shop comfortably - every hour Monday Saturday 9am -7pm - in the 45 minute gap between one  out-bound route and the next one that gets you closer to home. Or you know as long as you leave home at 17 minutes past the hour, and walk the five minutes to the stop, you will always get a bus to town, 6 days a week 9am until 7pm. You can plan your life around a consistent reliable bus service. And of course, not only does the bus past your door stick to the same minutes past each hour, it crosses three other routes in an equally predictable pattern, in most cases designed to allow transfers with adequate but not too long waiting time at key locations.

If you use buses a lot, as teenagers and students and some full time bus users do, in a matter of weeks you will know all sorts of "pathways" to get all sorts of places. Instead of a single route you will have a fistful of familiar pathways taking me in every direction. In fact a simple APP on a phone could connect dots for you until I remembered. A similar pattern  though less frequent would operate in evenings and weekends.

Sounds simple. And so it should be - for bus users.

In reality to make buses run on the same time every hour is actually very complex and involves dozens of behind the scene strategies and tricks. A primary one is getting away from this anal, 19th century railways concept of services within 3 minutes if time shown. I strongly believe (after over 20 years of full time bus use, in several lots) as long as the service is reliable "buses depart within 5 minutes of time shown (never before time shown)" is more than adequate, and allows for much more operating flexibility and information simplicity of departure times.

Bus priority is another key factor, buses can not run to consistent times (and "clean" transfers are difficult) in a city which consistently fails to adequately support bus services with appropriate infrastructure.
A new protocol of cutting in/cutting out of service is needed, allowing for instance a substitute Orbiter (flashing "Added service" for the first 5km on destination blinds), and for services running very late to show, for example, "Barrington only - Full Service Follows"  to be added or removed and get back on time - study and research of passenger patterns, would allow busy routes, key points of minimum passenger disruption to interpose adjustments to maintain service times. This also relies upon a centralised control and monitoring system. RealTime plasma signs can also deliver messages, including previously planned responses or offers of alternative suggestions for situations of delay. MetroCard pre-pay enclosed platform areas at Christchurch's transfer stations (ha ha ) and very busy stops with express buses that load at both doors, or assist buses (bus plus) running immediately ahead of core services on busy trips are amongst the many other devices.

All this said,  I say go for a CORE network system and worry about tidying up the transfers afterwards. This delivers benefits across most the day and most hours of service, constant study and fine tuning and scientific traffic planning, intelligent traffic lights and added full or part time bus lanes or bus only corridors, can be fed into support a pattern as needed.

On the surface a core pattern seems most inflexible and expensive, but I think this largely illusion. Most routes already run at at least 30 minute intervals and many at 15 minute intervals - why not invest a few thousand hours of planning to create a fully integrated pattern. It saves hours of subsequent piecemeal planning (a five yearly review apart) and can ensure minimum waste, maximum use of drivers hours and optimum benefit lunch breaks, toilet access; minimum driver changeover disruption. And trial services, specialised services - such as to industrial areas - and additional services (such as an added late bus Fridays and Saturdays) can all be (a) marketed as stand alone/not the standard pattern/in this case applying only at times specifically shown, listed as "bus plus" eg 3.45+    (b) threaded into the pattern to maximum use
(c) removed if unsuccessful without any impact on the guaranteed core pattern.

There is actually MORE flexibility to adjust services or spontaneously adjust services around a core safe and reliable structure. Even football match specials can be fed through key transfer points (and predictable interactive patterns) in a user friendly way.

In reality to get this whole project started would probably cost hundreds of thousands of dollars of research and planning time - and Metro marketing would need to learn how to really market bus services effectively.

In reality, our city led by a "visionary" Mayor prepared to waste hundreds of millions on a single line of (along the actual street for goodness sake!!) of light rail along the cities busiest road, is unlikely to to provide the "roll up our sleeves" and get organised leadership to implement something so sophisticated.

Indeed does anyone at all in our civic leadership or planning systems  recognise we have the geographic footprint, the modern bus system and most of the experience and modern technology to create the world's most advanced mosaic pattern, multi-direction fully integrated small city bus system. 

If we want to. 

Below one example (amongst many possible) of designing and marketing buses to run in an integrated manner. This one I designed  for a submission to Metro on proposed eastside route changes in 2003. Despite the extreme frequency, typical of an integrated system, based on 12 years experience as a bus driver I calculated it would need to increase services/kilometres/drivers employed  etc by less than 10% over and above the then system, but virtually double access from most areas to most key locations. 

SB= SeaBird - name I suggested for a cross town service, filling more or less the same role as  Metrostar was to subsequently fill). Code of three letters, first letter is the pathway to from this area towards city or university;  P= via The Palms; E= via Eastgate; D = via Dallington Bridge;  second letter is primary destination either  X - Bus Exchange or  U - Canterbury University; third letter is terminus point in city (as applied then) h = Public Hospital; p= Polytech (now more commonly called CPIT). 

 Each of these times and the return journey (as would appear on the reverse side of " maptable")  as well as reduced version for  the evening and Sunday timetables, could of course be reduced to location specific Metrocard size timetable s or (9 years later!)  a cell phone APP. 

The pattern here is based on a 20 minute headway which only really works effectively in (a) a fully integrated system (b) when not operating with other services on a 15/30 minute headway pattern. 

I suspect it was a little lost on Metro planners who sole contributions to "improving" Eastside routes was to cut out the 41 Route completely and shift the last leg of another route one block. (after I stirred a bit in the newspaper about the farce of calling these changes improvements, Bryan Jenkins, then ECan CEO announced they were implementing the Metrostar, route 6 months in advance of the planned schedule -perhaps the only time in my many years of transit campaigning I may have had any significant impact on the rhinoceros hide of local body politics! ) .  

The day to day demands of Metro admin, and planning it appears continue to ensure all reform is piecemeal, and mostly "dis-integrated" and very much designed in the style of last century. Or worse.

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