end of the loop for sydney’s transit toy

This weekend, Sydney will complete a long and predictable narrative that cautions us yet again about the danger of relying on tourist experiences as a basis for transit planning.

The Sydney Monorail, built in imitation of Seattle's, has now been through the predictable phases of exuberance, delight, irritation, and boredom, and has finally arrived at the point of being more of an obstacle than a service.  The Sydney Morning Herald interviews longtime monorail fan Michael Sweeney who says what little can be said in the thing's defense.  He even uses the word groovy, reminding us (and the interviewer) that he's expressing a definition of coolness that prevailed in one historical moment. There was never any reason to assume the monorail would be cool forever.

Why?  The usual things.  It was conceived as part of a redevelopment, designed to be part of the excitement that would sell expensive real estate.  Like many new North American streetcars, the point was solely to achieve a development outcome and nobody much cared whether it would be useful as transit, especially decades into the future.

It was a tiny one-way loop, only about 1 km in diameter, connecting some key tourist destinations into downtown.  Even for tourists it had limited use because — like most North American streetcars again — the route was so short that you might as well walk, as most people do in this area.

As urban design, the monorail wasn't that bothersome when it sailed over the open spaces of Darling Harbour, but when it snaked through the narrow streets of the CBD, it was a heavy weight in the air on narrow streets that were already oppressive to the pedestrian.


 It's not surprising that it took a new redevelopment plan to sweep away the toys of the old.  Still, the calculus came down to this:  It's not very useful.  If you want to get somewhere on the loop, and back, you might as well walk.  And there are far fewer people riding it than walking under it, perceiving it as an oppressive weight.

So it's coming down.  Last ride is this Sunday. 

help kill the term “congestion pricing” (and “congestion charge”)

I've argued before that congestion pricing (or charging) is a terrible term for anything that you want someone to support.  It literally implies "paying for congestion," so it belongs to that set of terms that suggest we should pay for something we hate, e.g death taxes and traffic fines.  

"Congestion pricing" also sounds punitive.  When the Sydney Morning Herald asked me to join a discussion of the topic a couple of years ago, they framed the question as: "Should motorists pay for the congestion the cause?"  This is a reasonable inference from the term congestion pricing, and yet a totally backward and schoolmarmish description of what congestion pricing buys. 

In short, congestion pricing (or charge) sounds like a term coined by its opposition.

I have argued before that the term should be decongestion pricing, because escape from congestion is what the price buys, from the user's point of view.  And it's the user who needs to be convinced that this is a purchase, not a tax.  Finally, it has to be framed in a way that doesn't imply that it's only for the rich.  People who like a class-conflict frame will never let go of the term "Lexus lanes," which is why I'd avoid vaguely upscale terms like "premium." 

In any case, over on Twitter, Eric Jaffe of the Atlantic Cities (@e_jaffe) is soliciting your suggestions.  (Or your votes for mine!)  Another idea that meets my goals — to describe this as a purchase rather than a tax or penalty, and to describe it from the user's point of view — is "road fares," by @larrylarry.  


sydney: a new frequent network diagram

As the state government that rules Sydney begins rethinking the public transport network, a new Frequent Network diagram has appeared just in time.  (For more examples of this blog's frequent network mapping campaign, see the Frequent Network category.)

Download the whole thing, which covers all of greater Sydney inside the national park ring, here.  If you work on transport in Sydney, or just want to understand how to get around spontaneously, print it and put it on your wall!  I believe this is the only diagram in existence that can help you find your way around Sydney via frequent services, or understand their current structure.  (Yes, a geographic version would be helpful; perhaps, inspired by this, somebody will draw one.)

Below is the portion covering inner-city Sydney.  That's the largest continuously dense area of the region, and the one you are most likely to know as a tourist.  The CBD and Harbour Bridge are at the northern edge of this diagram, the airport is in the south, and the beaches are in the east.

Syd 15 min

The artist is Kevin McClain, who has just moved to Seattle to join the Accessible Services section at King County Metro.  He tells me it's to be published on the Easy Transport website – a North Shore organisation devoted mostly to special-needs services.  It's odd that such an organisation has produced the most useful diagram of Sydney for people who just want to get around all day without waiting long, but that's exactly what this is.  

The maps published by the bus operators — download here – emphasise the complexity of the network by making all the routes look equally important, thus concealing patterns of frequency that would show the customer where they can move freely and easily.  In this it's like most transit maps from before the advent of frequent network mapping.  (For many great examples of frequent network mpas, see my Frequent Networks category.)  The Government deserves credit for fostering the Metrobus product, which is meant to be the future frequent backbone of the network, but there are still many frequent corridors that don't carry the Metrobus logo and M-number, so a Metrobus map is not quite a frequent network map.  The branding of Sydney services is still a work in progress.

