Monday, 11 April 2011

Baltimore's "Quickbus", and the tradeoffs made for fast buses (part 1)

Baltimore, like most cities of under a million people, is a city whose public transport is nearly all composed from local buses; with the exceptions of from a small metro line and a single light rail line. Given its ambitious plans for rail expansion, it's clearly quite ashamed of this.

And frankly, it probably should be ashamed of its bus system. As well as often being operated by old, high-floor buses, services are painfully slow because, like the streetcars of Baltimore's past, they stop at every corner - about every 100-150 metres, compared to a generally accepted standard of 400m, visible in the bulk of European cities.
Unlike those streetcars, they have diesel engines that aren't very good at starting and stopping, and they're expected to violently pull in to the curb lane in order to get the hell out of the way of traffic, meaning the frequent stops slow them down considerably.
All of this is quite inadequate in a city in which much commercial activity and employment happens in centres well outside of the city, like the Woodlawn area containing a large mall and a large amount of government buildings, Towson with its important town centre in its own right.
So the Maryland Mass Transit Administration, the operator of Baltimore's city buses, desiring a quick solution to this sooner than they could build a hugely ambitious rail system, came up with the Quickbus concept, which is clearly inspired by the Los Angeles metro rapid. The two all-day quickbus routes (and three peak-time routes) are, like the Metro Rapid, ordinary buses that run in mixed traffic with the driver collecting fares, but that only make stops at major intersections, with the spacing between them varying between about 600m and 1.2km. They run every 15 minutes, with the all-day routes slightly more frequent at peak times.
The 40 between downtown and Woodlawn is the only route serving the whole of a main arterial, route 122, with local stop buses penetrating neighbourhoods on either side. As such, it's the only sensible way to get from downtown to Woodlawn, and worth waiting 15 minutes for. The other two corridors more questionable - the east end of the 40 to Essex via John Hopkins Hospital, and the 48 to Towson. They're questionable because they duplicate local buses for their entire length, which also run every 15 minutes.
As a basic frequency standard for a city that's assembling a network of frequent buses, a 15-minute frequency is a good starting point, but it's no mark of good rapid transit, which is what the quickbus is aspiring to. After all, if you're transferring between two routes at that frequency, you have up to 30 minutes of uncertainty built into your trip. This matter of frequency is where Baltimore runs up against the inescapable triangular geometry of public transport aims:
These cannot all be met without compromises. What baltimore is trying to do, in having quickbus services duplicating local buses is have a separate services, one to maximise speed (through widely spaced stops), and one to maximise penetration (through narrowly spaced stops), and it succeeds in this.
But in meeting those two aims, it compromises frequency, because to each of the two it can only allot a proportion of the total number of buses and drivers it has for the corridors, and each will only serve a proportion of the passengers. In this case, each bus runs every 15 minutes, where if the eight buses per hour in each corridor were evenly spaced, they'd be running every 7-8 minutes - a frequency where you can really start turning up at stops and knowing you won't wait long, and where you don't need to worry about missing one.
So can we balance these aims differently? Yes, I'd say we can, and my next post will be to set out such a proposal, and ponder the more difficult question of whether we should.

