Finding Auckland’s pulse

A couple of days ago I lent an ear to a conversation between fellow bloggers Patrick Reynolds and Matt L over the fate of train service patterns around Newmarket station. They were particularly concerned with the best way to run a service so that people can travel easily between the west, the city and the south… in any direction.

On one hand Patrick was suggesting it was time to embrace the transfer model and create a real ‘network’ out of our rail lines, a network that services travel across the whole region all day rather than just shuttling office workers to downtown at peak hour. This is something I totally agree with. However he also suggested that running all trains from the west to south would be a good idea to facilitate this sort of cross town travel, and that Britomart bound passengers could simply transfer at Newmarket for the rest of the trip. This set of little alarm bells inside my head. While we do need a cohesive integrated network – and transfers are the cornerstone of such a network – we do need to recognise that transfers are usually an inconvenience and it pays to not break the main flow of travel unnecessarily. Going west to south with all the trains seems to be mostly about fitting the services in around the infrastructure constraints, not designing the network to suit the travel needs of our citizens.

On the other hand it seems Matt L agreed with my thoughts. He thought that the core flow was going toward downtown, and changing that would upset a whole lot of people’s trips for a lesser gain elsewhere. But he did recognise the value of linking the south and west lines together. Matt’s suggestion was to do both, send four trains an hour direct to Britomart, and two trains an hour from west to south via Newmarket. This also set off alarm bells. Do we really want to have two service patterns on each line, where 2/3 of trains go one way, but every third train goes somewhere else? That means a funny timetable with funny frequencies, which makes just turning up at the station and heading off on the next train an issue. It’s kinda funny that proposals like this that intend to open up new origin and destination pairs often have the opposite effect: they make catching the right train infrequent and irregular. This kills of the “just turn up and grab the next train” sort of plans you can make with a frequent and regular service.

So I found myself in the conundrum of both totally agreeing and totally disagreeing with both of them. It really is quite a pickle: effectively we want trains that have a single regular service pattern, yet somehow magically take us directly across each line on the network too. We need services the support the main travel demands headed to the CBD, yet also seamlessly support the various travel patterns across the network. And we need to do this all with limited resources and an understanding that there are only so many trains we can fit through our junctions and stations.

Is this asking the impossible? Perhaps not.

Last week I was lucky to attend a transit network design workshop run by the inspiring transport guru Jarrett Walker (of Human Transit blog and book fame). The workshop was based around a series of fun network planning games where teams were given a large map of a fictional city complete with topography, land use and density data and a fixed budget of transit service and other operational constraints. Our task was to design a network within these bounds to meet various planning goals and evaluation criteria. Through much drawing of lines on maps and fiddling with spreadsheets, we all came to grips with the fundamental tradeoffs and hidden efficiencies that lurk in the geometry of transit networks. At the end of the day my team did quite well. We developed a strategy of planning out a gridded network of high frequency routes and focussed on running them at 100% operational efficiency to extend the network as far as possible. This strategy paid off in most regards: we ended up with a nice logical network that our fictional citizens could easily transfer around to get almost anywhere. In terms of efficiency, coverage and legibility we excelled. However there was one criterion in which we were consistently beaten: travel time. No matter how great our efficiency, we just didn’t have the resources to get enough high frequency service to enough areas to make our transfers invisibly quick. In many cases we had connections taking fifteen or even thirty minutes, and that eats into travel time.

The faster groups took a different approach. They had a strategy of providing a lesser level of frequency overall but coordinating transfers between routes around timed connections at key locations. This is called pulse timtabling, and it allows us to do amazing things. The key to it is that two or more routes are timetabled to arrive at the same stop at the same time, this means that anyone can transfer from one line to another at the pulse point without any time delay, simply by walking across the bus stop or train platform. Transferring takes only as long as a regular mid-route stop, and because each of the routes would stop at the pulse point anyway, there is no delay to passengers who are staying aboard and not making the connection.

It’s quite common in smaller European and American towns as a strategy to provide a good interconnected network with minimal transfer delays, in places where the town cannot afford to provide the high level of frequency needed to make transfers simple. In places like this you have a central hub (usually the main street or an intercity railway station) where every bus line terminates or passes through. Most of the time there are no buses around, but every thirty minutes every bus in the town arrives at the same time. Some people get off, some hop on, and some step out of one bus and straight onto another. The buses all then depart for their routes, and return a thirty minutes later to repeat the process, over and over all day. The critical thing is that it provides a tiny time delay when transferring that is independent of the frequency the lines are run at.

There are some tradeoffs with pulse timetabling. For one you actually have to plan and coordinate a timetable across the services you want to pulse. In Auckland that should be feasible with the rail network and perhaps the ferries (the Waiheke buses are actually pulsed to the ferry already), but perhaps not on the rest of the buses (not until we have the new PTOM system in place anyway) which are timetabled and run by various independent operators as independent routes.

How a timed connection at Newmarket could work. The trains already use these routes, it's just a matter of timetabling them to arrive at the station at the same time.

Secondly you need to run a consistent clockface timetable. If one of your pulse routes runs every fifteen minutes, all the connecting routes need to run every fifteen minutes too. If you want to drop the service to hourly on one line to safe money, they all have to drop to hourly or you lose the timed connection. This also has implications for efficiency, you have to plan at a network level which in some cases means an individual line might be quite inefficient. Imagine you need a bus route to turn around every hour to meet the pulse connection, but the route itself take an hour and ten minutes to cover. In that case you’d either have think about cutting the route short to make up the time (losing coverage and paying passengers), or you need to pay to put on extra buses to cover the whole route (which also means they’ll spend most of their time sitting around empty waiting for the timetable).

