Canberra: A New Circulator Network for the National Core

Washington DC has its downtown circulator, and now the Washington DC of Australia, Canberra, has one too. What’s more, my clients in Canberra created their circulator for almost zero in new operating costs, using one of my favorite planning tricks. Starting next week, four color-coded lines will provide frequent links among all the major tourist attractions, government buildings, universities, commercial districts, and interchange points in the dense core areas of the Australian capital.

Parl triangle full

For the whole brochure on the circulator, click here: PDF

Where did all this new service come from? Most of it was already there, but was presented as a tangle of several infrequent lines.  These were just too hard to figure out for someone making quick trips around the core.  Short trips are very time-sensitive, and that includes the time it takes to figure them out.  So circulators have to be frequent and simple.

For several years, Canberra has been discussing options for creating a shuttle system to link these core destinations, but they could never find the money.  Instead, I suggested that we look at whether bus service that’s already there could be branded to form legible and frequent circulator lines.  It turned out to be possible, with only slight service additions and some careful revision of timetables.

The Gold Line and Green Line are each created out of two existing routes that are every 20-30 minutes when separate but that combine to provide high frequency when running together.  When they’re separate, they’re just Routes 2, 3, 4, and 5, each doing its own business. But when Route 2 and 3 are together, that common segment is branded as the Gold Line. Likewise, the segment where 4 and 5 are on top of each other will be called the Green Line.

Signage and new marketing will highlight that you can use these colored lines to circulate around the core, and you don’t have to care what the line numbers are. People don’t have to remember that to get from the City station to the National Library they need the 2 or the 3. Instead, they can just remember the Gold Line.

Obviously, a combined frequency of 15-20 minutes is not enough for a true circulator.  The goal is to get to 10 or better as demand grows.  Now that Canberra has the color-based brands, future planners can easily decide to design other lines to flow through the branded segments, thus contributing to the combined frequency.  In many cities, there are situations where six or more half-hourly lines are effectively right on top of each other for a long distance; those are ideal candidates for a color-based brand that combines them into a (possibly very frequent) shuttle.

At the same time, Canberra is re-branding the two existing Rapid bus corridors as the Blue Rapid and Red Rapid. The Red Rapid happens to be one frequent line with no variants, but the Blue Rapid is formed of many overlaid lines, all numbered in the 300s, that do different things on outer branches but all run along the same Rapid segment linking several major town centers.  Together, the Red and Blue Rapids will form the frequent rapid-transit backbone of Canberra’s all-bus network.  As it happens, they also link some useful dots within the core area, so they’re on the core map as well.

DSCN1225This branding technique is often useful in relatively small cities that have a few strong frequent corridors.  I first suggested it in Bellingham, Washington, a university town north of Seattle, and this shelter displays one of the results.  Again, the Blue Line consists of a big pile of three-digit route numbers, but now nobody has to remember those numbers to navigate this high-demand corridor that runs through the university and into downtown.

Often in small cities, these frequent segments are served by several different routes overlaid, but the pile of route numbers makes the service seem complex.  The color brands let people ignore that complexity and see the frequency clearly instead.  Since frequency is the foundation of freedom for transit riders, transit agencies that want to be instruments of freedom should make it as visible as possible!

20 Responses to Canberra: A New Circulator Network for the National Core

  1. Zoltán November 9, 2010 at 3:24 am #

    Sadly, this is a very good idea, and I wish that DC had done anything as good.
    The circulator in DC is largely funded by The District’s Business Improvement Districts (BIDs). They’ve provided specific bus services independent from the larger WMATA bus network (though at least with free transfers to and from it), serving their particular patches of turf – The Golden Triangle, Adams Morgan, The Navy Yard, and a few other places. It’s great for traveling downtown, but the WMATA buses remain largely pathetically complex and low-frequency.
    I’d argue that the BIDs, if sufficiently capable of seeing the bigger picture, would understand that a vastly better-functioning network for DC as a whole would be of a huge benefit to all of The District, and would reap synergies benefiting their areas more than a small network of circulators.
    I worked a while on an exercise of “what if the BIDs were willing to integrate with the bus network, and the WMATA would simplify its network and introduce branded frequent lines?”. It would be possible to give downtown DC a complete grid of 5-7 minute frequency lines, each tending to do something along the lines of giving a ten-minute service to two arterials upon leaving downtown.
    Sadly, with the huge political and cultural shift that it would require, I don’t see it happening, though the WMATA could still achieve a lot through simplifying its network. But it can at least serve as an argument for making transit funding as simple as possible, and placing it in the hands of people who know about transit.

