Thursday, September 6, 2012

Giving Urban Buses the Technology They Need

"I have come to realise many of the best bus route options can not be built with current technology and town planning principles." 

Bus routes often need to follow arterial routes and can often only access or cross these routes at major intersections with traffic lights and congestion. David Welch argues that many other routes could better by-pass congestion and serve a larger population base more effectively if buses could enter or cross arterial roads by a system requiring a minimal pause in the arterial flow, with this access limited to buses. 

The following idea has been sent to the Minister of Transport, Julie Genter who in theory, anyway, should be keen on giving public transport the green light!

REHASH - This item first published 9/6/2012

I spend a lot of my life working out possible bus routes.  It is a rather odd habit seeing as I am not a bus planner. Indeed I not even a very logical thinker, which can add considerably to the task. But, as they say, we take for granted the talents God gives us and instead spend our lives doing what we are less capable of doing - the challenge of mastering the impossible. Irresistible!

Planning bus routes is a compelling and frustrating hobby for me. How do you get a service that can only go in two directions (ie linear movement) and only go so many times an hour to meet the huge range of needs of potential users spread across a non-linear location. And join up all the key generators (facilities which attract a lot of people coming and going) and work and study zones, in a pattern with relevant arrival and departure times at all of these, and allow for changes across the time of day or week, and yet offer as simple as possible a schedule, consistent enough to be easily remembered. To this must be added problems associated with congestion; or resistance to bus lanes along commercial and retail corridors; and not "over bombing" a quiet residential street with too many buses per hour; and avoiding unless there is a very good reason not to, "one dead side" roads (routes alongside open land or large parks, golf courses etc); and interacting with other routes so people can transfer if needed with worrying about either too long a wait or too short a transfer time, or having to cross large areas of busy road goes on and on. 

Planning bus routes, even as a hobby or matter of interest is no easy task - of this I am very aware even if the frustration of waiting for poorly timed and inconsiderately scheduled buses often makes me hyper critical of others planning.

But one result of hours of dalliance with maps of Christchurch covered in felt pen lines (I'm sure that at least 10% of all Metro maps printed end up in boxes in my home!!) is that I have come to realise many of the best bus route options can not be built with current technology and town planning principles. 

All over Christchurch (and I imagine most other CANZUS* cities) are a large residential areas surrounded by typical longer straight(ish) busy corridor roads, often with a limited number of "easy" access points. 

In other words to funnel traffic, so it doesn't encroach too much on all residential areas, only certain entrance and exit roads typically have traffic controls or signals. Trying to use other exit points, especially if turning right (left in USA etc) across two lanes of busy traffic is hopelessly slow and stressful, and that indeed is the intention of planners. The aim is to discouraging traffic from using this route, especially at peak hours, to create less interruption to the corridor traffic.

Fair enough. But it does create problems for bus routes through those areas, because they too often have to share the same corridor roads and the same congested access points which have the necessary Stop, Give Way or traffic signal support. 

Building bus priority, exclusive lights and lanes is one possibility but this often takes a lane away from motorists, slowing their journey or, as many "access points" are suburban shopping centres, lanes are in direct conflict with the immediate parking in front of shops associated with small service retail blocks. 

I have come to believe where planners do not want to erect a full traffic signal system, likely to encourage too much conventional traffic including trucks through the area (especially in peak hours where they may be trying to avoid queues at nearby traffic signals) an alternative option is to create a "bus only can go right " traffic management structure. This is particularly relevant to "T" intersections, a side road entering a busy main road. Here is an example below -

This is all very well in principle but how to stop traffic on the main road?  

My theory is just as trains have a distinctive signal with red and silver stripes and red flashing lights so too should buses, but not being quite such a danger to life and limb these could be a bit more low key and tailor made for the bus situation. I reiterate the opening picture; 

One; a distinctive striped pole (larger than the norm in circumference and height) that can be seen from some distance and in particular fairly easily by vehicles approaching further back in a queue.

