Are Low-Ridership Transit Routes Sustainable?

Here’s my latest article, available on the Sustainable Collective website here.

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We’ve all seen the bus with only two or three people on it and thought… is this really sustainable? Surely it would be more efficient, and cheaper for society, if that bus wasn’t running at all. The simple answer is, when considering greenhouse gas emissions, unless that standard bus has at least 6 people on it then it is less efficient than if all those people were driving cars. Of course, the truth is slightly more complicated than that.

Transit agencies are often chastised for being wasteful by providing service to low-ridership areas and routes, and again, for cutting service in the name of efficiency. Oftentimes it seems like an unwinnable battle. This is a favourite topic of one my favourite transit bloggers, Jarrett Walker of Human Transit: the struggle between providing transit service to a large area versus maximizing transit usage. This is known as coverage versus ridership goals. The conclusion that Walker comes to is that, except in a few extraordinary cases, a combination of these two goals is ultimately what must occur. In truth, most transit agencies eventually come to some kind of balance between the two goals. Together, both the high-ridership and coverage routes make up the network.

Next time you hear a politician claiming the virtues of “running transit like a business”, what they are really extolling is a move towards ridership goals. The end result is almost always service cuts on low performing routes, which are the least profitable. The danger here is that the transit network may be technically more financially-efficient, but without careful consideration critical transit connections may be lost. The whole network also becomes less useful; transit users know this, and may switch to other unsustainable travel modes. Since many transit network users rely on the coverage routes, cutting them will run the risk of losing riders on the busy routes too. These routes are not “mistakes”, but have been carefully selected in order to cover as much urban area as possible as efficiently as possible. Typically these routes will have low frequencies.

What’s important to note is that transit is a system of routes and lines: a network that works together in a mutually beneficial way. A system that is properly designed will be one that has a perfect mix of ridership and coverage routes. So while there is certainly room for improvement on most systems, a few near-empty buses is definitely not a bad thing!

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The Logic of Road Pricing and Sustainability in Metro Vancouver

As new addition to the Sustainble Collective volunteer writing staff, here is my first article, and my take on road pricing, and how that may look like in Metro Vancouver:

The Logic of Road Pricing and Sustainability in Metro Vancouver

Have a read if you are so inclined.  Also be sure to check out the website to read more interesting articles about planning, climate change, and everything else sustainability at the Sustainable Collective website.

Sustainable Collective

Sustainable Collective Facebook Page

Voters must realize that TransLink is not on the transit plebiscite

Here’s my second Peak article, and indeed only my second opinion article authored ever.  It also made it into the print edition of The Peak, which can be found at an SFU campus near you!

http://temporary-the-peak.ca/voters-must-realize-that-translink-is-not-on-the-transit-plebiscite/

One thing I’d like to gripe about… I had originally (and correctly) described the new tax as a “0.5 percentage point” increase in PST, which unfortunately the editors changed to “per cent”. Sigh…

Here’s a few other bits and pieces about the plebiscite worth sharing:

Mayor’s Council Website

Price Tags on the Referendum

Daryl’s Blog on the Plebiscite

Metro Vancouver citizens must vote “yes” on transportation funding referendum

The link below is a co-ed piece that I wrote for the SFU student newspaper, The Peak.  I wrote it as part of the Sustainable SFU transit team.

The editor changed a few things around from my original version, but most of the important stuff is still there.

But just to be clear: this referendum affects all metro Vancouver residents, not just Vancouver residents!  Please have a read, and also check out the Mayors’ Council’s transportation vision website.  And remember to become informed and to vote yes (or no if that’s how you really feel) on the referendum when in does come, probably in March 2015.

Metro Vancouver citizens must vote “yes” on transportation funding referendum

Mayors’ Council’s Vision for Transportation in the Region

Rome, Lazio, Italy (Roma)

Roma, home of the dolce vita and gelato! Rome is home to an urban population of 3.8 million people and is one of the most hectic, beautiful, and historic cities I’ve ever been to. While I didn’t exactly experience la dolce vita, I did get to use some diverse transit options during my visit in April 2014.