  2. Tom West November 9, 2010 at 6:34 am #

    My first thougth on seeing the four colours was to worry that using both and green would be bad for colour-blind people. (Why not replace the red with purple?).
    Thsi is the first time I’ve seen a *group* of routes given a branding, as per the blue line (blue lines?) here, and I think it is a good idea.

  3. Alan Robinson November 9, 2010 at 9:20 am #

    I like it, although it still took me a second to understand it.
    Looking through the documentation, it wasn’t entirely clear to me at first why the Red and Green lines follow the same route, but once I read the ‘Rapid’ branding, I understand that the red line is the express. This distinction may need to be made clearer.
    The station symbols also provide another clue, although they didn’t register at first. My first assumption was that any marked stop was an ‘express’ stop, as local bus stops are not normally printed.
    This branding is a vast improvement over indistinct numbered lines, and in most cases I would immediately know which service to seek out. If I was pressed for time however, I may try to take the Red Rapid to ANZAC Park.

  4. M1EK November 9, 2010 at 1:33 pm #

    Re the Bellingham picture; every 15 minutes isn’t often enough to live without a schedule, really. This is kind of a low bar to meet.

  5. Jarrett at November 9, 2010 at 2:07 pm #

    M1EK.  I agree, but we start from where we are.  My intention is to get all of the core circulators up to 10 min or better.  Jarrett

  6. In Brisbane November 9, 2010 at 2:14 pm #

    This is fantastic! And I think it will answer the question about “does branding matter” to increase ridership, and by how much.
    This is similar to the BUZ in Brisbane which has been a success.

  7. Joseph E November 9, 2010 at 6:32 pm #

    Great work, Jarrett.
    Los Angeles needs to think about this. Currently, LADOT runs a bunch of cheap circulator buses with $0.25 fares (increasing to $0.50 eventually) which only loop around Downtown and multiple other neighborhoods, while Metro runs $1.50 city buses. Most streets downtown have bus service every 10 minutes or better, but it’s spread out on different lines, and the map is hugely confusing when zoomed in on Downtown, unless you understand the wider system. And most of the circulators are not really frequent enough to be faster than walking, or walking to the subway and then to your destination.
    Politically it would be difficulty to integrate LADOT with Metro. But if LADOT could increase the number of bus-only lanes downtown and add more special bus shelters and stops, Metro routs could be re-branded to serve as circulators. The key would be charging a lower fare (or free fare?) for trips within downtown or another neighborhood.
    With the TAP contactless payment card, it would be theoretically possible to charge variable fees for different trip lengths. That would be the best. Or LADOT and the local business districts could subsidize short trips for lunchtime office works and the like.
    For example, here in Long Beach, there are 4 routes which serve Downtown as well as other areas near the coast where tourists might want to go. They are free downtown, but charge a regular fare if you cross out of the neighborhood and head further west. It works with very few problems, and the different-colored buses and good marketing help tourists feel more comfortable riding the bus. But the services are still useful for the rest of us. For example, the closest east-west bus to us is one of these “Passport” services, and runs every 20 minutes all day and late into the evening, even on weekends. This is better than most buses in town. The buses along Ocean run every 15 minutes (combined) all day, before branching at the east end of town to serve the marina and the state college respectively, but downtown they are free as well.
    This system works much better than the one in Los Angeles, where you have to pick between the cheap but infrequent LADOT circulator bus, or the frequent but expensive and confusing Metro routes.

  8. JJJ November 9, 2010 at 7:19 pm #

    I dont understand what the giant letters are for

  9. Ed O November 9, 2010 at 10:19 pm #

    JJJ, The giant letters are timing points along the routes. The timetables show the arr/dep times at these locations for each trip. You can see the corresponding big letters in the timetables in the brochure (pdf link above, under the map).

