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.
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.
A more complete transit system for Waterloo
The Waterloo Spur alternatives should not be treated as opposing alternatives but as an operations issue which should be seeking to serve both corridors over the long-term. As currently structured, the alternatives create a fundamental choice between a more “hidden” LRT system and one that is open and public along the King Street alignment. There was concern that the physical environment and walking distances in the R&T Park were not currently supportive of transit use, whereas the King Street alignment had the potential to contribute to the ongoing intensification along the corridor and capture ridership from Sir Wilfrid Laurier University. It was noted that if the initial investment were to occur along King Street, a potential branch along the Waterloo Spur could be created at anytime in the future and that this could be tied to development within the R&T Park.
That’s commentary from the expert panel cited in the Region’s recent report on the preferred Rapid Transit plan.
I agree with that assessment, and think that if only one of the routes has to be built at the outset, it should be the King Street route, which connects Laurier, supports development at King & University, and provides for redevelopment potential along the suburban-looking King & Weber area. This is as opposed to the R&T Park, which is huge and spread out, much of it still far from any future light rail station.
However, I do not believe this is the best way to provide for transit and development in Waterloo. I think both routes should be constructed at the beginning, and furthermore that there should not be a weird and confusing detour from King that there is right now in the plans. Let’s assume that my previous suggestion of keeping both tracks on Caroline in Uptown Waterloo is followed. North of that, half of the trains would return to King, and go all the way up to Conestoga, and the other half would follow the spur line all the way to the St. Jacobs Market, returning via King. This would form a useful loop. See the map at the bottom of this post.
What this doesn’t account for is a connection between the universities. In the current plans there is probably a bus route that runs along there. However, University Avenue, especially in between the two campuses, is an excellent place to create a vibrant street, with nice-looking residences and all kinds of shops and restaurants. The best way to serve the students here is to have a streetcar running along University, as is illustrated in the map. Such a streetcar would also serve the outlying areas in the same way as a feeder bus would — perhaps going to both ends of University Avenue to serve the suburb commuters and connect them to the LRT spine and the universities. It would lead to development elsewhere along University Avenue. Also, RIM Park could in this way become a trolley park. (Back when streetcars were commonplace, streetcar operators might open an amusement park at a terminus in a streetcar suburb to attract riders on weekends.)
I believe my proposal is a much more complete solution to transit in Waterloo than just one branch of LRT. Streetcars make a lot of sense for cross-corridors that are ripe for development of vibrant streets. In Waterloo, University Avenue is such a place. I haven’t studied the rest of the region, but I’m sure that several of the current cross-corridor bus plans could be fruitfully replaced with streetcars. It is probably unnecessary to explain why streetcars are a better driver of development and ridership, so I won’t do it here.
What this means for the current plan is that Council should be encouraged to have it both ways, and to construct both routes. Cross-corridor streetcars can be separate projects, and they can in fact be started immediately. A University Avenue streetcar would make itself useful very quickly.
Why the Rapid Transit route should not be split
As promised in the last post, I will discuss the issue of the splitting of the route in downtown Kitchener and Waterloo that was recommended by the Region of Waterloo report. I understand the motivations, but I think it is a very short-sighted move and that the region would be better served by the alternative of routing both directions along Caroline in Waterloo, and along Charles in Kitchener.
Part of the appeal of a light rail line in the first place is that it is simple. Fixed stations, trains going both directions, no schedule needed. But the recommended split route segments have stations on them, which complicates the route. Having stations on different streets for the two directions would make giving directions based on station location more difficult, and it would also create strange disparities in ease of access to transit based on the direction of one’s destination. In other transit systems where the directions go along separate one-way streets for much longer stretches than proposed here, the split is easy to understand and deal with, but here it is a very ad hoc measure. This is not a huge issue with the proposal, but it adds needless complexity and costs without the benefits to compensate.
Waterloo holds festivals that require the closing of King Street to traffic. The proposed way to deal with having one direction going along King Street is to double-up on the one Caroline track during any festivals. This will be difficult to do in practice, will require a serious amount of planning, and will include the real possibility of failure — which might not prove dangerous, but would certainly bring the entire system to a standstill. Additionally, splitting the route here is incredibly short-sighted because of the impossibility of single-tracking when (not if) trains will be running at a very high frequency.
