Better Public Transport

In the first article (Carbusters #38), we considered the basic principles of carfree conversion that were established in the Lyon Protocol. In Carbusters #39 we looked at the need for a phased conversion in existing cities. We also considered measures to reduce car traffic almost immediately.

In this article we look at the need for dramatically improved public transport as one of the cornerstones of nearly every carfree conversion. A few cities are so small as not to need internal public transport, and a few others already have such good public transport that few improvements are needed. However, nearly every city needs a greatly expanded route network, more frequent service, and faster operations. None of this is difficult to achieve.

The first change required is a change in attitudes. This must begin with the city government and include the public transport agency. In most places today, public transport is regarded as a second-class service for second-class citizens. This is why few people in the US use it: everyone but the poor is expected to have a car and use it routinely. In a few cities, such as New York, the middle class does use public transport and reasonably good service is offered. More positive attitudes prevail in most of Europe.

Public transport must become a first-class service. It must be safe at night, clean, operated by professionals, reliable, and on time. It should be free of all advertising.

It is accepted in most jurisdictions that people will have to stand during rush hour. It is thought too expensive to provide seats for all. With buses, any increase in seating capacity requires more buses and more drivers. However, rail systems can operate longer trains to provide more seats, without increasing the number of operators. Whatever is done, sardine-packed conditions should never arise.

One advantage of driving is ease with which you can take along practically anything you wish. We will not achieve this level of convenience with public transport, but we can get close by making it easy to take along shopping carts and baby buggies. (The system must be fully accessible to wheelchairs in any case.) This requires level loading (boarding platforms at the height of the vehicle floor), which also eliminates slow loading up and down stairs.

Efficient Route Network

Walking to a stop and waiting for a vehicle are usually the two largest components of a trip by public transport. We need to bring stops to within about 500m of every location in the city. This does not entirely solve the problem because the rider may not be going where the vehicle is, which necessitates a transfer. It is not practical to establish a route network in a large city that does not require an occasional transfer. However, we can hold transfers to a minimum and ensure that the actual transfer is quick and easy. This means short walks, no stairs, and short waits for the next vehicle.

The best route network is usually a hub-and-spoke arrangement, with transfers occurring mostly in the downtown area, where service is concentrated and vehicles arrive frequently. The most common activities must be concentrated in the city centre or situated in every neighborhood, as with grocery stores and elementary schools.

Good public transport service is too costly unless the population is clustered around relatively few stops. There is otherwise not enough demand to justify frequent service. The necessary density was usual in most cities less than a century ago and can still be found in many cities. High density became unbearable in the US during the 1920s, when private cars usurped huge amounts of space for parking and movement. At the same time, cars imposed noise, pollution, and danger. That is why, after WW II, American cities rapidly dispersed into low-density, auto-centric suburbs, a pattern now common around the world. Good public transport is impossible in the suburbs: destinations are too spread out and density is too low for any reasonable system to work well.

Choice of Mode

Service-quality considerations dictate the choice of rail systems over bus systems whenever possible. It is clear that people perceive the difference. As I once said, half in jest, “Nobody with a choice ever took a bus anywhere.”

If surface-running rail systems are chosen, they must be installed on their own rights-of-way, where they never compete with cars for road space. When Zurich, Switzerland, decided not to build an underground metro but to fix its trams instead, the first change was to move cars out of the places where they blocked trams.

The choice between trams and metros is argued endlessly. However, in cities with populations over about one million, at least a few metro lines are almost essential, as only they can provide rapid service over the greater distances of a large city. Trams can provide supplementary, lower-demand service in big cities and can be the principal mode in smaller cities. The smaller trains are actually an advantage given the lower levels of demand.

Capital costs of new metros in cities are extremely high, whereas tram systems can be installed comparatively cheaply. However, when demand warrants the high capacity of a metro, it can still be cost-effective due to the comparatively low per-passenger operating costs. A further advantage of the metro is that it can reach very high speeds on its protected right-of-way. Trams can exceed 50 km/hr, but noise and safety problems mean that surface vehicles should travel no faster.

