LRT or BRT, Rapid Transit must be Frequent Transit

My first day on Winnipeg’s Rapid Transit system back in April 2012 was memorable, but not necessarily for the right reasons.

On the northbound leg from South River Heights toward Downtown, the passengers included a young woman loudly and gleefully discussing her criminal record, as if it were something to be proud of, and a man who unceremoniously marked the occasion with a loud burp.

Later that day, I arrived at Osborne Station just in time to see the Grant Ave. bus pull away. Since that particular route ran at 24-minute intervals on a Sunday back in the old “slow transit” days, surely the arrival of Rapid Transit would mean a shorter wait, if even by just a few minutes. Or so I thought.

When I looked up at the indicator board, that was when I got a rude shock: since the bus I had just missed was slightly ahead of schedule, the next bus to my destination would be arriving . . . in half an hour!

And the next bus after that, another 29 minutes later.

The reality sunk in that the introduction of Rapid Transit would mean a service reduction, and that I might as well walk four kilometres home — thankfully, an effortless and relaxing experience in fine weather — because it would scarcely take any longer and be vastly more interesting than hanging around Osborne Station for half an hour.

That strange first day of Winnipeg’s Rapid Transit system seemed to underline the point that, even as they built the system, the city’s administrators didn’t “get” the concept of rapid transit — that you should be able to navigate the city without a timetable and without any maps, aside from those posted at the stops themselves, much as one can do in European cities.

Indeed, the people whom we hired with our ballots to oversee the city’s affairs — I’d be curious to know how many have ever used a European public transportation system, or have even been across either the Atlantic or the Pacific — still might not get it as illustrated by a new City Hall squabble over whether Rapid Transit should consist of buses or railcars.

Those who follow this debate have their own opinions. Some favour using buses because of lower construction and start-up costs; others favour the rail option because of lower per-passenger-trip costs and, as expressed by rail proponent Coun. Russ Wyatt, a higher glamour factor.

But nobody is talking about the all-important matter of frequency. This in a city where the major traffic arteries running past some of the city’s largest shopping centres still enjoy the same twice-an-hour Sunday service they enjoyed 30 years ago when the malls were closed on what is now a busy shopping day.

If you want to encourage people to use public transport as an alternative to the congestion and wear-and-tear on the roads caused by North America’s high rate of private automobile use, frequency matters, as explained (starting from PDF page 53) by Graham Currie and Alexa Delbosc of Monash University in Melbourne, Australia:

The results collectively support the case for high service levels [i.e., more buses/trains/streetcars per day, and longer hours of service at a given stop] as a driver of ridership regardless of the transit mode [i.e., light rail, bus rapid transit or streetcar] adopted . . . This is particularly interesting in this context where boardings per vehicle kilometer was used as the outcome variable, as BVK controls for service level. This suggests that routes with higher service levels are more efficient and attract more ridership than low-service routes, all other things being equal.

Thus, it is time to start talking about service levels, not just along Winnipeg’s existing and proposed rapid transit lines, but city-wide, with the goal of designing a transit system where, as in Europe, one can just “show up and go” with a minimum of advance planning. Rapid transit corridors would play a helpful role here, naturally, as might better deployment of Transit’s existing fleet. (Does Route 95 really need a nine-minute layover at each end of its 21-minute route? Why not just a five-minute layover, and squeeze in a couple of extra trips per bus, using existing resources?)

If service levels don’t become part of the discussion this year — an election year, no less — we could end up with a Rapid Transit system designed as if by image-conscious politicians who have no intention of ever using the system; and finding out the hard (and expensive) way that a Rapid Transit-branded train that runs every half-hour is as much a bad joke on Winnipeggers as a bus that does the same thing.


About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

3 Responses to LRT or BRT, Rapid Transit must be Frequent Transit

  1. Boss says:

    Maybe they will get on the topic once all the routes are built ( at which point you can call it a “system”.) and a closed loop is established. This hybrid model is going to be an issue for awhile especially in the off hours. Basically they have to tie in an 80Kph infrequent stop system to a 50kph ( and less in school zones ) multiple stop system. Its a problem for a City that has to many lights, low off hour use, third world streets, un-synchronized traffic lights.

    Perhaps they should have built the first leg down Portage ( Main ) to UniCity. This way , the spine would have been established and timing issues could be addressed and tinkered with..

    Frequency is going to be very difficult to deal with on the Pembina route as you’ve experienced. This issue will happen with all major cross streets the line encounters. You can’t expect 10 / 15 minute bus service outside of the normal heavy load times. It will be very expensive to get that type of convenience.

    Bring a book , or get ready to walk.

    FYI – it has taken Toronto and Montreal well over 50 years to establish their networks. Montreal has by far the best one as it covers the whole islands and their growth trajectory is towards suburbs off the Island. Toronto is making huge investments on expanding their system to service dense and heavily used areas. ( notice, they build it only when there is a need, not like here – build the transit so you can develop land ). Both systems have the frequency issue solved, but even with their closed loop systems – at times, you still have to wait, underground, aboveground or both. )

  2. theviewfromseven says:

    Frequency is also limited by how the fleet is deployed. Route 95, for example, often runs with very low passenger numbers along a serpentine route that rarely strays more than a 15-minute walking distance from the nearest major traffic artery — that is, either Osborne, Pembina or Grant. Route 89 in north Transcona runs parallel to Route 47, the two routes being only about a six-minute walk apart. Why not redeploy those buses on the busier roads?

    Another interesting idea from Christchurch, N.Z., a medium-sized city of 379,000, was to develop a transit hub where people could kill time between buses. The original hub was destroyed in the earthquake of a few years ago, but is being rebuilt:

  3. Boss says:

    Transit hub kinda work in a hub and spoke deployment don’t you think. I can see Winnipeg having multiple hubs just by how we are built. Montreal’s system seems to be following that path.

    Yes, that is what makes frequency for our type of system on ongoing issue and very hard to maintain, juggling the lines and passenger numbers.

    The pembina line wasn’t a very good place to start and it will have issues till more of the RT routes are implemented and alternate routes are developed, This should reduce wait times since you have other options to choose from.Eventually the hub should give you at least an alternate route in each direction. With a hub downtown, you can choose to go down Pembina and link into Grant or you can choose the Portage line across to the Kenaston line to Grant ( and beyond )- type of thing. But we are decades and decades away from that. ( for instance, the Spadina /York university subway line, 6 stations, took 25 years to get off the table )

    I think what bothers me the most is that we don’t look at whats been done elsewhere and we try to reinvent the wheel. It will take a massive commitment to undertake, many billions and a time frame spoken in decades if not half century plus. We’ve barely scratched the surface and have not looked at every option

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