There’s a lot I agree with in Stu’s post yesterday about being careful how we look to grow the public transport market and focusing on low-hanging fruit before trying to convince rich people to give up the BMW’s by building super-expensive light-rail lines everywhere. However, there’s an interesting area where I’m not sure I do agree with Stu – and that is in relation to what emphasis we should place on making public transport faster. Here’s what Stu says:
Before wrapping this up, I think it’s also worth mentioning that some aspects of this discussion are related to an earlier post on generational differences. That is, because most of our transport decision makers (including myself) fall into the 19-65 age-group there is a natural tendency for us to propose solutions that address our needs, rather than the needs of our users. This can result, for example, in a undue focus on high-speed services. For their part, PT users seem to not value speed – or more accurately “travel-time” – as much as other attributes, such as frequency, reliability, simplicity, and affordability.
There are some really important discussions and debates which fall out of this issue and come down to the fundamental reasons why people choose either one mode of transport or another. Should we focus on improving speed of service if it comes at the cost of reduced convenience of stops (such as spacing bus stops further apart)? How important are fast services compared to simplicity – like the debate over whether there should be express bus services or not? How important is increasing speed, if it comes at quite a high cost and therefore might require an increase in fares to reflect that investment (or an increase in rates or petrol taxes or foregone investment elsewhere)?
Stu’s arguments are very similar to those made by Jarrett Walker in the book Human Transit.In Human Transit Jarrett critiques much of the focus on speed on the ground that it’s generally people who mainly drive (and therefore understand the concept of improving speed) thinking that public transport works exactly the same way. Of course public transport is more complex in the sense that other issues like reliability and frequency matter a lot as well. Along with other, more difficult to quantify matters such as simplicity and ease of understanding of a PT network, quality of waiting facilities and so forth.
Perhaps what’s really key here is to focus on improving public transport speed as actually meaning improving the time it takes to get from your door to where you’re going, including wait times, including transfer times, including how long it takes you to walk to the stop and so on. In this sense, the actual speed your vehicle goes is going to have a fairly tiny influence on the speed of your entire trip (i.e. how long it takes to get from A to B). What’s going to matter a lot more are things like:
- How frequently does the service come? (i.e. if I turn up randomly how long am I likely to have to wait)
- How long does it take for people to board the service? (this matters a lot for buses when they’re stopping to pick up passengers all the time)
- Does the service get stuck in traffic congestion or does it have a dedicated lane?
- Does the service have to wait at traffic lights all the time or is there a clever pre-emptive phasing system?
- Does the service take a straight line from A to B or does it go all over the place down every back street imaginable?
At risk of falling into the trap that Stu outlines above, it is the excruciatingly long time that public transport takes for most non-commuting trips which puts me off using it for pretty much anything other than getting to work. Even for getting to work, catching the bus is far slower than driving would be (probably at least twice the time), but as I don’t want to shell out for parking each day I catch the bus.
By contrast, in cities where public transport seems to be used for a wide variety of trips every little piece of the system seems dedicated to making your trip time as short as possible. Frequencies are high, dedicated infrastructure is provided to separate the service from congestion (whether that be bus lanes or rail infrastructure), routes are straight, traffic lights turn green when the bus/tram approach them and – yes – the services are fast. In a successful PT system the weighting given to all these competing factors (frequency vs speed, simplicity vs speed etc.) varies by the area being looked at. In inner suburbs frequency and simplicity are perhaps more important than sheer physical speed because a greater proportion of the trip is likely to be waiting for the bus/train to turn up. For longer trips speed becomes more important because you’re on the service for much longer.
I’m guessing that perhaps Stu’s position is not as different to mine as you might think – because it comes down to defining what is actually meant by “speed”. In my mind we do need to make public transport a lot faster. However the most important ways to do that in the vast majority of cases won’t be through making the vehicles travel quicker when they’re at top speed – instead it’ll be things like better frequencies, straighter bus routes, faster boarding times and the most important of all…
…A WHOLE HEAP MORE BUS LANES!