The map reveals many issues that are hidden on the current public maps (download here).  Those maps make all the routes look equally important and thus give the impression of intimidating complexity.  

Public transport in Sydney has historically functioned in modal silos, with rail, bus, and ferry planning largely unrelated to each other and sometimes even seeing each other as competitors.  That's meant to change under the new integrated transport authority, Transport for New South Wales, which has begun thinking about all the modes together.  I hope this diagram will help them visualise the problem and conceive new solutions to it.

If you care about people who move around all day, who are inclined not to drive, but who value their freedom and won't stand for being stranded for long stretches of time, this is your public transport network.  The gaps in this network are the gaps in people's freedom.  Can Sydney do better?

toronto and sydney: triumphs for network planning, not just light rail

Breakthrough news on rail battles in both Toronto and Sydney, both of which I posted on recently (Toronto, Sydney).  

  • Sydney's state government has made it official.  The one-way loop of the Sydney Monorail, designed to decorate the tourism-convention playground of Darling Harbour without being very useful to anyone, is to be torn down.  While the decision is being described as a move toward light rail — plans for which are definitely moving forward — it's really just a decision to invest in transit lines that do useful things — such as running in both directions, running efficiently enough to justify reasonable fares, and connecting with many other services so that people can go where they want to go, not just where you want to take them. 
  • Toronto City Council has definitely scrapped Mayor Rob Ford's plans to spend all of the city's transit resources on a few expensive outer-suburban subway segments designed to serve small parts of the region.  The move opens the way to move forward on more cost-effective light rail projects that will enrich mobility across the entire city.

Toronto transit commentator Steve Munro makes an important point, which could also be said of Sydney:

This is an important day for Toronto.  We are on track for a [light rail]-based plan and for a more detailed evaluation of our transit future than we have seen for decades.  Talking about one line at once, about fundraising for one project at once, is no longer an accepted way of building the city.  

That's the key.  The Sydney Monorail failed because it was "one line at once" — a project conceived in isolation with no interest in being part of a complete network.  And in Toronto, a city with numerous desperate rapid-transit needs, planning will no longer pit neighborhoods against each other to the degree that Mayor Ford wanted to do.  Instead, Toronto can move forward on projects that fit together into a more complete rapid-transit grid — serving "anywhere to anywhere" trips.

Finally, a warning to technophiles!!  Technophile commenters will doubtless chalk this up the Sydney decision as a defeat for monorails in general.  I disagree.  It's a defeat for one-way loops, poor connectivity, and symbolic as opposed to actual mobility.  The monorail didn't fail just because it was a monorail, but because it was a poorly designed line.  Likewise, the Toronto outcome isn't a victory for light rail or a defeat for subways, but merely a commitment to better network design.

san francisco: cameras will enforce transit lanes

Lanes that protect transit's speed and reliability are only as good as their enforcement.  San Francisco, like many cities, has long had a few lanes whose enforcement was so spotty as to render them advisory.  Now, the city is getting serious, with camera enforcement and significant fines. 

I think another feature will eventually be necessary:  Full painting of bus lanes in the same way that we usually paint bike lanes, along with signage on approaching intersecting streets, so that there is no "I didn't DSCF5960know" excuse.  Sydney, for example, paints its bus lanes deep red, with gaps at the points where cars can cross for turns.

In addition, if you approach as a motorist on an intersecting street, you will see a sign with a lane diagramDSCF5971 of the street you're approaching, so that there's no excluse for turning into a bus lane.  Fines (stiff) are often advertised prominently.


sydney: monorail soon to be scrap metal?


The state government that rules Sydney is giving signs that it's ready to tear down the city's monorail, ostensibly for a rebuild of the convention centre but also to remove some obstacles to surface light rail, including game-changing new line down the middle of Sydney's CBD spine, George Street.  Jake Saulwick has the story in today's Sydney Morning Herald.

A source from one consortium [bidding to build a new convention centre] said no decision had been made ''but the word from the government is 'don't let the monorail constrain your thinking' ''.

''Conversely they say the light rail is quite important.''

