Why is PT ridership falling in the US, but growing here?

Jarrett Walker recently posed an interesting question, that he was after some more in depth research on than the usual ‘reckons’, “why is public transport ridership in the US falling so much?”

This builds on a tweet from Kirk Hovenkotter, showing that ridership had fallen in most large US cities over the past year, which was reported on CityLab:

A number of “culprits” are suggested. The obvious one being that oil prices have fallen significantly over the past few years, alongside an ongoing process where immigrants – or poorer Americans in general – are being priced out of transit rich inner cities and into more car dependent suburban areas:

Some of the factors behind these declines are national, as the transportation scholar David Levinson points out via email. The economy is expanding, and oil prices are plunging. People are buying more cars and driving them more often, both to work and to weekend activities that are better served by vehicles. American cities continue to suburbanize, and as they do, taking transit often becomes a less attractive option. Immigrants, long a strong base of ridership for agencies, are increasingly moving out of urban centers… and buying and driving their own vehicles.

Other suggestions are that people are shifting to using ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft – but the evidence is pretty thin on the ground when it comes to that:

This argument probably holds truest for weekend boardings. But the best research out there (and there isn’t much yet) suggests most workers don’t rely on Uber and Lyft for regular daily commutes. Ride-hailing may even be more supportive of transit than competitive, at least in the biggest cities (smaller cities might be another question). At the very least, it doesn’t seem to be siphoning a significant number of riders away. When Uber and Lyft left Austin, mass transit saw a very modest one percent bump in ridership, according to the transportation consultant Jarrett Walker.

Of course, meanwhile in Auckland public transport ridership continues to grow strongly, as I noted yesterday February ridership was up 8.6% on February 2016, with both the rail network and the Northern Busway again registering double-digit increases.

Even across Canadian cities that we usually enviously compare ourselves, ridership growth is much slower than Auckland – although they start from a higher base. This leads to an interesting question of why Auckland is bucking the trends seen elsewhere so strongly. I think there are a few possible suggestions:

  • Auckland’s recent rapid growth and the growing congestion it has created, means that PT offers a pretty competitive travel choice for many people – especially when using the rail network or the Northern Busway.
  • We’re still seeing the benefits of recent investment in rail electification and integrated ticketing, as well as the improved “value for money” offering that came with zone-based fares last year.
  • Service network improvements, mainly in the south so far, have also helped increase ridership – some of that is a result of us shifting to a system that encourages greater transfers although indications are that overall journeys have increased too.
  • The NZ/US dollar exchange rate usually offsets fluctuations in oil prices so we don’t see as rapid increases/decreases in fuel prices at the pump as is the case in the US. Also a higher proportion of what we pay is tax when compared to the US.

All up we are doing well to buck the international trends and it should give us ongoing confidence in investing in public transport – that people will continue to flock to where improvements are made even when fuel prices are relatively low. We’ve still got a long way to go but perhaps one day soon we can be envied as a city used in case studies of what to do to make public transport better rather than our history of the opposite.

Better or cheaper public transport?

With the great news that the Hop Card has finally been fully implemented, attention now turns to complementing integrated ticketing with integrated fares. Integrated fares is all about ensuring that you pay the same amount for a trip from A to B regardless of how you got there: a single bus, bus & train combination or whatever. The Regional Public Transport Plan indicates that Auckland Transport want to implement integrated fares through a zone based fare system – with latest board reports noting a couple of options still being analysed.

With my trying out of various options to get to and from Takapuna it has also highlighted just how important integrated fares are. With HOP to go via the 130 bus like I described yesterday it cost me $5.04. By comparison to catch a train to town and then get a bus to Takapuna – a journey that takes about the same length of time but doesn’t feel like it due to at least feeling like you are moving – costs $8.68. That’s a difference of $3.64 just to get to the same location. Even worse another bus I accidentally tried from town to Takapuna (which I will discuss in a separate post) cost a grand total of $9.67. That’s three completely different costs to go between the same two locations.

HOP costs to Takapuna

The fare zones originally proposed in the draft Regional Public Transport Plan looked at using geographic boundaries largely reminiscent of the old council areas however that didn’t receive a lot of support and sent AT back to the drawing board.  The latest board report suggests that AT are looking at two different concentric zone models like this one from a survey in August last year which I understand was much preferred over the geographic boundary option.

Concentric Zone structure

In Wednesday’s NZ Herald, Auckland Transport chairman Lester Levy discusses the potential for the integrated fares system to result in cheaper travel on public transport:

Aucklanders are being offered hope of cheaper public transport now introduction of the region’s $100 million electronic ticketing scheme is complete.