Rome 1 Rome 2

TYPES OF TRANSIT

The greater Rome area has four main types of transportation options working in parallel: bus services, an underground metro system, a network of commuter rail lines, and several tram (streetcar) lines. Additionally, Rome’s main airport, Fumicino, has a short automated people mover.  Here is a couple shots of the people mover, a traveler’s first experience with transit in Rome:

People Mover 2People Mover 1

Rome also has many long-distance bus and rail connections which allow easy connections to other cities throughout the Italian peninsula and Europe.

URBAN RAIL (FERROVIE METROPOLITANE)

Regional and urban rail lines spread out from Rome in all directions; many people use these rail lines to commute to and from the city on a daily basis. It is possible to use the urban (or regional) rail lines to get around within the urban core of Rome, although the trains are not as frequent as bus routes or the metro system. The busiest station is Termini which also has connections to numerous bus routes and both lines of the metro system.

I only used urban/regional rail once to get from FCO airport to Termini, on a train called the Leonardo Express. This train was fairly new with lots of luggage racks to carry your travel bags and convenient electrical sockets. The express train takes 32 minutes; it runs direct from the airport to termini and costs 12 Euro.  There is also a local version of this train.

Here is the commuter rail and metro map:

[Unlocked] mappa ferro.FH11

Urban Rail 1

Urban Rail 2

METRO

Rome’s underground metro, first constructed in 1955, is a pretty standard heavy rail system with just two lines operating as of 2014, imaginatively called Linea A (Orange) and Linea B (Blue). A third line, Linea C (Green), is under construction and will be opening at some point in time. Although not technically part of the metro, the Roma-Lido train line is essentially another line. This line uses vehicles that look very similar to the metro cars and operates within the urban area of Rome. The only difference is that it is not underground, and slightly less frequent than the metro.

Metro Exterior

I used the metro 3 or 4 times during my stay in Rome. I only used Line A as that was the line that the place we were staying at was closest to (Ponte Lungo station).

Metro Interior 2 Metro Interior

The stops are announced in Italian and English via the PA system, and the train interiors (on Line A) were reasonably comfortable with great maps and digital displays. One very cool thing, Rome’s metro trains are very long and it’s possible to walk through the entire train, end to end, as all the cars are articulated.

The stations are fairly well laid out, with pretty average, but adequate signage.

Overall I did not find the metro experience to be that great. The trains were always crowded (even in off-peak times) stations are poorly lit and there is graffiti everywhere including the exteriors of the metro cars. Also, the system is too small for a city with the population of Rome! Only 40 km of rapid transit constructed over 60 years?? As a comparison, Vancouver currently has 70 km. Rome’s system is simply not up to par with other major European cities. Having said that, if the Metro turns out to be of use to you then by all means use it, you will not regret it!

Metro Station Entrance station interior

BUS

During my stay in Rome, I often found that taking the bus was more convenient than the metro. While the metro was a 10 minute walk from our place via a confusing street network, the closest bus stop was a mere 2 minute walk. The best route for us was the 628 which went directly to downtown Rome via one of the busiest transit points, Piazza Venezia. As we were there on a holiday weekend, we did have to wait for quite a while for buses several times.

standard bus ext

Unlike the metro, I found the bus experience to be quite pleasant. Buses were not too crowded, reasonably frequent and quick (despite Rome’s horrific traffic), with new, comfortable vehicles. And where else can you ride a bus under a 2,000 year old Roman aqueduct?

bus interior 2 aqueduct

One VERY IMPORTANT thing to note is that you MUST PRE-PAY before getting on, and then validate your ticket when you get on the bus. Roman buses do not accept any form of currency. If you don’t, you risk getting a substantial SPOT-fine.
payment machine

Stops were announced, depending on what kind of bus you got on. For us, that was just one bus out of 4 or 5 trips, so don’t count on it. Usually the buses just displayed the terminus station.

