Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for August 21st, 2007

City extends para-transit service

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Richmond.com – Feature Story

Sadly I must quickly disabuse you if you jumped to the same conclusion I did. This story is about Richmond VA not Richmond BC.

Para-transit is the term of art for services that we call “handyDART”. Which, as its users never cease to point out, is not “handy” at all. In Richmond VA they call it “CARE”.

“CARE” vehicles can accommodate customers using wheelchairs, walkers, crutches, canes, guide dogs, or other mobility aids.

“The need for this service has grown beyond our expectations,” said GRTC Chief Executive Officer John Lewis. “Providing access to transportation services to those with disabilities provides access to opportunity and independence.”

I don’t know enough to make a specific comparison, but the US system is required to provide paratransit wherever there is conventional transit. This is actually, in geographical coverage, less onerous than the service area that handyDART provides. There are some places in this region where handyDART users can ask for a ride where conventional transit does not reach.

The main shortcoming of handyDART is that it manages to meet only the needs of a few of its potential clients.  A lot more people would use it if the chance of getting a ride was better. Yet the rate of expansion does not meet the established need, let alone the growing needs of an aging population, and one where more patients are being given care in the community rather than in residential institutions.

At the same time, much of the development of the suburbs continues to be of low density, single family neighbourhoods. The most difficult type of development to serve well with conventional transit: a big bus with a well paid driver on a fixed route. handyDART uses small vehicles, the drivers are paid much less – but provide a lot more help to passengers – and they provide ” door to door” service. The bus comes to you. The cost per passenger of this quality of service is much higher than conventional transit, and since the fare is comparable, cost recovery much lower – or, if you prefer, the rate of subsidy much higher. So getting more handyDART service in a system which is already below essential capacity levels to meet existing conventional demand is very difficult.

Community shuttles were supposed to make a difference. The vehicles are roughly the same size as a handyDART van: the main difference is the lift – on the side on a shuttle, at the rear on a van. This enables handyDART to serve  people who do not happen to live next to an accessible bus stop. Originally, the first shuttle routes were flexible: the bus could leave the fixed route to drop people closer to where they needed to be – a bit like the way conventional buses are allowed to drop women closer to their homes at night – except the small vehicle did not have to stay on the arterial road.

As part of the price to win labour peace in the wake of the four month transit strike, Translink committed the Community Shuttle business to CMBC and abandoned the idea of competitive tendering – which the strike had been about and which Translink “won”. That meant that although Community Shuttles retained the wage differential – and showed that you could recruit bus drivers without having to pay them so much – everything else about the shuttle routes was the same as a big bus. The cost per bus is cheaper, but I would expect that the cost per seat is probably comparable. The main benefit for CMBC was that it released some big buses from low ridership routes to use where overcrowding is the problem.

I think that one way we could make transit more attractive in places like Langley – or Richmond BC come to that – is to have a bus service that will come to you. Even if you are not disabled. In some places this has been happening for years. Rimouski, Quebec has a system called taxibus, for example. For some markets, paratransit has been very successful commercially – airport shuttles for instance, which work like shared ride taxis. Seattle has those – as do most major US airports. Firms compete to get the concession from the airport.

Increasing the number of potential riders actually helps solve one of most difficult problems of a shared ride systems. The more potential users, the greater the potential of finding “matches” in trip demands. Scheduling shared rides is not easy – but the falling cost of information technology and it’s increasing sophistication has made it easier. And there are some systems which work really well. Think of pizza deliveries, for example. Or parcel pick up by courier companies. It can be done.

It is not going to be cheap.  But there will be social benefits that are well worth paying for. Mobility for people without cars will be improved significantly, ending a problem of social isolation that we do not seem to care about as much as, say, the UK. It could even improve labour participation rates (so we can appeal to the right wing a bit). It would reduce the need for able bodied people to own cars well past the age when it is safe to drive them – age of the cars as well as the people. (We do not test the cars of course, for safety. We do test the people but are reluctant to recommend they have their licences taken when they have no other alternative to get around.) We could increase the effective area that high speed transit systems can serve, by acting as a feeder to SkyTrain and West Coast Express. It would reduce the need for ever more parking space at WCE stations. It would increase transit mode share in the outer suburbs, where it has been persistently low for many years and is most difficult to change. And increasing transit mode share reduces the “need” for more roads. And above all it would

provide access to transportation services to those with disabilities – and thus provide access to opportunity and independence

Which is where we started.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 21, 2007 at 7:18 am

Posted in transit

I-5 closure shows we’re adaptable

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Seattle PI – Opinion

Our collective “need” for highway capacity is about as certain as our “need” for bottled water.