This could be read as a story about big bad developers destroying a crucial transit resource, but it's not. The Sydney Monorail, opened in 1988, is the red line in the map below: a one way loop connecting the CBD to the nearby tourism-entertainment-convention district of Darling Harbour:

Map by

Like many transit toys, it was built cheaply on the assumption that the joy of the technology itself would transcend its lack of usefulness.  Its most obvious use is for travel between the convention/exhibition area on the west side of the loop to the city centre in the east, but the key stations on the west side of the loop, serving the convention/exhibition area and Paddy's Markets, are attached to parking structures, offering an unattractive walk to the destination itself.   The fare is $5.00.  Meanwhile, it's less than 1.5 km (1 mile) walk from one side of the loop to the other, mostly along reasonably pleasant paths that lead to the front door of your destination, though to be fair there is one elevated waterfront freeway in the way.

I lived and worked in inner city for five years, crossing the monorail's service area on foot several times a week.  Twice in that time, in very bad weather, using the monorail made sense to me.

The monorail is a barrier to light rail, indirectly, because its pillars form a bottleneck in a potential north-south traffic lane on Pitt Street, and this lane could be useful in rearranging street uses to create room for a light rail line the whole length of George Street, the largest continuous north-south street in the city's core.  Light rail is being designed to be useful.  It will be in an exclusive lane (which is why it's not being called a "tram") and it will form the common CBD segment for several lines branching out in several directions, serving high-demand corridors in the inner city.  Its high capacity (in the sense of passengers per driver) and its two-way service in high-demand places will make it a real transit service, unlike the tiny one-way loop of the monorail.

Next time someone wants to introduce a fun new technology into your city using a one-way loop, remember: 

  1. Very few people really want to travel in circles.
  2. Except for tourists and others travelling for pleasure, most people need direct service in both directions, which loops don't do well, and …
  3. Loops are intrinsically closed, turned inward on themselves, impossible to extend without disrupting existing travel patterns.  That's why one-way loops are never a good starter project for a technology that's expected to expand its relevance in the future.

For more on those principles, see Chapter 4 of Human Transit.

Finally, monorails are fun to ride, but most people experienced this one from being underneath it.  This was just a single beam for one-way loop service, causing all the problems above, but it was still much-disliked, especially in the narrow streets of the highrise core where it added to the sense of overhead weight above the pedestrian.



To be fair, it's less oppressive than, say, the Chicago "L" or many other downtown viaducts.  A transit advocate might fight hard for exactly this kind of visual impact if it was the only way to get useful two-way service through a high-demand area.  In fact, one of the best uses of monorail is in historic and very crowded areas where the combination of archeological and ground-plane impacts of any transit service simply mandates elevated as the least bad solution — parts of New Delhi, for example.  But the Sydney monorail had few of these benefits.  Perhaps it was just a toy, and Sydney has outgrown it.

sydney: new efforts at frequency mapping (guest post)

Kevin McClain is currently a Project Officer at Easy Transport, the Regional Coordination Office for Community Transport in Northern Sydney.  He holds a masters degree in Transport Management from the University of Sydney.

Recently there has been a lot of discussion about Frequency Mapping on Human Transit starting with this post. Here in Australia we have seen frequency maps for Melbourne and Brisbane, but other than this map, we haven’t seen one for Sydney. Inspired by the efforts so far, I set out to try and make a frequency map of the services in Northern Sydney, the region where I currently live and work.  This effort was also driven by the desire to reduce the number of resources a transport user would need to consult in order to plan a trip.  Currently there are seven different system maps for services in the Northern Sydney Area alone: five bus maps (each covering different areas), one rail map and one ferry map.  Ultimately I ended up developing two maps: One frequency map of all of the services in Northern Sydney and one map of all frequent services across all of Sydney.

I work for Easy Transport , which provides transport information for seniors and people with disabilities. We also serve as the regional coordination office for Community Transport in the Northern Sydney Region and provide travel training to residents.  Our Northern Sydney map was developed to be a tool that could be used by the travel training program and potentially help promote our service. 

One of the challenges I have struggled with is the fact that there are a variety of service types in Sydney (buses, trains, ferries, and light rail) and people seem to want to be able to tell the difference between the service types when they look at a public transport map.  This makes frequency mapping more difficult.  In the Spokane map, all services are provided by bus.  There is no need to show service types.  Creating a map that shows service types and then shows frequency within each of those service types quickly gets complicated. 

For the Northern Sydney map I started by showing bus, train and ferry frequencies at the following levels 1-15 min, 16-30 min and 31-60 minutes.  This quickly proved to be too much, therefore the train lines were modified to show only stations that had frequent services (1-15 minutes) and stations that didn’t (Click here to download high resolution PDF.)

Northern Sydney V1

One alternative is to show only frequent and infrequent services (1-15 minutes and 16-60 minutes). While this reduces the amount of information available, it also makes the map more legible.  (Click here to download high resolution PDF.)

