more uk frequent network maps: nottingham

Nottingham, UK now highlights frequent services on its network map.  More detail at the link.

Nottingham slice

Often when you first map the frequent network, you notice for the first time how self-disconnected it is.  Nottingham's frequent network is entirely radial with just one frequent orbital (crosstown) service spanning about 45 degrees of arc along the west side, easily seen on the full map.  The orbital is an extension of a radial, but it's clearly in an orbital role for a while.

One of the great outcomes of frequency is easy connections, so once you map the frequent network you usually start seeing opportunities to build more non-downtown connection opportunities, whether they be full orbital lines or just ways for two radials to connect (or even through-route at the outer ends) so as to create more direct travel opportunities within a subarea of the city.  For example, looking at this map, I immediately wonder whether 44 and 45 should be combined into a two-way loop so that you could ride through, say, between Carlton rail station in the far southeast corner of this image and Mapperley in the centre.  (You wouldn't present it as a loop in the schedule.  You'd still call it 44 and 45 but note on the map and in the timetable that 44 continues as 45 and vice versa.  This is how you build more direct travel opportunities in small city while still keeping the network legible.)

dissent of the week: uk bus policy and “profitability”

In a recent guest post, Peter Brown praised the Tyne and Wear (greater Newcastle) region in the UK for seeking to regain government powers of integrated planning.  The new paradigm is what the Brits call a "contract scheme" in which the government controls planning and operators provide service under contract with government.  This is pretty much how privatized operations work in North America.  The rider's is a customer of the government agency, the government agency is the customer of the bus operating company.  Each link has accountability; operating companies are accountable to their government purchasers, while government is democratically accountable to voters.

UK reader John Smith responds:

Bus operators in North East England have formed the North East Bus Operators' Association to vigorously oppose the imposition of a contract scheme in Tyne and Wear. They are working together with Nexus on a Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA), which will provide much of the benefits of a contract scheme without the 'unintended consequence' of transferring the financial responsibility to the public sector, particularly at a time when local authority finances are under increasing pressure. You can read about it here.

Commeter Peter Laws also responded enthusiastically to the fact that 90% of bus miles outside of London run without subsidy.  

Not so fast.  While it's obviously desirable to reduce subsidy/bus, is the purpose of this savings to be able to afford more buses?  Or is it just to avoid spending money on bus service?

The problem with aiming zero-subsidy service is it usually implies zero public control.  Government is shrivelled to the role of a "regulator," with the implication that, as in safety regulation, government can enforce laws but not direct the provision of service to serve larger public ends.

Government, especially local government, has entirely valid interests that are served by operating public transit services.  These include not just social service needs, but also a desire to support its urban development intent, or, as in Oxford, a need to organize service so that it uses scarce street space more effectively.  The old privatization paradigm made it almost impossible to address these needs.  For example, Oxford's effort to get the two bus operators to co-operate on using street space more efficiently would have been impossible, because any such co-operation was considered collusion. (Legislation under the last Labour government finally made it possible.)

Co-ordination of land use and transit, too, was impossible under the old regime, except insofar as an operating company considered it to be in their financial interest.  There was no way for government to mandate such co-operation.

Or consider the great problem of frequency.  One way you minimize subsidy or maximize profit is to run as little service as possible to serve as many riders as possible, just as the US airlines are doing, for example.  Thus, a private operator tends to be happy with a much lower level of service than a public transport authority or local government or local population want, and would pay for.  

This is especially important when a Frequent Network is at stake.  There may be large network effects, with long term importance to city form and sustainability outcomes, that arise from running a service more frequently than its break-even point, but it is fiendishly hard to do this even by subsidizing the operator to do it, because you are then declaring certain trips of a line to be "profitable" and others "subsidized." In fact, because people respond so much to frequency and span, ridership among trips on a route is thoroughly interdependent, so you cannot declare ridership on a trip to be solely the result of that trip's existence.  As a result, any separation between "profitable" vs "subsidized" trips on a route becomes an unmeasurable fiction.

So it's hard.  I think the American privatization model (transit agency controls planning, hires operators just for operations and maintenance) enables much clearer democratic conversations about the nexus between public transport and public goods.  But I understand why bus operating companies in the UK-influenced world often don't like that outcome, and why people whose main goal is to not spend money on transit don't like it either.

guest post: peter brown on the decline of u.k. privatization of transit

Peter Brown is a lifelong UK transit enthusiast (and an HT reader from the earliest days).   He is a member of the Light Rail Transit Association (LRTA), and a former volunteer tram driver at Seaton Tramway, Devon, England.

Twenty six years after the Thatcher government deregulated local bus services in the UK (outside London and Northern Ireland), the calls for some form of re-regulation persist.  