Very large cities need limited-stop regional rail service like the RER in Paris, which links the suburbs with a few major stops in central Paris. New York runs express trains that serve a similar function. Once again, it is a question of speed. Local trains making many stops achieve rather low average speeds, which makes long trips tedious.

High-Quality Service

If we are to ask people to abandon their cars, then public transport must be available at all hours of the night. Many larger European cities have buses that run at least once an hour during the night, and New York’s subway never quits. Some level of night-time service is nearly essential.

Route planning is usually a tiresome chore for passengers. Finding a route to an unfamiliar destination can take a lot of time. The Dutch have an excellent nationwide system that will plan any trip you can make by public transport (which is nearly all of them). I found it reasonably easy to use and highly reliable. This kind of internet service is moderately expensive to establish but cheap to operate.

Likewise, information should be available at tram and metro stops regarding the time until the next vehicle arrives. This allows you to run an errand when you discover that you have a few minutes before the train arrives.

Faster Service

Public transport service must become much faster than it is today. Ideally, it should be faster to take transit than it is to drive, which makes it much easier to persuade people to give up their cars. A number of conditions must be met.

Transit managers need to speed journeys. Seconds count. This is not the current attitude at most systems, where service is considered acceptable if trips run less than five minutes late. But fast service can only be achieved if every aspect of operations is considered from a time perspective. For instance, it would be common in many systems to order new trains without fully considering how long it takes to close the doors and depart. “Only” five seconds might be saved here, but even on a journey of moderate length, that can save the passenger a minute.

Increases in top operating speed have a smaller effect on stop-to-stop time than might be supposed, but it is still important. Metro trains should routinely reach speeds of 100 km/hr, even though they may remain at that speed for a fraction of a minute. Most of the energy can be recovered through regenerative braking.

More important is the achievement of high acceleration, which has a pronounced effect on stop-to-stop times. Research in the 1930s showed that quite high acceleration is tolerable, even for standing passengers, if it is smooth. Some modern trams only achieve quite low accelerations, which significantly reduces average speeds.

Keep the vehicle moving. Station dwell times are a large part of total time. It should be possible to open doors on both sides of the train to allow faster boarding. If one side is used for disembarking passengers and the other for boarding, times are still further reduced, and there is less jostling.

Fewer stops make for much faster service. This point is rarely appreciated. Cutting out a stop saves the time that the vehicle is stopped and also the time lost to braking and acceleration. Buses are chronically affected by this problem – they’ll stop almost anywhere. Good practice keeps the stops at least 400m apart, and 700m is better. Reducing the number of stops also makes the journey more comfortable. Each district must have only one, centralised stop for a given route.

Finally, fare-free transit is worth serious considering. We will not go into the details here, but it saves a lot of time, money, and aggravation for the passenger, which makes transit a more attractive option.

By J.H. Crawford


  1. Bob Davis
    Posted 21 August, 2010 at 06:39 | Permalink

    Research in the 1930s? That would be the PCC streetcar project. As I recall, this testing was quite thorough, even having women in high heels riding the test trams. Lengthening the distance between stops can be a “bone of contention”, nobody wants THEIR stop to be sacrificed in the interests of faster service, especially in neighborhoods with a high percentage of senior citizens.
    One drawback of public transit is the difficulty in “schlepping” large merchandise, especially building materials. Many Home Depot stores have rental trucks available to answer this need. (when my car was due for replacement, I considered buying a pickup truck, but bought a Honda Accord instead. When gas went over $4.00 a gallon, I figured I could rent the HD truck dozens of times with what I saved in fuel costs.)

  2. azslut
    Posted 2 April, 2013 at 09:42 | Permalink

    Excellent write-up. I absolutely love this site. Continue the good work!

One Trackback

  1. By Improving Biking and Walking - Carbusters on 6 September, 2010 at 10:09

    […] In the last article (Carbusters #40), we considered the public transport improvements that are necessary to support large-scale carfree conversions. Those changes will be time-consuming and costly. Here we turn to the need for better cycling and walking. […]

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