Northern Sydney V2

The map of all frequent services across all of Sydney is less complicated.  Only the suburban train services and frequent bus services are shown.  [JW:  Sydney has no frequent all-day ferry services.]  Train frequency was again shown on a station by station basis.  This version has the same colours for the train lines as are used in the CityRail map.  (Click here to download high resolution PDF.) 

Sydney Frequent V1
While this alternative does not have the colours of the train lines.  (Click here to download high resolution PDF.)

Sydney Frequent V2

One of the main points of both maps is to show where the frequent bus services are in Sydney.  While train frequency is also important, there has been a recent expansion of frequent bus services across Sydney with the introduction of the Metro bus services (in red on the map of all frequent services).  I think that it is important to show how these new services, along with existing frequent bus services, fill in some of the gaps.

Each of the maps show the trade-off between providing more information and a clear map that emphasizes the frequent services.  Try planning a trip on one version of the map and then the other.  Does the level of information provided affect the routes you chose?  Are you able to figure out where the routes are going?  Are there areas that are particularly confusing? Which version of each of the maps do you prefer?

These maps are still in draft form and I would welcome comments and suggestions about how the maps might be improved.  And yes, there are errors on both of the maps.  Corrections or any frequent routes that I might have missed are also welcome.   You can send me feedback either by commenting on this post or by emailing me at [email protected]


how do you compare to your peers? should you care?

Admit it:  You've always cared, at least in secret, about how you compare to your peers: your friends, your fellow students, your graduating class, your co-workers, your generation.  Well, deep down, transit authorities and city governments care too, which is why comparing a city to other similar cities always gets attention.

Sometimes peer comparisons cause complacency, especially if you choose the wrong peers.  Wellington has the highest transit mode share in New Zealand, but in a country with only one other big, dense city, that obviously shouldn't imply that it's reached nirvana.  Working in greater Vancouver I always have to emphasize that they are doing so well by North American standards that they have to start comparing themselves to European port cities in their size class (Glasgow, Edinburgh, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Marseilles).  My general advice: If your peer comparison says you're wonderful, throw a party and revel in this for 48 hours, then look for a more motivating group of peers. 

At the other extreme, nothing is more motivating than being told that you're dead last among your peers.  Earlier this year I worked (through my Australian employer MRCagney under the leadership of Ian Wallis Associates) on a peer comparison study for Auckland, New Zealand, which compared Auckland's transit performance with all the five biggest Australian cities plus a selection of North American ones.  Download the full report here.  Remember, if you're in any of the peer cities that it uses (Wellington, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, Sydney, Melbourne, Edmonton, Ottawa, Calgary, Vancouver, Honolulu, Portland, Seattle) this is your peer study too!  Just keep the tables and refocus the text (citing the source of course!).

More generally, the report is a good illustration of how peer comparison can work at its best, and also of the cautions that must be shouted from the sidelines once the conclusions take fire in the media, as they certainly have in Auckland.  From yesterday's New Zealand Herald:

Consultants have ranked Auckland last out of 14 cities – in New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the United States – included in a benchmark study for the average number of public transport trips taken annually by its residents.

Aucklanders also pay the highest fares of any of the cities, amounting to 24c for every kilometre travelled on the average 44 public transport trips they take each year, compared with 17c in Wellington.

The rest of the article is further grim statistics, plus quotations from political leaders demanding that something be done. 

I'm  sympathetic to Auckland Transport in this case.  Remember, a city's transit performance is mostly about the physical layout of the city and the constraints on other modes; the quality of the transit system by itself can't overcome problems in those areas.  The nature of the economy also matters.  Wellington is much smaller but it has much more severe chokepoints in its urban structure.  In fact, all travel between the northern and southern parts of the city must go through a single chokepoint less than 1 km wide, which is also the (very dense) downtown.  Wellington's economy is dominated by government, which is generally a sector disposed to use transit heavily. All of these features are hugely important in driving Wellington's mode share above Auckland's, and yet they don't include anything about the respective quality of the transit systems. 

Peer comparisons also carry the false assumption that everyone wants to be the same kind of city, and is therefore working to the same kind of goals.  (This attitude, taken to extreme, produces the absurdity of top ten "best cities for transit" lists.)  Low mode share for transit may mean your transit system is failing, but it may mean that it's not trying for mode share, or at least that it has other objectives or constraints that prevent it from focusing on that goal.  It may just mean that your city has different values.  It may mean the city stikes a different balance between cycling, transit, and walking based on its own geography.

