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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.

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Transit infrastructure, not just transit

The streetcars that crisscrossed North American cities and towns in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were generally built and run by private companies, and operated at a profit. With the rise of the private automobile and due to other factors, they were no longer able to turn a profit, even in the cities in which streetcars were not deliberately run into the ground. I don’t think cities realized at that time that the infrastructure of the streetcar lines may have actually been worth paying for — and not just something to be allowed if paid the usage fees by streetcar companies. And so the infrastructure was swept away with the streetcars, which paved the way (no pun intended) for the downturn of urban areas and boosted suburb development.

Fast forward to now. Many people still participate in discussion of, and decisions about transit in North America without understanding that transit is not just about moving people effectively. From such a point of view, it can make sense to advocate for high-frequency buses and not much else in many cases. (Of course, there are also factors such as comfort and simplicity to consider.)

The other side of transit is infrastructure. Transit infrastructure, generally rail-based, changes the fabric of its surroundings. It transforms the geography, and attracts disproportionate development to its stations or corridors. Once built, it is taken as a permanent and reliable connection and short-cut between disparate places. It is visibly in place, a financial and social investment that is both useful and that cannot be easily picked up and moved. In other words, it is infrastructure. And such infrastructure is central to reclaiming an urban landscape.

We should stop talking about just transit, and start talking about transit infrastructure. The way discussions are framed makes a difference, and currently discussion about transit allows the ignorance of all the implications of transit beyond the movement of people. The only way to build liveable cities in North America that are not car-dependent is by building strong transit infrastructure. Transit can only follow, while transit infrastructure leads.

Quantifying the bus experience

Yesterday I took the iXpress bus from Uptown Waterloo to Conestoga Mall (with only four stops in between). In those 20 minutes I counted around 130 minor rattles of the bus, and 80 major rattles. So on average, that’s around a rattle every 6 seconds, with a major one every 15 seconds. It’s not surprising why it’s difficult to read on a bus, and why headaches are a frequent result of the ride.

Waterloo Region LRT as a tipping point for transit

On June 24, Waterloo Regional Council nearly unanimously endorsed the plan for light rail between Waterloo, Kitchener, and Cambridge. Pending firm commitments from provincial and federal governments, the first stage will consist of light rail between Waterloo and Kitchener and temporary adapted bus rapid transit between Kitchener and Cambridge.

The case for LRT in the region is solid, but it is of course unusual for North America to date in how proactive it is. the transport politic wrote about the plan, saying we would be the “smallest in North America to build a modern electric light rail system.” Hamilton — the city with a bus system called the “Hamilton Street Railway” — is now working on a plan for rapid transit as well, with a strong citizens’ push for light rail. GO Transit is slated to bring commuter buses to Kitchener in a few months, and trains to Guelph and Kitchener by 2011. The City of Cambridge and the Region of Waterloo are pushing for extending GO trains to Cambridge via Milton.

Most interestingly, in light of the LRT plans here and under the same provincial pressure to grow up and not out, the even smaller city of Guelph is now going to consider light rail in a review of its transit system.

I think as it progresses into the procurement and construction stages, the Region of Waterloo light rail plan will serve to tip transit in Southwestern Ontario to something more serious and more usable. Currently, public transit infrastructure is assumed to be something for large cities (at least in North America), and our plans will show otherwise.

First will be Cambridge, which will be increasingly clamoring for its light rail extension. Other cities and areas — Hamilton, Guelph, London, Brantford — will consider light rail and bus rapid transit (BRT), and people there will know that LRT is a serious option, and that BRT is a pale imitation. Cambridge and Guelph will get some kind of rail link along an existing right-of-way. GO Transit will perhaps provide the missing link between Kitchener/Cambridge and Hamilton. And once the LRT is in place in Waterloo Region (if not before then), we will certainly start exploring additional transit infrastructure, such as to St. Jacobs and Elmira and along cross-corridors.

People in Southwestern Ontario will realize that true, useful, and pleasant transit is possible, and will stop being satisfied with token bus service and congested roads. And the Region of Waterloo will lead the way.

Contradictions in light rail opposition

I just sent in a letter to the editor at the Record:

It is insightful to contrast the two main complaints about the recommended light rail proposal.

Some say that we shouldn’t build expensive and inflexible light rail, that we should spend less money on an expanded bus system. They claim buses are just as good as trains, but are cheaper and more flexible. Well, to say nothing of the positive impact of a visibly permanent route, I will note that people in the real world vastly prefer trains to buses.

Just look at the Cambridge residents angry that they’re not yet getting the train! They’re upset because they’re getting left with only buses, and it speaks volumes about people’s true feelings about them. Those who have the choice will continue to avoid buses, but it is precisely these people who we need to be enticing out of their cars.

I, for one, would prefer seeing trains to Cambridge sooner rather than later. However, if we don’t build light rail at least in K-W, no one will leave their cars, and all of us in the region will bear the resulting costs of sprawl and roads.

Simplicity, light rail, and a more complete transit system

Last night I spoke at Waterloo Regional Council in support of the staff recommendation for a light rail system for the region. The speech incorporates and expands on my earlier draft and on my idea for a more complete transit system for the region. I had several people come up to me to express their support, so I want to share the speech: Read More…

Reality-based transit planning

Discussion, planning, and design of transit systems that aims to get people to use them must be based on what people actually do rather than on what they should do. The more in line with people’s actual use a transit system is, the more useful and economically efficient it is.

It is irrelevant how far people should want to walk to get to transit. The reality is that they are not willing to walk far, though the more complete reality is that they are willing to walk further to get to a train than to a bus.

It is irrelevant that people could plan around infrequent service. Very few are willing to do so.

It is irrelevant that people should take the bus to get to where they need to go. Either they will or they won’t, and empirical evidence all over the world says that they will do everything in their power to avoid buses.

This is why I have been talking about perception and simplicity. Because at the core of a transit system are people who have to navigate it using their faculties of perception and memory (and more), and who also do not derive equal pain or pleasure from the various modes of transportation. Paternalistic transit planning based on what people should do is self-defeating.