Also, don’t count on a smooth ride either. Roman roads are charming but very bumpy, and Romans drive like they want to die. You may need to hail the bus driver, and buses generally do not pull over to the side of the road.   Here is the bus stop sign:

Bus Stop

Rome also has pretty cute mini-buses:

mini bus

TRAM (STREETCAR)

Like many cities, Rome used to have an extensive tram system that has slowly been replaced with diesel buses over the years.

rome-tram-map

Now Rome has 6 tram lines. I took line 8 from the starting point, Piazza Venezia, across the Tiber River to Trastavere, which is a very cool neighborhood. Although trams have their issues, I always enjoy riding in them. Trams are a very romantic way to experience the city, with the added comfort of knowing that your journey will not be diverted in an unexpected way (such as with a bus). Just don’t expect them to be quick (or reliable). After dark, the frequency of the trams drops considerably.

tram 1 Tram_troma_stanga1

You should remember to prepay before getting on the tram, despite the fact that there is a ticket vending machine on board, these machines are broken more often than not.

One annoyance is that the tram schedules are NOT integrated with Google maps, unlike the other transit options in Rome.

PAYMENT

As previously mentioned, in Rome you have to prepay before getting into any type of transit vehicle. At each metro station there are ticket vending machines, and often a human vendor if you prefer to talk to a real person.

Buying a ticket can be a little stressful for a few reasons, especially at Termini because:
It is a very busy station, with many people getting tickets.
Italians don’t wait in line, so they will probably just barge in front of you.
The machines are often broken, and although they say they accept bills, that is a lie! They MAY accept 5 Euro notes, but usually just coins.

Ticket Machine
There are gypsies standing next to the machines trying to “help” you (i.e. annoying the f*** out of you) in the hopes of you giving them money? I also suspect they are the ones that damage the machines, as there is a lady there with change.

Once you get a chance, you might as well buy a bunch of tickets, as you can always use them later for the bus, metro, commuter trains, and trams.

Additionally (and this goes for all Italian cities) you can buy tickets at almost any Tabacchi (Tobacco store), which is odd, but there are many in Rome.

Unfortunately, we did not realize that it’s impossible to pay with coins on the bus, which caused a great deal of embarrassment when we got on one for the first time. Luckily there were no ticket checkers, so we got a free ride.  Although I fully support prepaying for buses due to the many benefits, as tourists we were basically forced to ride for free. Since it was a holiday all the tobacco stores were closed and there was essentially NO WAY for us to pay for a ticket (if we wanted to take a bus). It would have been nice if there was an option to pay on board.

When you purchase a single ride ticket (1.50 Euro), you have 100 minutes to complete your journey and can transfer as many times as you wish to buses, trams, and some trains but you only get one ride on the metro.

Fleet/equipment 8.0/10
GOOD: Most of the rolling stock (except some regional trains) was new, buses are great, metro line A trains were actually fantastic, diverse fleet of options
BAD: Some buses were pretty beat up, many regional trains have seen better days

Availability 6.7/10
GOOD: Overall decent coverage with the bus network, underground metro and trams,
BAD: Not too much coverage in the old Rome center, relatively low metro frequency, low tram frequency after dark, not enough rapid transit

Wayfinding/Presentation 8.8/10
GOOD: Metro stations and trains have lots of maps, there is linear station charts and some information on trains, metro system is inherently simple, there is English signage in every station
BAD: Bus stops are not announced, not many maps on the buses, no free take-away maps

Civility 5.5/10
GOOD: Underground stations offer some respite from the hot Italian sun, certain stations have nice amenities (Termini especially)
BAD: Gypsies, poor lighting, too much graffiti, most trains and stations were overall pretty grubby and not well maintained

Overall 7.2

Despite my less than stellar reviews, we actually got around just fine in Rome. It was a very busy weekend (Easter holiday weekend) which may have contributed to the busyness of the metro. Rome’s public transit is overall OK. Not great, but certainly better than most cities of its size and population in the United States. Also, with the addition of Line C, Rome’s metro will improve greatly.

linea c

The line has been long coming, and has been delayed continuously as construction crews constantly unearth ancient history under the eternal city. Travelers can certainly make use of public transportation in Rome without any hesitation and experience a little bit of life as a modern Roman.

Koh Samui, Surat Thani Province, Thailand (กาะสมุย)

Koh Samui is an island off the east coast of Thailand. I travelled to Koh Samui in spring 2011 on a tour of South-East Asia. Nearby are the islands of Koh Phangnan and Koh Tao, and the city of Surat Thani on the mainland.

f22067264f22464896 - Copy

TYPES OF TRANSIT

Actually there is no official transit system on Koh Samui. All transportation is either by taxis, scooters, private vehicles, or songthaews. Songthaews represent the closest thing to a public transit system on Koh Samui and they seem to work… at least somewhat well.

“LIMOUSINE” SERVICE

To get travelers between the ferry terminals, airport, and hotel there are a number of private taxi companies operating “limousine services” which take the form of 8-9 passenger vans. The vans travel to and from the hotels when they fill up with travelers. It costs 120 Baht ($4). Here is my original ticket:

Limosine Ticket to Chaweng LimosineLimosine Prices
SONGTHAEWS

I took the Songthaews to get around on Koh Samui several times.

Songthaew

Taking the songthaews is a little nerve racking for a few reasons:
You are in the back of a truck
There are usually no other tourists
The driver probably has no training
There is no map
There is no stops
There is no schedule

On Samui it was simple enough to take the songthaews as the island is not very big. Basically there is one main ring road that surrounds the island and the songthaews travel in both directions around this road, shown in blue below:

Island Map

 

All of the major urban centers on the island are accessible by the ring road, so it is actually ideal for transportation. To use the songthaews you simply wait on the side of the road until one is driving by and then wave to the driver. The direction and name of the towns are usually painted on the side of the truck. The cost depends on the distance travelled but on Samui it was usually less than 60 Baht or so ($2). Then, get into the back of the truck and sit with the rest of the locals. Usually when you get to the various town centers, the driver will announce it; to disembark, simply say “I want to get off now” or something to that effect. You can probably get off anywhere along the route, but in my experience the drivers would generally stop at the same spot along the road at each of the urban centers.

The two main routes on Samui are:
1. Nathon – Mae Name – Bo Phut – Chaweng – Lamai
2. Bo Phut – Fisherman’s Village – Bangrak – Plai Laem – Cheong Mon – Chaweng

Sonthaew Interior

The seats are not particularly comfortable and having no schedule or map makes them a little unpredictable. However, the songthaews are very frequent and I had no trouble getting around on the island.

FERRIES

There are a few competing companies that service the islands, here is a map of the competing services:

Some Ferry Routes

The three main ones are:

1. Lomprayah – new, high speed catamarans

Lomprayah 2 Lomprayah Interior

2. Seatran – Relatively new and nice large mono-hulls

Seatran

3. Songerm Express Boat Co. Ltd. – Older, kind of shitty mono-hulls

Songserm

I ended up taking all three eventually. The main terminal at Samui for Lomprayah is located in Mae Nam on the North-West side of the island, and Seatran has their terminal in Bo Phut.

Firstly, I took the Lomprayah high speed catamaran service to get to and from Koh Phangnan for the famous full-moon party. The catamarans made short work of the 20 or so kilometers between the two islands. The whole journey was less than 30 minutes and was mighty fun. I’m a big fan of boat transit, and Lomprayah’s high speed catamarans were my favourite transportation option that I used during my South East Asia tour.

After a few more days of lounging around on Koh Samui I decided I would like to get my scuba license, so I took a another ferry over to Koh Tao from Koh Samui.

f22216512

To get to Koh Tao, I took Seatran’s Discovery ferries. Their vessels are definitely comparable to passenger ferries I have used in North America. The service was on-time, quick, and comfortable. The ferries had TVs playing information, food services, and decks where one could lounge – although it was quite windy. The view was spectacular! Here is my original ticket:

Samui-Tao

I also used Seatran to return to Koh Samui after I got my scuba certification. I spent a few more days in Samui then headed to Bangkok. To get to Bangkok this time I took the Songserm express boat service.

They can sell you a joint ticket, which is good for travel from Samui all the way to Bangkok: Samui to Surat Thani by boat and then coach bus to Bangkok. In total it takes 12 hours or longer. This combination ferry/bus ride was probably my least favourite travel experience in South-East Asia. The Songserm ferry was old, shitty, and slow, crowded, and offered no extra luxuries. It was however, by far the cheapest way to get to Bangkok from Samui, at only about 600 Baht in total ($20), whereas Lomprayah charges 1,300 Baht ($43) for the same journey.

