Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Last stop for B-Line bills

with 3 comments

Last stop for B-Line bills

Mar 17 2007

Richmond Review EDITORIAL

News flash: The digital bus arrival signs at B-Line stops don’t work.

Well, this is hardly news to the many thousands of commuters who take the rapid bus service into Vancouver and back every day.

The signs were part of a system that would let passengers know how soon the next bus would be arriving. A nice service no doubt, but perhaps good old printed transit schedules will do the trick. After all, more than $30 million has been spent on the system.

This is the latest in a long list of waste in the B-Line system.

Disabled information display

Oddly enough the news story that this opinion piece is linked to does not appear on the Review’s web site – but then that is an awkward beast at best. And the whole point about the Siemens GPS system was that it was supposed to provide information to a route controller about how the service was operating. Real time information to bus passengers was a (welcome) bonus. And no, schedule information is not the same thing at all.

ScheduleProviding passengers with real time information has value, even if the service frequency or regularity does not improve.

UPDATE (May 2) Todd Littman has recently produced a new report on this issue (among others) go to the section marked “Valuing Transit Passenger Information Improvements” in Valuing Transit Service Quality Improvements

Knowing how long you will have to wait allows you to make a decision: is it worth waiting for this next bus or have I time to go get a coffee, for example. The first system of my experience was installed on the Northern Line of London Underground, which is wonderfully complex with two distinct routes and two northern branches producing a byzantine service pattern, easily disrupted by everyday events like someone putting a foot in the way of a closing door. When trains are supposed to run at combined 2 minute frequencies with little room for variation, small disruptions quickly escalate. Passengers on Northern Line platforms cannot actually do anything else but wait for the train – except in some cases change a route in favour of more transfers – but just knowing how long they had to wait improved their perception of the service, which had not changed at all.

As one of BC Transit’s planners pointed out me at the time, knowing where the buses are at any particular moment is not the same as being able to do anything about it. And it is intervention that is key to service improvement. It is quite a common experience in London to be asked to get off the bus and get one behind to allow the one you are on to be “short turned”. Disruption in Central London due to a demo against Trident really screwed up the bus service between Trafalgar Square and Abbey Road last month. But good information meant minor inconvenience – we lost the best seats at the top of the front deck – but the people waiting to get somewhere south of Baker Street undoubtedly benefitted from not having all the buses bunched at the southern end of the route.

Bunching occurs even when there is no interference from other traffic. On exclusive tram rights of way in Amsterdam for example. The drivers like to play cards at the terminals: driving a tram can get lonely at times. Dealing with bunching requires good information and a co-operative work force as well as some pre-arranged tactics to deal with common problems. What my colleague was referring to was BC Transit’s inability to manage its bus routes. And I don’t see it getting any better. Technology can help – but it cannot do much in the face of poor management. Information is only as valuable as your ability to do something about it.

When the Richmond Rapid Bus (as it was then known) was being planned, Glen Clark was prepared to spend quite a bit on it “because they are never going to get light rail in Richmond”. The later decision to build the RAV line ignored sunk costs. In fact it pretty well ignored any proper assessment of cost since the decision was made to build a (bored tube) tunnel along Cambie long before any studies were done. And, essentially, this kind of decision is political. Richmond was not supposed to grow like it has – building on a flood plain in a seismically unstable area is (at the very least) short sighted. But it has grown and somehow the airport and the Olympics seemed to be more important than integrated land use and transportation planning (such a dull, dry concern).

By the way the $30 million quoted is not just for the GPS system as you might infer from the Review’s sloppy journalism. Most of that was for the new fleet of artic buses – which will still be desperately needed elsewhere once the “Canada Line” opens. Some was wasted on bus shelters and the road works – but don’t blame Translink or BC Transit for that. Blame the Province of BC which as usual (fast ferries, the Island Highway, The Coquihalla etc) disregards professional transportation planning at our cost.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 19, 2007 at 10:23 am

3 Responses

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  1. On the topic of providing people with information, you may be interested to read about a couple of SFU students that took the matter into their own hands… Interestingly, while one could claim that the precision provided by GPS information is much higher, most people standing freezing at a bus stop are only interested in accuracy, a different concept from precision altogether. Should I wait here another 15 minutes for this thing or take that other bus, which gets me closer, but not exactly to where I want to go? Basic questions that bus riders have and generally accurate information is all they really want.


    March 21, 2007 at 8:31 am

  2. Yes, but that SFU system provides _schedule_ information. In the real world, schedules do not survive very long. Traffic congestion plays havoc with good intentions, and anyway bus operators have only to observe the schedule at a few timing points. If you want to know the answer to the question “how long am I going to have to wait for the bus?” then only a system which actually tracks each bus will provide anything like useful information. It doesn’t have to be satellite GPS either – many systems have terrestrial systems that have been more reliable (Ottawa for example).

    Moreover, the schedules themselves get changed frequently – certainly much more often than the printed versions get updated – as road conditions and other circumstances change. The schedule is a guide – but useless at predicting arrival times at bus stops!

    Stephen Rees

    March 21, 2007 at 2:48 pm

  3. I agree with the comment that knowing how long you’ll have to wait is probably more useful on the routes with lower frequency than those with high frequency.
    If you’ve got 15 minutes, then you probably can duck into a cafe and grab a coffee or a donut, but if the board generally reads “next bus in 5 minutes” – it’s just there to appease impatient people.
    … and on that vain, why don’t they have the Seabus time of departuse displays at the TOP of the ramp rather than the bottom of the ramp?


    March 26, 2007 at 11:51 am

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