King Street in Uptown Waterloo is already a fairly reasonably developed area and attraction, especially with the newly-opened public square. It is one street over from Caroline and no trouble to get to. On the other hand, Caroline is surrounded by parking lots that are prime for transformation. This is going to be happening very soon in the case of the Balsillie School, which will be next to CIGI. But it will take a fair number of years after trains start running before Caroline Street gets fully built up, and until then King Street will continue getting the lion’s share of visitors. People will go to King Street and the public square, and probably enjoy the lack of a transit line separating the two sides of the street. And of course, leaving trains off King would allow the future conversion of that portion of it into a pedestrian mall. Side benefits of not having any part of LRT along King in Uptown Waterloo: more parking left on King for those who swing that way, and no need to have LRT go against traffic on Erb.
One more point about Waterloo: apparently the Catalina town houses (bounded by William, Caroline, Allen, and Park) are an important part of why the proposal has only one track on Caroline. Such influence should not be accorded to a non-historic development of perhaps 20 units. For comparison, the Bauer Lofts, also on Caroline, are nearing completion and will have 89 units. This is the right scale for the area, especially noting the adjacent Sun Life building and the proposed 144 Park condos. [Update: This 143-unit high rise has been approved.]
In Kitchener, the proposal has one direction along Charles and the other along Duke. This is even more problematic from the standpoint of complexity because those streets are not even within sight of each other. The two stations would be far away, and this would present issues with directions and orienting, and with the arbitrariness of business and residential proximity to only one direction of travel. It is far simpler to have both tracks along Charles Street, which is easy walking distance to anywhere else in downtown. Of Duke, King, and Charles, Charles is the one with the most opportunity for new development. And as in Waterloo, King Street and Duke Street will hold their own in attracting visitors.
I find the idea of businesses being seriously hampered by being out of sight of the transit route to be strange. Light rail is not a streetcar — people cannot get off at will. The main thing LRT does for people is facilitation of getting from station A to station B, a trip in which people are interested due to the surroundings of station B, and not just due to what they happened to glimpse along the way. Most importantly for businesses in the downtowns, LRT will bring many more people into the downtown areas from elsewhere, resulting in more than what the current business selection can handle. Worrying about direct visibility from the LRT is silly; if it is there, worthwhile, and walking distance from a station, they will find out and they will come.
As just one example, consider the Mission District in San Francisco. All the main transit lines — subway and frequent trolleybuses — are along Mission Street, from which most visitors make their way a block or two to Valencia, which has an entirely different street feel than Mission. Considering the distance between the successive 16th St Mission and 24th St Mission BART (subway) stops which service the district, the distance to Valencia is insignificant.
In transit, less is more
Following up my previous post on the role of perception in transit, I want to discuss the importance of simplicity of routes. In that post I mentioned the relative ease of using a bus that runs frequently. What that omits is the need to know where the bus actually goes. The purpose of most regular bus routes is to provide extensive service for an area, which generally means a winding route with many stops. What immediately follows from this is that it is difficult to be very familiar with more than just the routes you use routinely. This in turn makes it likely that you will simply not use the bus system for getting to somewhere unusual.
I must note that this is not always a predicament in bus systems. In cities with predictable street grids there can be bus routes that go straight along a particular street, or there can be bus routes that follow some important avenue. But inevitably there are common trips that do not follow the obvious streets, and so bus routes evolve to serve those trips.
The complexity of bus routes is a huge part of what makes bus transit a poor way to get people out of cars. A barrier to entry, if you will. If someone is reliant on buses entirely, they have no choice but to take the time to learn the route system, though they might still learn only the part that is relevant to them. Don’t expect people to willingly subject themselves to something difficult and esoteric if they can avoid it.
Though I won’t address it here, some complexity can be mitigated by properly designed information and maps.
The answer is probably some version of Bus Rapid Transit, a term that generally refers to individual lines with separate rights-of-way and express service. I believe bus systems should be holistically planned with BRT ideas in mind, in a way similar to subway systems. This entails simplified routes, limited stops as a matter of course, and maps that make it easy to understand both the overall route system as well as stop locations. Such a system could be parallel to the more comprehensive system. But it would be vastly more usable for most people.
This formulation exposes, however, a serious limitation of even a simplified bus system: the lack of permanent routes. BRT has little infrastructure and its vehicles can travel off route, so it still has this limitation, albeit to a lesser extent. The right way to think about the importance of unchanging routes is probably in terms of temporal simplicity and complexity. A simple bus system that changes over time becomes complex temporally. The effect is that people will still be wary of using the system to inform long-term decisions such as where to live and where to set up a business, as the bus routes could easily change and leave them out in the cold. Here the right sort of Bus Rapid Transit does offer a partial solution, but light rail and subways are and feel more permanent.