In Thailand, you get what you pay for. Songserm was incredibly disorganized the entire way, at Surat Thani I ended up waiting for several hours in the middle of nowhere for the coach bus to show up. I’ve also read some accounts of people having their luggage rifled through while traveling on this service.

Here is my original ticket:

Samui-Bangkok

Next time I would take the Seatran or Lomprayah service to Don Sak (near Surat Thani) and then the State Thai Railways overnight sleeper train to Bangkok. This option is much more expensive, but will give you a better night’s sleep, a safer trip and more interesting journey, and a real Thai train experience. Let’s face it, rail beats road every time and catamarans beat slow boats every time!

FINAL THOUGHTS

While Koh Samui, Koh Phangnan, and Koh Tao do not offer any sort of planned or integrated transit system, there are ways to get around. My review is only of the songthaew services:

Fleet/equipment 2.5/10
Songthaews are converted vans with some seats, they are better than walking in some situations.

Availability 4.5/10
Actually not too bad! Songthaews continuously circulate on Samui, connecting all the major urban areas. You would be hard-pressed to use songthaews alone without also owning a scooter on Samui.

Wayfinding/Presentation 1.0/10
Occasionally the trucks had the directions and/or stops painted on the side.

Civility 2.0/10
I doubt tourists would ever feel safe in songthaews in their home countries, but compared to a tuk-tuk in Bangkok, songthaews are Volvos.

Please note I finally decided to not bother rating on cost, as it is not an important metric for the overall rating of a transit system.

Overall 2.5/10

While I can’t say that the Songthaews are an acceptable transit system by western standards, they do kind of work in Thailand. The locals and some tourists are able to get around using these services, so in that way, they do the job.

However, I believe Koh Samui would benefit greatly from a couple of official bus routes with real maps and stops operated by some sort of government agency, or private operator. Having a map and a timetable for visitors to use would get more people using transit, and less people riding around on dangerous scooters – usually without helmets. Perhaps a few retired buses from Bangkok would do the trick.

Montreal, Quebec, Canada (Montréal)

Montreal is a fantastic city with fantastic transportation. I’ve been to Montreal twice, and have used the transportation systems quite extensively each time I was there.  I took this photo of the downtown area from the top of Mont-Royal in my latest visit in May 2014:

P1140857

TYPES OF TRANSIT

Montreal has three types of transportation working in parallel: bus services, an underground metro system, and a large network of commuter rail lines serving outer suburbs.  Montreal also has long-distance bus and rail connections which allow easy connections to other cities.

Here’s the frequent transit network map, which includes bus and the metro:

Montreal FTM

And the commuter rail network:

Monreal Rail

BUS

I took buses quite a few times during my stay in Montreal. Most visitors will end up taking the bus at least once if they use public transportation in Montreal, as route 747 is the main route to and from Pierre Elliot Trudeau (YUL) airport.

The 747 route runs as an express bus with little stops outside of the main downtown core, has convenient luggage racks for passengers with lots of luggage, and a simple direct route.  The first stop after the airport is the Lionel-Groulx metro station which offers a connection to the green and orange lines of the metro.

747 1747 2

I also used a few other routes within Montreal, mainly route 55 which runs from the plateau area (where I was staying) towards downtown Montreal.   I had a lot of success with the buses, and never had to wait more than 5 minutes or so at any point.  Montreal’s buses are mostly usually pretty new diesel vehicles made by Nova Bus and can be found as standard, articulated, and mini vehicles.

Bus Ext. Normal  P1140830P1140876

Interiors are good too since the buses are pretty new

Bus int 2Bus Int 1

Bus stops are easily identifiable and are complete with all the requisite information.

Typ Bus Stop

Stops are NOT announced on Montreal buses, nor is there any kind of digital display indication the next stop.

METRO

Montreal’s rubber-tired metro system, first opened way back in 1966, is the heart of urban transportation within Montreal.  There are a total four lines: green, orange, yellow, and blue.

Metro rubber wheels

 

Metro Ext

Many of the trains are the original 1966 vehicles, with a few slightly newer ones from the 1970s.  Even though the trains are nearing 50 years old, you really wouldn’t know it.  The trains have updated, modern interiors with prominently displayed maps all over the place.

