singapore: bbc profiles new frontiers in transit denial

This just in from the BBC:  Technology giant Philips corporation sent some people to the extremely busy Singapore bus system to imagine an alternative to typical fixed-route bus service.  The researchers' definition of the problem:

We discussed the benefits and limitations of the fixed-route system – it's clear such a system provided consistency in time and place (to get on and off), and to a certain extent convenience, but not completely. Flexibility is not what a fixed-route and fixed-time bus service system can offer. We have all experienced times when the bus is very empty or extremely packed, which means efficiency is best optimised at the bus-route level, but not individual bus level, since that bus is unable to respond to dynamic demand and traffic situations immediately. We all have all been in situations when there are only a few passengers in the bus and yet, the bus still has to plough through the entire fixed route, picking up no passengers along the way. The motivation was how to optimise the bus service by allowing the passengers and bus drivers to respond immediately to dynamic demand and traffic situations, not unlike a taxi that you can flag anywhere, anytime, and it will take you directly to your destination.

Needless to say, they came up with a massively all-demand-reponsive system identical to the one promoted last year by Gensler Associates, to which I responded (perhaps too colorfully) here. The idea is that now that you have a smartphone, the transit line should twist and turn to meet chase everyone's speciic need and that somehow this will be more efficient.  As I said in response to Gensler, there's little to fear from this dystopian vision beause it's mathematically impossible.  

In a place as crowded as Singapore, well-designed scheduled fixed routes are not just efficient but liberating.  They're efficient on a large scale despite routine under- and overcrowding because they follow straight paths that thousands of people find useful at the same time.  They're efficient because people gather at major stops where they board and alight in large numbers that are impossible in any demand-responsive form.  Frequent fixed routes are liberating because they're there for you when you need them, just as subways are, so that you don't have to wonder whether some automated system will approve your request for transport.  

The all-demand-responsive vision can mean one of two things:  (1) large buses that carry large numbers of people on complex variable routes, changing its route in response to every beep of desire from each of 5 million phones, or (2) fleets of very small vehicles each serving a few people on a more direct path.  Vision (1) is a hellishly circuitous system to ride any distance on, while (2) is a vision of vastly more wasteful use of urban space,  as people who are now carried in a space-efficient way are converted to a space-wasteful one.  Vision (2) also requires either driverless technology or extremely cheap labor, which is why it only happens at scale in low-wage developing countries.

No, Singapore has built its success on subways, and is developing fixed, infrastructural bus lines that work more like subways.

Please don't call yourself a transit visionary until you've grappled with the facts and possibilities of transit network design, by reading a book, say, or taking a course!

24 Responses to singapore: bbc profiles new frontiers in transit denial

  1. Alissa April 2, 2013 at 12:24 am #

    I remember you went to Hong Kong last year, did you get to see the minibus system in action?
    So, minibuses fill an interesting niche where there is not enough demand for a full size bus or the road infrastructure can’t support it. They have two types of minibus—red or green—where one follows a fixed route with fixed stops and the generally follows a fixed route but passengers must call out their stop and it is unscheduled. The minibus leaves when there is enough passengers.
    While not very accessible to tourists, these minibuses are a critical part of the public transportation in HK. There are many locations or times of the day when taking a minibus is the best or only option.
    Just thought I’d point them out because they seem like an ideal case study for a fixed-route vs somewhat demand-responsive system discussion.
    My comments come from personal experience living in HK, but more info also at:

  2. Edward Re April 2, 2013 at 4:15 am #

    Reliability may also be a problem since you don’t know where the bus is going. Everyone would have to know where they want to go, and enter it into the system, a good hour before leaving. Then the system would respond whether it is possible or not, and some probability that the bus could be there on time, and how long the bus/travelling-salesman-machine will take to complete the trip. As the departure time approaches, the odds of getting there on time could go up and down like a horse race, as travellers opt in, or drop out.
    The only way to be sure that you will have enough buses to service everyone’s desires would be to provide one vehicle per person, for example, a car.
    It would also be great to see the software in action, which makes this idea possible.

