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Another perspective on the Iron Horse Trail

This post is cross-posted to the TriTAG blog. Go there to leave any comments.

It can be insightful to take another perspective on something we’re used to. Yesterday I walked the length of Kitchener-Waterloo’s Iron Horse Trail and photographed it from its most common vantage points — the roads crossing it. There is little immediately evident in these photos, but I will explain below. Read More…

How the University of Waterloo fails its pedestrians

Missing sidewalks are in blue, access roads that are used as paths are in red, and orange indicates unpaved or inadequately distinguished paths. (The image links to the detailed view on Google Maps.)

The University of Waterloo’s main campus was built in the 1960s, and it shows badly. The campus is designed with a strong car focus, despite UW being a university with extensive pedestrian traffic. I’ll leave further discussion of the problems of UW’s suburban form to a future post, and restrict this one to existing pedestrian issues.

How does the University of Waterloo fail its pedestrians? It often provides sidewalks on only one side of a road or sidewalks that are too small. Many main paths are not paved and encounter obstacles such as parking lots, man-made berms, poor or absent crosswalks, and, of course, weather conditions. UW forces pedestrians onto access roads designed for cars that make those on foot feel distinctly unwelcome. Instead of using more appropriately-sized vehicles, it uses regular vans and SUVs (maintenance, police, delivery, access vehicles) right on major pedestrian thoroughfares. Many buildings connect poorly to their surroundings, with few access points and several buildings actually surrounded by something resembling moats. The university is difficult to get in and out of, with poor connections to an existing path network and missing sidewalks on major roads (Westmount Road and Seagram Drive), as well as on the within-campus Ring Road itself. The adjacent shops on University Avenue surround busy parking lots and are frankly hostile to pedestrians, despite the vast majority of customers being pedestrians.

There are additional issues for cycling and handicapped access, such as excessive use of stairs, man-made topographic obstacles, mismatched or absent curb cuts, and so on.

In the map above, I’ve tried to point out most of the problematic sections around UW, excepting the significant additional troubles of ongoing construction. Below are a few photos I took this week that give a feel for the kinds of problems pedestrians face on the University of Waterloo’s main campus. UW does have many portions that work fine for walking, but that is no excuse for its failures. Read More…

Don’t be fooled by middling transit frequency

Most bus routes here are infrequent, with buses no more often than every 30 minutes. What would count as frequent? I’m sure the majority of those who don’t use transit think every 15 minutes is frequent. But I’d bet most would change their minds after going to a bus stop and waiting 10-15 minutes (or more) for such a “frequent” bus. In the abstract 15 minutes isn’t much time, but at a bus stop it’s forever. Which is why truly frequent service is every 8 minutes or better, which doesn’t allow much time for getting annoyed with waiting.

If using schedules or trip planners, any frequency increase certainly improves the transit experience. But though we are tempted to think of 15 minute service as being frequent, it just is not good enough to be painlessly used without schedules. The difficulty with middling headways of 15-20 minutes is that while it seems like one should be able to use the service without a schedule, in practice doing so is not advisable. Even schedule-using riders may be more lax following the timetable than with avowedly infrequent service, and so more likely to just miss the bus — leaving them to wait the full 15 minutes until the next one.

Transit agencies, politicians, and transit advocates should call a spade a spade, and only refer to transit services as frequent if they can be used painlessly without a schedule by most people — and not just the transit-dependent, either.

Business ideas: Utility bicycle shop

There’s many bicycle shops around here, with at least four on King Street in Kitchener-Waterloo. Each one is filled primarily with bicycles that are designed for recreation, and that incidentally can also be used for getting around town. If you watch what people actually use to cycle for transportation here, it’s those kinds of bikes, and not ones which are well-prepared for the task. As the owner of such a bike, I end up being a fair-weather daytime non-winter cyclist, and I leave the bike at home when I fear the situation may become unfavourable. My bicycle does not prepare me for such mundane things as: rain, snow, road salt, night, luggage, or comfort for that matter.

With the lack of availability of European utility bicycles and current bicycle shops’ interest in maintaining a focus on recreation instead of utility — in Kitchener-Waterloo and in most other North American areas — a utility bicycle shop has the potential to do quite well. I envision a place where you know you will be able to go in and have your pick of many different bicycles that are outfitted for utility: fenders, lights, chain guards, skirt guard / coat protector, a rear rack, an upright seating position, step-through frames, baskets, and internal hub gearing and brakes. Such a shop would sell and maintain quality bikes that are designed for many years of frequent use in all weather. The picture at the top of the post is of a Dutch-style omafiets (grandma bike), which is the epitome of this kind of bicycle. Beyond the regular utility bikes there should be all manner of cargo and family bikes, work bikes, folding bikes, and a wide array of baskets and panniers.

In addition to serving an unfilled niche, such a store would encourage cycling as transportation by making it easier to do. One wouldn’t have to figure out how to haphazardly add all of the aforementioned useful components to a bike, or to worry about whether their externally-geared bicycle will survive the winter. A store with a utility cycling focus would make it easy to buy a bike actually suited to its intended use. It would generally be more expensive (think $700-1000 and up), but still nowhere near what cars cost. Many people would be quite willing to pay for the quality and convenience of a solid European bike that can be used to ride to work or to the store in style and comfort. Particularly when they start seeing others on such bikes. And as cycling conditions continue to improve, so will sales.

