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Thursday, 11 February 2016

Does NSW transport need a big new idea or just clearer purpose?

NSW Minister for Transport and Infrastructure, Andrew Constance, announced yesterday he was "calling on the world's brightest tech minds to find the next big idea that would shake up transport in NSW".

It is good to seek ideas from elsewhere - I've done it myself - but technology is not a substitute for purpose. If you don't know what port you're sailing to, no wind is favourable.

Building new infrastructure, introducing smartcards or changing the fare structure do not of themselves constitute a purpose. They may be beneficial in some way, but what precisely are they directed towards achieving? Australian public transport planning has long failed to articulate a purpose or set of guiding principles for achieving it. 

This shortcoming is puzzling. There is an established "science" of public transport which is taught in tertiary institutions across Australia, often assisted by funding from transport departments.  Many overseas countries practice this science assiduously (the Swiss do it best). But strangely, in this country, the science rarely seems to percolate to the surface of public policy. More often than not, a public transport "solution" is proposed in the context of individual urban developments. The bigger picture of providing better mobility for city and suburbs as a whole seems to fall below the radar. 

One particular mode - say a Metro or Light Rail - are frequently advocated as "solutions". Often the proponents are urban planners or architects who practice the art of professional imperialism - extending the reach of their particular discipline to subjects about which they have no real expertise.

Economists are the great masters of professional imperialism, but a kit bag of arcane econometric models is a poor substitute for in depth operational knowledge of transport systems. This has not stopped the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART), an agency blissfully unencumbered by knowledge of the complex science of public transport, from being given the task of redesigning NSW's public transport fare structure. 

So what are the main features of the science of "good" public transport, which seems so curiously hidden and poorly understood? This blog post can't do it justice, but here are a few pointers.

Public Transport objective

To be effective, public transport must compete with the private car, not just for travel to work or travel to the central business district, but for all journeys - shopping, social and recreational travel. Public transport can only compete with the car if it enables the user to:

  • get from wherever they are 
  • to wherever they need to go
  • at a time that suits them.

In other words, a city's public transport network must be multi-destinational. As only 15% of all journeys in Sydney, for example, are trips to and from work, a public transport network which focuses primarily on moving commuters to work will fail to compete with the private car. It won't accomplish its purpose.

How to achieve this objective

1. Good network design

If people are to get from wherever they are to wherever they need to go, it is not practical or efficient for the network to connect all origin-destination pairs with single, direct trips. The best public transport networks are high frequency grids, where users can make transfers at connecting nodes with short waiting times - like the London Underground or the Tokyo Metro.  But it doesn't have to be a metro system. It may be a combination of modes, including suburban trains, buses, light rail and ferries.

The key is quality network design. The mode selected for individual corridors is based on technical, geographic and cost considerations, which are contextual and pragmatic. So no one mode can be said to be better than any other. 

In areas of lower demand, where high frequency services can't be justified, the network should be designed as a pulse timetable, so waiting times are short at nodes even if service intervals are 30 or 60 minutes.

Well designed networks are also highly legible - stopping patterns are consistent and timetables are clockfaced. It is easy for passengers to figure out how to use the system.     

2. Network design guides infrastructure

The Swiss Federal Railways design timetables 20 years in advance. This allows them to prioritise infrastructure projects needed to achieve improvements in the timetable. This is the most efficient way of planning and building infrastructure because it ensures that what is built - and the technology used - is only what is necessary.

Technology has a role to play, but it should never lead. Technology should be the servant of network design. 

3. Fare structures that encourage public transport travel

The fare structure needed for successful public transport systems is the opposite of what mainstream economists think we should have. Economists like "pay as you go" fares, because then users have the tendency to ration their use of taxpayer subsidised services. Many users also like the idea of only paying for what they use.

But if our objective is for public transport to compete effectively with the car, the fare structure should provide an incentive to people to use public transport for as many trips as possible, including shopping, social and recreational trips. This is best achieved with highly discounted periodical fares (weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual travel passes), so every additional trip taken appears to the user to be free.