Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Post quake service cuts - but could cutting the cake a different way go further?

Why not? Post quake tourism  as Redbus drives it latest bus* on a tour through the "Red Zone" (photo actually through security netting, enlarged) past the remnant core of the former Bus Exchange** . 

I have the deepest sympathy with those who died in the quake and their families - nothing can ever remove the vast unfairness and utter horror of this.  But for those who survive, what stupidity it would be not to look deeply - as deeply as possible -  upon this huge damage,  to better know the humble place of humanity in this huge universe, and in the scheme of things. And also take greater care to build cities stronger, stronger and stronger than ever. If anyone visits Christchurch why not share what we have been through, see how powerful the world beneath us all can be?

All of which has precious little to do with this posting except to provide a eye catching photo and introduce the possibilities now inherent in combining the latest in quality bus technology and supportive infrastructure.
Metro is in a cost cutting exercise; at the same time a major review of Transport services in Christchurch closes in a couple of days.  NZ in Tranzit believes the world and our city now have the technology (and enough other tricks) to run bus services in an integrated core pattern, same core pattern every hour with huge benefits and - perhaps - surprising opportunities to cut costs. 

Core services 

NZ in Tranzit  believes all trunk services should be shaped in consistent patterns known as "core services" that operate every hour the same within given time parameters, starting in these system-wide patterns after 9am** on every day of the week. Ideally not more than two (or three at most) set time periods would apply. Parameter periods might be (A) 9am- 7pm Mon-Sat (B) 7pm-11 pm Mon-Sat and 9 am -9pm Sunday. Services within those time periods would always be consistent and interact with other services consistently (predictable transfer patterns). Bus services before or after these times, on any given route, may operate to the same "minutes past the hour" (or not) but no guarantee is given other or all routes will (remember - core time-after nine!)

Core departure times from outermost terminus on a route only might also vary slightly to a pattern (eg services between 9.00 am and 2.00 pm - depart three minutes later than standard time shown, from this timing point only) but all en route times would be otherwise consistent - same time every hour - within the [key] stated proviso  "services departs within 5 minutes of time shown, never earlier" . This standardised departure time is advertised, even if the actual driver schedules have subtly different schedules [as some already do], unseen time adjustments made to facilitate smooth flow and maintain the shown schedule pattern, compensating for delays (or lack of them!) at a congested location or incorporating known variations in loading patterns, typical on different trips.

Bus services (the specific departure time) is a product and you can't sell a product if people don't know what it is. Standardised times give the needed flexibility (with bus priority and about a dozen other behind the scenes tricks) to sell the same product, same transfer time, every hour within two time bands.

Nor is a product easy to sell if passengers have to waste time making calculations or memorizing or looking up complex patterns such 2.10 and 2.40; 3.12 and 3.42, 4.13 and 4.44 - absurd when all of these are essentially the same service arriving at the central city (for example) at the same minutes past the hour every trip.  Frankly who cares about a mere 2 or 3 minutes variation if service is easy to remember, consistent and reliable!  Do motorists waste time calculating whether it takes 2 minutes or 4 minutes to find a car park and walk to their destination? Why such anal "to the minute" criteria for bus services?

It is suggested every timetable format - including those with all the minor hour by hour changes (as described above) should offer patrons a "standardised times" option.  Eg services from 9am - 6pm departing 10 and 40 past hour ( "services departs within 5 minutes of time shown, never earlier").  Standardised times could even be sign written on bus shelters in big letters, visible to passing motorists  [Core Services depart for city 10 and 40 mins past hour (image of sun and 6 days) and 25 mins past hour (image of moon and Christian cross) every hour. Ultimately it is not a (vague) bus service that is being sold, it is the trip, each actual trip, that is the product. Guaranteed core services are so simple they offer everyone the option of using buses. 

Bus Plus +

Where services additional to the pattern of core services are needed - notably for departures from high Schools after 3pm or during peak hours - these are ALWAYS SHOWN  on timetables and destination blinds as "additional" ( 3.07+ pm )  and on bus destination blinds ( 60+ Parklands). 

That is to say, any service not a core service is ALWAYS followed by a + (plus sign).  