The third major constraint is you need a fare system that allows for transfers. We’re not quite there yet in Auckland, but we should be soon. On the rail system it could be quite straightforward to extend the existing paper ticket stage system across all the lines. For example if a trip from Kingsland to Britomart is one stage, and Britomart to Greenlane is two stages, they could simply say that Kingsland to Greenlane is two stages also. All that would require is a little transfer ticket to show the clippie you had already paid on the first train.

While there are some constraints here, the benefits are huge and with a little effort we could see timetabled connections in Auckland. Going back to our Newmarket conundrum, a pulsed connection could be the answer we need to meet our impossible goals. So how could this work?

Well to start with we’d need to assume the western and southern line ran to the same frequencies at the same times of day, which sound quite reasonable. Then it would simply be a case of shuffling one timetable back or forward until they meet at Newmarket at the same time. So every fifteen minutes during the peak a citybound western line train heading to Britomart arrives at Newmarket platform 3, and at the same time a southbound southern line train arrives from Britomart arrives on platform 4. Both trains open their doors and people can transfer from the western line to the southern line by simply walking across the platform to the waiting train. A few minutes later the opposite happens: a westbound train arrives from Britomart on platform 1 at the same time a train from the southern line arrives on platform 2. The doors open as usual and people can hop on or off either train, or connect between them. Again because both lines stop at Newmarket anyway there is no delay to passengers on the regular service, and your overall time from west to south or south to west is exactly the same as if the train actually ran through that way. And at the end of the day making a transfer from one train to another across the same platform is about as hard as shifting from the couch to the lazyboy on the other side of the lounge, so it’s hardly even counts as losing a one-seat-ride.

So is this our solution? Well it could be. A pulse timed cross-platform connection at Newmarket probably represents the best option for excellent west to south rail connectivity while still keeping a frequent and reliable ‘turn up and go’ service pattern along the main route to the CBD. The only issue I can see is at the Britomart end. With only twenty train slots an hour across the network and very busy trains, we don’t really have any spare slots to hold trains around to fit the pulsed timetable. I guess it would come down to whether the transit times happen to work out in favour and an efficient timetable could be put together. At the end of the day, if we can wriggle the timetable to give a timed connection at Newmarket then we should do it. It would cost nothing but a little planning yet gain an almost seamless link between all the stations on the western and southern lines. That’s a huge benefit for almost no cost.

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.

Auckland v Toronto: comparing networks

As I noted in this post a couple of days ago, there are some really useful pieces of technology that are starting to be developed that can aid us in understanding how our PT networks work, and where their strengths and weaknesses are. Let’s compare this video of Auckland’s public transport network, with a similar one of Toronto’s network:

Toronto’s video has the useful addition of distinguishing between the subway lines and the surface level transit (buses and trams). It also shows us how many vehicles are on the road at any particular hour of the day – interesting to see the pretty high level of all-night service that’s offered, and also the fact that there remains well over 1000 vehicles in operation until after 7pm in the evenings. It’s also a lot less CBD-focused – meaning that the PT system is useful for people other than those working downtown, while also operating efficiently by avoiding expensive long-haul services.

But perhaps the most obvious thing that comes through is the logic you can see with Toronto’s network. It’s not a bunch of ants crawling all over the place – as the Auckland network looks like. Instead, there’s a clear gridded network – something easy to understand, easy to intuitively know where your bus is going to take you and easy to connect to both other bus routes, and also to the subway system. This just reinforces the importance of getting our street patterns right when designing new urban areas.

150m public transport trips by 2021?

Some interesting public transport announcements today by Len Brown – probably best encapsulated in this article from Stuff:

Aucklanders could soon be taking ferries to many different areas of the city, catching a train on the CBD rail loop or cycling to work under a plan by mayor Len Brown to more than double the patronage on public transport within 10 years.

Brown caught a train from Papatoetoe, in Auckland’s south, to Britomart, in the city centre, this morning in order to highlight the importance of public transport for his council.

He said he was determined for the patronage on public transport to double over the next 10 years.

”We want to see transit movements go from 63 million a year, as it stands this year, to 150 million a year in 10 years time.”

In 2006 ARTA set themselves a goal of having 100 million public transport trips by 2016. This was reliant on the earlier adoption of integrated ticketing and rail electrification than has happened subsequently – and therefore on current trends it seems unlikely that we will reach that level unless something pretty significant happens. Here’s what ARTA’s 2010 Annual Report had to say about PT patronage:

Under the available funding, ARTA’s target prior to them becoming Auckland Transport was around 80 million trips by 2016 – very much achievable and potentially a very conservative estimate: as both integrated ticketing and rail electrification will be completed by then.

But can we make 100 million trips by then? Can we reach Len Brown’s very ambitious target of 150 million trips by 2021? The article from Stuff quotes how Mayor Brown plans to get to this ambitious figure:

He said the doubling in public transport patronage would be achieved through integrated ticketing for the services, electrification of the rail network, the inner city rail loop – within five to seven years – and a ”major lift” in bus use, walking and cycling.

Brown said staff from his office and from Auckland Transport had started work on a study into how to encourage alternative means of transport. The study is expected to be completed in the next couple of months.

Doing a few sums, it seems to me that by 2021 – with a CBD Rail Tunnel completed – at best we might hope for 25 million rail trips a year. There are grand plans for ferries, so they might increase from around 4 million trips a year to at best 10 million trips a year. That means if we are to get anywhere near 150 million trips – the bulk of our increase will need to be on the buses. In my recent analysis of patronage trends in Auckland over the past decade, it was particularly noticeable how little bus patronage had increased: from 45 million in 2002 to 49 million in 2010 – not even keeping up with the rate of population growth.