Monday, 22 November 2010

London buses: The universal appeal of simplicity

This morning, I found myself mentioned on Jarrett Walker's excellent transport planning blog Human Transit, with reference to my thoughts on London's complicated bus network. I have a lot of thoughts about this, and I intend to eventually draw them together into a convincing report on quite why London should adopt a much better bus network, but for now, I'll set out the basis of the small amount of work that I've done so far.
My concern with London's bus network started from three points:
- The complaints of cyclists about articulated buses. I like them, as free boarding and alighting through three doors means they don't spend very long at stops, and I'd rather stand for a short journey than have to go up and down steps on a double-deck bus. But, so it's explained, the relatively difficult-to-control movement of the rear section creates problems when the buses are making turns; both right turns and left turns. Aside from questions about whether curb-hugging cycle lanes are the best idea, this rases one question to me more than any other: Why are buses making so many turns on London's torturous narrow streets? This slows them down, as well as making them problematic for other road users.
- The fact that most people are intimidated from using the bus network, because of how complicated it is. Tourists generally stick with the tube network, even where it's not appropriate, and tourists are famous for leaving London with little knowledge of the structure of London beyond the tube map - it's popular belief that London doesn't have any real structure to it street network, which it actually does. Meanwhile, when around professional and business visitors, no one but me will ever have used a bus; these sort of visitors stick to taxis, which is terrible in congestion terms.
But the tourists and the business visitors have a point. having got to grips quickly with networks in New York City, DC, Helsinki and other places, I still find myself in London getting buses and finding that they make a turn that I didn't expect, and start taking me away from my destination. If you're in a rush, or don't know the city too well, you won't take that chance. If I knew my bus was staying on one important street, and that I'd have to get a different bus to change direction, then this wouldn't happen.
-  Money has to be thrown at the buses in order to maintain their frequency, which tends to be around every ten minutes for individual routes. Buses in London, in my experience, often aren't that full, and as consequence, the network swallows up more subsidy than the rest of Britain combined, costing £574 million over the 2009/10 financial year. If cutbacks are to be made, which fiscal austerity seems set to require, it can come in two ways: Reduction in frequency over every route, or simplification so that fewer routes run just as frequently, or even more frequently. It is similarly helpful not to sell off articulated buses. Because they don't spend long of bus driver's paid time at bus stops and they carry a lot of people per bus, they are very efficient buses. To build new double deckers to take their place would be much less sensible than to put them on suitable routes with few difficult turns.
All three factors point to one solution: Running a relatively small number of bus routes, which run in straight lines. But how am I to make a journey that isn't in a straight line? It's quite simple, and well explained by the aforementioned Jarrett in his article on grids and on the benefits of networks involving interchanges- you will make, ordinarily, one change, in which you won't have to wait very long at all.
For the sake of argument, I've drawn a map of what it might look like in Central London. Central London is the main problem, as buses in the suburbs tend to be happier to stick to one main arterial road, and the routes I've drawn would more or less continue down the arterials on which they leave Central London. I would expect the result of a serious analysis of how you'd implement such a network to be pretty similar.
Google Maps Link
Note that routes are x-series, e.g. 5 series, meaning that I'd envisage buses on a common route all having the same number to start with, with another number representing different routes they might take much further out in the suburbs - 50, 51, 52, etc.
So, supposing that you wanted to get from King's Cross station (The cluster of National Rail stations in the top-centre) to Hyde Park Corner (in the centre-left where Green Park and Hyde Park almost touch). You'd take the Bright green 17 series (170, 171, etc.) until Theobalds Road, where you'd take the 3 series (30, 31, etc.) to Hyde Park Corner. That, I'm sure you will agree, was really easy to work out from the map. You could simultaneously build up an idea of the layout of main roads in London and the buses that run along each, so that in no time at all you could spontaneously work out how to get anywhere in the city.
Yes, this means you have to change instead of going direct. However, rather than waiting perhaps ten minutes for a direct bus, the simplified lines could run about every two minutes, replacing the huge numbers of routes the map showed running on each road. This means a maximum four minute wait in total, making for less time spent waiting even if buses found themselves bunched together and you had to wait slightly longer.
So, in summary, London clearly demonstrates that simplicity has a universal appeal, even when you are providing high frequency on your complicated network:
- Frequency is always better on a simple network - up to the point at which you don't really have to think about waiting at all, which London would be able to provide.
- Particularly on the constrained road networks in European cities, avoiding turns is useful.
- Simple networks are easy to understand, good for both newcomers and locals that want to expand the range of places they go to.
- Potentially, simple networks could help avoid the downward spiral of usage that starts when you cut frequency and thus make public transport less convenient.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Trolleybuses in Leeds: My grudging support

According to Metro, the Passenger Transport Executive in West Yorkshire, before the announcement of the details of the United Kingdom coalition government's cuts, explained that:

"In June 2010 the Department for Transport announced that all major transport schemes (including the NGT trolleybus scheme) were to be reviewed as part of the wider government Comprehensive Spending Review".

Claiming that:

"Promoters remain confident that the scheme will continue to be supported by the Government following the ongoing spending review, particularly given that the Department for Transport has previously acknowledged the benefits that NGT would provide". (NGT official website)

Was its confidence misplaced? Probably. The funding outcomes of the cuts upon major capital projects in the transport sector, announced here, do not leave the NGT in the category of transport schemes that receive definite funding. Instead, it is among projects that are eligible for possibly receiving funds from a £600m pot, along with 22 others:

"The department will conduct some further analysis... and invite best and final funding bids from this pot".

Given the NGT was elegible for £235 million of funding before the spending review, it's a few inevitable cost increases from requiring close to half of the funding available. This makes it difficult to be too optimistic about its ability to gain funding while up against 22 similar projects.