A report that Auckland Transport chairman Lester Levy expects will recommend lower fares to help meet ambitious patronage targets is due before his council body’s board in two months…

…Dr Levy told the Herald after yesterday’s meeting that the card was a stepping stone to a simpler fare structure, which he hoped would give passengers cheaper trips.

The prospect of cheaper public transport is obviously appealing in some respects – and perhaps for some people the cost of public transport is what stops them from using the system. For most people though, I think the bigger issue is simply the usefulness of the system. When the system is full of routes like the stupid 130 that I talked about yesterday and/or routes with such low frequency meaning you have to plan your life around a bus timetable then no amount of price reductions is going to get lots more people using services.

Furthermore in the past I’ve looked into a number of Canadian and Australian cities and interestingly despite different fare structures and prices, the average fare paid by passengers is actually very similar to that in Auckland. These cities have much higher patronage than Auckland and some of the key reasons are the more developed Rapid Transit services and the connective bus networks. In other words they have developed a higher quality PT network and people are prepared to pay to use that.

There has also been some interesting research into this area by the NZTA. For example this paper found that while fares did play an important part, service was the key driving factor for patronage while this one notes that initiatives like free transfers, ticket promotions, improvements to hours and better timetables may have had a profound impact on patronage.

In saying all of this, I do think it’s possible that cleverly lowering some fares might lead to patronage growth significant enough to more than make up for the loss of per passenger revenue – particularly during off-peak periods where spare capacity already exists on many services.

However, clearly any reduction in fares that leads to a requirement for more operating subsidy is potentially taking money away from where it could otherwise be used – particularly in two areas:

  • Improving service frequency. The flip-side of this is that any lowering of revenue from PT fares could necessitate cutting of services to fund the extra subsidy requirement – which would be a pretty crazy thing to do if patronage increases.
  • Investing the money in infrastructure improvements to make public transport more attractive by being faster, more reliable or with higher quality facilities.

Obviously there’s the potential for money to be redirected away from building unnecessary motorway projects and into lowering PT fares, but one suspects that would require a change of government to occur.

All of the above doesn’t mean it’s impossible for Auckland Transport to change the way it prices public transport to be more attractive and offer better value for money. A few suggestions for how fares should be improved while not necessarily breaking the bank are:

  • Fixing up fare irregularities like mentioned in my example to Takapuna
  • While average fares are similar, compared to overseas cities, fares for short trips in Auckland are unusually low while fares for longer trips are unusually high. This could be redressed – although perhaps not to the extent of Melbourne’s flat fare proposal – in a way that’s ‘revenue neutral’.
  • As already mentioned, fares for off-peak travel could be lowered to ‘smooth out’ peaks in demand that require very expensive peak services to be operated.
  • The price difference between cash fares and Hop Card fares could be substantially increased to encourage greater use of Hop (which means faster boarding times and a more efficient system).
  • Monthly passes could be made more price attractive, to encourage higher levels of PT use by existing users.

As Jarrett Walker often mentions, every public transport user benefits from better public transport and improved public transport makes it more likely for anyone to use the system. Cheaper fares, particularly if achieved in a way that comes at the cost of lower overall revenue, only help a much smaller section of society and therefore are less likely to boost public transport use than improving service through bumping up frequencies or building better infrastructure.

Ultimately I think we have an important choice to make, do we choose between better or cheaper public transport. Personally I would rather a better quality service but I realise not everyone will agree.

Let’s define “congestion” properly

An article in Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper just over a week ago, using the rather provocative title of “Sick of Congestion: build roads not transit” has unsurprisingly led to a lot of fisking of the information contained in the article – particularly around the different ways of defining congestion and how easily they can be misused. A good example of a response is this from Jarrett Walker.

Essentially, the argument put forward in the article is that when we look at cities around the USA (and internationally), at first glance the data appears to be showing that cities which have built a lot of freeways in the past few decades have lower levels of congestion than those which haven’t. Here are the key paragraphs:

This connection between road construction and congestion has been most comprehensively studied in the United States. There, 30 years ago, the Texas Transportation Institute at the Texas A&M University created an annual Travel Time Index (TTI) that estimates how much time traffic congestion adds to commuting by comparing actual travel times of commuters in different cities with the time it would take to travel the same distances in the absence of congestion.

Over the decades of its existence, the TTI has revealed some fascinating shifts. In the early days of the index, Phoenix, for example, had the 10th worse congestion among major urban areas in the U.S., despite being only 35th in population. It has more than doubled in size in the ensuing decades (it is now the 12th largest urban area in the U.S.), but its traffic congestion has fallen to 37th.

