Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Between a rock and a hard place

Did you know that Guelph Transit revamped its entire route structure on January 1st? I have been hearing tidbits about the pain that this redesign has caused, and the Mercury chronicles the changes with articles [1] [2] [3], editorials and oh! the opinions! [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6]

Here in Waterloo region, we should pay attention. Grand River Transit will face the need to revamp part or all of its network over the next decade. With twice the ridership as GT and active expansion in routes and ridership expected, GRT needs to move away its current hub-and-spoke design, and towards a decentralized, grid-based system.
Reboot the System

There are two big strategies to cutting out existing bus routes. Guelph has demonstrated one: go cold turkey and simply shift buses around, and damn the consequences.

A second strategy is to starve existing routes by first providing more attractive service. This is one of the ideas behind the GRT express bus plan: a roughly grid-like network of limited-stop buses, with LRT along the corridor of heaviest demand, which will run regularly, at decent frequency, and provide quicker cross-town travel. These will draw riders away from some of the lower-frequency neighbourhood wanderers we have accumulated over so many years, allow those resources to eventually be shifted.

Still, Guelph reveals a problem that we will also face: in a community that is underserved by transit, any attempt to rationalize routes will cause pain. The reason for this is that existing transit users have trip needs that already cluster along our existing routes. Those who have simple trip needs that could be easily served by a grid network may not use transit simply because the current network doesn't provide.

Crazy Eights

So in shifting towards a more efficient, intuitive network that can draw greater ridership, there will be pain for existing users. GRT Route 8 [pdf] is an interesting example to look at. This is an impenetrable double-loop passing through the downtown terminal, and even after almost 20 years, I still need to refer to the route map-- or more recently, blindly rely on Google Maps' directions-- to have any idea if it will get me where I need to go. It has bizarre mid-loop terminations at certain times of the day, leaving confused riders stranded.

And yet, it serves certain corridors where nothing else does (Weber St. in Waterloo, and the Belmont Village corridor, to name a couple) and happens to provide direct trip options for both of these areas to the University of Waterloo and Laurier. So despite its incredible unintuitive opaqueness, it's fairly popular among existing transit users. Even with better bus service (12) along Westmount, and new University Avenue express in 2013, fixing a route like the 8 is daunting because it will leave dense areas along Weber and the entire Belmont Village area unserved.

Horse precedes Cart

Making this kind of network alteration palatable to transit users will require that they are presented with useful options first. To do that, we must provide more service, overlaying the new routes on top of the old, before we can reallocate the old routes' resources.

More service will require more funding, and the expectation that fare-box recover will lag as a result of higher subsidies. In fact, any reasonable transit growth strategy will probably see low fare-box recovery rates until new ridership catches up to the very system improvements that attract them!

Tough Love?

So if existing transit users' needs are the "rock", regional council's recent decision to aim for 50% fare-box recovery presents a "hard place". And our transit planners are stuck between them.

I know I've harped on this senseless, counterproductive decision before, but it smacks of politics winning out over the region's needs. The region still says it wants to triple the transit share of an ever growing number of trips within two decades.

But after making a series of high-profile moves to improve transit, council decided to smack transit around a little as if they were scared to show too much favouritism to one particular child. To "keep it in its place".

It will only hold us all back.


  1. I'm not an expert on this stuff, but I have some comments:

    I like your point about the grid system replacing the hub system - it seems intuitive to me that you are right, this would be better.

    Whenever I bother to look into using the bus as an option (which already puts me ahead of most citizens in terms of being a potential rider), it's usually for evenings or weekends, and frankly the service level sucks unless you're starting and ending your trip on a couple of main routes. So while I bike to work and for small errands in good weather, I think I've taken the bus once in my 3 years of living back in this region. It's simply not available even close to the locations and times that I could use it.

    (I've said it before and I'll say it again - how the F can I get my young family to car-free Sundays from Eastbridge when the one Eastbridge bus has zero service on Sundays? My kids can't ride that far yet, and there aren't bike lanes or trails that get you all the way there anyway!)

    Any solution has to keep buses going through neighbourhoods, because I'm not likely to get in my car to drive to Conestoga Mall, if that's the nearest place with good service, when I can drive to my destination in K-W in only another 10-15 minutes on top of that - the time I'd likely have to wait for a bus anyway.

    When I was a student here at UW, my Oma and Opa lived near Wilson & Fairway. It was pretty cool that the two most serviced routes, 7 and 8, both could get me there with similar trip length and frequency. I think the 7 was shorter but slower, with all the stops down King St. But the 8's weird double-loop pattern (shaped like an 8?) ended up being pretty effective - not as many stops, and covered a variety of locations that you would need 3 "straight routes" to hit. Really, it's the route that has been most "grid like", from the beginning, if you think about it.

    Also, don't forget the old joke about K-W's streets being a non-Euclidean geometry: parallel lines intersect almost all the time. Almost no major street runs straight at a large scale. So do you mean grid as seen on a map, or more of a bent grid that follows the twisted road guidelines of the area?

    I would suggest no plan be put in place without some heavy computerized statistics on all the trips people take or want to take - where they start and where they end, and ideally with rough timestamps attached. This might be a gigantic effort, but the payoff would be an ideal transit system. Collecting commute data should be fairly easy, looking into evening and weekend trips or potential trips would be harder, but rewarding.

    1. Every time I write an article like this, there are always things that I end up having to leave out. I didn't spend much time justifying grid vs. hub/spoke, because as a general topic others can do so much better. Here's some extra reading and a starting point on grid approaches:

      I also left out the observation that despite a much more grid-compatible layout in Guelph, their transit system is still built around getting everyone downtown or the university-- whereas in Waterloo, we have your "non-Euclidian" layout! On the other hand, we have destinations scattered across the city, which *does* play into the grid's strengths... if we can come up with a sensible arrangement.

      On neighbourhood buses: they will never be fast. I commute with your Eastbridge bus currently, the 35, which makes a 5 minute drive up Bridge St. take almost 20 minutes to bring transit access closer to others. They do have their place! But they won't be attractive for long trips. They *should* provide intersections with high-speed, high-frequency routes that don't meander, like the current 200 and 201 iXpress routes.

      I may be unusual, but I quickly found myself walking up to 15 minutes to catch an iXpress I could understand, rather than trying to figure out the mess that is the 8, which runs on an unpredictable and infrequent schedule.

      As for the inaccessibility of transit for Eastbridge: how far are you, on foot, from Bridge St., or from Northfield? Next year both of those streets should see much better, 7-day iXpress-style service along those corridors.