So how are we going to more than double our current bus patronage in the space of a decade? In many ways, this is a more interesting question to answer than “how are we going to get patronage to 150 million by 2021?” It certainly won’t happen by keeping on doing “business as usual” with the bus system. So here are a few ideas:

  1. We must complete the Quality Transit Network. That means extensive bus lanes along all routes identified to form part of the QTN, frequencies that are no worse than a bus every 10 minutes, top quality bus shelters and fast boarding options.
  2. We must consider routes where upgrading to modern light-rail is appropriate (I include this in bus figures as it will be bus routes that are upgraded to light-rail rather than heavy-rail downgraded). Dominion Road and possibly Tamaki Drive seem like potentially useful areas to extend the Wynyard Quarter tram circuit that’s starting to emerge.
  3. We must simplify the overly complicated network of bus routes and provide a clear and legible system of routes that work in support of each other and the rail network – rather than competing against each other and the rail network. This needs to be based around making transfers as easy as possible, and on implementing a grid-style “network effect” on the isthmus. The possible core of this network is shown below:
  4. We must do something about getting better value for money out of our investment in subsidising public transport. It just seems bizarre that throughout the middle years of last decade the level of bus subsidy increased dramatically while patronage didn’t increase at all – and in fact decreased for a few years. There’s no quick solution to this problem – though I do think one potential solution could be the council buying out either a smaller bus company or one of NZ Bus’s brands. That way some of the more profitable routes could be used to subsidise some of the less profitable routes.
  5. We must sort out buses in the CBD. More bus trips should be to the local train station instead of long-haul services into town. More bus routes should pass through the CBD instead of terminating there. More bus routes should have sensible stop locations in the CBD – one area for North Shore buses, one area for those going west, one area for all those serving the isthmus and another area for south and east buses.

I do actually think 150m trips by 2021 is possible. Rail electrification will lead to a big jump in rail patronage (it always has overseas), but perhaps more importantly, integrated ticketing will make transfers between services far easier than they’ve ever been before (as long as Auckland Transport does it properly and has free transfers). It will hopefully become normal to catch a local bus to your train station, then jump on the train to work – doing the reverse on the way home. Or it will become normal to jump on a high-frequency cross-town QTN then switch to a separate radial route to end up where you need to go.

But perhaps most importantly, but 2021 I suspect petrol will be very very expensive. It pretty much hit $2 a litre today for 91 octane – in a time of great economic uncertainty and dampened demand. If/when the global economy really does fully recover, it’s hard not to see petrol becoming extremely expensive in the future. That’s going to price a lot of people out of there cars and onto the public transport system. The real question is, will the system be up to scratch when that happens?

Integrated ticketing: what’s going on?

Call me cynical, but if I don’t hear anything about a public transport project for quite some time I start to get suspicious. This generally is for good reason – with examples including the near screw-up of electrification last year and the consistent delays to the Onehunga Line’s opening almost passing under the radar without a ‘peep’ from the powers to be. My newest worry is about integrated ticketing – because we have heard absolutely stuff all from ARTA and now Auckland Transport about how the project is progressing. In fact, the only tidbit of information from ARTA/Auckland Transport was in the form of a media release in October that managed to contain next to no information of use whatsoever.

My concern about this project is that we know so little about what’s going on, yet there remain so many unanswered questions. What has happened in the year since ARTA signed the contract with Thales, for example? We heard some detail from Thales back in August on some aspects of how things were progressing – but that was mainly in terms of the technical “making it happen” side of things. There are also some huge unanswered questions relating to fares policy, how things will work with snapper, whether there will be free transfers, what part of the system will be up and running by the Rugby World Cup, how will the system as a whole be phased in, will we have zone-based ticketing and so forth. Plus, last but certainly not least, what will the card be called?

Integrated smart-card ticketing will make such a massive difference to the quality of Auckland’s public transport system if we do it right. By enabling easy transfers from buses onto rail we can reorganise our public transport system to be far more efficient and effective, by enabling free transfers we can achieve the “network effect” and not punish people for changing from one service to another: but rather simply charge them based on where their trip begins and ends – regardless of how it gets there. But we have to get it right, and there are some pretty big problems sitting out there that haven’t been resolved as far as I know.

Problem 1: Snapper

As people may remember, shortly after ARTA announced that Thales was getting the contract for supplying the integrated ticket for Auckland’s public transport, Snapper/Infratil decided to do their best to sabotage the entire process by deciding to roll-out Snapper on the buses in Auckland that Infrail (Snapper’s parent company) run through NZ Bus (Snapper’s ‘sister company’). While we haven’t heard anything about how the roll-out of Snapper is progressing, I have started to notice the installation of equipment on various NZ Bus operated services that sure look like they’re designed to take Snapper card readers.

The problem here is that Snapper isn’t an integrated ticket, as nobody but NZ Bus is ever going to accept the Snapper Card. Yet if Snapper gets their system going before Auckland Transport/Thales, people will (either by choice of not if the current machines are replaced) replace their existing Go Rider cards with Snapper Cards. Who’s going to want to have to replace their Snapper Card with a Thales/whateveritscalled card just a few months later? That’s a recipe for absolute disaster – thanks Snapper.