Still, service quality matters, and there's a lot that Auckland can do.  I hope the city's opinion leaders are listening to Auckland Transport as well as berating it, so that they understand the real choices that must be made to move Auckland forward.  If there's a real conversation, great things can be accomplished. 

sydney: new perils of privatisation


From today's Sydney Morning Herald:

The company that runs Australia's immigration detention centres has made the short list to operate Sydney's ferries.  Harbour City Ferries and Transit Systems are the other two bidders on the list. Security company Serco has a contract with the federal government to run Australia's detention centres, which are the subject of a parliamentary inquiry after recent protests and unrest among detainees.

Insert your own quip here.

downtown networks: the oblique approach

How important is it that the transit services converging on downtown all go right to the core of downtown's demand?  In a city with a strong downtown, a reactive, demand-driven view of planning will add more and more transit into downtown as demand requires, because the loads are always highest there.  But sometimes, it can make sense to avoid the center of downtown, or to slide past downtown along one edge.

Zach Shaner's new proposal for the core area of Seattle is a nice example.   (Click to enlarge and sharpen, or see JPG here:  JPG )


You don't have to know Seattle to follow this.  The core of downtown is the little shaded box on the left, where LINK light rail will be in a subway and other frequent buses will run on the surface.  Most of the rest of the map area is also dense, so this is an area where you would expect a high-frequency grid to be possible, easily serving trips from anywhere to anywhere. 

But the map area is also ferociously hilly, so fitting the classical grid to this terrain has always been a struggle.  Still, Zach suggests that once the LINK light rail extension northward opens, ending at the University of Washington just off the north edge of the map, something remarkably gridlike might come into being. 

Several of the design principles that I often advocate are at work here.  First, Zach has focused on running on the fewest possible streets so as to provide the maximum possible frequency.  Second, he's mapped both the existing and proposed networks so that you can see this frequency difference.

But he's also provided a nice example of the oblique approach to downtown, which is a way of balancing the distributive quality of a grid with the need to serve downtown's concentration of demand. 

Look at the magenta line coming from the southeast.  It's Line 7, now the single busiest bus line in Seattle.  Off the map to the south, it extends about 5.5 km (3.4 mi) onward through dense, old, and historically low-income areas of the Rainier Valley.  It touches the rail line at Mount Baker station, just inside the map, but it flows onward into the city, currently going right through downtown.

Zach proposes instead that Line 7 approach downtown but then bypass it just to the east, via Boren Avenue.  He would do this to create a new crosstown (north-south) opportunity to reach dense north parts of downtown (including the South Lake Union redevelopment area and Seattle Center, which is right where Line 7 exits the map on the west edge) without going right through downtown's heart.

What would the dense downtown ridership of Line 7 do?  Well, some of it would transfer to LINK where the two lines touch at the south edge of the map.  Others, depending on exactly where in downtown they were going, might transfer to any of several very frequent east-west services crossing the line.  But many who now seem to be going downtown would reveal that they're really going elsewhere.  This is the key.

Line 7 ridership shows massive boarding and alighting downtown, and downtown is certainly an overwhelming destination.  But you always have to ask if the concentration of downtown boardings is evidence of what people want or what the current network structure requires of them.  People going to the dense and fast-growing areas on the north edge of downtown will find Zach's revision a dramatic improvement.  Many others may be going still further north, to anywhere in the northern half of the city, in fact; they currently have to go through downtown to make their connections, because that's where their bus goes, but they could make the same connections to northward services from the revised Line 7, often with quite a savings of travel time.

Obviously, I don't have the data to validate exactly how many people are in each of these categories.  I'm not even advocating Zach's design, but I do think it illustrates an important design concept, one that you will never think of if you're focused entirely on where your current ridership patterns seem to be leading.

Many major cities are facing unmanageable volumes of buses squeezing through a tight downtown.  Sydney, where I lived for five years, has a remarkably similar predicament to Seattle's.  One solution, in Sydney as in Seattle, is to let go of the idea that radial services aimed generally for downtown need to go right through the very center of it.  If there is a sufficient diversity and richness of connection opportuntiies for reaching various parts of downtown, you can often create a better design by sliding past downtown obliquely, as Zach proposes that Line 7 should do. 

I don't advocate or oppose Zach's design, but I do think it's a nice illustration of how to fit the "everywhere to everywhere" network design principles (such as the high frequency grid) to a very difficult terrain.  It also raised some interestingly contrasting comments from different Seattle transit experts who've seen it; more on that in another post.

UPDATE:  Zach explains his proposal to the Seattle transit community here.