I find myself extremely lukewarm about this project. Why? Because it is taking mode fetishism to the extreme. I wrote about that here. Now, while there are quite a lot of cases of making local service on rails (trams and light rail) as separate and as different as possible from local service on rubber tyres (buses), this is making buses that run off electricity as different as possible from buses that run off diesel.

The trolleybuses will first and foremost serve different stops. In many cases new bays are being built to get diesel buses out of the way of trolleybuses, despite bus bays making it difficult to pull up to the curb for easy access and reducing ride quality. Some bus lanes, including the two truly useful ones in the scheme (that one which parallels the congested centre of Headingley, and that one which allows buses to avoid a considerable deviation and two long red lights between the University and Leeds city centre), will be only for trolleybuses and not diesel buses.

It is up to the whims of Leeds's more-or-less monopolistic private operator, First, whether to change routes to feed the NGT or to permit fares integration, and as the bus operators in Newcastle do not do this with a serious metro system, doing it for a trolleybus with occasional priority seems even more unlikely. As the trolleybuses will end their routes at park-and-ride sites short of the full length of the corridors they serve, passengers traveling for the longest distances will ironically have to continue to endure an inferior services.

The Trolleybuses will tend to stop about every 600-800 metres, and as such will have one stop for every 1-3 bus stops. They therefore will stop short of being a true rapid service, which might have been the one justification for a highly differentiated bus service. Instead, there will be two different services doing similar things, but that are designed as if they're serving entirely different people. When making a journey, one will have to choose whether one is a trolleybus person or a bus person, and wait at the right stop and buy the right ticket - unless one lives somewhere where bus is the only choice, of course.

I'd propose instead incremental improvements instead, working with the incumbent First Bus to introduce new high-quality vehicles and more priority to the full corridors, along with simple branding, a common numbering scheme and maybe a special livery. I'd propose that the North Leeds bus routes that have the strongest suburban draw (the 1 and the 96) be converted to true rapid routes that only stop at the University Steps, Headingley town Centre and Churchwood Avenue for Headingley Campus, with the existing rapid X84 to Otley being brought into line with those stopping conditions. And I'd suggest that the new buses being hybrid-powered might be a way to provide some of the ride quality benefits of electric vehicles to the whole corridors, not just a short wired section.

Nevertheless, I will come out in full support of the NGT project. I will do that because this convoluted way of delivering transport improvements is the best that can be hoped for while the British government is fanatical about bidding for funding, and justifying the bids with economic assessments that favour being able to say that you can immediately, with the project built, provide amounts of monetised benefits (principally based on savings in travel time) vastly outweighing monetised costs. And while that's the game that has to be played, I'd rather Leeds get something half-decent than the money goes to a road scheme, or somewhere that hasn't been quite so neglected and starved of any serious transport investment in respect of its size and traffic problems.

Nevertheless, Metro, the West Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive, are for the most part a good organisation that know what they're doing, and I'll dream of the day when they're given a steady drip of funding to spend on whatever incremental improvements are best for transport in Leeds (and West Yorkshire) as a whole.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

On mode fetishism.

Public transport, if effective, should do two things. Provide people with mobility, and compete with private car travel. To provide mobility, it must allow people to go to a lot of places in the minimum length of time. To compete with private car travel, it must provide competitive journey times and be comfortable. In both cases, it ought to run frequently. It doesn't so much matter what type of vehicle you're running if it manages to do this. Mode fetishism, however, takes these values and assumes that they are intrinsic to a particular mode.

Mode fetishism comes in many guises, often related to heavy marketing of a particular technology. But in Western Europe and North America, I find that it perhaps most often tends to weigh against the humble bus, which historically have been slow due to local stops and on-board fare collection, and uncomfortable due to having to pull in and out of bus stops and having poorly designed vehicles. It tends to emphasis rail, as historically that has often provided faster journeys and comfortable vehicles. This drives assumptions like "most motorists will never catch a bus".

Yet, these features are anything but intrinsic. While the differences between modes is often largely technical - the material wheels are made of, what surface they run on, how they're signalled and controlled - the way that they are treated by engineers, planners and professions of other names is what produces most of the differences that drive mode-fetishist systems. The differences these produce differ greatly depending on where you are. For example, in many places rail is faster than bus as on buses, one pays a fare to the driver while the bus waits at the stop. But in the pictures below, we see a London "bendybus" (left) on which one can board freely at any of the three doors, and a Philadelphia tram (right) on which one boards through one narrow entrance and pays the driver. 