It is instructive that we have known about how traffic reacts to both expansion and contraction of highway capacity for many years. After all there are plenty of examples and experience wherever you go. Yet our politicians seem to be impervious to the lesson and they keep on saying that we “need” more highway lanes, more roads, or will be overwhelmed. That without more concrete and tarmac, growth will stall, or the we will see the economy stagnate or – horror of horrors – the Americans may continue to accommodate their import container traffic in their own ports.

Engineers still believe some very poorly designed models based on comparisons with gravity, that treat traffic like a flow of water. In which water finds its own level and demand never reacts to changes in the network other than rerouting. Which we know does not represent what happens. In fact, traffic is more like a gas – it expands and contracts to fill the space provided. The model in this region can in fact do no more than tell you about longer distance travel across the “screenlines” (essentially water bodies and some municipal boundaries) at the morning peak hour on a weekday. In fact the network now sees more traffic in the afternoon peak. But most importantly, it assumes that the volume of traffic is constant, and is simply a function of population and land use.

Indeed, the way the model works is actually not very accurate “out of the box” and it has to be “calibrated”. What little data we do have shows that the model will not  accurately do even the limited task we set it without adjustments to make it fit the observed flows.  For example it assumes that people travel to jobs that are close to them, but we know that is not true, so the calibration allows for the extra “attractiveness” of downtown. Except of course, downtown is now much less significant a destination for the morning peak flows than it was when the model was calibrated.

Maybe the big lesson of the I-5 experiment is this: It isn’t too little capacity that causes gridlock — it’s transportation systems that don’t give people choices.

Or the choices it does offer them are just not good enough to enable them to switch modes. That is the case here for transit, I am afraid. And that is why I constantly harp on the theme of improving service. Because that is what deters drivers from switching modes. As long as transit is slow and unreliable, and inconvenient compared to driving, only around 10 to 11% of the trips will be made that way.

And expanding road capacity – or refusing to reduce it – ensures that car dominance will continue. This is not rocket science.

If we spend money on improving our transit system – buying more buses, changing streets so the buses have priority over single occupant vehicles, building light rail systems utilising existing tracks wherever possible and keeping cost down to expand coverage as widely as we can, then we will see mode shifts. Continuing to do what we have done for the last fifty years will see the same results we have always seen. Expecting any other outcome is madness.

And if we are really serious, and we really want to reduce the terrible carnage of driving (for the US its death toll is far greater than the Iraq war) then we will use the market – a pricing system – to actually charge users what it costs to accomodate their cars and their “need” to drive them everywhere. For right now, the market signals are that we should acquire cars (they are getting cheaper, in real terms, and more efficient) paying up front for tax and insurance too, so that we have invested a considerable fixed sum, and thus the perceived marginal cost per trip is very low. If people think at all about money when they drive their cars it is first parking and then gas cost that will come to mind. What they really care about is time. So what we need to do is make the car less convenient (reduce road space for cars, cut parking provisions) and raise its price at the same time as we make transit much more attractive.

Indeed, I think it is essential to have some spare capacity on the transit system before you try to persuade people to use it. So some of the new trains may well appear to be a bit empty at first. That’s alright. We can stand a loss in the first few years if we can fill it in the long term. And you know that our current experience shows that when you do provide a good alternative, you don’t have to market it at all. It sells itself. Word of mouth is your best friend. I would get rid of the marketing and PR people altogether. Make the people who run the system your spokespersons and salespeople. And allow them to be honest – that builds trust, not cynicism with spin doctors. Above all give them a really good product – fast, comfortable, safe and reliable. The colour you paint it, and the name you call it, matters not one whit.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 21, 2007 at 6:33 am