Problem 2: The Fare System:

Back at the start of this year I had a chat with some senior staff at ARTA about whether the fare system was going to be simplified into something of a “zone based system” in preparation for integrated ticketing. The advantage of a zone based system is that you could easily provide free transfers: in that it wouldn’t matter how people got from A to B – they would simply be charged for a trip from A to B. This means that if I’m travelling from Herne Bay to Newmarket I could have the choice of walking to Ponsonby and catching a very long Link Bus trip or I could have the choice of catching the 005 into town and then catching the train to Newmarket – both for the same price. This makes sense: as long as I stay within “zone 1” it shouldn’t matter how I got there.

Unfortunately, the response I got wasn’t particularly optimistic. It seems that we will be keeping our stupid stage based system – even though it hugely discourages transfers. Considering all ARTA’s transport strategies utterly depended upon making transfers more attractive, this would appear to be one of the stupidest decisions ever made. People will continue to be punished for transfering meaning that we will continue to have to try and provide “everywhere to everywhere” services, which means that we will continue to have bus maps that looks like spaghetti thrown at a wall – with all the routes operated at horrifically low frequencies.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that if integrated ticketing doesn’t include zone=based ticketing and the elimination of transfer penalties, it will be one of the biggest lost opportunities ever.

Problem 3: What’s going to be ready by the World Cup?

I was talking to someone the other day who said that there has been pressure to create integrated ticketing since the early 1990s. As long as I have had even a passing interest in public transport (about 10 years now) the “need for integrated ticketing” has been highlighted again and again. Yet up until recently nothing whatsoever had happened – aside from the Discovery Passes that were deliberately priced excessively by the bus companies to “prove” that there was no demand for integrated ticketing. So really, there’s little excuse for why we wouldn’t have implemented integrated ticketing years and years ago.

Added into that mix is that in September and October next year the eyes of the (rugby playing) world will be on New Zealand, and Auckland in particular – as we host the Rugby World Cup. There will be a big influx of visitors and there will be a big influx of media. Contrary to the government’s belief, all these people won’t be bringing cars with them on the plane from Australia, Europe and wherever else they come from – they will more than likely use the public transport system in vast numbers. While a lot of work has gone into ensuring that things are right for the whole “getting people to the game” issue, the nature of a Rugby World Cup – particularly in its latter stages – is that you play a few games on a weekend and then nothing happens for 5 days until the next weekend. So there will be a lot of people staying in Auckland, without a game to go to, looking for something to do – they will be people without cars (memo to Steven Joyce: cars don’t fit on aeroplanes) so they will use the public transport system: all parts of it.

A whole pile of visitors and international media, with nothing to write about other than whether player X will recover from some injury in time for the next game, plus a public transport system where train tickets aren’t accepted on buses, bus tickets from one company (say MetroLink) are accepted on what appear to be three other companies (NorthStar, GoWest & Waka Pacific) but aren’t accepted on the trains or ferries or any other bus companies. Seriously, we’re going to be the laughing stock of the whole entire world.

If I were high up in Auckland Transport, I would be extremely worried about these issues. Extremely worried that Snapper appear like they’re going to sabotage the entire integrated ticketing project, extremely worried that all this effort to implement integrated ticketing is going to be undermined by not modernising the fare structure and, perhaps most particularly, extremely worried that Auckland’s public transport system – but most particularly its extraordinarily complicated fare system – will become the laughing stock of international media at next year’s world cup.

The Snapper issue is somewhat difficult to solve, but the others are most definitely fixable. Implementing a zone-based fare system with free transfers must be a core part of the integrated ticketing project: if that means base fares need to be raised a bit then I think it’s still worth it – but I actually think the fact that free transfers will enable the RTN/QTN/LCN hierarchy and the elimination of so many pointless duplicative routes, it’s likely to pay for itself. In terms of ensuring we have at least some sort of fully integrated ticketing system in place for the World Cup, the solution is simple:

  1. Make rail fares the same as bus fares
  2. Force all bus companies to accept and sell rail tickets

There, sorted. We could have integrated ticketing tomorrow if we really wanted it.

Is fare-free a fair go?

It’s been a while since I posted anything so I thought I’d step in while Josh is away to help keep things ticking over, my apoligies for the length and wordiness of this one!

The outcome of last Sunday’s motorway closure in Newmarket left me with some sense of vindication as a public transport advocate. After coming out with predictions of mass gridlock while the Newmarket viaduct was closed, NZTA developed strategy of scaring people away from travelling anywhere at all (much to the chagrin of the Newmarket Business Association!). To me that seemed a bit draconian with the distinct flavour of the old ‘auto-apocalypse’ line of thinking. Would the city really grind to a halt with one motorway out of action? Did they really think that the only way to manage a motorway closure was to stop people going anywhere at all? Is Auckland really so dependent on it’s motorways that there is no other conceivable transport management strategy than a virtual curfew on leaving the house?

Luckily ARTA saw what was going on and came to the party by providing free trains and a more frequent timetable all day long. Certainly many people took advantage of that offer and patronage counts of 30,000 were reported, six times those of a normal Sunday . At the end of the day there was no car-mageddon, Auckland didn’t have a fatal heart attack because one if it’s arteries was pinched.

Now of course we don’t really know how much of this was due to people shifting to trains for the day and how much was due to people taking the advice of NZTA and not going anywhere at all… although Mike Lee of the ARC suggests that over 80% of train trips last Sunday (25,000 journeys) were due to drivers shifting to the train for the day. I have to question that figure myself: it seems he’s attributing everything above normal Sunday patronage to car drivers making the switch which seems a little too simplistic to me. However at the end of the day the massive increase in train patronage and the lack of gridlock does suggest one thing: that a combination of public transport ‘carrot’ and road ‘stick’ will get some people to shift their mode of travel, if only temporarily.