  10. JJJ November 9, 2010 at 11:12 pm #

    Oh I understand. At first glance I thought the letters were the line branding.

  11. In Brisbane November 10, 2010 at 1:33 am #

    Any chance the system will be re-numbered? And what is the reason for some bus routes changing route on the weekend?

  12. Sanchez November 10, 2010 at 3:03 am #

    weekend services are less freqent and run fewer hours, also some stops are skipped and certain routes shortened or altered on weekends, hence the different numbers. They’re considered weekend eqivalent routes to the weekday routes.

  13. Jarrett November 10, 2010 at 3:18 am #

    Re weekends, many people are working on it! It’s complicated because of odd features of the labor contract. My view is that weekend service should generally run at the same level as weekday midday, at least in the parts of the city where seven-day demand can be expected.

  14. In Brisbane November 10, 2010 at 3:40 am #

    Thanks. One thing that would massively improve transport in Canberra would be a journey planner on the ACTION bus website!

  15. jack horner November 10, 2010 at 1:39 pm #

    Very good.
    Are the authorities doing before and after patronage counts to assess the results?
    Have you research on the patronage effects of similar initiatives eg Bellingham?
    Please encourage the authorities to consider how the blue line could better service parliament house – timing point D on the gold line, a major activity centre (reputedly 2-3000 jobs), which the blue line now narrowly misses on account of passing by on freeway style roads where no bus stops have been provided.

  16. Zoltán November 10, 2010 at 5:38 pm #

    @Joseph E
    I did think of one smartcard-based solution for DC merging its own cheap circulators and more expensive regular buses. Charge the normal fare (in both cases $1.50) upon boarding, and then give free transfers all day downtown, making the initial fare pay off for most people making plenty of trips within downtown.
    As long as the smartcard was then on only used to board buses downtown, it wouldn’t be charged any more for the rest of the day. If used to board a bus anywhere else, it would be charged again. Of course, it could be abused by something along the lines of riding to the suburbs, getting a car ride back to downtown, then using it again, but I’d say that for 99.9% of passengers such abuses would be more trouble than they’re worth.
    This would of course require the smartcard readers to know where the buses were, which could helpfully be linked to realtime information.

  17. Dave November 11, 2010 at 1:51 am #

    @jack horner, the current ticketing equipment is in a sorry state and even where patronage data is being gathered, it’s not being effectively used. Hopefully this will soon change; a new ticketing system is soon to be rolled out, and I’m sure Jarrett has been extolling the virtues of data-driven decisions…
    Also, Parliament is “blessed” with thousands of nearby free carparks, so the limited PT is currently not a huge deal. However, a proposal for paid parking is on the cards, and having Blue line stops on Commonwealth Ave near Parliament might be useful if that eventuates.

  18. voony November 11, 2010 at 11:10 pm #

    That is what is called “code sharing” in the airline business.
    It is definitely a good idea which deserves more promotion.
    In the case of Vancouver, a while ago, I had blogged on a similar idea (considering the similar issue on lack of frequency visibility on trunk route used by several bus line)

  19. Chris Blackall November 18, 2010 at 11:02 pm #

    I am a Canberra resident and I’d like to say that this new bus plan is working very well. In gact the rpoute plans and labelling are a mjor improvement, so thankyou for your professional contribution.
    There have been some complaints about it in the local news media however, but they seem to be from people who get uncomfortably surprised by change — even if it’s good change.
    This is not a criticism of the plan as much as the comment about the cost of the bus fares. For example it cost $4 for a very short one-way section from where I live in Kingston to the city center, and this also covered an all too brief time for bus transfers.
    Hence, my round trip into the city cost me $8, which is certainly an incentive to ride my bicycle or walk the relatively short distance.

  20. Dave November 19, 2010 at 3:42 am #

    Chris – you’re neglecting to mention that the cash fare ($4) is deliberately set substantially higher than the multipass fare ($2.50/trip) to discourage cash use (slowing down the bus compared to a ticket swipe). So a round trip is typically $5, given most people have a multipass in their wallet (or should do – hence the pricing strategy).
    As the entire network is covered under the one fare, it’s pretty good value.