can transit-only streets work in small cities?

Yes, says Wellington, New Zealand (pop. 389,000)!


In North American debates about pedestrian and transit malls, we're usually told that such things only work in Europe, with the implication that age, historic density, and cultural history of European cities makes them unrealistic mentors for the young North American city.  Well, as an urban culture, New Zealand is even younger than North America.  In fact, the urbanization of both Australia and New Zealand happened around the same time as that of the North American west, and the level of attachment to cars is also comparable.  So North America needs a better excuse!

Wellington's "Golden Mile," long the core business strip and highrise office district, is now a two-lane, largely bus-only facility, the last bit of which was finished last November.  It features generous sidewalks, near-continuous awnings for shelter (a city requirement) and hardly any commercial vacancies.   In fact, the whole thing appeared to be bustling throughout my stay the past week, with plenty of pedestrians and plenty of activity around the abundant street-level retail that lines the entire thing. 

The pic above, of course, was taken by the City on a perfect sunny day.  Having spent most of the last week in a conference room, I can offer only pics taken early in the morning:


Note the green paint.  In Australia and New Zealand there is never any question about where bus lanes are, and zero excuse for not noticing them.  Note also that the red bus is about to turn right from one green lane into another; the Golden Mile isn't entirely straight, but the green lines (and abundant buses) make it perfectly clear where it is, and how it works.

I'll come back to some of the interesting details of the Golden Mile, but meanwhile, next time someone tells you that North American cities can't emulate Europe, ask why they can't emulate New Zealand!

First photo:  City of Wellington

seoul: buses that tell you where they go?

Regarding Place has a good article on the recent reform of bus services in Seoul, South Korea. Seoul-buses_tfan

Seoul has done something that I often hear people ask for, a simple citywide color scheme that helps make the structure of the bus system obvious.  The four colors of bus correspond to four types of service:

  • Blue buses run in reserved median busways on major arterials, and appear to be mostly radial (into and out of the urban core.)
  • Green buses are feeders that tend to run locally within a particular area.
  • Red buses are "express" to and from outer suburbs.  It's not completely clear if this is peak commuter express or frequent all-day service (which I usually call "Rapid").  Express is a slippery word.
  • Yellow buses are orbital lines, thus tend to be perpendicular to the blue and red ones.

I have mixed feelings about this sorting.  Usually I prefer to make distinctions about frequency and service span, but if overall frequencies are high I can certainly see the value in this system.  In a city with a clear distinction between radial and orbital directions, which Seoul seems to have, the distinctions can probably help people orient about which direction is which at various points, and to discern the general directions that each bus might go.

The same thinking extends to numbering system.  Traditionally, most big urban areas have had a sub-area based numbering, where in fact it may make more sense to number lines in ways that heighten the distinction between different service types. 

Most big cities, of course, simply don't have the centralized control to do this.  Los Angeles Metro has made an effort with its Rapid vs Local branding, but most color schemes are tied to the brands of municipal operators whose service is entangled with Metro's.  Cities with a single consolidated transit agency could do it.  In Australia, any state government could do it, though it would need to gain ownership of fleets that are currently owned by private operating companies. 

Obviously, you're sacrificing "operational flexiblity" in terms of being able to deploy any bus on any line.  Now and then in Los Angeles you'll see a Local bus on a Rapid line and vice versa.  I think Seoul deals with this by running all buses of one color out of one operating base, often with a separate contract operator, so the systems are functionally separate.

If you've been to Seoul and seen this system in action, please share your impressions.

london’s northern headache

London underground_map crop Commenter David M on what rivers teach about transit:

It's interesting to note that in London the newest Underground lines have no branches (Victoria, Jubilee). In fact, when Jubilee was originally opened it took over one of the Bakerloo Lines branches, reducing the Bakerloo to a branchless line also.

For real complications, look at Camden Town [top center] on the Northern Line [black on this classic map] in London, England. Just south of this station is a complex deep underground junction that lets trains from any two of the branches south of Camden to simultaneously run on any two of the branches to the north. It is a marvel of engineering, but it is also an operational nightmare with trains run from any branch to any branch – one train runs late and it can cause problems on all of the branches.

London has wanted to simplify the operations by spliting the line into two and requiring an interchange at Camden Town. There are four platforms at Camden Town but the interchange passages are insufficient to handle the expected interchange traffic – so for now, it is cheaper to suck it up and deal with the operational issues.

There is an interesting effect of this interchange. Going south, both branches serve Euston Station before heading off to cross London on two different lines serving different areas of the core. You can get on one train at Camden, stop at Mornington Crescent and at Euston. You could get on the following train at Camden and arrive at Euston without passing through Mornington Crescent. The reason is that Mornington Crescent is on only one of the two branches, the other just bypasses the station. It makes for fun time when trying to get to Mornington Crescent.