So this outcome got me thinking again about one of the great debates of public transport, should we make public transport free all the time? If one-off free trains sextupled the average Sunday patronage should we look at doing it every day?

Suggested benefits of fare free public transport

With this in mind I went off to revisit some of the websites around that promote free public transport, and at first glance they make a compelling argument. They talk about greater mobility, better transport efficiency, social justice, clean air and people friendly streets. For example, Fare Free NZ list the following as the benefits of free public transport:

  • Drastic decrease in emission of exhaust gases
  • Less noise
  • Less traffic jams
  • Better traffic safety
  • Enormous savings in energy and raw materials
  • Creation of new jobs
  • Ascent of efficient economical development
  • Considerably lower public and personal expenses
  • Empowering of social justice
  • Higher cultural dialogue
  • Creation of friendlier urban environment

Assumptions around going fare free

Now this all sounds fantastic, but if you think about it this isn’t a list of the outcomes of free public transport, this is simply a list of the benefits of people driving less and using public transport more. None of this necessarily has anything to do with fares and I guess my number one issue with the fare free concept is this assumption. Advocates seem to automatically assume that getting rid of the personal cost of public transport will mean that people will ignore any other problem they have with it and all of a sudden the system becomes efficient and very well patronised. So at this point we have to examine a few assumptions in turn:

Is the cost of public transport the main reason most people don’t use it, or even a major reason?

I guess the argument is that the cost of travel is a major barrier to use, or perhaps that if there wasn’t any cost people would overlook the other barriers. If you look at the results of surveys or comments on forums and in the papers cost does come into it but there is plenty else going on too. The main issues seem to be about service levels and accessibility, things like “the bus doesn’t go anywhere near my work”, “I live miles from a train station”, “the bus only comes once an hour”, “the last train is half an hour before I’m finished”, “it takes just too long, two hours by bus for a twenty minute drive”. Now it is obvious that going fare free isn’t going to change any of these nuts and bolts problems about timetabling, routing and speed, although in cases of minor inconvenience we might trade off a little time and effort to save money. My view is there are much bigger problems holding people back from public transport than the price of a ticket, and addressing those first would reap bigger gains. There is only so far people will go out of their way to save money.

Would free public transport mean people shift from driving, or would they simply keep driving the same amount but also increase their public transport usage?

Classic economics tells us that consumption and price are interlinked. Basically the cheaper something is the more we use it, and that usage doesn’t always have much to do with our needs. So, subject to those function constraints outlined above, making it free should result in more use. Perhaps the biggest issue is that those routes that work well already might be swamped, while those that don’t work well wouldn’t see much gain.

It seems quite common to assume that any increase in transit patronage is a good thing, but is that necessarily so? In terms of efficiency and environmental impact the first goal should really be to avoid making trips in the first place. Not taking a trip means no energy usage, no emissions, no congestion. I guess the point I’m trying to make is that simply increasing travel for travel sake isn’t a good idea. The goal should be to limit travel in some cases and shift the mode of travel in others, it should be to improve efficiency and meet the mobility needs of the populace. One reason we have such traffic problems is that there isn’t a direct charge for using roads, and road pricing has been suggested as a way to address that. But on transit there is a direct price, and perhaps that is actually a valuable demand management tool that stops people making wasteful or frivoulous trips? At the end of the day if the roads still see just as much traffic but the buses and trains are clogged too have we achieved anything?

Can the system actually handle a major increase?

This is a potential issue when it comes down to the economics of public transport supply. There is only a limited amount of spare capacity in the public transport system at peak times, but perhaps a fair bit more outside of the peaks. So free fares might mean the system gets used more off peak, but it might place a huge amount of strain on it during peak times. To stop service levels degrading too much there would need to be additional investment in new vehicles, new buslanes and the like, so going fare free might just cost a lot more than the lost fare revenue alone.

Direct benefits of fare free public transport

So there are a few things to think about there, if one or a few of these assumptions are actually true then maybe it’s a good idea after all. However if we put the general benefits of increasing public transport usage to one side, there are a few things that we can attribute directly to having no fares:

The big one is that free fares means no fare collection costs. It takes a lot of money to collect money! Lets consider the amount of time bus drivers spend collecting cash and issuing tickets, the number of people employed on trains and service counters whose job is simply to sell tickets, and all the back end work required to count, check and bank the funds. It becomes apparent that collecting fares actually costs a fair amount of money in terms of labour. Right now it’s pretty hard to put a dollar figure on this cost in Auckland due to the fact there are so many separate organisations involved in public transport. However we can get an idea of the costs involved from Melbourne where all the ticketing in handled by a central state run company called the Transport Ticketing Authority. This company employs 103 people just to operate the backend of the ticketing system, let alone actually sell any tickets. Apparently the Transport Ticketing Authority alone costs the state about $50 million a year to run, albeit for a much larger system that Auckland’s. Both Melbourne and Auckland are working to introduce smart card ticketing systems that will hopefully reduce some of these costs, although the initial outcome from Melbourne has been massive budget blowouts. The new Myki ticketing system is costing over a billion dollars to install and run for ten years, that’s a lot of fares covered.