I suggest these are called "Bus Plus +" to indicate they are not the "normal' (guaranteed consistent) core pattern, and to avoid confusion caused by their variation from the core pattern, as in "No madam, your normal core service bus is not running early, that's Bus Plus+ service". 

Also the "+ " offers passengers an alert signal - a service listed as Bus Plus + may be slightly more variable (for instance only run in school term time) or not operate at all between Christmas and the second week in January. 

The Bus Plus + sign, once well known, immediately alerts passengers to possible variable factors on that particular scheduled service, this includes much that is "added value". It pays to be alert!

Ironically for a such a seemingly (on first glance) rigid fixed structure route and schedule system, the concept of core services actually frees up all other  services ( (Bus Plus +) to be a bit more flexible and to be used (or not) in ways targeted for best value public service and better fare-box returns. 

For instance reduced levels of service as now proposed by Metro (even busy routes and corridors reduced to only 30 minute services at night) could be embedded in the core timetable, But Bus Plus + can be applied at certain times, such as adding services on major routes Friday and Saturday evening only, effectively offering 15 minutes in busier evening entertainment areas. And these Bus Plus+ services can also then be the later Fri and Sat "last bus" - moving last bus services later - but  perhaps only in summer.  

Likewise in the peak of the Christmas holiday period, 24 December – 14 January, when patronage is usually relatively low, many Bus Plus peak hour services may not operate, allowing more bus staff holidays but providing a guaranteed skeleton service, all the same.  But on the other hand, Bus Plus + services to enhance day time access to beach areas may be added.

Or the Orb + Airport buses - peak hour or limited frequency services only, departing Eastgate (in both directions) and running via The Orbiter route (albeit not in branded livery) until Blenheim Road then via an unique route; ditto from northside to Wairakei Road then Sheffield Crescent airport, services arriving in cases before work-start times at key locations.  What could be simpler than adding a [ring fenced ]  Bus Plus+ layer to The Orbiter or indeed to The Metrostar. 

The "Bus Plus+" concept, of course, is also masterpiece of marketing, repackaging the old as new, especially considering more than a few of these types of services actually operate, as "normal" at the moment!  This said of course, separating core services in this way (ie in the mind of the public) allows a reliable trustworthy knowable core service AND ALS0  Bus Plus+ to go places never allowed before, experimental, one off, day specific, seasonal, direction variable. etc etc 

I perceive this as a hugely valuable way to re-grow our bus system and do so in the most cost effective ways, with least impact upon passengers and public. The concept advanced here allows great flexibility in adjusting post earthquake services levels, increasing services to meet slowly or (more likely!) rapidly increasing demand, and fine tuning to the season, or the budget available. 

The real challenge then is bus priority, eliminating all the sticking points that stop buses running on time. The very concept of a bus service would change from that gained in years and years of under-funding and degraded services that are the constant butt of jokes, about buses never being on time, or all coming at the same time. As well as, or instead of,  hundreds of millions of dollars poured into rail, a few tens of of millions could redefine what is meant by the term "bus service". In these terms, a bus service is a mosaic pattern in which the core moving parts move in an integrated harmonious way and interact with each other in an easily understood and knowable pattern which allows a passenger to join the system at any point and know they can more or less continuously get to any other point in that system within a given time. Also that where there are targeted needs, those needs will be met in a very specific and useful way, by Bus Plus+. 

We have (and still have) the potential in Christchurch to creates the world's most comprehensive, cost effective and sophisticated  small city bus service, just by by using all the modern technology implemented and joining the right dots of all that has been done so far.

** Before 9am all buses are linked to precise work and study start times in a tight time frame schedule and are anyway more frequent; conversely on weekends some don't need to start early while others serving malls and work zones do. Simpler to leave core services - eg ALL services operative to consistent pattern  - until after 9am, every day.

Note; Similar ideas to those expressed here have previously been raised in the NICE Ride page

Ps **

The Christchurch Bus Xchange was built in conjunction with developer Philip Carter, who saved original heritage building  facades but built modern  concrete car parking buildings behind these (with the ground floor bus xchange underneath).  These original facades were severely cracked after the February 22nd mega-velocity quake and later demolished, exposing the raw concrete car park building behind in top photo.

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