  3. Eric Orozco April 2, 2013 at 6:13 am #

    This flexible routing idea refuses to go away, esp. among urban design visionaries. (I feel like I have to apologize for my tribe). Just last week I attended a talk given by Anthony Vanky of MIT’s SENSEable City Lab and he mused, “Why shouldn’t the bus chase after you?”
    The problem with these visionaries is that they associate the bus with a highly rigid, centralized, “top-down” system controlled for efficiency. In their inituition, it signals a dumb, inorganic entity, thus, that can only be adjusted painfully through bureaucratic processes and is therefore blind to user responsiveness. Being architects, who fetishize dynamic systems, they naturally think the place to start tinkering with user responsiveness is inexplicably with the piece that appears to provide the most frustrating limitation to their own transit riding experience, the bus routing and waiting at a bus stop… Rather than focusing on the way people use the routes to maximize personal freedom by receiving better real time information of a reliably predictable system.

  4. Alex Forrest April 2, 2013 at 6:25 am #

    Very unfortunate that so many people seeking to “fix” transit are those who clearly never use it.
    “We all have all been in situations when there are only a few passengers in the bus and yet, the bus still has to plough through the entire fixed route, picking up no passengers along the way.”
    Provided that such situations are not characteristic of the bus line throughout the day, the researchers have identified as “problematic” one of the most pleasant times to ride! People who rely on transit understand that it doesn’t matter whether or not the bus is full–all that matters is that the bus arrives WHERE and WHEN it says it will.

  5. Zoltán April 2, 2013 at 6:58 am #

    Eric Orozco,
    A Dutch transport planner once explained his obsession with frequent, reliable transit networks (at which the Netherlands excels) to me this way: “We shouldn’t think of buses, trams and trains as ships on a river. We should think of the network as the river, and the passengers as boats. The river is always there, and the boats may navigate it as they wish”.
    Where there is a tendency among some urban visionaries to think about vehicles and what they do (be they shiny streetcars or buses that respond to technology), to this transport planner vehicles should be as unremarkable and consistent as a calm body of water; freedom emerging from an individual navigating it.
    (A lovely analogy as this is, Jarrett would remind us that our transit system might not want to be quite like a river – )

  6. Chris Begley April 2, 2013 at 9:43 am #

    I think a functional way to think about “flexible demand side transit” is Daimler-Benz Car2Go. This offers SOME of the benefits of transit (high availability, low cost relative to car ownership) with SOME of the benefits of car ownership (private compartment, ability to carry more, direct line to where you want to go)
    Of course, this is not to say it does not have its downsides – notably greater environmental impact, high cost relative to transit use, increased congestion etc etc.

  7. Eric Orozco April 2, 2013 at 10:49 am #

    I agree, Chris, the Car2Go model is the only logical application for this stream of thinking, but it’s not public “transit” in the sense that you can share trips with strangers. That is an under-appreciated role of transit among my fellow designers. I think what can assist their thinking is to point out that bus routes are stable infrastructure. They are the “broadband”. As Ethan Zuckerman put that, you just want it “to be there”, not mucking with your personal freedom by suddenly and erratically shifting.
    However, transit planners, I think we urban designers still have managed to posit a valid challenge. How do you create a more user responsive system? What are potential ways you can use richer information gleaned from new data sources and emergent, grass-roots social input to create more responsive processes for transit planning?

  8. Beta Magellan April 2, 2013 at 11:36 am #

    @Eric Orozco, the data issue is a fascinating one, IMO. A lot of transit planning is done with projections from very old data, in large part because its easy to cut budgets for data collection because no one ever cuts ribbons on transportation databases.
    Ultimately, though, one of the issues between architecture/urban design and transportation planning is that they’re pretty far apart in terms of working methods. Much of transportation planning more closely resembles accounting or engineering than design. People who go into transportation planning programs because they like maps or new infrastructure often end up switching specializations; the people who remain are those fascinated by issues of data and finance.
    There’s also the issue of a lot of transportation planning knowledge being very well-known within transportation planning but arcane outside of it. Although not directly related, there was an exchange on the Skyscraperpage forums from an architecture student interested in modeling pedestrian flows in places like train stations. He brought up stuff like complexity theory and stuff that he clearly knew only as buzzwords from architectural theory, but then someone stepped in and noted there are actually a number of well-established engineering principles about this sort of thing. Architects, I think, often have the hedgehog’s intellectual curiosity but suffer from having a fox’s education.
    This is something that’s a challenge for any “laypeople” interested transportation: there’s interest but not knowledge of what’s already been established, nor is there always an easy way of obtaining it (thankfully we have Jarrett, but I’ve gotten into fights in Streetsblog comments with people who clearly haven’t read the basic transit stuff in this blog, or if they had considered it biased in some way). A lot of this reminds me of the sort of amateur “I refuted relativity and/or quantum theory” crank physics, actually. These aren’t dumb people making suggestions, but they’re either ignorant of how transportation actually works or just decided they’re smarter than all those poindexters.