Pole probably to be stripes of dark colour, possibly dark green or green and yellow - whatever, a colour code that is designed to be always identified with bus infrastructure. Possibly they could have inbuilt static lights, just a little bright green or similar light, always on inserted in the post itself above vandal level.

Two; a permanent Give Way triangle with underneath a permanent, always readable sign such as;  [triangle] To Exiting Buses  and a dot and dash line across the lane, a stopping point if necessary but not so definitive as to confuse motorists when lights are not operative.

Three; Electrical illumination (triggered by the bus first entering the bus gate) of the words Give Way, and above that two powerful yellow lights that flash up and down in an urgent "tik-tak, tik tak" fashion, the light appearing to jump back and forward between them ..and impossible not to see. 

To me this a tremendous win-win-win concept. 

Firstly it makes possible a much simpler and more effective uses of buses, being able to spread services across suburbs but not so tied to having to come back to a particular access/egress point, which often "corrupts" the most effective route option. Spread across a city hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars per year extra in operating costs (fuel, labour, lost time, reduced patronage) can be the result, of less than optimum route pattern tied to running via to the only accessible point to cross over or join a busy corridor. The proposed technology allows buses easy access in and out of areas and feeder roads, usually a central stem of a large residential area

Secondly; it reduces the number of situations where public authorities have no choice but to bus lane a very busy intersection, which unless extra land and property frontages can be purchased typically means competing with motorists, taking lanes previously used by private vehicles and lengthening the queues on lanes remaining to these motorists, this in turn creating political backlash.

Thirdly it barely interrupts traffic flow - if the signs are distinctive and can be seen above other vehicles, I would imagine very rapidly a protocol would develop that as soon as the lights started flashing, even if traffic is moving relatively fast, cars would slow sufficiently (without actually needing to stop or at least not need stop more than momentarily ) for the bus to take the 5-6 seconds or whatever needed to turn right and enter the traffic flow, as simple and painless as that. Because the flashing lights are visible back 750 metres or more, following traffic will typically adjust its speed to allow for the brief hiatus ahead. 

Let us remember even on a busy road intersected by a ten minute service or two or three routes using the same exit gate it is unlikely traffic will be held up for more than a minute or two in total in any hour - but what a huge difference to buses. 

Fourthly the same technology can operate even when there is no conventional road. Often there are route patterns and locations where purchase of two or three properties and conversion to a pleasant little park with hedges offering privacy, cycle and pedestrian lanes, and a smooth surface us lane, would greatly enhance speed of access tofro some areas, a "cut through" that bypasses a nearby congested area, particularly for express buses. 

The biggest problem here is often re-entering busy traffic lanes  - again our distinctive quasi rail like signals come into play. Ti Tak, Tik tak

Fifthly - despite the large striped poles this system is relatively unobtrusive (buses don't even need to spend much time idling at the intersection to the annoyance of nearby residents or premises) and barely effects motorists and yet, it hugely increases the status of buses as a public transport system comparable to rail and a system to be taken seriously, an image that seems likely to attract greater patronage. 

If NZ Transport Agency was to fund a trial of this concept at several locations they could discover all the pitfalls and precise distances and signal times and other requirements needed to make this concept truly effective. My presumption it is that it will only be truly effective and safe on longer straight roads, so that traffic queues in both directions for 500 metres backj can see the distinctive tic-tac flashing light and naturally start slowing. Because slowing avoids stopping - the time needed buses for exiting is so short - that only the first few cars will need to stop, or almost so.

This could add millions of dollars in saved kilometres, better, closer and faster public transport access to all city residents, with more passengers attracted, and better adherence to timetables, this in turn allowing more effective transfer networks etc for bus services through out New Zealand. 

The protocols and rules could be embedded in the national Road Code, they are not that different than for approaching roadworks with yellow flashing lights, or negotiating a conventional Give Way road control. Emergency services protocols or technology [flashing lights switch to red/sign switches to Stop?] could also be incorporated 

 All for a relatively cheap set of infrastructure.

* CANZUS = Canada; Australia;New Zealand; USA 


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