What explains this major improvement? A huge expansion of public transit? Hardly. Try a major road-building program. Something similar happened in Houston.

At the other end of the spectrum, Portland, Ore., has pursued road-skeptical policies similar to many major Canadian cities. The result is markedly worsened commuting times. According to the TTI, over the past 30 years Portland has gone from having the 47th worst congestion in the U.S. to the sixth worst.

Something in the next paragraph jumped out at me when first reading it – when mention was made of New Zealand cities as examples of those that had high congestion and hadn’t built many urban freeways.

Now data are starting to emerge that allow us to compare commute times among similar rich-world industrialized countries in Western Europe, the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The results are not encouraging for the anti-car crowd. The worst urban congestion in this group of countries is in New Zealand, followed by Australia, countries that have invested relatively little in urban freeways.

If Auckland, with our gigantic spaghetti junction and motorways to just about every corner of the city, is an example of us not having invested much in ‘urban freeways’, I’d hate to see a place with lot of them – although Toronto’s Highway 405 (below) is pretty bad. I actually had a quick look at some figures from US cities with populations greater than 1 million people and from what I can tell based on some admittedly very rough calculations is that the size of motorway network would probably put us within top 10 US cities. Might have to look into that in more detail for a future post.

But the strange mention of New Zealand aside, the real issue with the article is its reliance upon congestion information from the Texas Transportation Institute that is decidedly dodgy in how it’s applied. Let’s pick up on Jarrett Walker’s criticism of the source data:

TTI believes that traffic congestion is a valid measure of people’s ability to access the resources of their city.  They do not measure actual travel times for all people, or the liberty and economic liberty that a good urban transporation system offers.  They apply these things as factors to a degree, but their bottom line is road congestion.

Specifically, their metric is the difference in travel times, by car, between travel time on congested roads and the same roads in a free-flow condition.   In other words, their baseline utopian condition is abundant free-flowing roads at all times of day.  (That condition is actually an economic impossibility in a city above a certain size with a healthy economy and no road pricing.)

Once you insist on measuring congestion, and against that fantasy baseline, you can get absolutely everything backwards…

… If you count everybody’s commuting time, Portland is ahead of most US metros.   … it is only congestion that is worse.  Yes, like all dense cities, Portland has exactly as much congestion as it makes room for, but it has low overall commute times, mostly because its carefully mixed density allows many people to commute very short distances.   Remember, if you are measuring car congestion, Portland’s transit riders and cyclists and the many people who can walk to work simply do not exist.  Crowley disses “congested” Vancouver for the same reason, even though Vancouver is the only Canadian metro where the long-term trend is toward shorter commute times, due to continued consolidation of housing and business around transit.

Jarrett sort of dances around the key point here while hinting at it in a number of ways. This key point is that for many people in the Portlands or Vancouvers of this world the level of basic congestion is irrelevant because they’re not affected by it. They’re walking, cycling, on a bus (as long as it’s in a bus lane or on a busway), a tram, a train or whatever. They’re not in the congestion.

This is the key point of the Congestion Free Network: it provides people with the ability to ‘opt out’ of congestion. This approach highlights that there are two elements to congestion:

  • How bad is the congestion? (Congestion intensity)
  • What proportion of people experience the congestion? (Congestion exposure)

It is the combination of these two elements which is what really matters – the actual effect of congestion can be increased or decreased not only through its intensity (which is all that the TTI measure, and arguably not that well either) but also through changing the proportion of people experiencing congestion. It seems that transport planners and particularly transport engineers focus so much on trying to reduce the intensity of congestion, even though this is nearly impossible due to induced demand, whereas the long-lasting way of reducing congestion is to provide ways to remove people from the congestion.

This means that a focus on cycleways, bus lanes, rapid transit and freight lanes (because it can be very important to shift goods around in a way that’s unaffected by congestion) are the true ways of reducing the actual effect of congestion. They’re also the only long-lasting ways of doing so. Todd Litman focuses on this distinction in his recent piece on Planetizen:

…the Texas Transportation Institute’s Travel Time Index, the INRIX Traffic Scorecard, and TomTom’s Traffic Index only measure congestion intensity, the degree that traffic declines during peak periods. Such indicators do not account for exposure, the amount that people must drive during peak periods and therefore their total congestion costs. Intensity indices are useful for short-term decisions, such as how best to cross town during rush hour, but are unsuited to strategic planning decisions that affect the quality of transport options or land use development patterns, and therefore the amount that people must drive. For planning purposes, the correct indicator is per capita congestion costs.