  9. david vartanoff April 2, 2013 at 12:08 pm #

    “Please don’t call yourself a transit visionary until you’ve grappled with the facts and possibilities of transit network design, by reading a book, say, or taking a course!” Or actually used transit on a regular basis. The boat in the river analogy is very good. All we need is for the river to flow continually and smoothly. Most days we don’t care what colors the bus/train/streetcar is painted so long as the windows aren’t broken and the seats/floors show signs of recent cleaning. The criticism of architects resonates personally as I am an electrician periodically confronted by plans clearly drawn by someone who never picked up tools to actually build anything.

  10. Zoltán April 2, 2013 at 5:18 pm #

    David Vartanoff,
    Preferably, they should spend a while using demand responsive transit in a rural area that takes an hour and a half to get to the supermarket, then a while making the regular inner city trips I do; waiting at worst ten minutes for a bus that runs along one road, then waiting at worst then minutes for another bus that runs along another road.

  11. Marc April 3, 2013 at 9:53 am #

    Eh, I think this is just another example of a tech company (Philips) trumping up an irrelevant solution to a nonexistent problem just to con a municipality/transit agency into buying their unnecessary, extravagant, expensive “technology” and its associated long-term consulting/contracting/equipment obligations. If their “solution” ends up doing badly, then it’s still a win-win: they’ll probably get the contracts for fixing the problems they themselves caused!
    IBM and other tech companies are currently trying to bilk cities, transit orgs, and other government agencies into buying all kinds of “smart” systems and technologies that have little proven record in accomplishing anything. In most cases a local planner/designer steeped in local intricacies could come up with better, cheaper, faster solutions than some abstract imposition from a tech consultancy seeking government largesse.
    The same thing is going on in the public schools: tech companies are trying to unload all kinds of expensive techno-wankery (smart boards! laptops for everyone!) on districts under the guise of improving education. So contractual obligations and administration continue to bloat while the number of actual teachers continues to shrink.
    In some cases (like with MIT and Gensler “visionaries”) it may also be a symptom of techno-fetishism: having a hammer (TECHNOLOGY!) and treating every problem as a nail.

  12. anonymouse April 3, 2013 at 2:34 pm #

    One thing that those “visionaries” seem to be missing is the value of consistency and predictability. Because it’s hard to plan your day if you don’t know how the demand responsive system will respond to your demand on any given day, so you need to leave extra room in your schedule just in case.
    I also find it interesting how the “rigid centralized top-down system” provides the freedom to go whenever and wherever you want to, while any demand-responsive system requires planning well ahead and doesn’t allow for last minute changes of plans. Furthermore, the rigid centralized system caters to a much broader range of trips thanks to the magic of transfers and frequency, while a demand responsive one will have an exponentially harder time dealing with less popular origin-destination pairs.

  13. Alon Levy April 3, 2013 at 7:55 pm #

    Some people fetishize complexity. You also see this with architects who fume about how awful gridded street networks are. It comes from the same place that leads to bureaucrats’ looking down on people who don’t know what the correct set of forms to file is for every circumstance. The idea that systems should be usable by people with less than perfect knowledge of how those systems work is too gauche.