The latest issue is the stated ambition of the Tyne and Wear Passenger Transport Executive (PTE), which today calls itself 'Nexus,' to restore government control of planning and management for the bus system in the Newcastle-upon-Tyne/Gateshead/Sunderland conurbation.  This is significant because for a few years in the 1980s this authority operated the UK's only example of an integrated transport system on a par with European best practise — a system that was destroyed by the Thatcher government.

Img_10384In the early 1980s, the Tyne and Wear PTE directly operated a large bus system which was formed by the takeover of the former municipal fleets of Newcastle, Gateshead, and Sunderland, and also built and operated the LRT system (The Metro).  During the short life of this integrated system it was possible to travel between any two points on a single ticket by bus, local train, Metro, and ferry services. The bus system was redesigned to feed into the metro at purpose built interchanges for journeys into central Newcastle, thus reducing bus movements across the heavily congested Tyne bridges.  
Unfortunately the Thatcher Government deregulation of bus services destroyed this integrated network.  Deregulation swept away a regulated system that had existed in the UK since the 1930s. It meant that bus companies (referred to as ‘Operators’ in the UK) had to self financing through the fare box. Blanket subsidies and any form of network co-ordination (or what Americans would call "integrated network planning") were terminated.  In short, it became illegal to think of transit as a public resource, integrated with the city, and managed for greatest possible efficiency and usefulness.

Instead, the ideal became competition.  Bus operators could operate "commercial" (non-subsidised) networks anywhere, and the role of local government became to purchase subsidized services wherever more service was desired.  Integrated transit features that many cities take for granted — including citywide fare systems, lines that aim to connect with one another, and rational management of limited resources, became effectively impossible.  
Yet if the goal was competition, the system failed.  As in most of the UK today, there is very little direct on-the-road competition between the three bus companies in Tyne and Wear.  Instead, each company has settled into a "territory" in which the lack of competition is the key to profitability.  Passenger journeys starting in one operator's territory that finish in another's require the passenger to change buses and pay twice. Nexus is no longer happy about this and wants to take over the commercial networks and purchase operations from the bus companies – this is known as a 'Quality Contract' and there is new (as yet unused) legislation to do this. 

In short a Quality Contract would involve the suspension of deregulation within a specified area and the imposition of a tendered system whereby the transport authority would specify the network, fares, frequencies etc. As urban bus operation outside London is a profitable activity (nationally approximately 90% of bus mileage requires no direct revenue support) the proponents of Quality Contracts believe that massive subsidies would not be required.  
In order to bring about a Quality Contract several conditions must be satisfied, with an independent board to adjudicate. The promoters would have to prove that the new system would:

  • have a positive impact on the use of bus services
  • will be of benefit to users of bus services by improving quality
  • will contribute to the implementation of the local transport policies
  • achieve all the above in an economic, efficient and effective manner.

 All the above leave lots of room for argument against them, and since the commercial operators would in effect have their businesses sequestrated without compensation it is likely they will use the legal process in full, including the European Court of Human Rights.
The alternative approach for a local transport authority to increase its influence in the provision of bus services is the 'Statutory Quality Partnership' as demonstrated in Oxford last year using powers from the 2008 Transport Act. 
The 2008 Act expands the terms of the previous voluntary Quality Partnership model to allow a LTA [Local Transport Authority — the tier of local government responsible for transport] to specify requirements as to frequencies, timings or maximum fares as part of the standard of service to be provided under a scheme, in addition to quality standards. But it also provides important safeguards to ensure that unrealistic conditions are not imposed on operators, and that their legitimate right to a fair commercial rate of return on their investment is not undermined. The process by which an operator can object to particular standards included in a scheme relating to frequencies, timings or maximum fares, is an important feature of this. But at the same time it places a responsibility on them to justify the grounds for their objection, thus minimising the scope for vexatious or frivolous objections.

In the context of Oxford, where such a scheme was implemented last year, there is no history of municipal bus operation. This could account for the partnership approach being more acceptable to that LTA.

Photo: Simon Billis 

the economist and the “redundancy” fallacy

Today's unsigned piece in the Economist "Democracy in America" blog picks up on Tom Vanderbilt's Slate item reviewing my book.  I'm certainly grateful for the publicity, though for the record, I do believe in pleasure!

But the Economist's writer ends his piece with a commonplace of old-inner-city thinking that can do real harm when taken outside those bounds:

Ultimately, what makes public transit work is massive redundancy: lots of different systems layered on top of each other, all running at high frequencies, providing you clear information on when the next one arrives. The world's best cities, New York, Paris, London, Hong Kong, Berlin, all do this pretty well. For cities that aspire to greatness, the road map doesn't seem so hard to follow.

