Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Bringing Stations to Life: Cafe 3162 at Caulfield

Caulfield Station's Cafe 3162 opened yesterday. It's a project of Bringing Stations to Life, a Metro Trains project intended to generate activity around railway stations.

Cafe 3162 serves Asian cusine, in keeping with the international student demographics of the area. It was very quiet earlier this evening with more staff than patrons. Probably understandable given its newness and the university holidays.

The cafe is built on railway land. It abuts but is remote from Platform 4; the opportunity was not taken to add a serving window from the fare paid area (unlike McDonalds at Box Hill). For in-train cleanliness though this is probably a good thing!

Given that 'Bringing Stations to Life' is about the interaction between the station, its urban environment and community, it's worth a few comments on this aspect.

The position is across the road from Monash University and the Route 900 SmartBus stop. While just metres from these facilities, lack of zebra crossings, poor visibility (especially if there is a bus waiting) and fast traffic make direct pedestrian access poor or dangerous. If one was to use the 'approved' method to reach the cafe, ie via the zebra crossing near 7-11, the comparative advantages of the cafe's proximity disappear.

From inside the building one can see Platform 4. The view is through narrow windows covered in mesh (possibly to retard glare from the afternoon sun). The view is not reciprocated; very little of the cafe's insides can be seen from Platform 4 (at least during the day). It presents as a rusted metal edifice and passengers would have little clue that it was a cafe since its back is turned to the tracks.

Although only a day old, the building is already tatty. Graffiti (on the street side) appears easy to do and hard to remove due to its rusted surface. Maybe in time this will give what some may call 'character'.

What would I have done instead at Platform 4 Caulfield? Firstly I'd be inclined to demolish all billboards, walls and existing buildings that present a barrier between the station and the shops on Sir John Monash Drive. There would be ticket machines, timetables, toilets and perhaps a remodelled waiting room, but little else.

Secondly I'd have a second station entrance, located on the down end of the platform. Positioned at the current site of Cafe 3162 this would allow more direct access to Monash University and the Route 900 SmartBus stop. This would be aligned with a second zebra crossing and traffic calming on Sir John Monash Drive, slashing train to bus access times from about 2 or 3 minutes to about 30 seconds.

Thirdly, as part of a broader plan for the area, I would remodel access to Caulfield Plaza, providing a proper footpath between it and the station precinct.

So what's the verdict? I don't think implentation has been ideal at Caulfield due to reasons and missed opportunities outlined above. Nevertheless there is no doubt that the concept of 'bringing stations to life' is a very good one and rail operators have a constructive role to play.

The concept encompasses matters such as surrounding land uses, precinct design, passive surveillance and pedestrian access. Most of all it aims to make station precincts versatile multi-purpose spaces that nevertheless remain efficient as transport facilities.

I sometimes think that in the past stations have sometimes (unwittingly) erected barriers around them, and this gives rise to some of the negative personal safety perceptions.

In some local station cases a simple un (or modestly) fenced platform and shelter, accessible from every direction and surrounded by supportive land uses offering passive surveillance may be the way forward (similar to the Port Melbourne tram terminus of Route 109). Yes ticket checking will be harder and there may be a risk of people jumping fences. But bringing platforms closer to people have urban amenity benefits as well.

In contrast heavy concrete structures like at Moorabbin, Roxburgh Park or Sunshine distance a station from life. These rank amongst Melbourne's least attractive stations to wait for a train, as well as being a blank canvas for vandals. Grade seperations as seen at Huntingdale, Oakleigh or Boronia, though marvellous from a transport efficiency viewpoint, further isolate station platforms from main streets and thus urban life. And multiple levels create shadows which lessen passive surveillance and require more intensive policing than a single level designs with no walls and only a high canopy roof.

There are sometimes tensions between efficiency, safety and design aesthetics. Nevertheless even events such as Sunday trash and Treasure Sales (eg opposite Bentleigh Station) demonstrate how simple things bring station areas to life. It folows that a key aspect of station design is the provision of adequate space near stations (preferably open access and multi-purpose) to allow such activities to thrive.

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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Taming Melbourne’s summer timetables

Transit authorities can choose between running the same timeable all year or introducing special summer or holiday period timetables.

All-year timetables are simplest for passengers and save on printing. However, especially during peak periods, cost recovery drops as the same schedules are running for fewer commuters over summer.

Reduced summer timetables allow service to more closely match demand and may save running costs. However they lessen legibility and inconvenience passengers. The extent of this inconvenience ranges from small to large, depending on how they are implemented.

And this is the key. A system with well-planned summer timetables doesn’t disadvantage passengers nearly as much as a system where they are a mess. While there is an elegant simplicity about networks where no summer timetables apply (eg Perth), the biggest gains in legibility relative to cost are likely to come from keeping summer timetables but overhauling their application.

