Preamble: This is the first of three posts I will write on the transport profession. My goals are to 1) encourage people, especially students, to consider a career in transport and 2) foster a better understanding of pertinent transport issues.
Many regular readers of this blog will also be regular users of public transport. Using public transport regularly provides important insights into what works and/or doesn’t work. I personally would find it difficult to work as a public transport planner if I wasn’t also a regular user of public transport.
Statistics show, however, that I am in the minority. Data from the MoT’s (excellent) Household Travel Survey (HTS) shows that in New Zealand’s major metropolitan urban areas, approximately 58% of people have not used public transport *at all in the last year*, while only 7% of people have used it on more than 20 days in the past year, as summarised in the following table (source).
For people who don’t use it at all, public transport is likely to be something of a mystery; these people are less unlikely to understand some of the unique attributes of “good” public transport — such frequency and reliability — or to be aware of trade-offs — such as frequency versus connections.
Why is this important? Well, in cities like Auckland that are seeking to grow public transport patronage from a relatively low base, many of the people who occupy upper management positions at Auckland Transport, Auckland Council, NZ Transport Agency, and MoT — who are making decisions about public transport — will not be regular users of public transport. None of New Zealand’s last three Transport Ministers, for example, have been regular users of public transport. I think this is a problem.
So what can do about it?
Well, I think the first step is for those people who know a few things about public transport to create an environment in which other people (who don’t know much) can learn. That is, we need to foster knowledge transfer. The GA blog is a good example of what can be done on this front; I am being perfectly honest when I say that — as a professional working in this field — I have learnt more from reading this Blog than any individual technical document.
I think the second step is for people in upper management positions to be honest about the deficiencies in their own knowledge on public transport. Just like engineering, public transport planning is not something that can be learned overnight, or by talking with your friends over a bottle of classy Aussie red. Public transport planning is a specialist area of expertise, which requires a combination of interest, training, and experience.
In the video below, a chap called Christof Spieler touches on many of these issues. For those who don’t know, Christof is a Board Member of Houston Metro, which recently implemented a new bus network modelled along similar lines (in terms of design principles) to what Auckland Transport is implementing. And perhaps most importantly, before Christof became a public servant he was actually a public transport advocate; he is someone who crossed the divide from regular user to upper (in this case executive) management.
I’d recommend watching the video all the way through. And if you know someone who is in a upper management position in a transport-related organization who doesn’t know much about public transport, then try and sit down and watch it with them. Aside from Christof’s interesting background, and his experiene in Houston, some of the key points I noted include:
- Non-users: Non-users are often the ones who make big decisions about public transport, who often have a hard time understanding public transport because it is fundamentally different from driving. Non-users also don’t realise that walking is a normal part of using public transport.
- General challenges:
- Non-users tend to over-emphasise the importance of public transport modes (bus vs rail) and park and ride (vis-a-vis walk-up trips)
- Under-estimate the important roles of frequency and legibility in public transport networks
- Getting people excited about public transport operations, rather than infrastructure
- Communication is necessary if we want to change the status quo: If you want to change people’s minds, then you need to frame the debate in a way that they can understand, and which reflects realities of public transport planning. Engage with people not about specific modes/routes/services, but with “imagining” the network. Emphasise how changes benefit people, e.g. provide examples of specific journeys they can understand as important.
- Entropy and reductionism in networks: Public transport networks tend to fragment over time, as routes are pulled in different directions to serve specific needs. There is a tendency for people to focus on small, anecdotal details rather than looking to actual patronage data.
- Data-driven planning processes: While data is useful for planning purposes, when it comes to communication “anecdotes beat data”. Attempts to make positive change often get undermined by anecdotes; public transport planners need to fight back with their own anecdotes.
Enjoy your Easter weekend, and stay safe out there. My thoughts go out to all those affected by the recent flooding, who are now set for another lashing. Including the emergency workers, public servants, and contractors who are working hard (and often around the clock) to keep people safe and happy.
Post-script: If you’re interested in learning a bit more about public transport, then I recommend checking-out Jarrett Walker’s blog HumanTransit, especially the basics section, which offers a wealth of insight. If you’re a manager in a transport-related organization yourself, and you and your people would like to know more about specific public transport issues, then feel free to get in touch with the people here at GA (online email form) and we’ll point you to some good material. Or perhaps even meet you in person for a coffee …