A Smooth Ride with Multimodal Connections
By David Panter
The use of public transport around the world was, until recently, increasing.
In 2015, there were 243 billion journeys made on public transport in 39 different countries (up 18% compared to 2000).
However, in what can only be described as a transport planner’s nightmare, we are now seeing patronage decreases across all modes in many cities, including Melbourne, Brisbane and major American cities like New York and Los Angeles.
Recent research presented at the Australasia Bus Conference tells us that 80% of travel in Australian cities is undertaken in private cars.
We love our cars, but with the avoidable social costs of congestion estimated to rise from $16.5 billion in FY2015 to roughly $30 billion in 2030, there is a significant price to pay and this is cause for concern.
Governments are striving to tempt passengers back into mass transit vehicles. There has been plenty of emphasis and exploration into autonomous vehicles, ridesharing, Mobility as a Service (MaaS) and on-demand transport.
These are valuable tools and one day, they will all form a natural part of our public transport ecosystem. But what can our government transport teams do now to make a difference?
One possibility is to increase the level of integration in the transport network.
Transfers: Stopping Customers in Their Tracks?
For public transport users, getting from A to B often involves multiple services and modes.
Often, without a customised point to point service, a single trip will not get us where we want to go. We have no option but to consider a public transport journey as one comprising multiple trips on multiple transport modes and/or routes.
For a long time, planners focused on delivering one transport mode and attempted to deliver a CBD-to-the-door experience, based on the philosophy that passengers wanted to settle in on a single vehicle and did not want to have to pay for multiple trips.
This view was not without merit and is supported by research showing waiting time between trips is perceived as a hindrance to public transport adoption.
Whilst this way of thinking is fine for smaller population centres, as cities have grown it has resulted in some unfortunate side effects. Notably:
- Duplication of services. Buses would run on the road alongside train tracks or along the same corridor as trams. Often these services were run by operators in competition with each other!
- Service inequality. Many buses would travel over the same roads near the CBD before spreading out in the suburbs to drop off passengers. This meant inner city suburbs were over-serviced and growing outer suburbs were underserviced.
- Inefficiencies in passenger loads as large buses (necessary for line haul) were circulated in the suburbs, where smaller vehicles may have been more efficient. Often, partially-loaded buses would run line haul to the city.
- Lower service frequencies as suburban buses were tied up doing line haul services.
These issues could be resolved by having suburban services deliver passengers to major bus interchanges or railway stations, where they would board larger buses or trains bound for the city centre. However:
While there are clear advantages for transport authorities in creating more transfer-dependent systems (such as lowering costs while increasing customer options), it is less clear whether passengers are going to like it.
Services are not planned ahead of time with intermodal travel in mind and the result for passengers is long waiting times between services or large walking distances between trips.
In today’s world of instant gratification, who wants to walk a long way to a bus stop, ride a bus to the train station, sit around at the station until the train comes, eventually catch that train to the CBD, wait for your connecting bus to arrive and then after another 15-minute wait, take that second bus to get to your office.
You might start off the day as hip young Generation Z but you end up a frustrated Baby Boomer! Then we get to do it again going home (groan).
What passengers want is to have a service that is within a comfortable walk, know when the service is going to be at their stop, get off that service at the train station two minutes before the train arrives and catch their train to the city where they find their second bus waiting for the train. Now that is a service I’d want to use!
Making Light Work of a Complex Task
Many cities have hundreds of public transport routes, thousands of vehicles and multiple private companies operating different aspects of the system.
At first glance, it might appear impossible to coordinate all of these aspects into a working service.
However, a sophisticated intelligent transport system (ITS) can simplify the process of running a multimodal transport network by providing the visibility, control and communication needed within a single platform for planning and paying for a journey.
An ITS works in a number of ways. First, it allows the network to be planned effectively.
Bus routes can be coordinated with tram lines and high capacity line haul routes can be coordinated with suburban services, so that passengers can get off one trunk service and easily transfer to a connecting service. Sufficient time is allowed for the service arrival and walking time between stops.
Next, a control centre receives information about schedules, current vehicle location and any delays that may impact travel at that particular time.
This data can be fed back to vehicle operators, drivers and passengers to allow them to adjust their journey if needed.
The centralised collection of data is of great value to public transport authorities, as well as the operators of individual services within the network.
For example, vehicle location and ticketing data can give insight into passenger numbers and trends. The improved passenger information and service interconnectedness are also a win for passengers.
They want the ability to view the entire public transport network, including trains, buses, trams, ferries, bicycle share and autonomous last mile shuttles, in one digital platform. They also expect simplicity in making multimodal connections.
ITS helps deliver this visibility by allowing transport authorities to collect information on when and where passengers are boarding services and monitoring whether scheduled services are delivered on time.
This is invaluable for day to day delivery as well as planning, where passenger boarding drives the placement of at-stop facilities and travel times allow planners to make realistic service connections.
This data could show, for example, that a particular service is regularly three minutes late at one stop on the route but otherwise running on time.
The reasons for this delay can be investigated and, if not able to be mitigated, the delay can be reflected in a small change to the timetable conveying the time that the bus will actually be at the stop given normal conditions.
While longer term planning is important, the inevitability of delays in public transport networks require the provision of real-time information and control of services.
It is here that passengers benefit most, with ITS also allowing for on-board displays and announcements on delays or even alternative routes.
Passengers can receive real-time information on their current and future services, via the web, apps and SMS, and use digital platforms to track and replan their journey as required.
The real-time communication ITS provides to drivers is just as valuable. If the plan is for passengers to get off a tram and transfer to a bus service for the final part of their journey, missing that connection by 30 seconds will have a very negative effect on passengers who may have to wait 20 - 30 minutes for the next bus.
An integrated ITS can identify that the tram is running late and send a message to the bus, advising the driver to stay at the connection point until the tram arrives. Connection is made – happy days!
With many governments keen to create smarter cities and increase liveability for their residents, the trend reversal we are seeing in public transport patronage is alarming.
To address this, transport authorities must double down to drive positive customer experiences with a fully integrated multimodal network that works for passengers.
Transport planners need to deliver better connected services with reliable wait times that meet the public’s needs and optimise use of transportation assets.
This is not easy, but it must be done and with the right tools and contracts it can be done.
You need only look at the upcoming network redesign in Canberra as validation. This redesign will use the new tram services for line haul, with connecting buses to carry people out to the suburbs. You will see multiple modes working together, connecting timetables and happy passengers.
Only by making public transport easy and convenient, will we persuade passengers to give up their private cars for mass transit vehicles.
With tighter connections and better integration using the right ITS tools, transport authorities and operators can make this happen.
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