Ferry Logo

Ferry Logo

Thursday, 17 July 2014

The Secret of Successful Public Transport

Driving a car in Sydney has one big advantage over public transport. We can jump into our car and go wherever we want, at a time that suits us. For most Sydney residents, public transport can’t match this. Services don’t run often enough, or for only part of the day, or our destination lies on a different line which we can’t conveniently transfer to.   

But what if the planning of public transport was truly integrated? Imagine if the near CBD network, where population densities are high, was a high frequency grid, with services running from early in the morning until late at night, seven days a week. And in areas of lower population density, what if there were timed connections at all interchanges, so that even if departures are only twice an hour, transfers to other lines or modes are very convenient. Anywhere to anywhere, at any time, suddenly becomes possible.
This is not a fantasy, because it is exactly what happens in Zurich and many other cities in Europe. Surprisingly, it happens at low cost to the taxpayer. The Zurich public transport system recovers 63% of its operating costs and in Munich there is full cost recovery. According to the NSW Auditor-General, cost recovery here is less than 30%.

The quality of the Zurich public transport network means that more people use it and fewer trips are made by car. The average resident in the Canton of Zurich makes 400 trips by public transport each year. In Sydney, we make 120. Sydneysiders travel 4.9 km per day by public transport and 28.5 km by private motor vehicle. Zurich residents on average travel 11.7 km by public transport and 20.7 km by private motor vehicle. 

Visitors to Zurich or Munich may be surprised at the grim utilitarianism of transport infrastructure in these cities. Interchanges are functional and generally without architectural flourish; there are no smartcards or ticket gate barriers; and a lot of the rolling stock is old. This is because transport planners consider the “customer offer” – a  network design and timetable which allow more than 80% of residents to go from anywhere, to anywhere – to be the most important ingredient of a successful transit system. It is also because the science of timetabling is better understood in Europe and perhaps better in Switzerland than anywhere else.

Tram stop in Zurich: seat, shelter, timetable and ticket machine. What more do you need?

There is one more thing. Around 80% of public transport trips in Zurich are made by passengers using a periodical ticket: a yearly, monthly or weekly ticket which provides unlimited travel on all modes within nominated zones. Pricing does not differentiate between modes or punish transfers.

The periodical tickets are attractive as they provide big discounts compared to single journey tickets. This makes public transport pricing more akin to car ownership. While there are marginal costs in driving a car, we tend to think a short drive is "free". Unlimited travel with a periodical transit ticket creates a similar perception about public transport, in contrast to “pay as you use” systems, like the Opal Card.

So the secret to successful public transport is less about money and technology and more about philosophy and technique. The good news is that these techniques are explained in a wonderfully clear and comprehensive manual on designing good public transport, the “Hi Trans Guide”. We would all benefit if its sage advice was more widely followed.

1 comment: