Review of Transport for Suburbia: Beyond the Automobile Age
December's book of the month is Transport for Suburbia: Beyond the Automobile Age by Paul Mees (London: Earthscan, 2010). In Transport for Suburbia Mees convincingly argues that we can offer quality public transit in the suburbs even in areas that have low density. Since low density areas cannot support the same level of frequency as higher density areas, the keys, in Mees opinion, are coordination and networks.
The transit network must be planned by a single body to ensure maximum coordination.
In the book, Mees spends a great deal of time comparing the different transit outcomes in Toronto and Melbourne, two cities that have very similar demographics and density gradients. Toronto has a much higher annual total transit ridership and per-capita transit ridership than Melbourne does. In the amalgamated city of Toronto, which includes low density suburban areas such as Scarborough in addition to the very dense original city of Toronto, one public agency - the Toronto Transit Commission - has complete control over all of the transit operating in the city with the exception of commuter trains operated by GO Transit. In Melbourne, while there have been attempts in the past few years to have greater coordination, the network of trams, suburban trains, and buses are all operated and planned by different agencies (indeed, several private bus companies all operate service in the area). In fact, Mees begins the book with a tale of poor intermodal coordination when he discusses buses leaving a Melbourne train station a couple of minutes before the train arrives . This lack of coordination is not limited to Melbourne: I have written before on this site how one cannot obtain a map showing all of the transit options available to a potential passenger in Sydney, as one does not exist.
He argues that a lack of coordination is why transit patronage has fallen so steeply in British cities besides London - indeed, laws mandating complete transit deregulation even prevent coordination from occurring since coordination may be seen as collusion between two or more different transit providers. If privatization was the key to success in transit, then why was London exempted?
We need networks that require connections, and feature excellent connections.
The most efficient transit system is one in which each street has exactly one transit line; passengers on the line destined for somewhere off of the street need to exit the bus and transfer. The need for transferring is due to the fact that not enough passengers desire to travel between any two random points on a map to enable frequent service on such a route, especially in the dispersed nature of today's suburbs. In a city with high enough transit patronage that all lines can operate very frequently (Toronto, for example), transfers can be random. However, suburban areas with lower patronage are unable to operate lines that frequently (20 minutes or less). In such cases, a hub and spoke system with timed transfers needs to be created.
In the book, Mees discusses how transit in the area around Zurich, Switzerland operates on a hub and spoke system with timed transfers. The timed transfer system allows regular service to be provided to centers of as little as 1,000 people. The key is that although the service may be infrequent (low density areas generally receive service every thirty minutes) once you board the first transit vehicle you will not have to wait again for another vehicle for the rest of your journey, thanks to the wonders of timed transfers. In some cases timed transfers are available on the same train platform, a feat achieved by very few other transit agencies, including the Montreal subway system at a handful of stations.
Coordination and Connections: Simplicity for the Passenger
How do coordination and connections improve the transit experience for the passenger (and therefore increase ridership)? One word: simplicity. One important aspect of coordination is that transit coordination usually means that all the varying transit operators are brought under one brand. Instead of seeing buses with different colors and different names on them, the customer sees one. Instead of calling various phone numbers and loading various websites for assistance, the customer can call one number and look at one website. An elegant transit network , one in which each street has only one bus line, avoids the bewildering situation of a passenger looking at a bus stop sign with dozens of different numbers on it.
Mees expands on the simplicity theme by stating that networks should not engage in unnecessary detours (he mentions a Canberra bus route changed to engage in a time-consuming and confusing diversion to a hostel that ended up driving away so many passengers that the frequency of the route was reduced) and have different route structures at different times of the day. Since the primary reason why different routes are operated at different times of the day is to save money, Mees is arguing that simplicity is a virtue worth paying more for.
It has often been said that quality transit cannot be provided to low density suburbs. Various authors have come up with density requirements for transit of anywhere from 100 to 400 people per hectare. Mees completely disproves these numbers by showing successful transit operating in areas with much less density than the numbers say - and also shows the unscientific nature by which those numbers were derived. The key to providing good suburban transit is not density, it is providing an easy to understand transit network with good connections. This conclusion is great news to everybody who wants an alternative to driving but does not want to live in a Hong Kong-style apartment. Mees's book should be required reading for everybody who is interested in better transit; reading his work is the least we can do for someone who was forced out of a teaching position at Monash University in Melbourne for being critical of the Victorian state government's transit policy. Paul Mees: the first transit dissident?