For example, a compact, transit-oriented city may have a 1.3 Travel Time Index (traffic speeds decline 30% during peak periods), 60% automobile commute mode share, and 6-mile average trip lengths, resulting in 34 average annual hours of delay per commuter; while a sprawled, automobile-dependent city has a 1.2 Travel Time Index, 90% automobile mode share, and 10-mile average trip lengths, resulting in a much higher 45 average annual hours of delay. Intensity indicators imply that the compact city has worse congestion due to greater peak period speed reductions, although its residents experience lower total congestion costs because they drive less during peak periods.

I talked about TomTom’s Traffic index here.

As part of the next phase of promoting the Congestion Free Network, we are going to focus strongly on expanding this new approach to defining congestion – so that it can actually be a useful measure of transport success, rather than something that suggests we do stupid things like building more (or bigger) urban motorways.

Highway 401 in Toronto

Get Connected – Futures in public transport? Careers evening at UoA

Are you passionate about cities? Want to know more about public transport?

If so then you might be interested in an upcoming event being held at the University of Auckland: “Get Connected – Futures in Public Transport” (NB: The link takes you to the Facebook page for the event, where you can RSVP). On the night (19 March) you will get the opportunity to hear from the following speakers:

  • Jarrett Walker – who has 20 years experience working on public transport projects across the Asia-Pacific, especially the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand. FYI Jarrett was the lead consultant on the recent re-design of Auckland’s PT network. Jarrett currently resides in Portland but – as mentioned in this earlier post – he has a soft-spot for Auckland, which he describes as:

“… New Zealand’s largest city, the focal point of an agrarian nation’s ambivalence about urban life.  If you’re a young North American who wonders what Seattle was like 40 years ago when I was a tyke — before Microsoft, Amazon, and Starbucks — Auckland’s your answer.   To a visitor accustomed to North American or European levels of civic vanity, it often seems that Auckland still doesn’t know how beautiful it is.  That’s always an attractive feature, in cities as in people, even though (or perhaps because) it can’t possibly last.”

  • Anthony Cross – who is employed by Auckland Transport in the enviable position of “Public Transport Network Planning Manager” (aka “PTNPM”). Anthony was raised in Auckland but spent much of his early professional career working  in Wellington. After helping the Capital’s public transport network become one of the most efficient and effective in Australasia, he was kidnapped by our oompa loompas and brought to Auckland. We managed to convince him to stay after promising him a job title that sounded important but was difficult to say.
  • Joshua Arbury – since founding the Auckland Transport Blog (I can hear the cries of gleeful appreciation resonate across Auckland) Josh has upped sticks and moved onto greener – in the money sense – transport pastures at the Auckland Council, where he now occupies the position of Principal Transport Planner. My oompa loopma spies at Council inform me Josh can speak knowledgeably and with ease on any transport and land use topic, particularly the transport sections of the Auckland Plan. And that he loves his daughters.
  • Pippa Mitchell – last but certainly not least we have Pippa. In her career Pippa has worked on a range of complex and fascinating projects, such as the roll-out of real-time information at bus stops. She has also worked on some not so interesting projects (haven’t we all!), such as bus stop re-locations. I would expect Pippa to inject some level-headed reality into the evening’s discourse, because we don’t want anyone to finish the evening having listened to Jarrett, Anthony, and Josh and come away thinking that it’s all drugs, sex, and rock-n-roll in this industry.

That’s not all. In between these distinguished and knowledgeable speakers you will also get to hear from our very own Patrick Reynolds; a man who is known for his enthusiasm, beautiful photos, and occasional words of random wisdom.

You know that if you give enough monkeys enough time banging away on a keyboard then chances are they will eventually churn out a word-for-word version of Hamlet? Well the same goes for Patrick when he’s talking about transport – eventually, and after much gnashing of teeth, he will say things that are both intelligent and witty. If for nothing else, you should come along to the evening and listen to Patrick (NB: Patrick I do love you).

Here’s the event flyer if you’re interested (kudos to Kent); please remember to RSVP through the Facebook event page for catering purposes. Important notes:

  • For those not in Auckland we will try to video the event so it can subsequently be uploaded on onto the blog; and
  • The point of the event is to get people (especially students) thinking about PT careers. It is not to debate the PT situation in Auckland.

P.P.s You will note that some of the people in the photo below are illuminated. This represents current peak hour bus mode share, i.e. a little less than half of people travelling into the city in peak periods arrive by bus.

getconnected_futuresinPT (1)-page-0






The importance of speed!

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…


What future for driverless cars?