The other night a Sydney rail expert was telling me that when the North West line is built, creating a four-way junction at Epping similar to the one at Camden Town, they will spend a number extra millions on the tunnelling to create the ability to route trains from any segment to any other.  A similar decision has already been made about a similar junction at Glenfield in Sydney's southwest.  I wonder how much could be saved if we let lines cross without connecting track, and required connections, where that pattern makes sense as part of a larger grid.  It's not the right answer everywhere, certainly, but it sounds like London transit experts aren't very appreciative of all the flexibility that their great-grandparents gave them with the design of the Northern Line.

sydney: it’s 10 pm, do you know where your buses are?

This won't amaze readers in places like San Francisco or Boston, which have had Nextbus.com for years. But it's an important step for Australia.  Realtime locations of Sydney's buses, via a new app by Flink Labs of Melbourne.

Syd buses realtime

Not sure what the colours mean.  They need to be colour-coded for inbound vs outbound, which otherwise can't be distinguished. 

Thanks to Chris Loader, who blogs about Australian public transport at Charting Transport, for the tip.

email of the week: should blue lines have blue buses?

From a longtime Canberra-based reader:

PB150032 In your latest post on [San Francisco] bus wrap art, you refer to your fondness for colour-coding of buses, etc for different service.  For instance in Canberra, this would see the Red Rapid using red coloured buses, the Blue Rapid using Blue coloured buses, and so on.
[JW:  The Red Rapid and Blue Rapid are the two frequent rapid corridors that connect the major dense nodes of Canberra to each other, with widely-spaced stops.  They are the top priority for bus lanes and other speed/reliability improvements.]
Which I personally think is great in promotion of the service, making the service stand out – it also helps give a rapid bus (which isn't run solely on transitways) an identity akin to a light rail line.
However, I've always found that schedulers don't like it as it limits the general number of vehicles available to run a network. It also removes the ability to use a vehicle in one service type and have it continue its run on a rapid route – thereby removing a connection for some passengers  …  And I'm sure there's a whole stack of other reasons which schedulers and operators will through up in relation to this.
So, I guess the question is, given that this is more of an aesthetic improvement … do the benefits measure up to the costs?

Seoul, South Korea went a long way with this idea, branding all their buses with four colors that indicate different functions in the network (Trunk, Branch, Rapid, or Circulator).  Paint schemes are often used to distinguished closed Bus Rapid Transit [BRT] systems (systems where buses do not flow through onto other corridors, but remain confined within the BRT infrastructure.)
DSCN2405    DSCN2519
Los Angeles Metro has painted their fleet two colors, red for Rapid and orange for Local.  Even with two colors, the "Local" is problematic.  Orange really means "everything but Rapid," including limited-stop and freeway-express services that wouldn't satisfy anyone's definition of a "local."
And even so, sometimes you see an orange bus on a Rapid line, or vice versa.  I've never seen a painted color scheme where this never occurred; sometimes the dispatcher needs a red bus and all he has are orange ones.  Sometimes an orange bus breaks down and the nearest available spare is red.  You'd rather we didn't send out a bus at all? 

I do think, however, we could be doing much more with signage to highlight color-based brands. 

online “map movies”: useful?

Can animation help people understand their transit options?  The Rotherham Metro Borough Council in the UK has done some simple "map movies" that highlight the paths followed by buses and trains.  Here's a still:

Rotherham map movie still

Watch the actual animation here.

As they stand, they're limited in usefulness, as the icons move along the routes with no indication of frequency.  They certainly do advertise complexity, which is accurate; this looks like a very complicated network.

But it's easy to imagine taking this to the next step, showing by animation the scheduled paths of all the services in a transit system.  This would be especially helpful in helping citizens understand pulse systems, where the integrated scheduling pattern is an essential part of how the network gets you where your going.  Now that I think of it, I'm pretty sure this has been done, but I've never seen it on a public information website, which is the obvious next step.

Basics: Some Tools for Small Cities

Early in my career, I did a number of network designs for free-standing small cities in the American West.  These cities, say populations of 30,000-100,000, tend to have a similar set of problems and opportunities, and could probably benefit from a little more theoretical focus.  The same issues arise in most of these cities across North America, Australia, and New Zealand, including: Continue Reading →

The Horrors of “Transferring” in 1974, and a Happier Future

Connections, or transfers as North Americans depressingly call them, are the foundation of a simple, frequent transit network that’s there whenever you need it.  I laid out the basic argument here, but in brief, a transit system that tries to run direct service from everywhere else (so that nobody has to make a connection) ends up as a confusing tangle of hundreds of overlapping lines, few of which are frequent enough to rely on or simple enough to remember.  Continue Reading →

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. Continue Reading →

Guest Post: Aaron Renn on Universal Fare Media

(Aaron Renn, who writes The Urbanophile, is an opinion-leading urban affairs analyst, consultant, and speaker, based in the US Midwest.)

When I’m at home, I ride bus and rail transit about equally.  But when I travel to a new city, I travel on rail systems frequently, but almost never use the bus.  Why?

For me, while I know how transit systems generally work, the specifics of fares and fare media are different from place to place. I know that if I show up at a rail station there is likely to be a station house where I can look at maps, read about fares and rules, and use nice machines with step by step instructions for purchasing tickets or other fare media.  Continue Reading →