Another big issue zero fares could remove is the amount of time it takes to pay fares. This is particularly obvious on commuter routes leaving the CBD in the evening peak, sometimes it can take ten minutes for everyone to line up and pay the driver in cash as the board. I remember in my uni days of commuting from the Shore it would often take more time to load up the bus at Victoria St that it would for the bus to make it’s way out of the CBD and over the bridge! No fares means people can effectively just hop on and off buses as they please, using whichever door is convenient. Having no fares would almost eliminate boarding time, but there are of course other ways to get rid of the boarding delays. However a smart card system in conjunction with punitive cash fare rates would also slash boarding time, as effectively payment would be done at a ticket machine or over the internet and getting on board would just be a case of swiping the tag post to verify payment. Another option would be to have clippies on buses the way Auckland’s trains do currently, collecting fares after people have boarded. Other options would be fare-paid areas in the city and more ticket machines at bus stops.

A third potential benefit of free fares is that it also means free transfers. Right now if you want to swap trains, buses or ferries you have to pay another full fare regardless of how far you are actually going. Effectively this limits people to travelling in the one direction their local route goes (i.e. toward the CBD and back), despite the fact that you can get just about anywhere in the city by making a connection. Get rid of the ‘transfer penalty’ and all of a sudden you have the entire network available to you, you can hop on and off vehicles to you’re hearts content to make a journey. Creating this penalty free ‘network effect’ would go a long way to replicating the convenience that private cars afford when you need to make a series of small trips. There are of course other ways to avoid the transfer penalty, the obvious one being a time-based fare structure such as Auckland already has with the Northern Pass on the busway system.

But what are the costs and problems of going fare free?

Perhaps the biggest problem with going fare free is the loss of revenue. Again it is hard to tell just how much fare money is collected in Auckland each year due to the mix of operators and the whole issue of some routes being entirely commercial. However, looking at a few figures I think we can make a stab at it. The latest ARTA monthly report states there were 60.6 millon public transport trips made over the last 12 months, and that figure is climbing rapidly. Now a lot of those trips were made on concessions or the gold card scheme, and we have no idea how many stages was paid for each one. But assuming the average fare works out to a couple of dollars then we are looking at annual fare revenue of well over a hundred million bucks. This means it would cost the city over a hundred million dollars a year to go fare free.

Considering that the Auckland Regional Council’s annual rate revenue was $160 million last year, funding free public transport under the existing arrangements would require ARC rates to be more or less doubled, which is of course a political impossibility. While there might be big savings to be had in terms of reduced labour costs and time savings, none of that is going to result in cash payments back to the ARC although in the long term they could probably negotiate better terms of their deals with the operators. So to go fare free would require a new funding arrangements, something like an ongoing grant from the central government, a regional sales taxi or a regional petrol tax (about 7c a litre would cover it from my estimates). So while a hundred million dollars doesn’t sound much compared to some of the capital expenditure on transport infrastructure in Auckland, it is still a hundred million that the city would have to pull out of thin air.  We need to bear in mind that this extra hundred million a year is the cost just to maintain the existing system as it is today, the city would have to find this money before it even started to think about improving the service provision.

Another sticking point of no fares would be the required changes of contracting laws. All buses and ferries are run by commercial operators, they gain their revenue from a combination of fare sales and council subsidies. The train system is a little different, effectively it is entirely subsidised while the council keeps the fare money. The provisions of the Public Transport Management Act  allow the council to do the same with the buses and ferries too, but so far it hasn’t happened and the government looks set to change the law back again. Basically the ideology of past and current governments is that public transport should be run as a commercial business wherever possible and going fare free would obviously prevent this from happening. Therefore free fares would require the support of the central government to change the laws appropriately, and that isn’t likely to happen.

Going fare free would almost certainly mean a much reduced human presence on the PT system. On trains and ferries there would be no need to have staff onboard to sell tickets, and regular interaction with bus drivers would be gone too. There would be little incentive to have staff at stations or stops either… however this is also a potential outcome of a smartcard ticketing system and many paid systems throughout the world have only sporadic security staff as their human presence, so I guess it is moot.

There are all sorts of equity and social issues involved too, things like whether it is desirable to have ‘just anybody’ able to get on board any time they like, and whether things should be user pays or socialised public goods etc. I won’t really go into this here because it is a whole other kettle of fish but they could have a large impact.

My concluding thoughts

There are huge gains to be had by improving public transport patronage and the efficiency of the system in Auckland, but until the cost of public transport fares is the major barrier to PT use I think we should avoid going fare free.

Certainly removing user costs would make public transport more attractive and boost patronage, but there are perhaps much better ways to do that while still recouping some revenue from the users, Indeed patronage has increased in leaps and bounds over the last few years despite the requirement to pay fares, as each bus and train capacity and performance improvement have been met by resulting improvements in use. Zero fares would remove much of the time and delays associated with collecting fares and would remove the transfer penalty, but so would an improved ticketing system based around an integrate fare structure. Furthermore using the provisions of the PTMA act to shift to a totally gross contracted model with a central ticketing agency would gain a lot of the proposed benefits.

Perhaps the only unique benefit of going fare free would money saved by removing the labour and back end costs of fare collection. However as long as these costs are lower than the amount of fares collected and patronage is growing regardless, then the system is better off with that additional revenue stream.

I think free public transport is something for mature, wide reaching transit systems to consider, as much for social and equity reasons and functional ones. However in Auckland’s relatively undeveloped network there are much more pressing needs for spending those millions. At a billion dollars a decade free public transport is anything but free. Personally I’d rather see a city rail tunnel or a couple of busways built with the money that have ten years of fare free transport but no additional improvements. If anything, we should be looking at pricing private car travel, rather than un-pricing public transport.

As always folks feel free to leave your comments. Cheers -Nick R.