There was a good post and fascinating comments thread on Human Transit recently about driverless cars and what impact they may have on transport planning in the future. Jarrett Walker blogged that he can’t really see driverless cars being as revolutionary as some people think, for a few reasons:

  • Many of the benefits from driverless cars (such as increased capacity of the road system) only arise when there has been a complete changeover from current ‘driven’ cars and it’s difficult to see a pathway towards that eventual outcome.
  • Driverless cars will still (although potentially to a lesser degree) suffer from the ‘space extensive’ nature of individualised transport options so may not be that useful for very high demand routes.
  • If driverless technology becomes feasible then why wouldn’t there be a huge shift to driverless buses as well, which could dramatically lower the cost of public transport provision.

He concludes:

Sure, driverless taxis might replace many lower-ridership bus lines, but wouldn’t buses become driverless at the same time? In such a future, wouldn’t any fair pricing make these driverless buses much cheaper to use where volumes are high? Wouldn’t there be a future of shared vehicles of various sizes, many engaged in what we would recognize as public transit? As with all things PRT, I notice a frequent slipperiness in explanations of it; I’m not sure, at each moment, whether we’re talking about something that prevents you from having to ride with strangers (the core pitch of “Personal” rapid transit) as opposed to just a more efficient means of providing public transit, i.e. a service that welcomes the need to ride with strangers as the key to its efficient use of both money and space.

As I noted earlier, the comment thread is interesting because a few of his questions are answered in quite a lot of useful detail. For example, a progression path from the current system to a future transport system based around driverless cars:

1. A car maker introduces a driverless model that essentially works as a souped up cruise drive. A driver is still legally required, but the car will drive itself when you toggle it into cruise mode. This model will be expensive, but it will sell well to rich people who don’t like driving. Liability will naturally belong to the person who is in the drivers seat.
2. As these cars become more and more popular and proven to be safe, old/disabled people will lobby for regulations that the person being in the drivers seat don’t have to have a drivers license.
3. As these are getting safer and safer, regulations for someone being in the drivers seat will fade. More upper middle class people will buy them to driver their kids, pick themselves up from the airport, and so on and so forth.
4. At some point, taxi companies/uber start to buy these cars because they are cheaper then paying salaries.
5. As the number of automated cars grow, cities realize that they need smaller lanes and move more cars per lane. A few really big freeways will start seeing automation only lanes.
6. The prospect of skipping congestions means that they will sell better, allowing for more automation lanes to be built.
7. Meanwhile, competition slowly forces down taxi/uber prices, making car ownership less desirable for lower classes, reducing manual cars on the road.
8. Car makers only make automated cars because poorer people are buying less and less cars, and well off people all demand cars that at least CAN drive themselves.
9. And we are in the future utopia already.

I’m not completely up to date on the whole driverless cars thing. Some obvious issues that come to light are things like legalities when something goes wrong and how, if not impossible to work around, it’s certainly likely to slow down implementation. This is highlighted by another commenter:

…every time a driverless car hits a child who darts in to a street after a soccer ball or plows in to pedestrians in a crosswalk will set the movement back. When people-driven cars do this, we can usually find fault (“they didn’t see the kid”, “they were distracted by their phone”) but when a computer does it, there will be no easy answers and people will call for the cars to be off the road.

I guess one big advantage of driverless cars is that if they really do stop perfectly to ensure they don’t run over pedestrians, it pretty much turns every street into a defacto shared space because the vehicles will always automatically stop for you when you’re crossing the road.

The New Bus Network: a step change for Auckland

Auckland Transport’s board papers highlight that the high level principles of the new bus network will be consulted upon in the Regional Public Transpor Plan: which will be open for public submission in the next month or two. The huge number of comments on Matt’s previous post about the network highlights that this will be a very interesting process.

Having recently completed the excellent book, Human Transit, which is basically the bible for PT network design, I can see a lot of the principles of that book coming through in the new network (not surprising as the author, Jarrett Walker, was involved in its formulation). Things like “frequency is freedom”, “embracing connections” and the importance of a “grid” are quite obvious when you look at the crowning glory of the new network – its huge extension of the “frequent network”, services operating no worse than once every 15 minutes, seven days a week. Through some careful analysis of the existing route system, we will be able to (approximately, these maps are from April and may have been updated since then) go from the frequent network on the left to the one on the right for no extra money.

Of course everything comes at a cost though, and it seems there will be a number of things the new network won’t do – in order to reallocate bus resources to creating this extremely extensive network of high frequency routes. It seems that long bus routes which parallel the train lines will be turned into rail feeder services: stripping out pointless duplication that only exists because our rail system used to be truly rubbish. Furthermore, from staring closely at some of the maps produced, some of the lower frequency buses won’t continue to run all the way into the city and back – but rather they will feed passengers into the frequent network or the rapid transit network before returning to do the same thing again. It seems pretty dumb, off-peak in particular, that we have a whole heap of mostly empty buses chugging along some of the arterials in Auckland just because they eventually split off to serving different areas.