"Lots of different systems layered on top of each other" begs the question of whether these systems are working together — for example by encouraging connections from one to the other — or simply duplicating each other.  That is the distinction that matters.  

Yes, if you're in "New York, Paris, London, Hong Kong and Berlin" you may perceive a layering of "redundant" services, but one of two very different things is happening:

  1. The services are truly redundant in the sense of duplicating (or even competing) but the demand is so intense that they're all full, so the duplication isn't much of a waste.  This is the case with many big-city commute markets, but often not with all-day patterns.
  2. The services are actually fitting together into an integrated network, through some mix of planned connectivity and complementarity.  An example of complementarity is the simultaneous presence of services in one corridor that differ in the speed/access tradeoff.  A major Manhattan avenue, for example, may have an "express" train stopping only every mile or less, a "local" train stopping less than every half-mile, and a bus on the surface stopping even more frequently.  That isn't redundancy unless the market isn't strong enough to support all three.

Praising these super-dense cities for "massive redundancy" sends exactly the wrong message to less-dense and smaller cities.  Tell them to plan for redundancy, when their markets are insufficiently developed, and they'll spread their resources out in tangles of overlapping services none of which are frequent or attractive enough to be worth waiting for.  This is the lesson of inner Sydney, discussed in Chapter 12 of my book.

You need massive agglomeration for true redundancy to work.  Without that, you dissipate service quality too much.  This was a key failing of the privatization of the British bus industry, which gave private companies control over transit planning and prohibited them from working together to create rational connective networks, by declaring that to be collusion.  The result was a generation of frustrated riders who had to let Jim's bus go by because they had a ticket for Joe's bus, even though the two bus lines together might add up to enough frequency to actually be useful.  The last Labour government finally removed this prohibition on "collusion," allowing simple, obvious, and mutually beneficial plans to go forward, like this one in Oxford.

"Massive redundancy" may be fine if you're a megacity, though even there, its effectiveness may be a feature of the peak that doesn't translate to the rest of the day.  Anywhere else, services need to work together as a network.  Even in London, New York, Paris, Hong Kong and Berlin, that's really what's happening. 

cambridge, uk: world’s longest guided busway opens

From our UK correspondent Peter Brown:

The Cambridgeshire Guided Busway finally opens [today], Sunday 7th August, and at 25km will overtake Adelaide's O-Bahn (on which it was partly based) as the world's longest guided busway.  It will be an 'open' BRT as services will not be restricted solely to the Busway.  The guideway consists of two sections.  The longest runs from the northern edge of Cambridge to St Ives, while the shorter southern section runs from Cambridge rail station to Trumpington.  There are three Park and Ride sites on the route.
The buses are standard UK designs (single and double deckers) fitted with guide wheels.  Guideway stops will feature off-bus ticketing.  Guideway stop (prior to opening):

Cambridge busway

Two bus companies (Stagecoach and local independant Whippet Coaches) have signed a partnership agreement with Cambridgeshire County Council for exclusive use of the Busway for 5  years.  Services will operate under a single brand – "the busway".
More info:

If this busway doesn't turn up significant benefits in customer experience, it will probably be the last, or at least the last to be done with guide-wheels.  Adelaide's pioneering O-Bahn is now 25 years old, so one hopes the state of the art has moved on.  (There's also a guided busway in Nagoya, Japan, dating from 2001, where the government classifies it as a railway.)  All of these, including Cambridge, are open busways, i.e. designed so that buses can run off the ends of the facility onto various street-running lines. 

So I'll be curious to see how this goes.

watered-down bus rapid transit: the u.k. edition

We often hear that proper Bus Rapid Transit [BRT] is impossible in the US because any such proposal gets watered down by the defenders of traffic lanes until it's nothing but a fancy bus stuck in traffic.  I don't believe in surrendering to the inevitability of that, but there's no question that it's a political challenge in many cities.  Meanwhile, US readers should be assured that this isn't a particularly US problem.   Our reliable UK correspondent Peter Brown reports:

It would seem that [Bristol's Bus Rapid Transit] scheme has gone from medium to low end BRT due to central government latching on to the ease in which economies can be made by deleting the features that make it rapid – i.e. dedicated busways, and continuous bus lanes.  We are now reduced to short stretches of kerbside bus lanes approaching junctions, but no traffic signal pre-emption.  Where there were going to be median bus lanes, they are now going to be kerb running. 
This will make the BRT little different in the eyes of the (already sceptical) public to the separate package of conventional bus corridor improvements branded 'Showcase Bus Routes', several of which have been rolled out over the last few years.  In order to distinguish BRT in the eyes of the public I think the BRT stops are going to have to look much different from standard bus shelters, and the vehicles are going to have to have some eye catching branding, and have hi spec interiors. 
It troubles me that much of the BRT busways were to be located in the North Bristol fringe, an area of low density cul-de-sac esatates, out-of-town business and retail parks, all connected by dual carriageway roads and multi-lane roundabouts which cannot handle existing peak hour traffic, and would have made a real statement about better public transport.  There are also plans  for further massive housing development, and new roads that will add to the traffic load and threaten BRT reliability.  This is the latest newsletter that has got me so worried:
Meanwhile I continue to defend the principles of BRT in the local press web comments!