Frequency Mapping

Human Transit has another “must read” blog post about the importance of getting the way in which you “map” your public transport system right. In particular, Jarrett notes the importance of distinguishing on your route maps the difference between a service that operates every 5-10 minutes all day long (such as the Dominion Road buses) and a service that might operate only once a day (such as the weird 018 route between Herne Bay and Otahuhu). Here’s a useful extract from the blog post:

If you look at almost any street map, a map designed for motorists or to give people a general sense of the shape of the city, you’ll see clear signals that the lines on the map are not all equal. A Google street map of this same area, for example, uses simple line-weight and color to visually distinguish three classes of road: (a) freeways, (b) local arterials, and (c) other lesser streets. We all use this hierarchy to organize our understanding of the city, regardless of our means of travel.

If a street map for a city drew every road with the same kind of line and label, so that Interstate 5 looked no different from the smallest gravel cul-de-sac, we’d say it was a bad map. But it’s not wrong, the mapmaker would say! No, it’s not, but it’s misleading. If we can’t identify the major streets, we can’t see the basic shape of the city.

The process of learning any network — roads or transit or any kind of geography — begins with identifying a few features as major, and then understanding how the other features fit around those. If you’re looking at a highway map, you’ll understand the big highways first, and later, only as needed, you’ll study how lesser roads connect with those main highways. Transit customers and potential customers need the same ability to sort the mass of detail presented by a transit network.

So a transit map that makes all lines look equally important is like a road map that doesn’t show the difference between a freeway and a gravel road.

I like this analogy, as it hammers home the stupidity of giving all public transport route the same label – rather than making some lines thick, others thinner and others perhaps dotted. If every road on a streetmap was simply given the same level of emphasis I would struggle to make much sense out of it at all – yet that’s what we see for every single map of bus routes in Auckland. For example, bus routes in the central area:An example of how the map above is completely illogical is to compare the Dominion Road buses (in light green) with the yellow 011 route. Both are given equal weighting in the mapping, with the only clue that more buses might run along Dominion Road being that there are three routes listed. However, in reality there are probably around 40 or 50 times as many buses along Dominion Road as travel the 011 route in any given day. So the above map ends up looking incredibly complicated and difficult to understand, with perhaps the only sense that could possibly be made out of it being “wow, there are a lot of different bus routes!”

Jarret at Human Transit explains why we might not want our maps to look like this:

What do we achieve by putting all of these lines on the same map, and making them look the same? Well, the most powerful message seems to be: these are all buses, and all bus services are alike. A key secondary message is: This map is complicated because bus service is intrinsically complicated…

…The message seems to be the same across these multiple media: Buses are for people who like to sort through lists of three-digit numbers, and look at piles of numbers on maps. If you can’t handle that kind of complexity, don’t use the buses.

Is that really the message transit agencies want to send?

I think a major problem with public transport in Auckland is that it’s all a bit too complicated, and the maps that we’re churning out seem to be adding to the problem, rather than looking to fix it.

Of course this doesn’t mean we have to do away with the complexity of the system, as some aspects of this complexity are useful: such as the ability to run peak time express services that provide what people want at that time of the day – a fast, reliable and comfortable journey to and from work. There are also other elements of complexity that may be necessary, such as less frequent all-day services that are required to operate for social reasons: to provide a basic level of mobility for those without cars. But these markets are relatively limited, and to make public transport something that people can live their lives around, the “Frequent Network” must be easy to understand and easy to use.

A key part of making this frequent network easy to understand and use is by putting it on a map of its own, or by clearly distinguishing those routes on a more complicated map. Minneapolis has its frequent network put onto a separate map, part of which is shown below:

As well as clearly and simply showing where high-frequency routes operate, showing a network in this way can also have some longer term benefits as the network and its associated map becomes more and more well known by city residents. The Human Transit blog post describes this:

Frequent Network mapping is also important for its secondary audiences. If everyone who wanted good transit had access to this map, they could make decisions about where to locate that would gradually re-organise the city so that people who valued transit were close to good transit, thus making better use of the transit system’s finite resources. The Frequent Network is potentially useful to anyone deciding where to live, where to shop, or where to start a business, and also the land use planners and developers who make the same location decisions. If you just show such people the map of all services, with no differentiation, they won’t be able to identify which services would really be useful to them, and will thus be less likely to make good location choices.

I have done quite a bit of work on this topic over the years, and have contributed to Frequent Network mapping decisions in several agencies, including Metro Transit in Minneapolis – St. Paul. The idea encounters a lot of resistance, and isn’t done in most of the places where I’ve proposed it. But I have yet to hear a clear argument for why it’s a bad idea to highlight and market the network of high frequency services. I would love to hear such an argument, and perhaps a marketing and mapping expert will provide one in the comments.

I certainly sense that ARTA’s b.line idea is trying to implement this concept, with the “better than 15 minute” frequency guarantee. Hopefully we will see that idea rolled out to more than just the Mt Eden Road and Dominion Road routes (where frequencies are already much better than the “four buses and hour” promise).

My wish is to see something like the network in the map below become the Auckland isthmus’s “high frequency service network”, with a map of its own something like what I have put together.

That would really show that we have a fantastic “anywhere to anywhere” type network that people can live their lives around, not a whole mess of routes – many of which only run once a day.

The “PT effectiveness project”

As I noted in yesterday’s post, NZTA has been undertaking a significant amount of work into finding out ways to get “better value” out of public transport investment. As I also noted yesterday, NZTA currently gets around $4.40 worth of road user benefits for each dollar they spend on subsidising public transport in Auckland, so they’re actually doing pretty well at the moment. But if there are other ways to efficiently improve the delivery of public transport, obviously they should be looked at – and it’s interesting to see what ideas have come out of this project.

