Monday, October 21, 2013

Should our buse services go gothic?

An entrance veranda of Knox Church, captures the city's Gothic revival roots in modern form

It is to be hoped with an almost entirely new council elected that the Christchurch metropolitan area public transport system will be placed in "catch up" mode. Many of those elected have strong proven records of service on community boards - one is a former three-time city Mayor - or socially orientated organisations, . The pre-dominance of left leaning coalition People's Choice candidates, hopefully will also bring some greater sense of common purpose, which seemed to missing in the last fairly disparate and unreadable bunch of individuals. 

In Christchurch public transport was on the "up and up" between 1992 and 2003, an inspiring turn around, but apart from a few new bus routes to outer areas, and cross town, very little more has been accomplished in public transport in following decade, if measured by the standards of many other cities. 

So far this century over two billion dollars was spent on public transport infrastructure in Auckland and Wellington but I would guess less something  less than $60 million in Christchurch. A significant portion of this was spent on the first Bus Exchange (locally funded? $20 million) which was munted in the earthquakes, and the simple but popular temporary bus station since. Other infrastructure expenditure would have been for installing Real Time and Metrocard; upgrading the number of simple bus shelters and recently building Northlands  "super shelter"; completing about half  the original bus lane programme planned to be completed by 2013; and some traffic signal and GPS bus tracking technology. 

Much of the expenditure in Auckland and Wellington has been involved in upgrading or building from scratch commuter rail systems, but probably at least $500 million has gone on similar technology to Christchurch (as described above) and also busways, bus lanes and bus stations, including park and ride parking. Also the bus component (usually a fairly small portion) of the total cost of rail and bus centres such as Britomart and New Lynn, both of them architecturally designed to enhance the streetscape and the public transport experience.

Award winning New Lynn Bus and rail (underground) station in Auckland, built at a cost of $168 million, as shown in" Architecture NZ", May/June 2012 (a good magazine also for those who love city infrastructure).

One of the main attractions of light rail is often stated to be the inherent public confidence accredited a route by virtue of the permanent infrastructure. 

Actually the world has hundreds of tram and rail and even underground rail lines that were built and sometimes even flourished for decades but have since been closed, removed, sealed over or abandoned. Viewed across the longer term the "permanent" aspect is more illusion than reality. But there is no doubt that good infrastructure says "this city takes public transport seriously" and "in our city public transport has status and is something more than just a 'last penny in the pound" "throw a few buses into the traffic" effort. 

The popularity of The Orbiter, the Metrostar, The Shuttle, and now the Blue Line, also bear testament to the importance of good clear branding in making specific services easy to identify and access. These distinctive buses also, importantly, create a familiar and known or knowable city -  for residents and short term alike - and even a certain pride, echoing London and its red double deckers, a sense of "our buses" 

Rather than go any further down the road of the fairly mundane "industrial" style bus shelters inherent in Northlands and the current Central Bus Station  (both temporary) no different from many millions of others around the world in form,  NZ in Tranzit believes the city should consider looking  for a defining style that distinguishes and brands all of the major public transport stations, and transfer nodes and any  bus shelters that cover the whole footpath. 

Indeed the same style in distinctive  "large" and  "medium" style could itself immediately indicate the level of service and facilities that passengers could be expect to find at that size station.

For example, I would expect a (large)  transfer station to have public toilets with baby change facilities; a cash machine, a drinks machine; a pay phone (to back up cell phone failure); sections for both indoor and outdoor waiting (the latter partly roofed and partly open to sun etc) and a fully enclosed section of waiting room with automatic temperature modification system (at least eliminating the extremes of cold or heat) open at least till 8pm at night. (Large size) Transfer stations would also of course have CCTV - live and linked to a monitoring centre - bus stations should aim to  be"safer than houses", safe zones which bad eggs avoid.  Included of course, Real Time "next buses due" signage but also city route maps and paper format all services timetables.  Ideally bus docking should be at close to door level (rather than conventional footpath height). In this scenario passengers can safely expect a transfer station to be served by three to six routes including at least two cross town routes, and be able to take it for granted that from a designated transfer station at least one route, or other, will take me to (a) city centre (b) university (c) airport. 

Unlike local planners I find the concept of just six planned bus transfer stations (all based at the major malls) grossly inadequate, and believe that a second layer of about 12 bus "node points" is needed to create a city wide grid pattern bus system where it is possible to travel virtually anywhere across the city, with transfers, including minimum wait and very little doubling back and often as not easy to understand options. These node point transfer stops would mainly be at secondary malls and major people traffic zones  - think Parklands, Burwood Hospital; Belfast, Sheffield Crescent, Avonhead Mall, Halswell etc. 

In the branded-by-building style scenario these would echo the transfer stations but be smaller, have Real Time signage but have no public toilets (though usually some are handy), no en site money machine etc, and only semi-enclosed or wind and rain sheltered facilities. At a transfer node, rather than a full transfer station, one would expect to find only two or three routes intersecting and only one of these  a cross town route, per se routed through other transfer stations. A key factor of transfer nodes - this current nonsense of making people walk hundreds of metres between one route and another, to transfer, would be eliminated as far as absolutely possible. All buses would be routed so they all pass through the same immediate stopping zone, albeit some may be on the opposite side of the road with pedestrian safety zones or signals to ensure ease of access between stopping platforms .

A key factor in the concept of branded transfer stations and branded transfer nodes is they have a distinctive design and I believe what better than a design that gives or retains an unique character to Christchurch. 

Despite the earthquakes, and the likely loss of Christchurch Cathedrals and the loss of many beautiful [and some so-so]  Victorian and Edwardian buildings  I believe Christchurch will still be distinguished from other cities in the Southern hemisphere by its unusually large numbers of buildings in the Gothic revival style. 

The Arts Centre [the old university complex]; the Museum, Christs College, the Provincial Government buildings, St Michaels and belfry tower, the Trinity Centre, the Christchurch Club on Latimer Square, spring straight from the core roots of Christchurch as a "conservative utopia" -  recreating a fantasy of England before the ugly industrial revolution wrecked it all! This city was not a casual settlement that sprang up as most do at a crossroads or river or convenient harbor point, but avery consciously planned attempt by dissatisfied residents of the United Kingdom, keen to move forward but also build a better world.  

I put forward the suggestion that the abstracted form of Gothic entrance way used on Knox Church, see photo above offers a very good and practical design. The uprights are essentially just steel poles, coupled together with steel ties, and along with the gothic arches could be made in kitset form - four poles joined for uprights on larger transfer stations, three poles on transfers nodes. Like wise the arches could be manufactured in two sizes, with lugs or ledges to fit reinforced glass roofing panels. Side wings at a flatter roof inclination plane could be added (the classic NZ "lean to" profile" ) as an option in needed for larger rooms. Being fairly steep and adding wide-gutters, these shelter roofs should largely self clean, not trap leaves and quickly disperse hail and snow. 

Their pointed height will be a big advantage especially if a large illuminated "M" for Metro is inserted in the top part of a trefoil arch; likewise real time signage and cctv cameras can be fitted up into the roof cavity, way beyond the reach of vandals and taggers. Also heated trapped in this cavity should be easier to redirect down again with a slow moving redistibution fan.

We are a city rebuilding from an earthquake and one where there seems to be a contest in architecture going on called "How many ways can you make a square box look interesting?" (only a few as far as I can see!). The old pointy gothic style, with its vaguely religious overtones,  restated in modern form, and use to make distinctive larger bus stations and transfer nodes really stand out in the streetscape, seems to me a very good way to say, buses not cars are what we should be worshipping!!


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