London is also fond of bus stops built out from the kerb to the traffic lane, thus avoiding the rough ride associated with buses having to pull sharply into the kerb every 300 metres.

Because of historic treatment of buses and trains, a stance against mode fetishism is often taken as bus advocacy. But as just two of many examples show, buses can be much better than the traditional offering, and it's worth reviewing where really good buses most cost-effectively deliver mobility and compete with car travel. Equally, factors can weigh in favour of rail where a bus solution would be less appropriate or substandard. The existence of existing rail lines that can be better utilised is one; ignored with the planning of the South Line of the Leeds Trolleybus (A pretty substandard BRT) and the busway south of Miami for which rail tracks were torn up. Lack of surface capacity for bus priority is another, very relavant in European cities particularly, and above all a need for capacity that means that you want a whole lot of carriages or avery long articulated vehicle behind one driver (or, in the case of automated metros like the Vancouver Skytrain, no driver at all).

As well as existing technologies, flashy, new ones are periodically put forward, and are siezed upon by a certain sort of transport thinker that I have encountered in my three years of transport planning classes. Thinking back to a presentation given by such a thinker, the attitude is something like this: "To compete, public transport must offer something different and flashier than it does now". I am not taken in by this. The city in which I live, Leeds, has congested roads and very expensive parking, and duly about half of commuting is done by public transport, despite old, shabby and overcrowded commuter trains and buses being quite slow and making local stops. People will catch the buses and trains as long as they're quicker and/or cheaper than driving and parking and go where they need to. If they have flashy podcars whizzing around that fail to be these things, they won't take them.

In achieving the things that Public transport needs to, mobility and an alternative to cars, a good number of tools are available, and in wildly differing circumstances of different places and routes, the appropriate solution will vary. It is only to the detriment of an effective transport system to push inappropriate solutions that waste money, or don't do their job very well. Even worse is when a mode doesn't achieve the necessary things but costs a whole lot of money - not just experimental technologies, but things like the fairly run-of-the-mill metro in Catania, Italy, which manages to skirt around the downtown core and consequently carries double figures of passengers an hour.

So my challenge to anyone thinking about transport is this: Take a step back, and think about efficient, attractive, extensive, convenient and competitive transport, rather than about a single tool of the many that can be used to achieve that.

Monday, 11 October 2010

A small number of photographs

Blogging hasn't really happened lately. Travel and research has happened, but not much writing about it.

While I wait until blogging service can restart, here are some photographs from the Helsinki area. They'll become important later.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Segregated cars for all (women): Why "women-only passenger cars" aren't as good as they sound.

Some time ago, I had promised a post on things that had come out of the green streets workshop. This conflicted with completing the assignments necessary to pass my final year of University, and passing the year won out. It's coming, be assured. But yesterday, having been recently researching women's security, I was linked to this youtube video, in which the narrator expresses surprise that, unlike in Japan, American subways (I'll use this as the generic term, into which other rapid transit can be included) do not have women-only cars, and was moved to write on the matter.

When making such provisions, you essentially have two options. Either providing one or two carriages, as in Japan (where provision is normally one); or providing carriages matching the gender split of patronage, and providing full gender segregation.  hope no reader wants forced segregation; where it does happen, it does so in line with cultural norms. I won't even start on all the practical issues. 

As for the former, I find about as many problems. To begin with, it implicitly suggests that women ought to be less mobile than men, by giving women a small provision. As, in fact, more than 1-2 cars' worth of women use the trains, most women will have to travel in other carriages. These carriages will become more dominated by men, which has the potential of reducing real or perceived safety of the more diluted number of women. 

Two thoughts arise on the effect on women's security. It was noted in a study discussing women-only areas near the attendant in multi-storey car parks that anyone wanting to target women would know exactly where to find them.2 This is a similar view to that concerning New Jersey stipulating that 17 year-old drivers have special stickers of their license plates. And where American and European subways make lightly-used local stops in the suburbs, you'll know exactly where to find women traveling alone. As a transport planner, one immediately jumps to the fact that the chaotic arrangement of people to the correct carriages of trains can cause problems, at least before everyone is used to the arrangement (and tourists will always come and disrupt it even then). But this is also another cause for concern, as namely that chaotic cross-movement of people on platforms is reportedly most conducive to transit crime.3

But overarching all of these specific concerns is whether you should provide exclusively for women in general. Such provision can only go so far. The women's only subway cars provision ends at the platform, and long before the walk home on the street. Similar problems crop up for women's only buses and such,2 and I will summarise three issues. 