Implementing this new network will inevitably have its challenges for Auckland Transport. Very little of the existing network looks like it will be completely untouched by the changes. People might find that the 5.13pm Flyer bus that they’ve caught from the city out to somewhere in South Auckland for years, which operates just once a day, no longer runs and they need to catch the train or a different bus route before transferring to their local service. Some of the changes will require infrastructure improvements that, for one reason or another, lag behind implementation of the route changes. The devil will most certainly be in the detail – and this is where an extended public consultation process (which seems to already have commenced, according to the board reports) will add a lot of value.

In some places it might be necessary to apply a little bit of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” logic – but this can probably only go so far before it results in a lot of resources being used unnecessarily. There’s a great little section in Human Transit about a bus route somewhere in North America that basically turns down a rural cul-se-sac for a few hundred metres before doing a “u-turn” and heading back to the main road. When the relevant transit planner is asked about the detour, they respond something along the lines of “oh, Mrs Smith lives down there and kept going on about having a bus”. That was many years ago and they didn’t know if Mrs Smith (or whatever her name was) still lived there. Yet the extra kilometres were travelled, all the other passengers were inconvenienced, a lot of money was spent.

In short, I just hope that the rollout of the network and any compromises that end up being made do not lose sight of the big picture. As shown in the schematic below, we have the opportunity for an absolutely revolutionary improvement to that often neglected, yet still utterly dominant, part of our public transport system – the buses:

This new network also says a couple of absolutely vital things:

  • Public transport is not just for those travelling to the city centre
  • Public transport is not just for those travelling at peak times

For so long Auckland’s bus system has been tremendously close to useless for all trips except those to the city centre and at peak times. At the moment you can’t even catch a bus from Onehunga to the Airport, your buses to Te Atatu Peninsula struggle to come hourly outside peak times, a bus trip from Mangere to the Otara markets would probably take a couple of hours, including waiting for low frequency services. With the new network all these places and all these trips finally get properly ‘connected’ by Auckland’s PT network. Heck, at 4pm on a Sunday there’ll be a bus from Manukau to Botany or Manukau to the Airport or Mangere to Sylvia Park or Mangere to St Lukes with a transfer – all running once every 15 minutes at worst.

I hugely look forward to seeing this network implemented. I look forward to seeing the diagram above on every bus stop and train station in Auckland so people can see what an interconnected public transport network they can now enjoy. I look forward to people having the confidence to try public transport for trips they’d only ever considered driving before (Howick to Cornwall Park on a summery Sunday afternoon? Frequent services all the way, just change buses at Ellerslie!) If that comes at the cost of removing some duplicative routes, making a few trips transfer where they currently do not (though even this looks like it’s counterbalanced by increasing through-running, like that Orange Line linking Jervois Road services with Remuera Road services), then it’s still so completely and utterly worth it.

Bring it on, I say!


I’m not going to repeat the excellent Guest Post review of the book Human Transit – other than to note from what I’ve read of the book so far I agree with pretty much everything in the review. It is a very good book. It is a book that should be widely read by those involved in public transport planning, as well as by anyone who find themselves interested by public transport, how it works and how it could work better.

One part of the book that I found particularly interesting, perhaps because it fits with some of the critiques I’ve made of Auckland’s bus network in previous posts (for example: here and here) relates to the question of how much emphasis we should put on peak travel against all day travel. The question occupies chapter 6 of Human Transit, which also provides some useful insights into this issue.

At a basic level, most public transport has times of peak demand which correspond with the beginning and end of the working day. Human Transit notes that the peaked systems (those with the biggest difference between peak and off-peak demand) are almost always systems serving low-density suburban areas – where driving all day is easy and it’s only congestion (or parking costs downtown) which encourage people onto public transport during peak hours. Auckland’s North Shore is a pretty good example of a highly ‘peaked’ public transport market, with very strong demand for public transport to the CBD during peak hours (to avoid congestion and having to pay for parking) but pretty weak demand outside the peak because the public transport system isn’t particularly useful for trips other than those heading to the CBD.