  14. Eric Goodman April 4, 2013 at 12:50 pm #

    Back to this, eh? So, I get why pure demand response is unworkable / incredibly expensive. My best answer to people who bring this up is to show them a cost per rider comparison for high frequency service and paratransit, then explain trying to expand the latter at the expense of the former will result in far less service available for the same $.
    I do wonder about a few things that are slightly different and come up now and again.
    1) Has any transit system tried to incorporate the use of taxi’s – perhaps with common fare media or discounts? I’ve seen a lot of minibus systems in low labor cost countries, but I’m not aware of coordination with taxi’s. It seems that whenever I’m in a conversation about last mile problems and low density areas with low frequency service, it comes down to “There’s no way to get there.” “Have you considered calling a cab?” “well, that’s too expensive.” “But Sir, you are basically asking for exactly that, except you want the ride subsidized by taxpayers.” “oh, I guess so. ummmmmm……”
    2) What about subscription services like the private transit system Microsoft has running around Puget Sound? Could a public transportation agency use a similar model for regular trips, i.e. commuters in a low density area making the same trip / same time every weekday to a major park and ride with frequent service or all the way to major employment center? I guess it would need to charge a premium price, reserve seating, avoid overbooking and recalculate routes monthly as people sign up or drop off…? Not sure if that is workable or if my brain just likes to find compromise. The downside I see is it could rob local route productivity if it captured existing riders and by making local routes less productive it could lead to their termination. Would that be a bad thing in low density areas? Perhaps for some users. Thoughts?
    3) Since paratransit is a mandated demand response service that transit systems have to provide anyway, why not open it up to other users? I get this question a lot, and I explain that it is incredibly expensive to operate and trips need to be scheduled long in advance. People respond with something to the effect of, “what the hem and haw is wrong with government that I need to call a day early when I could call a cab and have it here in less than 15 minutes to take me anywhere I want to go?” I then respond that you’ll pay 10 times as much for a cab ride and in low density or rural areas you do often need to call ahead for a cab if you want it there when you need it.
    Perhaps architects and technologists are more familiar with taxi’s than buses, so they think that buses should be like taxi’s or personal cars (PRT). Maybe they just aren’t thinking through the cost side when they make these proposals. They are probably assuming that direct pick-up and drop-off will improve each riders’ individual utility and therfore make the whole system more appealing to everyone. They forget that with many people in a vehicle, diverting to shorten one person’s trip lengthens everyone else’s. They are trying to use transit to serve the distinct needs of individual people scattered everywhere rather than treating it as a fundamental infrastructure to provide access to particular places and mobility between them. An analogy might be designing a building where the elevator came straight to everyone’s cubicle rather than providing access to each floor at one centralized point. (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory!!!) Ask them why that is problematic. It’s similar math for demand response transit.

  15. Joseph April 4, 2013 at 9:37 pm #

    I do agree generally that a demand-response system would be inefficient, but I think it could be used modestly as a way for buses to skip stops that are a bit out of the way.
    Imagine this: there’s a stop along the route that causes the bus to unnecessarily take a detour from the main route. Now, if the stop itself had a button that could be pressed to signal to the driver that someone is waiting, then he or she can pick that person up. Additionally, if a passenger wants to alight at that stop then he or she just needs to request it from the bus. If no one on board or waiting at the stop requests that particular stop then the bus can skip it altogether, therefore allowing other passengers to get to their destinations more quickly.

  16. Jarrett April 5, 2013 at 2:49 pm #

    Joseph. Yes, that’s done in a few places.

  17. Ted K. April 6, 2013 at 11:48 am #

    @ Joseph – The railroad term is “whistle stop” aka “request stop”.

  18. Joseph April 7, 2013 at 1:13 am #

    Thanks for informing me. The kind of route I had in mind is when the bus diverges quite a bit from the main path. This might be a bus route that travels along a highway but has a few stops that are off the highway. It exits to serve a stop and then eventually gets on the same highway. These stops can take a couple minutes to serve and there may not be anybody wanting to use them, which might make the route seem unnecessarily longer than it should be.
    Where is there such a system where the bus driver knows in advance that nobody is waiting at such a stop, thus allowing him or her to skip it?

  19. Joseph April 7, 2013 at 1:20 am #

    And to be clear I mean inner-city or metro-region bus systems, not inter-city routes.