They’re summarised in the diagram below:

There’s some good stuff being said here, like the need for simplified fares and ticketing, and the need for a zone based fare system (as an aside, ARTA had better be wording on a zone based fare system that will be rolled out with integrated ticketing). References to the need to focus on a more integrated approach to public transport network planning is also good, while the idea of a “demonstration project” in each city sounds quite exciting. Other things, like improved customer service, probably have some value (I have noticed that bus drivers seem a lot friendlier these days) but in the future we’re likely to be interacting with drivers less frequently, so that might not be as important as other things.

Let’s have a look at some of the details of what’s in these boxes. Starting with improved customer experience, some of the statistics in the section below are quite fascinating – particularly the potential economic benefits of increasing public transport use: So 10% more people using public transport in Auckland would next to an (annual?) benefit to Auckland of over $80 million. That’s a useful number to store in the memory bank. It’s also further confirmation of the significant economic benefits that are brought about by getting people out of their cars and onto public transport. I’d be curious to know what percentage of that $85 million would be benefits to road users.

What is said about integrated networks is perhaps the most interesting thing of the lot, and links in a lot with what I have said previously about “The Network Effect“, which was also the subject of a fairly recent NZTA research report – which public transport academic Paul Mees contributed significantly to. It also has some very interesting statistics regarding the effectiveness of the Northern Busway:

If NZTA are really thinking about how the network effect could be applied in New Zealand, and most particularly in Auckland, then that’s very very good news. While the cost-effectiveness of subsidising public transport in general remains excellent (as outlined in yesterday’s post), over the past 10 years there has been a lot of “adding services” without necessary too much thought going in to the structure of our services – with the result being the incredibly messy route structures that we have. The “network effect” seeks to clean all that up, create a grid public transport network and to base the system around transfers rather than around avoiding transfers. International evidence shows that this works spectacularly well.

Another interesting key issue identified by this effectiveness project is what NZTA has termed the need to strengthen leadership, but what I would probably call the need for everyone to bloody work together for once. The last sentence here is the key one, that what we really need is for the different operators to start focusing on growing the public transport market, rather than just focusing on protecting their little bit of that market. Now this was the point of the public transport management act, to give ARTA a lot more powers to make this happen. I’m not sure whether NZTA has been informed of the Minister’s intentions to ruin that legislation.

There’s quite a lot of further information that I will probably get around to blogging on in the future, but it is quite good to see that some of the thinking going on behind the scenes actually makes sense, and is focused on the very issues that I often talk about on here – the need to simplify and integrate, and also the tremendous economic benefits that can arise from increasing the number of people using public transport.

Simplifying bus routes: the western bays

To continue my process of working through Auckland’s myriad of bus routes (having previously looked at Sandringham Road, New North Road and the Eastern Isthmus) I’ve today turned my attention to the part of Auckland where I actually live: the Western Bays of Auckland City. As you can see in the map below, the current system of bus routes is highly complicated, and perhaps is made worst of all by a rather annoying habit of running different service patterns during weekdays as are run in evenings and on weekends.

I have followed a similar process to what I did for the Eastern Isthmus, although fortunately the current route system in this part of Auckland isn’t quite such a mess, and it’s a little bit more obvious about where the routes should go. However, as I noted above there are still some rather annoying parts to the existing system: like why is there no bus linking Pt Chevalier and Westmere? Why do we distinguish between a 004 and a 005? How much value do we really get out of the 015 bus considering it follows other routes for about 90% of its length… and finally, what on earth is that 011 doing???

This part of Auckland is relatively uninfluenced by the Rapid Transit Network, although there is potential for a number of its routes to interchange with the railway system at Grafton station. The green line in the map below shows where the rail system is in comparison to the area we’re looking at: As we don’t have much of an RTN to play with in this part of Auckland, the real backbone to our network is going to be the radial “Quality Transit Network” (QTN) routes. I have two main routes for this part of Auckland, which generally follow the isthmus wide route map I developed a couple of months back. There are two key radial corridors through this part of Auckland, so it makes sense to have a bus route along both of them. Bus lanes might be necessary along parts of Meola Road, and could also be implemented fairly easily in Jervois Road (which is a very wide road for its rather modest traffic flows). By merely combining the existing frequencies of the Herne Bay and Pt Chevalier buses, you could get close to 10 minute off-peak frequencies along QTN number 1 on weekdays, and not much worse than a bus every 15-20 minutes on weekends. Peak frequencies would obviously be even higher. On QTN number two you would have a mass of buses from New Lynn via Great North Road, and some buses from further west that would have used SH16. So you would have excellent frequencies.

To overlay with the radial buses, there would be a number of cross-town routes, which a shown in the map below and generally fit in with what I have previously mapped in my isthmus wide system. Probably the main change is to crosstown route number 1, which in this map I have sent via Williamson Ave (so that road has a good bus service) and also via Karangahape Road rather than Newton Road, so that it can serve this southern part of the CBD. I’ve also popped in the Link Bus to show how that would integrated with the rest of the network.

The last piece in the puzzle is filling that gap in the middle, via a Local Connector Network bus that would run along Richmond Road and then also serve Freemans Bay. The route is somewhat annoyingly higgledy-piggledy, but I think that can’t be helped, and through this one route we effectively combine the current Richmond Road buses with the 015 service. All up I think it works pretty well. If we exclude the Link Bus we basically only have five main routes: two crosstown, two radial and one LCN. Even just combining existing resources would enable fairly decent frequencies along all these routes. It does seem a lot simpler.

Public Transport Lecture

I’m not sure if I will be able to make this, but it certainly looks interesting: If you do make it, it’d be great to hear how this went.