There’s nothing particularly new about all this. Where life becomes interesting is when we start to look at the cost-effectiveness of adding services at different times of the day, or alternatively where we decide to cut service if we need to save money. Human Transit tells us an interesting story in this regards:

In the early 1980s, when I was an undergraduate intern in the planning department of Portland’s TriMet, I remember a day when the manager of scheduling was tearing his hair out in frustration. The agency faced budget cuts and was having to cut service, but the general manager (the chief executive officer of the agency) had instructed them to cut only outside the peak. “Don’t cut the peak,” he had said. “The peak is our bread and butter!”

But as it turned out, there was no way to protect the peak service from cuts and still save any money. They could cut midday service, but this would turn all-day shifts into peak-only shifts, which would make those shifts more expensive to run. This effect was so pronounced that it cancelled out most of the cost savings from the service cut.

There are many reasons why peak services are more expensive to run than off-peak services. Labour is one matter, getting the buses and trains back to the depot when empty (those dreaded “not in service buses”) is another, but perhaps the most significant is the cost of the bus or train fleet that must be owned to provide that ‘peak of the peak’ service frequency. Increasing off-peak frequency generally only requires a bit more fuel and staff cost (and may not even require that if staff are heading back to the depot anyway, or have contracts requiring minimum shift times). Increasing peak frequency typically requires buying more vehicles (be they buses or trains), hiring more drivers, running more ‘out of service’ kilometres and entering into increasingly complex and inefficient rostering procedures. The book picks up on this issue:

Fleet size depends on how many vehicles you need at once, and that, of course, depends on your peak service, not your all-day pattern. Many transit agencies must purchase, license, store and maintain a vehicle that makes only one round trip per day. That’s a huge inefficiency compared to an all-day operation whose fleet may work 10 to 20 hours each day.

I think it was Paul Mees’s book “Transport for Suburbia” which compares Vancouver’s West Coast Express peak-only commuter train with the Skytrain system on this issue. On average, each West Coast Express train has its seats filled around twice a day – one trip in during the morning and one trip out during the evening. In contrast, each Skytrain has every seat filled something like 50 times a day because they operate at high frequencies all day long, providing service for far more trips than just commuting ones. That makes the Skytrain system incredibly efficient to run, even if overall it may not seem as “crowded” during very peak times as the West Coast Express train.

What the book goes on to highlight is that if we are looking to improve the cost-effectiveness of our system, we shouldn’t focus on cutting services outside the peak (even if the buses or trains are fairly empty), but rather look at services during the peak that aren’t at maximum capacity:

…if you see a transit vehicle running nearly empty during the peak period and in the peak commute direction, you may be seeing some actual waste. Suppose that a commuter express bus, doing a long run from a distant suburb into the city, carries only fifteen people, less than half a seated load. If the transit agency is looking at its cost-effectiveness fairly, this situation should look much much worse than a bus with fifteen people at noon, running on an all-day, two-way line. For this one commuter express run, the agency has spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy the bus, thousands more for the land on which to store it, and thousands per year to maintain and operate it, including penalty rates for the driver who works a brutal schedule and is kept from spending time with family most days – all to serve only fifteen people!

In this previous post, I compared bus frequency across a number of central isthmus routes: 

Perhaps the most interesting observation of the above (along with Dominion Road’s excellent inter-peak frequencies) is how service levels drop away dramatically after 6pm, which encourages people to travel home during the evening peak. A thorough assessment of whether each and every one of the peak hour services is needed may end up freeing up resources to run a huge number of inter-peak and evening services – at the cost of just a few peak time buses.

The 15 minute frequency all the time of the Outer Link bus is a pretty extreme example of an ‘un-peaked’ service, but is a key element of the route’s success. We are able to afford to run a good frequency service around much of the inner isthmus, even on a Sunday night, because we don’t have the extremely high costs of additional peak services (aside from a couple, to ensure the route can keep to its timetable in peak hour traffic). While those Sunday night buses might generally be empty, over time the guaranteed frequency of the service means that people will learn to trust it and rely on it – influencing land-use patterns, decisions people make about where to live and decisions people make about how many cars to own. The Outer Link’s constant timetable and its regular frequency are all made possible by squeezing the peak a little bit harder (lower frequencies at peak time on some services in the area than there used to be), so we have achieved a really high-quality service at relatively low cost. I suspect though that some additional peak time services, for capacity reasons, will be required inevitably.

This is not to suggest that we should go cutting peak time services ‘willy nilly’, because – after all – the TriMet General Manager was correct in saying that serving the peak is the ‘bread and butter’ of public transport, to an extent. However, it’s worth keeping in mind the cost differences of running peak and off-peak services, so you don’t get quite so grumpy next time you see a predominantly empty off-peak bus, or have to squeeze onto a peak time bus. Even though such an outcome looks inefficient, looks can be deceiving.