To be sure, there are such stores in North America: Curbside Cycle in Toronto; Downtown Bike Hounds in Hamilton; Flying Pigeon LA; Dutch Bicycle Co. in Somerville, MA; Dutch Bike Co. in Seattle and Chicago; My Dutch Bike in San Francisco; Clever Cycles in Portland; and Rain City Bikes in Vancouver. But there should be many, many more. Their absence isn’t the only barrier to cycling, but it is one, and I suspect that in urban areas ripe for cycling (e.g. Waterloo Region), removing that barrier could be good business.

Addendum: Some more shops for the list: BikeBike in Calgary, RedBike in Edmonton, Natural Cycle in Winnipeg.

Addendum 2: In a later post I have a reasonably comprehensive list of North American utility bicycle shops.

The “little old lady” approach to driving buses

First of all, I’ve never driven a bus. I have, however, driven plenty of cars and have had the opportunity to observe that cars differ in how easy they are to smoothly halt and accelerate. But I’ve always been able to learn and adjust, with the aim of making the ride reasonably smooth. In my estimation, though there are likely differences between different buses, there is also between-driver variation in jerkiness of ride.

Therefore I propose the following aide to bus drivers (or those who train them). Whenever there are passengers on board, the driver should drive as if there is a little old lady standing at the front of the bus and trying to hold on before the bus gets to her stop. That means minimizing jerkiness for fear of sending the little old lady flying. Most drivers should be familiar with this scenario, and it gives a tangible way to think about a smooth ride.

Ideally there would probably be accelerometers on buses, but in practice whatever keeps the little old lady reliably on her feet is probably good enough for the rest of those on board the bus as well.

The curse of flexibility in transit

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.

TriTAG and light rail

I haven’t forgotten about this blog. However, as a member of TriTAG, the Tri-Cities Transport Action Group, I have spent quite a lot of time recently on the content for our new website — which I am happy to report is now live at tritag.ca. (Tri-cities is for Waterloo, Kitchener, and Cambridge, and for being a catchy name.)

Today’s issue of The Record also carries my op-ed in support of light rail for the Region of Waterloo. It mainly focuses on light rail as the natural evolution of the rapidly growing iXpress bus route.

While TriTAG strongly supports the light rail project, it is by no means a single-issue group and is also focusing on issues relating to transit and urban infrastructure in the Region, including ones addressed in this blog.

Bold lines: Guaranteed high-frequency bus routes

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.

The opportunity of full buses

“Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.” -Yogi Berra

It’s rush hour and you’re going home. You’re driving along a freely moving road with no jams. In front of you a bus stops to pick up a few passengers. It looks like it will take a while, so you pass it, and look in while doing so. The bus is jam-packed.

Will this make you more or less likely to consider taking the bus? Unless you are a pickpocket, I imagine the answer is the latter.

It seems to me that transit advocates like seeing full buses, and I admit I’ve been one of that number. Full buses mean that people are riding transit, which is good! But full buses are actually a bad thing for a number of reasons, and they may be detrimental to the growth of transit mode share in areas where transit does not predominate.

It is plain uncomfortable to be on a crowded bus. Difficult to get on, difficult to get off. When the bus lurches or grinds to a halt, standees — often unable to get a good grip — get thrown all over the place.

A full bus takes longer to get everywhere. As a result of having so many people, it is likely to make more stops. Plus, it takes much longer each time someone needs to get on or off. It’s even worse in the case of buses running every 15 minutes or more frequently, as the later a bus arrives, the more people will be waiting for it. The next bus is comparatively less burdened, and is able to catch up. This bus bunching decreases effective frequency.

There is always some variation in how many people ride the bus. If the bus is full as a matter of course, there is no room for it to handle an upward deviation in ridership. Every time someone gets left behind at a bus stop, that has a real chance of adding another driver back to the roads. And it certainly doesn’t invite new riders.

It is an order of magnitude better to run half-full buses at twice the frequency than running crush loaded buses. The difference in quality of service between the two choices is huge: higher frequency is itself attractive to riders, as is having more space available and having shorter dwell times. This higher frequency would of course be particularly effective if it crossed the schedule-free threshold. I suspect that in many cases of full buses in K-W, running at twice the frequency might actually lead to running 2/3 full buses (not just half-full) as a result of increased use by choice riders. These would be serious effects on overall ridership figures and on transit mode share.

Full buses are a better problem to have than empty buses, and it is probably appropriate to consider it not just as a problem but as an opportunity to increase the number of people using transit. We should think of every full bus as having missed out on a certain number of would-be riders, which riders will materialize if offered less crowded service.

Missing sidewalks in Kitchener-Waterloo

Missing sidewalk on Esson

For a city to be open to pedestrians, there need to be paths between useful destinations, the paths need to be maintained, and pedestrians need to feel safe. Before you can run, you have to walk, and before you can walk, you need a place to do it. In Kitchener-Waterloo there are numerous roads that are missing sidewalks, often on both sides of the street. Sometimes the sidewalks are sporadic: they appear and disappear on a stretch of road. Occasionally one-sided sidewalks even switch sides at intersections. Suburban subdivisions are haphazard, sometimes having full sidewalk coverage, but just as often leaving them out. And sidewalks in industrial areas are simple: there just aren’t any.

I set out to document the state of missing sidewalks in Kitchener and Waterloo. Using Google Maps, I drew red lines for roads missing sidewalks on both sides and blue lines for those missing a sidewalk on just one. I tried to cover everything that is not a suburban subdivision, and I did Eastbridge as an example of a suburban area. There are undoubtedly missing sidewalks that I did not document, and probably some tiny sidewalks that I mistook for curbs. Click on the below map image to see it on Google Maps in more detail. [Update: This is based on 2006 satellite imagery, and a few sidewalks have been put in since then.] Read More…