Such reforms might include a reasoned selection of routes for which summer timetables would apply, a common network-wide effectiveness period of no more than two weeks (with minor exceptions for university routes) and schedules that withdraw only selected peak trips, known in advance.

Here I examine the use of summer timetables in Melbourne, their legibility for passengers and the extent to which they reflect rational service planning. This is done by asking a series of questions and listing the key findings. There will be two main conclusions; firstly that the shift away from summer timetables has benefited passengers, and secondly that the illegibility of those that remain reflects the generally higher priority of contract management and infrastructure over service planning and network integration.

How many Melbourne bus routes have summer timetables in 2010 - 2011?

Source: Summer timetables for metropolitan bus routes (note that 788 is excluded as this was a trial increased summer service).

The chart shows that more than five in six bus routes run the same service all year round. Therefore summer timetables are the exception than the rule.

Following charts will look at how their prevalence has changed, the type of routes they tend to be used on and some other facts about them.

How many Melbourne bus routes had summer timetables five years ago?

(Data courtesy Craig Halsall)

The chart shows that summer timetables were more common five years ago. The proportion of routes with them has more than halved as many bus operators switched to running a full service all year. It’s a similar story with trains; their summer timetables also ended a few years ago.

Even after this fall, Melbourne uses summer timetables more than other Australian capitals, where their use is rare. However it is understood that seasonal timetables are more common overseas.

What service changes helped the swing away from summer timetables?

This graph indicates a large gain in the number of routes with an all-year timetable. Half of this gain came from new routes, none of which have summer timetables. The other half came from upgrades to routes that had summer timetables but since dropped them. The latter were previously limited service routes that received minimum standards upgrades from the State Government.

How long do the summer reductions last?

The chart shows that most (59%) of summer service reductions last for about a fortnight. Note though that the dates shown indicate a lesser span because of public holidays on December 27 and 28 due to the weekend occurrence of Christmas and Boxing Day in 2010.

The other sizable proportion of routes (32%) go for about four weeks. The slight differences are because the operators coloured green only run summer timetables on weekdays, while MBL, coloured orange, applies summer timetables on Saturdays as well.

Although the prevalence of summer timetables has fallen, having six different summer timetable effectiveness periods across the network makes catching buses chancy at this time of year. They also reflect past fragmented service planning, whose results still confuse and strand passengers today.

Is there anything special about operators with reduced summer timetables?

The chart above shows that over two-thirds of routes with summer timetables are run by just two operators. Both companies were formed when the government franchised its Met bus services in the 1990s.

Whether a bus routes is ex-government or not has a large bearing on whether it is likely to have a summer timetable. Fewer than one-quarter of our 323 routes are ex-government. But if it is then it is over three times more likely to have summer timetables than routes that have always been privately run.

As well as introducing Sunday, early evening and public holiday services to many suburbs, another benefit of the 2006 – 2010 ‘minimum standards’ service increases has been more routes with all-year timetables.

Less than ten per cent of bus routes that have always been privately-run now have summer timetables. The gain is particularly pronounced in the northern suburbs, where operators such as Reservoir, Broadmeadows, Dysons, Moreland, Ivanhoe, Tullamarine and Ryans adopted all-year timetables as their services were improved.

There has been less movement in ex-government routes, which now form the majority of routes with summer timetables. This is entirely an issue affecting older routes. For example NBC’s Doncaster area SmartBus routes (905, 906, 907, 908) do not reduce service over summer, despite their frequent peak service (7 – 10 minutes). Similarly MBL’s relatively new Route 460 also runs an all-year timetable.

How important are the routes subject to summer timetables?

Given that only 14% of Melbourne bus routes now run summer timetables, is it such a big deal that they do, or that their effectiveness periods are not standardised?

The question is best answered by checking how important the affected routes are to the network as a whole. To do this I checked which routes (or combinations of routes) with summer timetables normally run at least every 15 minutes on weekdays, ie the same as SmartBus.

These are the following: 200/203, 201/202/302, 216/219, 220, 223, 246, 250/251/253, 270/271, 279 and 600/922/923.

Their summer timetables reduce their off-peak and/or evening frequencies except for Routes 600/922/923, where the only impact is peak-only. As the chart below shows, 19 out of the 46 routes with summer timetables (or 43%) are these high service trunk routes.

This is a high proportion compared to all routes, which mostly run at 20 to 60 minute weekday frequencies. Less than 43% of our 323 routes would be part of a significant high-service corridor, and the bulk would be quieter than the major corridors cited above.

In other words summer timetables disproportionately apply to some of our busiest trunk routes and probably affect more passengers than the ‘only 14%’ figure might indicate.