Guest Post: Review – Human Transit

This is a Guest Post by Matt. (Yes a lot of Matts comment on this blog, this is by “handlebars Matt”). 

Human Transit is Jarrett Walker’s blog, which he calls the professional blog of a public transit planning consultant. Human Transit – How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives is his book distilling his blog, and the essence of his philosophy of public transport planning. The book, and his views are based on where he’s lived and worked (Portland, Sydney, Vancouver amongst them) and his examples are from West Coast North America and Australasia, and therefore will not be so remote from readers in Auckland and Wellington. He even acknowledges that some people call it public transport, and in some cities they even drive on the left. He’s worked in various cities and hints at some of the arguments and debates that he’s witnessed over the years. Whatever his frustrations may have been, he wished that everyone was arguing from the same place with the same language and the same understanding of the basics. This is a book about those basics.

It’s a short book, and an easy read (which I finished today, appropriately on a train). You’ll not struggle with convoluted language. It uses simple and clear prose. This is a bit of a blessing since this is essentially a book about the geometry of transit, a topic which could be as dry as Weeties in a milk drought, but here it isn’t. I think anyone could read this. And I think a lot of people should. It would be nice if more people understood the trade-offs that a city makes when they plan and fund their network. You’d hope this was known like the backs of hands by people who do the actual planning. One look at the average city map (like Maxx’s Southern Suburbs map) shows that there is a lot of room for taking on more of the book’s key messages.

Some of his topics will be familiar to readers of his blog – legibility of maps, and frequent network maps is important, and the ease of making connections (with a short spiel on smartcards and integrated ticketing) facilitating a grid of rapid services which give the rider the freedom of personal mobility to move around their city. Coverage in a network can be given by local, meandering services, but ridership is increased by frequent connected services linking the major nodes of the city in a grid. In a flat city with many nodes of activity this would be a rectangular grid, but in a city like Auckland with a strong CBD, and it’s unique topography, a spider’s web network of rapid services would fit (that’s my observation and not one from the book). It is making the same point as Paul Mees in his book A Very Public Solution (and more recently, Transport for Suburbia); a network of frequent interlinked services is possible in dispersed cities (like Australian, US, Canadian and NZ cities) even with low overall density if the local density around the stops is higher.

Like his blog the book is technology neutral. He doesn’t care whether trains are better than buses. He cares about whether they have their own right of way, whether their crossings are at grade or not, the frequency of service, and the span of those services. He talks about planning for all day products, and not necessarily concentrating on the peaks. The book does ignore technology, but there are aspects of technology that are relevant in regards to capacity, e.g. passengers per hour (train lines can carry more passengers than a dedicated bus lane perhaps) and in some ways technologies aren’t solving the same problems. Replacing the Wellington Cable Car with a bus for instance isn’t possible as some technologies have different capabilities. Somehow, interesting as they are, I think those kind of discussions would have got in the way of the lessons that are in the book.

Another thing missing perhaps was much talk of the stations and stops themselves, other than to say they must respect the passengers, and be safe and pleasant places. There was only passing mention of bicycle and car park and rides and kiss ‘n rides. Again maybe this is my bugbear and is a detail left for elsewhere.

Frequent readers of Human Transit, or other urban transit blogs may think they know it all already. You probably do, but still read this book. Seeing the rules of transit planning distilled down to simple heuristics, and understanding that some things (like coverage and ridership) are tradeoffs, all in the one place may be useful to you. Lessons learned for me are the language of describing the different delays that a service may encounter and the “be on the way” rule. If you’re planning a passenger generator (like a university) don’t build it on a cul-de-sac or on top of a hill. (He mentions the currently in the news Simon Fraser University in Vancouver in regards to this). Another example of his “be on the way” rule was the dreams unfulfilled of Peter Calthorpe designed Laguna West south of Sacramento. It had me breaking out Calthorpe’s The Next American Metropolis and checking it out on Google Maps. His example of Fresno, California left me scratching my head though. 6-8 lane boulevards are just not the New Zealand experience.

All up this book is a practical vision, working inside political realities, where a city can intensify development opportunities, by choosing the geometry and frequency of its services, that result in more efficient public transport opportunities that give people true freedom to have the mobility of their own cities. It is a very human philosophy and should enable us to share a language to ask for what we want.

For Auckland if the political reality is a central government that is not going to come to the party on rail improvements then what lessons could we learn from this book about how we could have a frequent grid? For all NZ cities how do we get bus priority and, where useful, buses in their own dedicated lanes? We often accuse the central government of “being dumb”, but how, faced with that reality, could we be smarter? This book should help.

Embracing the transfer

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.