You hear it all the time. Buses are more flexible than rail. From point A, bus routes can take you to your favorite points X, Y, and Z, each in a single ride. They can detour around an accident. The routes can be altered to accord with population shifts.
But the curse of flexibility is that it gets used. It sounds like a truism, but bear with me. I believe the theme applies rather broadly, but I want to talk about the curse of transit flexibility.
The other day I was at the University of Waterloo after 7 pm and had to unexpectedly make it to downtown Kitchener. The 8 bus could get me there, but it was running at a 30 minute frequency. By that hour the 7 was running at a 30 minute frequency, on just one of its routings. The iXpress had the furthest stop and at that hour was also at a 30 minute frequency. I had the luxury of a choice between three different buses with separate schedules and bus stops — and infrequent service. Had the iXpress been running at a 10 minute frequency, I would’ve gone to that stop and not have wasted my time and energy trying to plan such a simple trip.
In contrast, transit infrastructure like light rail forces a choice of a corridor — and that’s where the service is concentrated, without being diffused among many routes.
Buses can detour. For some time this week road construction closed the north UW campus entrance, and separate construction closed the east side of Ring Road. That meant hell for transit users, who first had the realization that their bus wasn’t where they expect it, then had to figure out where it actually was, and of course the schedules were screwed up anyway. The iXpress did a detour of over 3 km between the UW stop and the R&T Park stop, taking a long time and getting stuck in the construction-related traffic along the way. Getting out and walking that same distance would have been faster.
Light rail can’t detour, so it forces construction to be done quickly, with minimal impact — and at night whenever possible.
Buses can have their routes moved in accordance with change in transportation demand, and the flip side is the absence of commitment that transit along a corridor will be provided in the years to come. So the location of transit routes cannot be used to directly inform decisions about where to live, or where to build. If you build fixed transit infrastructure (e.g. light rail), however, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. There is a tangible commitment to providing transit along that corridor, which is used to determine where to live and where to build, thereby itself shaping the transportation demand.
Precisely due to their flexibility, buses can do little to shape or direct urban form and land use. So they have no choice but to react. They can demand little of any forces that hinder their operations. And a bus system’s flexibility in providing service from any point to any other point makes it difficult to consolidate service into select, high quality routes that are easy to understand and use.
Most pavement is impermeable to water. As a result, paved surfaces need to be designed to funnel water into drains, and drainage and sewer systems need to be designed for the high capacity necessary to deal with runoff from the huge number of paved surfaces in our cities. Instead of replenishing groundwater, precipitation is redirected to rivers and lakes. Runoff from roads carries with it automotive pollution, which is then concentrated in downstream bodies of water.
Various technologies are coming into use, however, for pavement that is permeable to water. Porous asphalt and pervious concrete are fairly new techniques, so they are still being developed and improved. The main difficulties include weight resistance and longevity, as well as cold climate installation. And, of course, it’s more expensive to install (particularly for cold climates), though it may be cheaper than conventional pavement if considered together with the costs of storm-water management.
What’s the point? First off, urban runoff is reduced, and with it pollution and the need for large and extensive drainage systems. But there are other benefits that I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere. On impervious road surfaces drainage can work poorly, leading to the sometimes hazardous accumulation of water, which could be averted by permeable pavement. Likewise, it can prevent the ubiquitous puddles that form in depressions on sidewalks and paths. This pavement can also eliminate the need for drainage grates that are often encountered on bike lanes, which can be a hazard and nuisance to cyclists. If pervious concrete is used, it has the added advantage of reflecting more sunlight than asphalt, which can have a significant mitigating effect on climate change.
The technology is promising and I am surprised that the Region of Waterloo hasn’t yet taken up the idea. The Region should investigate permeable pavement and at least pilot the technology. They could do worse than paving the path through Waterloo Park as a test.
I’ve written before about the complexities and uncertainties of bus systems. Here I outline one simple way to make transit networks more accessible to riders and would-be riders: guaranteed high-frequency routes. Creating such routes and marking them in bold on maps makes clear what portion of a system is accessible without a schedule, making possible spontaneous trips and more natural transit use.
Lines should be marked in bold on route maps if they run (for example):
- At least every 10 minutes Monday through Saturday from 6 am to 10 pm and Sundays and holidays from 8 am to 8 pm;
- At least every 30 minutes the rest of the time.
Express routes should be clearly delineated from other routes on the same corridor. Branching is okay, but only sections of a line meeting the frequency criteria may be marked in bold. Streetcar lines, if any, should meet bold line standards, perhaps being drawn in a separate color for clarity. Maps should list the service frequency for bold lines, and bus stops along bold routes should clearly indicate their status as such.
Currently there is not a single Grand River Transit route that qualifies. Route 7 mainline is pretty close to bold between King & Ottawa and King & University, but lacks night service. On University between Westmount and Weber, routes 8 and 12 could together be close as well.
Bus routes necessitating a schedule are only accessible to committed bus riders, and are unfriendly to casual users. A guaranteed high frequency on selected routes makes those lines easier and more pleasant to use for the choice rider as well as for the regular transit user. Minimum nightly service assures users that they will not be stranded, which encourages use during all hours.
Transit systems without bold lines should try implementing a small network of them. And systems that already have lines that qualify should be making a big deal of it. Simplified pocket-size maps ought to be freely available to show the transit-novice and the transit-averse which routes are easy to use.
It is difficult for low frequency service to spur enough ridership to “justify” high frequency service; it’s an uphill battle of incremental service increases in tandem with small ridership increases (and sporadic service cuts for good measure). Bold lines allow a transit network to pull itself up by the bootstraps through strategic allocation of resources into a network structure that is qualitatively different and more accessible to riders.
This blog was supposed to be about food too, so in this post I’ll describe how to maintain a sourdough starter and make a simple no-work bread.
A sourdough starter is a culture of lactic acid bacteria and wild yeasts that is used to leaven bread. (And waffles, pancakes, etc.) It is more potent than pure yeast, but also adds different flavors to bread. To use it, the first step is to find someone who is willing to share a bit of sourdough starter with you; if that fails, other sources exist. Read More…