What type of service changes do the summer timetables entail?

So far I haven’t talked much about what the summer timetables are actually like and their likely impact.

Two routes (605 and 733) apply summer timetables in the most legible fashion possible. A year-round timetable applies for all but a handful of peak services, which do not run over the summer period. As these services are identified in printed and stop timetables, customers know about them in advance and there are no additional printing or bus stop maintenance costs.

Other routes (eg 293 and 295) do not withdraw services over summer. Instead times are altered slightly to reflect quieter road conditions, reduce excessive dwell times and possibly save a bus or two. As with the previous example, there are no span or frequency changes. However legibilty is somewhat reduced due to different times applying.

Then there are routes that, like the first example, reduce peak frequency. However it’s not simply about deleting trips and running the rest of the timetable as usual. Instead earlier and later services are adjusted to provide a more even but lower frequency. This approach has the advantage of avoiding ‘holes’ in the timetable. The trade-off is lower legibility and higher publicity and printing costs to advise passengers of the changes. Routes 309 and 476 (whose peak frequencies fall from 20 to 30 minutes over summer) are examples.

Next we come to routes whose summer timetables mean more than a lower peak service. Service frequencies may be lowered during weekdays, evenings and sometimes Saturday as well. 25 to 50% frequency reductions are typical but spans are generally maintained. Bus routes in this group are amongst Melbourne’s busiest and their summer timetables affects more passengers than those for other routes.

Typical examples are: 216/219, 220 & 223 (weekday interpeak 15 to 20 min, evening 15-20 to 30 min, Saturday reduced to 20 min), 246 (weekday interpeak 10 to 15 min), 279 (weekday interpeak 15 to 20 min), 367 (weekday interpeak 30 to 60 min) and 501 (weekday interpeak 40 to 45 min). 279 though contains an anomaly in that the Templestowe variation of its route actually gains frequency, from 60 to 40 min, interleaving with the 40 min frequency from Doncaster.

Summer times for other routes sometimes combine reduced frequency with shorter span. As an example Routes 270/271 fall from 30 to 60 min interpeak and have all weekday evening services deleted. Route 366 has a similar frequency drop but only has its ex-Croydon evening trips deleted.

Route 509 is different again; it preserves its 20 minute frequency but shortens span. In this case there is a slightly later start and an earlier finish. But not all the time; on Fridays the last few trips (around 7pm) keep running throughout.

There is now only one route that doesn’t run at all while summer timetables are effective. This is the peak-only Route 205, whose passengers have other routes available.

This list of variations illustrates the point that, similar to effectiveness periods, summer timetable practice vary greatly. These range from not running nominated services advised well in advance, retaining service levels but altering timetables, rescheduling peak services, reducing off-peak frequencies and shortening spans. Some routes may involve a combination.

Findings

1. There has been major success in reducing the number of Melbourne bus routes with summer timetables, with the proportion more than halved in five years. This has increased legibility.

2. Different operators have different start and finish dates for their summer timetables and no standardisation applies across the network. This lessens legibility.

3. Different operators take different approaches to reducing summer service. Again no standardisation applies across the network. Summer timetables may cut weekday peak services only, off-peak trips, weekend service, operating hours or a combination.

4. Objective service planning criteria, such as a route’s importance to the network or passenger needs, have less bearing than historical accident (eg past government operation) when it comes to determining whether its services are cut over summer. Hence summer timetables disproportionately apply to some of the network’s busiest established routes and may affect passengers more than assumed.

5. Summer timetables inevitably reduce network legibility. However their method of implementation determines whether this loss is slight or great. In Melbourne the legibility loss is particularly severe for the reasons set out in 2 – 4 above.

Conclusion

Our look at summer bus timetables in Melbourne has identified both achievement and opportunity.

The main achievement has been the large rise in the number of routes with all-year timetables. This change, largely under the State Government’s Meeting our Transport Challenges program of 2006, has increased bus network legibility and usability.

The opportunity comes from the illegibility of current summer timetable arrangements.

Suggested reforms might include using rational criteria to select routes that warrant summer timetables, a common network-wide effectiveness period and confining reductions to weekday peak services only.

Assuming no extra funding, some routes without summer timetables would need to get them to allow their removal from off-peak services and busy routes. However routes proposed for summer timetables would be objectively chosen and not face reduced off-peak times, frequencies and spans, so the overall impact should be fairly small.

While service planning has historically been a low priority in transport administration, it is crucial to building a usable system. Renewed attention to it by tackling summer timetables would lessen passenger inconvenience, improve legibility and allow buses to function as a true network rather than the plethora of fragmented, independently-planned routes as they appear to be at this time of year.

