Both Jeremy and myself have written quite a few posts on Paul Mees and his book Transport for Suburbia. In particular, we have focused a lot on the huge benefits of creating a transport system that is a true “network”, rather than a number of independent lines between suburbs and the CBD – which is what we most commonly find in current public transport systems – particularly in Auckland.

The diagram below briefly described the network effect: Most basically, the network effect shows that if you build a public transport system around transfers, rather than building a public transport system to avoid transfers, you can achieve a heck of a lot more. You don’t have to live and work on the same public transport corridor for it to make sense for you to catch public transport, because with one transfer you could be anywhere in the city. Given that the most common complaint about public transport from those who don’t use it is that public transport doesn’t go where they want it to, the network effect seems like the obvious solution.

Now all of this as outlined in Paul Mees’s book is theoretical, and I have talked about it before in previous posts. The fascinating thing that I found out this week though is that over the past few months, NZTA have got Paul Mees and some of his public transport academic colleagues (J Stone, M Imran and G Neilson) to do a research report into how this concept could be applied to Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. The outcome of that is NZTA research report 396 – which is well worth a read!

The study matches up Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch with three “successful public transport cities”: Vancouver in Canada, Zurich in Switzerland and Schafhaussen in Switzerland respectively to analyse what could be learned from the form of public transport systems in these best practice cities and applied to the New Zealand examples. I will not even try to outline everything found or discussed in one post, as there are probably a number of posts to be made on this topic, but here’s an interesting extract from the executive summary:

Comparisons were based on population, residential density across the urban region, jobs in the CBD, mode share for the journey to work, public transport boardings, public transport service-km, and the level of public subsidy required per public transport boarding.

The comparisons revealed that New Zealand’s three largest urban regions have considerable potential to build on the increases in public transport patronage and mode share that have been achieved during the last decade. Encouragingly, the greatest potential for improvement seemed to lie with ‘nontraditional’ trip types, which could be accommodated without imposing commensurate increases in capital and operating costs. The research also investigated current public transport operating practices in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, and found that these practices reflected the broad history of decisions made in transport planning in each city over recent decades.

Because of its smaller size and relative coherence in the institutional history of public transport service planning and delivery, Christchurch had been able to develop or preserve a number of important features of the network-planning approach, most notably a ticketing system that did not penalise passengers who made transfers. Its cross-town ‘Orbiter’ line, introduced in 2000 at the same time as common bus liveries and the unifying ‘Metro’ brand, had achieved a level of transfers that exceeded the expectations of local planners. However, in both Auckland and Wellington, we found that the ability of private operators to run ‘commercial’ services at will had hampered efforts to coordinate services and had allowed perverse competition between different public transport modes to continue. In Auckland, particularly, obvious opportunities to significantly reduce journey times through better coordination of rail and bus timetables had been overlooked.

It is important to note the emphasis placed on the perverse outcomes of what happens when you allow commercial services within the system – resulting in poorer value-for-money, inefficient competition between modes and so forth. The proposed PTMA reforms may send us back to the bad old days of this.

The research paper offers a number of recommendations:

1    Appropriate institutions and public processes:

  • Establish a public agency to plan the network across the whole urban region.
  • Redirect private-sector competition into producing best-value tenders for the delivery of part, or all, of a publicly planned system.
  • Use well-designed public education and consultation programmes to manage changes.
  • Provide a simple fare system that avoids the imposition of penalties for transfers.

2    Network structure:

  • Provide a simple and stable network of lines throughout the day.
  • Base mode choice for different lines in the network on required capacity, comfort and speed.
  • Consider locations for suburban interchanges on the basis of predicted travel patterns and efficient vehicle operations.

3     Network operations

  • Simplicity and directness:
    – Organise the network on the principle of ‘one section – one line’.
    – Avoid deviations in the physical routes chosen for bus services.
    – Provide pendulum lines through key activity centres and interchanges.
  • Speed and reliability:
    – Aim for travel speeds comparable to, or faster than, door-to-door travel times that can be achieved by car.
    – Provide on-road signal and traffic-lane priority to allow buses to meet connections.
    – Aim to have vehicles stopping only as required to pick up and drop off passengers.
  • Frequency:
    – Establish ’forget-the-timetable’ headways (10 minutes or less) in key travel corridors.
    – Set up integrated timetables outside high-frequency areas.
  • Location of stops and access to services:
    – Carefully plan the location of stops to minimise the number of stops and ensure their optimal location in relation to major trip attractors, intersecting lines and pedestrian accessways.
    – Locate stops in car-free precincts close to important destinations, to give public transport a significant competitive advantage.
    – Change current access to ‘trunk’ services from ‘park-and-ride’ facilities to access by walking, bicycle, or feeder bus, in order to cater for long-term growth in patronage.
    – Ensure that walking distances between services in interchanges are very short: preferably no more than 10 metres.
  • Marketing for first-time and occasional users:
    – Create a simple line structure that makes the network easy to understand.
    – Use maps, on-line information, vehicle livery and on-board displays to reinforce understanding of the line layout and transfer opportunities.

This should be the blueprint for improvements to Auckland’s (in particular) public transport system over the next few years. International experience shows that it will deliver better value for money, will improve public transport patronage and will provide a better alternative to driving. Let’s hope the report doesn’t just end up as another door-stop somewhere in NZTA’s office-block.

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  1. Could one have commercial routes and still get the benefit of the network effect (i.e. via integrated ticketing?). In theory, even if the taxpayer still gets screwed by the bus companies privatising the profit and us all socialising the costs, the average punter COULD theoretically not see any of this, i.e. transfer easily and seamlessly from a commercial to a subsidized route, right?

    Just trying to see some light in the gloom.

  2. Commercial routes COULD do that, as long as the only way to operate a commercial route is by operating the entire route as a whole (ie. all services all day long – like the Airport Bus). What you want to avoid is having the peak hour profitable services cherry picked with the unprofitable off-peak services propped up by subsidies.

    By that I mean having, for example, the option for the Link Bus to be run commercially, or all Dominion Road services at all times.

    The commercial service must also be subject to the timetables, vehicle quality and everything else that is set by the overarching transport agency. Effectively it would operate the same as a gross-contracted route – except for the fact that there would be no subsidy.

    Even then there’s a loss of the opportunity to use the profit from that route to help cross-subsidise other necessary, but unprofitable, routes.

  3. I know what you are trying to say, Jarbury – I was only asking if the downsides of the whole muddle could be reduced somewhat to let the user (in an integrated ticketing system) at least transfer without him ever knowing the difference between the services. It seems to me that that is possible, and will indeed be a requirement of the integrated fare system.

    So while this idea in the PTMA could still screw up the finances, at least the punters will not be directly screwed. Only indirectly. Small blessings…

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