The Case for Bus Transfers

Transit consultant Jarrett Walker explains how a network built on connections will benefit Auckland, New Zealand.

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Courtesy of Auckland Transport

Earlier this week we tracked a designer's frustrating efforts to simplify Dublin's "confusing and nonsensical" bus system. Today we look at how a city might actually implement such a significant change. The metropolitan area of Auckland, in New Zealand*, has a similarly flawed bus network — lots of disconnected local routes that run directly into the downtown — but has proposed a redesign plan [PDF] that cuts waste and expands services. The plan is now open for public comment.

Jarrett Walker, author of the Human Transit blog and a recent book by the same name, played a leading role in the planning. The key change is the efficient use of connections, Walker wrote at his blog a few weeks back. With this shift the new plan dramatically increases the network of high-frequency buses — those running at least every 15 minutes all day — and covers far more of the city than just the downtown. Instead of this:

Auckland may soon have this:

We asked Walker to explain how such a dramatic overhaul goes from concept toward completion. "These redesigns occur when enough citizens and opinion leaders in a city discover that their transit is no longer fitting the shape and life of the city," he says.

Where do you begin when planning a massive redesign like this?

The first step is to build some understanding among opinion leaders about the geometric fact that if you want a simple, frequent network that is useful to reach many destinations, you want a network based on connections, not single-seat rides. Then, of course, we do a massive data review, making sure we understand the nuances of both the current ridership and also the potential markets and needs that are evident from the density and demographics of different areas.

What are the main shortcomings of Auckland's bus system as it presently exists?

Auckland's bus system consists of many overlapping routes [PDF; see bottom] that mostly go into downtown Auckland, and that are not designed to fit together into a network. Because the agency is running so many different routes, it can't afford to run any of them very frequently, which means it's hard to connect from one route to another if you're going anywhere other than downtown. The huge pile of infrequent services also makes public transport unbearably confusing, to the point that it's almost impossible to plan a trip that you don't make routinely.

Looking at the Auckland's current "frequent network" map and your proposed map is like night and day.

While the current network is useful for some downtown commuters, Auckland — like many cities — is becoming more multi-centered, which means it needs a network that's useful for going to many destinations. You can't run direct routes from everyone's house to all the places they might be going, so the only way to serve a multi-centered pattern is with simple routes that are frequent enough to be walking to, and that make it easy to connect from one route to another. Remember: frequency is the key to simplicity, reliability, short waits, fast trips, and a general sensation of freedom for the passenger.

All-day frequency, which means service is going whenever you want to go, is also the most important feature of services that are capable of influencing urban form. A key long-term outcome of the plan is that every part of the city has frequent services where people and organizations that value transit can choose to locate, which ultimately leads to markets for more sustainable development patterns around transit. But you can't build frequency if you're running too many overlapping routes solely to prevent people from transferring.

You say that the key is connections. How do transfers allow a system to do so much more for the same cost?

Not shown on our maps is the vast amount of infrequent service, including routes that run once an hour as well as trips that run only during rush hour and are useful only if you're traveling right at that time. The current network is dominated by a huge and confusing pile of such services.

Our redesign shifts many of these investments to high-frequency all-day services crisscrossing the city in a simple pattern. This high-frequency all-day service helps to form grids that make it easy to get from anywhere to anywhere along a reasonably direct path, while the current network tends to force everyone to go downtown to get to anywhere else.

I can understand why a transit authority would embrace your system — they get more for their money. What's the biggest challenge in getting the public, which is notoriously averse to transfers, to accept the change?

These redesigns produce vastly more useful service over a much larger area. If you count waiting time as part of travel time, then the network also reduces travel times for many trips, often dramatically. That's not just a benefit to the transit agency, it's a benefit to the city if that city wants to have sustainable alternatives to the private car.

Resistance to transfers is universal, and the only way you break through it is by illustrating the much simpler and more useful network that arises from accepting the need to transfer. You also have to work through resistance by high-end peak commuters especially, who often feel an entitlement to the very expensive one-way bus service that they are used to. Finally, you have to respond to concerns of seniors.

If Auckland accepts the change, what other steps have to be taken to implement the network?

Education and the design of public information is a most important step. In many U.S. agencies where I've done these restructurings, transit marketing and communications people haven't understood the point of the change, so they just tell people "your bus route is changing" without conveying any sense of purpose or benefit to the public. This is a great way to cultivate negative feelings about a plan and suppress positive reactions.

When you're prepared an overhaul of this magnitude, what steps do you take to make sure there isn't any unanticipated negative impact afterward?

Once you've done this in a few cities you can anticipate most of what comes up in implementation. The most difficult issue is dealing with elected officials who want to overreact to a certain inevitable degree of negative feedback. Any network redesign requires inconveniencing some current riders in return for opening up vast new markets, and it's human nature that the people affected negatively respond more quickly and vociferously than those affected positively. In fact, the positive feedback comes mostly in the long-term process in which people discover the value of the new network, begin making location decisions in response to it, and in this process evolve a more sustainable urban form where public transit can be more effective and attractive.

All images courtesy of Auckland Transport via Jarrett Walker.

*Correction: Auckland is obviously located in New Zealand, not Australia.

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