Metro Int Int Map

The stops are announced in French only via the PA system.  I also noticed that the doors slam open and shut really fast, just like the Paris metro.  Make sure you’re quick to get on and off!  The vehicles can be quite crowded and narrow; it is NOT possible transfer between cars within the train.  Brand new trains, called Azur, are scheduled to arrive in 2014.  These trains will really bring the metro into the 21st century.

Montreal Azur

The Metro stations are usually quite well lit, with easily recognizable signange and logos throughout urban Montreal.  Here is an example of the exterior of the stations:

IMG_20140504_141017

Montreal’s metro is one of my favourites.  It goes everywhere I need to go, is frequent, fast, and safe.  My brother’s house is located a short walk away from Sherbrooke station, here:

Montreal Sherbrooke Station

The downtown core of Montreal is only a few stations away by metro.  One of the reasons I like this metro so much is because it’s entirely underground, as a subway should be!  The transportation systems complement the urban planning of Montreal’s neighborhoods, but do not dominate.  The stations are there where you need them, but out of sight, safe underground where it’s warm and dry.  And sometimes in the summer it’s a little too warm – the metro cars are not air conditioned!

COMMUTER RAIL

There are five different regional/commuter rail lines serving greater Montreal, with one under construction (see map above).  The oldest of which, the Deux-Montages line, dates back to 1918. This is also the only line which is electrified because it travels through a tunnel.

AMTDM

During both my stays in Montreal I didn’t take the commuter trains at all.  My stays in Montreal have centered solely around the urban core where the metro is the main way to get around.  As in most major cities, Montreal’s commuter rail is designed to get commuters to and from the downtown core (central station) from the various suburbs.

PAYMENT

The regular fare is $3.00, but more if using the trains to get out to the suburbs.  Each metro station has an attendant and usually one or two machines where you can buy one-time use passes, day or monthly passes etc.   Coins are accepted as payment on the buses.  One time use passes last for 90 minutes.

BoothTurnstile

Once you have a pass you can transfer freely to any other mode of transport as many times as you like (this is the best possible situation).  The 747 fare is $9.00, but if you get a 24 hour pass or more (minimum $10) the 747 is included.  On my latest trip, I spent $23 on transit in Montreal. What I SHOULD have done is gotten a 3-day pass for $18, which is a great deal and includes access to the 747, but unfortunately I didn’t think about that at the time!One time use tickets are fed into the machines whereas the 24 hour or greater passes are contactless.Finally, for people who want to have a monthly pass or reloadable card, Montreal has the Opus card, which is their more durable contactless smart card system.Various fare receipt media, including the Opus card:

pass2

Fleet/equipment   9.0/10

GOOD: Metro, bus, and trains: perfect system! Most buses seemed quite new, luggage racks on airport bus

BAD: The metro fleet is a little old, i.e. no air conditioning and limited standing space

Availability   9.5/10

GOOD: I never waited more than 10 minutes across all types of transit, lots of metro stations downtown

BAD:  Off-peak metro times are relatively low compared to automated transit

Simplicity/Presentation   8.8/10

GOOD: Metro stations and trains have lots of maps for finding your way, trains have lots of maps and information, system is inherently simple

BAD: Bus stops are not announced, not many maps on the buses (except 747)

Civility   7.5/10

GOOD: Stations were mostly well-lit, accessible, with great French signage

BAD: As they were designed in the 1960s, most of the stations are not accessible, and a little dark and old which can invite graffiti and homeless weirdoes.

Overall   8.7/10

Final thoughts: Despite the 8.7 score, I actually think Montreal’s system is pretty much perfect.  While people from Paris, London, or Tokyo may think that the underground system is miniscule, it’s absolutely the right size for Montreal.  The classic system of underground metro, heavy-rail commuter trains, and bus services works so well around the world it’s a wonder other cities do anything else. Think of all the major world cities famous for good transportation: Paris, London, New York, Tokyo, Seoul… What do they have in common?

Grade-separated  metro/subway, commuter/urban rail to the suburbs, and bus/streetcar services to complement them.  Perfection!