Thursday, October 27, 2011

Taking a punt

The West Gate Bridge is unashamedly for cars and trucks. It has no pedestrian or cycling facilities. Its two bus routes (232 and NightRider 944) run between the CBD and western suburbs.

There is however a Westgate Punt that ferries cyclists and pedestrians under the bridge. It ran on weekends only, but government funding has allowed a weekday peak service to be added. This is currently operating as a trial, free for its first month.

The punt runs from Spotswood to Fishermans Bend. There are cycle routes on both sides. Walk-on passengers will find that the Spotswood terminal is about ten minutes walk from the station. Weekday buses run to the city from a stop near the Fishermans Bend terminus.

The free trial offer was too good to pass up, so I took the punt this morning. Usage for trips towards the city was good, at over half the boat's carrying limit (12 people). Counter-peak patronage was less, at 1 or 2. It's a fast trip - 5 or 10 minutes. With loading and unloading time one vessel comfortably provides a 20 minute frequency.

So where does The Punt fit into the transport network? It saves a lot of time for cyclists commuting between the inner-western suburbs, Port Melbourne and possibly the CBD. Those who work regular business hours may even find it faster than driving, judging by vehicle speeds on the bridge.

Its utility for pedestrians is less due to limited connectivity with other public transport services. There's the ten minute walk at the western end and the limited bus service at the eastern end. Still it may be better than land public transport options, particularly for those working within walking distance of the punt in Fishermans Bend.

A further handicap is that though Fishermans Bend appears to have reasonable job density (good for public transport) its low permeability limits bus route efficiency and pedestrian access (think freeways, fences and superblocks).

The pictures below show the punt in action.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Taj Mahals or stopping points – the role of suburban stations

Though victimisation rates indicate otherwise, there is a widespread perception that people feel most safe in their own homes, somewhat safer on the street and less safe at railway stations (especially at night). If the latter holds back patronage, it can become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Passengers frequently call for staffing, toilets and better waiting areas at stations.

And train operators face multi-million dollar annual bills to fix vandalism and clean graffiti at stations.

A way to approach these issues is to reappraise the relationship between stations and their surrounds. Relationships can be human (eg through station staff and/or ‘friends of’ station groups) or physical. Today I will discuss only the latter, since most Melbourne stations are neither staffed nor adopted by a friends group.

Go back 60 to 90 years and stations were hives of local activity. Every significant Victorian town or suburb had one. Visitors, goods and news often arrived there. Trains’ modal share was higher then than now. And there were more staff – including signallers, guards, maintenance, porters, clerks etc. Not suprisingly station facilities had to be large enough to accommodate all this activity.

While lengthening commutes and more recent patronage rises has grown the railway’s absolute contribution to the transport effort (as measured in passenger kilometres) their role has narrowed relative to that of cars and trucks. Railways in Victoria are now almost exclusively passenger concerns. And in Melbourne this is heavily skewed towards CBD area commuting, which while substantial, accounts for a minority of work trips. (Whereas trams tend to be used for diverse purposes throughout the day and local buses have a large ‘captive ridership’ role).

The only interaction that many who drive to work in the suburbs have with the railways is waiting at boom gates or hearing news reports about rail crime. The latter may give rise to perceptions that stations are unfamiliar, hostile, and unsafe, unused by ‘people like us’. This is reflected in personal safety concerns on trains and at stations, particularly at night.

How can one ‘lift the veil’ and improve perceived station safety to be no worse than any other public place? And what about other passenger concerns like toilets, staffing, information or nicer waiting areas?

Some of the best bus and tram stops comprise a simple seat under a shop verandah. They are of the street, not separate to it. Access time to local facilities (including retail ticket outlets) is measured in seconds, reducing travel times and the chance of getting rained on. Public toilets may be nearby. And no one complains about their lack of staffing.

In contrast some other types of stops, like mid-road tram safety zones, have no shelter and require passengers to cross a road. Bus interchanges may be off the main street and have limited facilities. Railway stations, especially if ringed by parking, billboards or (now) over-sized buildings may be similarly cut off.

Could the railways’ quieter stations take their cue from bus and light rail (eg Route 109’s Port Melbourne terminus)? Is there scope to give up the concept of ‘station as place’ in return for more open platforms integrated with surrounding preferably active streets (which may be seen as safer than an unattended station)?

Station - streetscape integration may require knocking down walls, removing unused buildings, taking down dividing billboards and access that puts passengers before cars. More open layouts make stations less of a mystery to non (but potential) users, and less forbidding at night. But it’s not one size fits all as vacant station buildings could be offered to community groups instead (as sometimes already done). In both cases, the community, accustomed to seeing stations as eyesores or magnets to crime, might then start to take a more charitable view. Even at the same station the differences can be marked; Mentone’s Platform 1 integrates well with the surrounding area while the Platform 2 side is shielded by billboards and parking.

If moved from the station’s fare paid area to the street outside, facilities like station toilets could serve both. Facing an active street rather than a railway could improve passive surveillance. It might be possible to involve the local community more in their siting and management, with the proviso that any relocation remain convenient to train passengers. In quieter locations one toilet (open for more of the day) could replace two and any savings used to increase the number of stations with toilets nearby.

Information is another area where transit and community needs can be brought together. Precinct maps and wayfinding signage can promote local shops and attractions as well as directing arriving passengers to buses and surrounding streets. Urban design and arts projects can strengthen these ties, with the ideal being a natural intuitive flow with signage merely consulted for confirmation and cross roads only minimally impeding access.

Some of the above is more relevant to smaller stations, preferably with edge rather than island platforms. Busier stations with more lines will always remain places in themelves and justify their own facilities and staffing. However their interface with the surrounds remains extremely important to their success.

The photos interspersed above are two stations (Grange in Adelaide, Kellerberrin in regional WA). Though minimal they appear to serve the area’s needs and interface reasonably well with surrounds.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Station ramps vs lifts

ponderings from TransWA's wi-fi equipped MerredinLink train

Lifts Pros:

- Can be installed in confined horizontal space
- Lessen walking for the less mobile
- Due to their small footprint they are sheltered

Lifts Cons:

- Expensive to install
- Use power
- Can break down
- High repair costs/require specialised labour
- Limited capacity (ie low passengers moved per minute)
- Require a wait to use
- Confine users with strangers (which may make some uncomfortable)
- Not suitable for unstaffed stations

Ramps Pros:

- Cheap to install
- Don't use power
- 100% reliable
- Low maintenance costs
- High capacity
- No waiting to use
- Do not require confinement with strangers
- Suitable for unstaffed stations

Ramps Cons:

- Take up a lot of space if meet 1:14 DDA gradient standard
- Increase walking distance for able-bodied passengers (but can be mitigated if stairs also provided)
- If badly designed may reduce visibility/passive surveillance
- May not be sheltered

I think the ramps have it!

But it's not one size fits all. Where space issues preclude ramps (eg CBD stations), a combination of stairs (and/or escalators)and lifts looks to be the best of both worlds. But at stations where ramps are practical their low gradient does not adequately provide for able-bodied passengers, and either a steeper ramp or stairs is needed also.