Firstly, the impression is given that it's an ordinary and acceptable fundamental condition of society that women aren't safe around men (as Saudi Arabia legislates on the basis of). This suggests that groping and such crime, while frowned upon, is somewhat alright in the natural order of things, and therefore is alright when the special provision for women isn't there.

Secondly, by reducing the number of women in mixed environments (on subway cars and in streets, for example), the more those in the mixed environments are frowned upon, and the less they benefit from the reassuring presence of other women.4 This is what the reclaim the night movement is trying to create; not for us to take that way from subway cars.

Lastly, politicians like to undertake token efforts to show they care about a group of the electorate. Boris Johnson rides a bike to some meetings and paints some cycle lanes blue, in hope that everyone forgets that London's roads are still designed primarily for the fluidity of motorised traffic. If the politicians feel they have the women commuters' vote by putting a few special carriages on a few trains, we can perhaps forget what is really necessary to ensure women enjoy actual mobility.

What is really necessary is to work as hard as possible to allow women to be mobile without feeling unsafe or being subject to groping or such assaults. That means good campaigns that put the message across that groping isn't a "technically illegal" thing like pirating media, keeping VCRs more than 28 days or jaywalking, but is frowned upon both by the law and society - including those women sharing the mixed car with you and your desired victim. It requires encouraging reporting and pressing for conviction. And it involves fostering a generally safe environment for women, including well-designed transit facilities for visibility, vital streets on which casual law enforcement can take place, and whatever other measures you can establish a need for through participatory study with local women. Wrapping some fraction of women passengers in a cotton wool ball from when the doors shut at one station to when they open at their destination isn't going to be a simple solution to a complex problem.

1 - Fenstermaker and West. 2002. Doing Gender, Doing Difference. New York, NY: Routledge.
2 - Trench, Oc and Tiesdell. 1992. Safer cities for women: percieved risks and planning measures. Town Planning Review 63:2.
3 - Loukaitou-Sideris, Liggett and Iseki. 2002. The Geography of Transit Crime: Documentation and evaluation of crime incidence on and around Green Line stations in Los Angeles. Journal of Planning education and research 22:2.
4 - Valentine. 1989. The Geography of women's fear. Area 21.
Photograph by licensed under creative commons 2.0 Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Green Streets, Stone Churches, and Paved everything.

Today was interesting. I went to a Green Streets workshop. This may or may not be the official way to which the session was referred, but it was a meeting of people with interests in sustainability and quality of life in Leeds in the Left Bank centre on Cardigan Road (a wonderfully large old church now used as a community facility, which hosts precisely this sort of thing) with a table of food, drinks and cake at any rate. To enter, you have your name to a tin wolf.

At the point at which I arrived, everyone had split into groups covering various areas of thought, including education, arts and crafts and transport; it should come as no surprise that I drifted to the latter. There were three others there, including my physchogeographer friend Anzir, and we had some very interesting conversation about the ways in which the small measures which can help reduce the use of cars and reclaim space from cars. We came up with the idea of creating "magical spaces"; small spaces in residential areas that taken from road space and used for nice space; involving green space or places to sit or to play or whatever else, and at the same time helping to impede excessive driving of cars through the area.

After this finished, we summarised and we went for lunch,  we were to have some "conversation" sessions, about particular matters. When we summarised, I felt I hadn't said enough to the group about the matter of the potential means of reclaiming space, and facilitating "attrition of cars by cities", as Jane Jacobs put it - using the new spaces to impede cars being an example of it. So I decided to volunteer to facilitate a conversation on it. That led to an hour and a half's interesting discussion, and after that to me very nervously giving a talk on our findings that I hadn't prepared at all. It seemed appreciated though, at least by some.

So I ended up not really knowing what to expect, and ended up with a whole load of new ideas, and having facilitated a group and given a talk having had very little experience of either. (the former, I found, is very difficult if long tangential are to be avoided).

The findings of this whole session on these matters were sufficiently interesting that I decided to write a blog on it to express them much more coherently than my nervous talk, which is my intention for tomorrow. To conclude the entry tonight, I shall summarise the lessons I learned:
1. If arriving in a place late, look for the waving of a PHD student.
2. Tabouleh is good if you use a whole lot of corriander.
3. Ginger tea isn't much good on a hot day.
4. Car owners don't like it when you suggest they might be wrong to use their cars so much.
5. No one likes First Bus.

Also, it's my birthday. I don't think I mentioned. I'm 21. Happy birthday to me.