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Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Timetables and music: An attempt at synthesis

Planning timed transfer public transport networks, composing music and designing piston-based engines are very different fields. However they are all based on repetition, based on pulses, beats or cycles.

At least in the cases of transport and music, where I think the parallels are strongest, it is quite possible for a system to have multiple beats.

Music for instance may have a series of regular pulses to form a beat (possibly played by percussion). Superimposed on these may be contributions from string or wind instruments that together form the music. Two similar instruments add a ‘body’ not discernible with one, but they must be tuned and played in time with one another and the conductor’s beat.

Good playing on its own is no guarantee of a tuneful result if the music was badly composed. An occasional bar may sound musical, mostly by accident, but most others are cacophany.

It’s the same with transport. Trains and buses are the instruments. Their drivers are the players. The timetable is the sheet music they play to. Their writer are the composers. The Department of Transport is the conductor, albeit perhaps less sensitive to harmony, rhythm and music selection than its orchestral counterparts.

Buses and trains

Trains set the pulse to pull the whole network together, while buses play the more intricate pieces to provide coverage. Removing the buses, much like withdrawing the string and wind, leaves only a sparse beat and an incomplete network or composition. And the best playing will not guarantee connectivity if buses and trains play to different rhythms composed to different specifications.

If the beat of trains is based on a service every 15 minutes, while buses come every 20 minutes, the result is an unconnected network. There is still a pulse where optimum connection times repeat, but it’s a weak and infrequent one. The pulse is the lowest common integer multiple, in this case every 60 minutes, and so is longer than either the train or the bus on its own, lowering effective frequency. Multiples are even higher with incompatible non-clockface headways such as 23 or 35 minutes, making connections more random than repetitive.

The drone machine

One of my other interests is electronics. Last week I built a drone machine. This is a bank of audio oscillators that when used together creates all sorts of interesting sounds and beat notes. It also has a feature where a low frequency oscillator can trigger a higher pitched note. This creates a beeping whose interval and note can be varied. The combined sound when several such tones are generated can be quite unusual. It is similar to the early synthesisers of the 1970s.

You can hear a demonstration below

A synthesis

Using this machine raised the possibility of creating music from bus and train timetables, possibly based on arrivals and departures at a particular interchange.

The sound produced would vary according to whether buses and trains were part of a timed transfer pulse network or random arrivals at varying times and frequencies. The difference would be so marked that a brief listen by a trained ear (especially if accompanied by a spectrogram displayed on an oscilloscope) could tell almost as much about network connectivity as poring through numerous timetables.

There is no doubt that the concept is feasible. However it would need a synthesiser more advanced than the basic model demonstrated.

As with the synthesiser above, this concept requires a low frequency oscillator beating triggering a higher frequency tone for each route to be compared. The frequency of the low frequency oscillator would be proportional to the service frequency for that route. In other words a 30 minute route might beat twice a second, while a 60 minute headway route might beat once a second. This isn’t that critical; all that matters is that the relationship between the two is exact. But you need flexibility to program this to accommodate any clockface headway, and preferably non-clockface headways as well.

This would activate a higher frequency oscillator. For musical effect I would recommend its pitch be some sort of note, eg based on a certain piano keyboard key. But again not critical.

That is a single channel. Add more identical channels for each extra route. In all cases the low frequency oscillator needs to be set to be proportionate to the service frequency, while the oscillator it triggers can be a note different from the others.

All outputs are fed to a speaker via an amplifier.

A simple interchange might have one oscillator set to a 15 minute frequency (eg a train) while another is set to 30 minutes (for a bus). The train might be assigned a lower frequency note than the bus. The sound would be four low (train) beats per second, with every second one of those accompanied by a higher (bus) beat. The overall results would be an even beat. However moving the bus to a 20 or 40 minute frequency would change the relationships between the beats. The output would still be a rhythm but be uneven, repeating every second (20 min bus frequency) or two (40 min bus frequency). Probably easier to demonstrate than describe.

The limitation of this approach is that it is based on frequency only. Hence it can only measure frequency harmonisation; it will not detect if services are harmonised but their arrival provides a constant bad connection. To overcome this the starting time of pulses needs to be variable by introducing a delay that can be user adjusted. Once this is done two 30 minute frequency bus routes, one at h:05 and the other at h:20 will be evenly spaced and not on top of one another. Having to shift the onset of certain pulses by an accurate but adjustable amount requires additional circuitry. This is complex but feasible.

However the overall result should be worth it as it is true to life. And it would truly be music composed by timetablers, or more accurately the interaction of the work of several at interchange points.

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Saturday, January 01, 2011

Happy New Year!

Best wishes to all readers and loved ones for a healthy and fruitful 2011, and may all your transit connections be as serendipitous as this pedestrian crossing!

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