Is this problem less likely in continental Europe?  I haven't toured the great BRTs of France, but the Amsterdam Zuidtangent certainly has gaps where, even in the judgment of the transit-loving Dutch, keeping an exclusive lane for the BRT was Just Too Hard.  (I'm not talking just about the narrow streets of Renaissance Haarlem, where the limitations are understandable, but also the quite modern southern suburbia where the line runs.) 

It would be great to hear stories about how BRT has fared in other developed countries, against inevitable demands to compromise reliability because it might get in the way of cars. 

an oxford innovation: take the bus that comes!

Oxford_City_Birdseye Oxford, England seems to have taken a step toward a more North American way of thinking about transit.

In the "deregulated" ideology governing public transit in the UK outside London, the ideal bus line is a "commercial" one, consisting of two or more bus companies running on the same street competing for passengers.  Customers are supposed to feel empowered to choose between Joe's Buses and Jim's Buses, though in practice they're likely to feel frustrated when they hold a Joe's Buses monthly ticket and therefore have to let Jim's bus go by.  The idea that the customer might just want to get where she's going, and thus just wants to get on whatever bus comes first, never fit the ideology very well.

So I was struck by this news from longtime UK reader Peter Brown:

I thought you might be interested in a significant development in the UK deregulated bus scene.  Starting on Sunday 24 July Stagecoach and Oxford Bus Company cease competing on Oxford's main bus corridors and start a co-ordinated network branded 'Oxford SmartZone'.
This arrangment was brokered by Oxfordshire County Council (the transport authority) using new powers introduced under the Labour Government whereby local authorities can negotiate a cessation of bus competetion where they judge that the free market is not providing the best service to the public. 
Oxford has been a major success story since deregulation in 1986, in that two large bus companies compete vigorously on all main corridors as was intended by the legislation.  Elsewhere in the UK bus companies have tended to consolidate by acquisition eventually forming regional monopolies.

[JW:  Note that to say Oxford was a "success" after deregulation says nothing about whether customers were served better, though that may have been the case.  As Peter notes, the deregulation movement saw competition as the goal, not any improved mobility outcomes that supposedly flowed from it.  Clearly, too, Oxford's sky-high transit demand has nothing to do with deregulation; as Peter explains, it's a feature of the city …]

Oxford's success is due to its geography, it's historic city centre which is unsuitable for unrestrained car access, its huge student population, and a pro-public transport local government.  The result is that buses account for 50% of the modal split on journeys to/from the city centre. 

However the council wishes to expand the pedestrianised area in the city centre which would concentrate bus movements onto fewer streets to an unacceptable level.  The Council therefore brokered a co-ordinated network with fewer (but larger) buses on the main corridors, reducing bus movements but maintaining capacity.  The alternative was to remove bus access to the city centre forcing passengers to transfer to shuttle services to access the pedestrianised core. 
More information on SmartZone can be found at:
You will see both companies have the same network map.  The timetables on each site show the same times but in differing formats.  Impressive frequencies until late into the evening.

North American transit advocates who think Europe Does Everything Better might want to contemplate Oxford's achievement, which is a small step toward the a simplicity that most North American transit riders take for granted.  Imagine: Your ticket can now be used on the next bus that comes!  Since this situation arises directly from a "deregulation success," it would seem to question the whole UK deregulation model, though in this case the shift is led by the companies themselves.  I suppose it could be called virtuous (and legal) collusion, and like the elimination of fare penalties between New York's buses and subways, the result is likely to be higher ridership all around.  So what were we competing about exactly?

UPDATE:  In Peter's comment, some useful updates:

Here is a local press report on the first few days. It appears that the 25% reduction in buses has been noticed, if not the fact that the new fleet are double deckers and thus capacity has been maintained.  [JW:  I'd expect that in such a bus-congested corridor, effective frequency has been maintained as well.]  For US readers I have also found an interview with the Commercial Director of one of the UK's best bus companies that has really thrived since deregulation by focussing on what passengers want.