  20. Chris B April 7, 2013 at 12:54 pm #

    Joseph – the problem with that is that you then have to be early to your stop to make sure that the bus will pick you up.
    Ex. A bus travelling down a highway with 5 “demand stops” – you want to get on at #5. The Bus leaves at 10AM – it has no pickup at #1 – 4, so arrives at #5 12 minutes earlier than if it had pickups at each of the first 4 – you then have to plan ahead to be there 12 minutes before you would have been if it was on a fixed schedule.
    Now, if this is a high frequency bus (every 10 minutes) then that is fine. But if it is every 45m or 1h, then you are inconvenienced.

  21. Joseph April 7, 2013 at 8:11 pm #

    That’s an interesting point. It does seem also that, if it is a high-frequency route, then it has sufficient demand to justify short headways. This would mean that these “demand-stops” might always have someone waiting which sort of defeats the purpose of calling them “demand-stops”.
    This leads me to think that the demand-stops should only be placed in low-density or low-demand areas of the route. They would be off the main route because of their convenient location to passengers, but they would be of low enough demand that the bus would often skip them. But I suppose the time of day that would generate the highest demand would be the peak hour, which would slow the buses down during the time that people rely on them the most. Alas, maybe not such a good idea.
    This idea arose because of a bus that I take sometimes to the city. The bus travels along a highway but has to make a short detour to serve a hospital. Maybe once or twice have I seen riders actually use this stop – but for the most part it seems unnecessary for the bus to stop there. The stop itself is necessary, of course, because it’s a hospital, but if the bus driver knows that nobody is waiting then she or he can skip it altogether.

  22. James Lawlor April 8, 2013 at 6:43 am #

    Regarding your question about using taxis to supplement regular bus service. The city of Montreal’s STM does exactly that with 9 taxi service areas and 4 senior citizen routes. These routes are not in rural areas – there are regular bus routes and/or suburban trains that operate nearby.
    For some of the services you have to call 40 minutes before to reserve a place. The price is the same as a regular bus.

  23. MB April 9, 2013 at 1:52 pm #

    It seems incredibly anti-intuitive to attempt to morph public transit into personal transit.

  24. Pete Brown June 24, 2013 at 12:28 pm #

    In the days leading up to UK bus deregulation (early 1980s) there was a large scale conversion of urban bus services to high frequency minibus operation. This was most effective in small to medium size towns/cities. The drivers for the change were twofold. One to arrest declining ridership, and two as a defensive measure to deter competitors from establishing themselves. The main advocate of this was the National Bus Company as it prepared its operating companies for deregulation and privatisation. The pioneer city was Exeter in the county of Devon, in south west England. Here the urban bus service was double decker operated at half hourly frequencies Mon-Sat daytime, little to no evening or Sunday service. These routes were converted to operation by 16 seat Ford Transit minibuses on 5 minute frequencies Mon – Sat daytimes, and every 20 minutes evenings and Sundays, all operated without revenue support subsidy. Labour costs were contained by hiring new driving staff from the retail sector on lower rates than traditional bus drivers, but higher rates than the retail sector. It was considered to be easier to train customer focussed retail staff to drive what were in effect large cars, than to train traditional bus staff with customer skills.
    The minibuses could penetrate deeper into residential areas and operated here on a ‘hail and ride’ basis, you could flag a bus down anywhere or signal to alight anywhere it was safe to do so, thus introducing an element of flexibility to otherwise fixed routes.
    I have a magazine article dating from 1994, 10 years after the conversion of Exeter’s bus routes began. In the last year of conventional bus operation 14,000 passengers were carried each day, by 1994 this had risen to 42,000.
    The Exeter operation also pioneered route branding as the services were divided into three operating units coloured Red/yellow (Exeter Minibus), blue/silver (Exeter City Nipper), and green/gold (The Exeter Bus Company). This colour coding was carried forward to route maps, timetables, and destination blinds. Each unit was a separate cost centre I believe and the drivers were allocated to specific routes in order to build up a rapport with their regular passengers who then by word of mouth helped promote the services.
    One of the Transits:
    By 1994 the Transits were being replaced by larger Iveco Daily based buses such these:
    Article about Harry Blundred and his minibus project:
    Such was the success of this project that today Exeter’s bus services are operated by full size buses, the minibuses were victims of their own success.