An article in the Sydney Morning Herald highlights a key step that public transport system both in Australia and New Zealand need to take in order to both improve their usefulness and the cost-effectiveness of their operation: by encouraging (rather than discouraging) transfers, connections or interchanges (whatever terminology you want to use) between services. The article is informed by Jarrett Walker’s new book: Human Transit (in part itself based on his blog).
The article discusses the difficulty that people find when trying to use public transport to get from one inner suburban centre to another – without having to go through the enormous hassle of travelling all the way to the CBD and back out again:
It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that a hypothetical Sydney resident – let’s call her Jane – might head out for a drink in Taylor Square and want to meet up with friends the same night in Newtown. How should Jane get there?
Jane could drive or catch a cab. But she’s had a couple and hasn’t reached that point in life where she’s comfortable throwing money away on short cab trips. She can’t cycle because she’s been drinking. So she will use public transport.
Jane’s best bet is the 352 bus, which runs direct from Taylor Square and Oxford Street to King Street, Newtown, via Crown Street and Cleveland Street.
But the trouble with the 352 is it comes only every 20 minutes. And it stops just after 6pm on weekdays.
Another option is to catch a city-bound bus down Oxford Street and change to a train or a Newtown-bound bus from the CBD. (If Jane gets on a bus that goes past Central, she shouldn’t freak out; she can make this change at Railway Square.)
But now the volume of information Jane needs to make this short trip is starting to build up.
She would also need to know that most Newtown-bound buses run down Castlereagh Street on their way out of the city, so she’d need to walk to Castlereagh Street after getting off at, perhaps, Park Street or Elizabeth Street to make this connection.
Or, she could wait on George Street for the other Newtown-bound bus, the M30.
Or, she could not bother with the five-kilometre trip and just meet her friends another time.
Substitute Taylor Square and Newtown for Ponsonby and Kingsland and you’ll find yourself in a fairly similar predicament in Auckland. You could catch the Inner Link along Ponsonby Road and Karangahape Road to around the corner with Symonds Street, then fight your way across that intersection, dig your way through a million different bus stops on the Symonds Street overbridge to find either a New North Road or a Sandringham Road bus – and then for your troubles get penalised by having to pay two fares even if your trip length is actually pretty similar to a journey between Midtown and Kingsland – a one stage fare.
And, by Auckland’s standards, that’s a pretty easy transfer involving quite high frequency routes and the pretty easy to understand Inner Link.
The article goes on to note that our initial response to these kinds of situations would be to look at providing direct services, but this comes with its drawbacks:
But the solution, from Walker’s perspective, is not to do the obvious thing and put on more direct buses connecting the two points, or more 352s.
This is how governments have tended to solve transport problems in Sydney. As demand has grown, governments have met the need by adding extra bus routes through the suburbs.
Most of these routes run from their suburban origins right into the CBD.
But what this bias towards a radial bus network has left us with is the sorry irony we have at the moment: the city centre is teeming with public transport – all those buses – but they are so clogged they are of little use to anyone.
Walker’s solution is for governments to embrace what they have often been loathe to touch: encouraging connections, or compelling passengers to change from one bus or train to another.
This is where the logic becomes counter-intuitive. If you want to build good public transport links between two locations, the solution is not necessarily to put on more direct links between the two locations. Because in planning for public transport, there is usually some trade-off between the frequency with which a service comes and how close it can get you to your destination.
You can once again substitute Sydney for Auckland here. Our city centre is slowly but surely getting clogged up with buses. Trips such as inbound Northern Express services take as long to travel the last 500m of their journey as they do to travel the whole length of the Northern Busway proper. Outer Link buses clearly take an age to get through the inner city – meaning that they’re increasingly unreliable at peak times. Yet we keep running more and more buses downtown, even when they compete with the rail network we’re spending billions on and even when they aren’t particularly necessary. Yet all those buses often come but a few times a day on any particular route, making them pretty useless and impossible to understand for anyone other than the hardened commuter.
The tradeoff between frequency and transfers mentioned in the article is remarkably similar to the points that I’ve been making about having more services transfer to rail or b.line bus at key points like Panmure, Onehunga and Manukau. Substitute in a few of these Auckland suburbs for what’s said below:
All those 3-something buses on Oxford Street, for instance, represent the legacy of transport planners meeting the needs of particular locations in the eastern suburbs by putting on direct services between those locations and the city.
But could there be a better way?
What if they didn’t all continue down Oxford Street into the city? What if, instead, say, the 394 from La Perouse turned around on getting to Maroubra Junction?
If you were travelling from La Perouse to the city, the disadvantage would be that you would have to transfer at Maroubra.
But the advantage, the plus side of the trade-off, might be that services could leave La Perouse every seven minutes outside of peak hour, rather than every 15 minutes.
Or, and this is the logic of Walker’s book, those extra buses could also be used to run grid-like routes that did not connect to the city. These could include routes running along the eastern suburbs from Bondi to Maroubra. Or more routes running from the inner east to the inner west.
Jane on Oxford Street, meanwhile, would benefit from not being confronted with such a confusing variety of services entering the city.
There is clearly a tradeoff here, but it is the benefits of a simpler network with higher frequencies being traded against having to transfer between services. In the Auckland situation, using the rail network means that our benefits also include a much faster journey from places like Panmure, Manukau and Onehunga than would be possible on the bus. Sadly, much of Auckland’s street network doesn’t quite lend itself to the ‘grid’ service pattern that Jarrett Walker’s book (building on what Paul Mees has also said previously about The Network Effect) discusses.
In Auckland, for some reason we like to ignore what every overseas city has done when it comes to transport matters. Things like fixing our bus network, having railway stations used by many thousands of people her hour, looking after the rail network (until recently) for some reason often seem impossibly difficult in Auckland – even though many many other cities around the world have come up with solutions to these exact same issues. The article highlights San Francisco as a city that has put a lot of effort into creating a more sensible bus network in recent years. I’ve often highlighted Vancouver as another (it manages over three times the number of per capita PT trips as Auckland, but has a rail network not much more extensive than ours).
It seems that many of the issues faced by both our bus network and Sydney’s are very similar. In a logical world, we would look to work with Sydney on how both cities can improve their networks and learn from overseas success stories. Key to that is for both cities to ensure that people are encouraged to transfer between services: to make sure that they’re not financially penalised for something that’s already annoying, to make sure that they don’t have to wait long at all for a connecting service and to ensure that the physical process of transfering is made as easy as possible. Like Sydney, we need to embrace the transfer.