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Transit Public Sector

Less is more when it comes to improving public transit

From the London Underground to the Shanghai Metro, every transit system around the world has its idiosyncrasies. Geography, politics, engineering, money: these and many more facets shape the creation and evolution of public transport systems - both positively and negatively.


ImprovingTransit-2 Public transport in Vancouver, a transit system Walker has advised on.


If we try to reduce what people want from public transport it could be this: a system that gets you from a to b while causing you as little stress as possible. But despite this, it often seems that many transit systems have gone out of their way to be utterly disorientating

Thinking about each service in isolation and planning it in isolation doesn’t work

“I was in London recently and was marvelling at how extraordinarily illogical the network still is. In particular the bus network and the fact that unlike in Paris for example, the TFL (Transport for London) still seems to be operating under the assumption that the bus network is intrinsically incomprehensible and that there’s no point in trying to make it better”, says Jarrett Walker a public transit network design consultant.

The importance of interoperability

With over 20 years experience consulting across the globe from Auckland to Seattle, Jarrett Walker is one of the best placed people to explain why certain transit systems are the way they are and how best to improve them.

Walker believes that privatisation causes problems, one reason being the lack of communication between the various transport services that exist in one place.


ImprovingTransit-3 Mapping bus routes in London gets confusing.


He argues that one of the central tenets of a good transport network is the ease with which the passenger can transfer from one service to another.

He says, “The network effects of public transport is important. Public transport is so much about how this service interacts with that service, that thinking about each one in isolation and planning it in isolation… doesn’t work. It destroys too much of the product.”

We’re going to create fewer bus lines but the buses will come more frequently

Walker points to Vancouver as a place with a fairly good network. A relatively new city, which may lead one to conclude that its success lies in the fact it’s not suffocated by its own legacy - it is also important to understand the system is centralised.

Walker says, “With the appropriate level of central planning, it ensures there will be a network and everything will fit together as a network…I come down pretty strongly on the side of believing that it has to work as a network and that means you have to have centralised and accountable planning.”

Tuning into a higher frequency

Most of us naturally have an aversion to transferring between services when travelling. We usually say we want the quickest route, but when we look at what we actually do, we take the one that’s easiest – even if it’s a bit longer. But of course a system with only straight lines and no interchanges is neither possible nor sustainable.


ImprovingTransit-4 Walker believes that Paris has one of the best transit systems.


On Walker’s blog, Human Transit, one post illustrates how a system with fewer interconnected lines is much more effective than a system with lots of lines going in various destinations. (link: http://www.humantransit.org/2009/04/why-transferring-is-good-for-you-and-good-for-your-city.html)

He shows that in a simple city plan, with three residential areas and three activity centres, you could have a direct service from each residential area to each activity centre. However, if you created a system where each residential area connects directly with only one activity centre and as long as the lines are interconnected, you could triple the service frequency for the same cost as the former option and reduce travel time in the process even if the route does involve changes.

If you can’t draw a clear map of your bus system then your bus system is too complicated

And this is exactly what Walker advised as a consultant to both Auckland, New Zealand and Houston, Texas.

“Those projects were radical simplifications and the trade off tends to be: we’re going to create fewer bus lines but the buses will come more frequently.” He says.

One method Walker uses in establishing the utility of a transit system is by observing how easily the whole network can be visualised on a map.

“My challenge to systems like London is that if you can’t draw a clear map of your bus system then your bus system is too complicated.”

And, it is true, as a long-time resident of London, while I can understand and admire the iconic Beck map of the Underground, I am none the wiser when it comes to bus maps - the fact that there is no one consolidated map of London bus routes tells you all you need to know.

Image credits: Shutterstock

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