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April 2011 bus changes and the service optimization project: an interview with TransLink planning director Brian Mills

April 2011 bus changes and the service optimization project: an interview with TransLink planning director Brian Mills

Changes for many riders' bus routes are coming on April 18, 2011!

Note: This is a scheduled post as I’m away this week, returning Monday April 11, 2011 to answer your questions. If you need to reach TransLink info or staff, see this post!

As you may know from the April Buzzer, the April 2011 bus service changes are taking place on Monday, April 18, and they’re part of a year-long TransLink service optimization project, aimed at making sure we’re using our transit resources efficiently and effectively.

There’s a lot of small adjustments to a large number of routes—but the overall amount of service hours won’t change, and many more customers will see service increases than service reductions. Some notable changes include:

  • The 14 trolley route is returning, picking up parts of the 10 and 17 routes! See a map of the new 10, 14, and 17 routes.
  • The 50 and 15 routes are now interlined, or linked together. The 50 will change to the 15 Cambie at Olympic Village Stn and head southbound to destinations including Cambie Village, Queen Elizabeth Park and Oakridge; northbound 15 buses will change to the 50 at Olympic Village Stn. See the new route map.
  • The 112 now terminates at New Westminster Station, and the C9, a new Community Shuttle route, will be added to pick up the New West–Lougheed portion of the 112 route.
  • The 351 improves its frequency from 60 to 30 minute service between 10-11 p.m.
  • The C19 will have 30 minute service between 7 a.m. – 8 p.m. on Sat/Sun/Holidays
  • The 480 will be truncating its service at Bridgeport Station instead of No. 3 Rd.

Read the full list of service changes here, and see this post for the Buzzer blog conversation on the service changes so far. But to give us all more background on April’s changes and the whole optimization project, I did an interview with Brian Mills, TransLink’s director of service and infrastructure planning.

Read on to find out why the project exists, its guiding principles, how we figure out what routes to focus on, and more!

Can you describe your role in the service optimization project?

My title is Director of Service and Infrastructure Planning. Service planning is one part of my responsibility and it covers, among other things, planning the networks of transit services we provide.

So can you give a brief overview of the service optimization project?

There are two parts to service optimization. First, we’ve committed to a project in 2011 with a specific target. And we’re also committed to managing our service on an ongoing basis.

We’re always managing our services so that we use our limited resources as efficiently and effectively as possible. However, we’re in a time where we don’t have new resources. So what we want to do is make sure that what we’ve got is used effectively. Some services have growing demand or are full to overflowing. On other routes and times we know (and even receive complaints) that the service is not well used. Service optimization looks closely at the system to see where we can reallocate, and we attempt do so in a way that is responsible, methodical and principled.

For the specific project through 2011, we’ve set a specific goal, which is to improve the revenue productivity by two per cent. And we’ve committed to continue reviewing service on an ongoing basis into the future.

What does that mean, to improve revenue productivity by two per cent?

I’m glad you asked that. Ken Hardie [TransLink’s director of communications] did a nice job of describing it in a letter to the Coquitlam Now:

[S]ome routes at certain times of the day are attracting very low ridership, sometimes under 10 people per hour while overcrowding and pass-ups continue on others. Even though TransLink cannot fund any further expansion of the system, we hope to attract two per cent more total riders by reallocating about 4.5 per cent of our hours of service to routes and times where they’ll be better used and where they will generate additional fare revenue.

So the target of increasing revenue productivity means that we need to increase the number of customers (and fare revenue) we serve in each vehicle hour. By increasing the proportion of service that has above average productivity, we can raise the overall productivity of the system. That improves TransLink’s efficiency.

Essentially, we try to make wise choices about how we use our existing resources, to provide service where it is needed, while also ensuring that basic services are also available.

So we’re basically dealing with the problem of scarcity.

Yes, and we have to prioritize. It’s important to have a set of principles as to how you manage low demand routes, and a set of principles about how to manage the high demand routes. And that’s where we begin with the service optimization project.

Right. The service optimization has a set of guiding principles published on our website. Why are they important and how did you develop them?

Guiding Principles for Service OptimizationTen principles will guide decisions on how we make the best use of bus service.

Where service is underused, decisions will be made to:

  • Maintain service, to the greatest degree possible, for transit dependent customers
  • Maintain services which are strategically significant for network connectivity
  • Minimize service reductions in areas where there are no other transit alternatives
  • Minimize impacts to existing infrastructure
  • Protect growing markets, where ridership or productivity is substantially improving

Where we reinvest services and resources, decisions will be made that are expected to:

  • Generate higher ridership and/or address overcrowding
  • Generate increased revenue ridership in proportion to increased service levels
  • Maximize use of existing transit infrastructure
  • Increase revenue ridership
  • Support TransLink’s long-term goals and objectives for the regional transportation system

Guiding principles are important because we want to be transparent. We developed ten principles and consulted on them through the Transportation Fairs in fall 2010. We also consulted throughout TransLink and our operating partners, such as with bus drivers at their depots. We wanted people to have the opportunity to say this was a reasonable way to do things.

The principles speak to some of the fundamentals in service. We have a role to provide basic services in communities where people don’t have alternatives. So we’re not going to randomly go in and take away services.

We’re also providing a network, so if we go in and make changes that make that network not work anymore, then we’re not serving anybody’s interests. We say it right up front: we’re not going to do that.

We also will look at areas where there are many services with some overlap and look for ways, say, to combine those services. Perhaps we’ll reach that point where we need to make changes on services without duplicate service—but that’s not where we’ll look first.

As well, with infrastructure: when we’ve built it, we’ve committed to continuing to service it.

And we also recognize that some of the markets are only just beginning, so we’re going to continue to watch them to make sure they’re growing and give them time to become established.

The principles guide how we reinvest service. We’ve talked about some of these already, growing the revenue ridership, and addressing overcrowding are the easiest ones to understand. We will also invest in growing markets that show promise of having above average demand and we’ll continue to increase the use of existing infrastructure that we’ve invested in.

How do you figure out which routes are performing and which are underperforming? Where do you get the data?

We collect a lot of data and information. One of the most important is that we count people who get on the buses and trains.

How do we do that? Does someone go down there and count them?

Fortunately, we live in an era where there’s technology to help us. A share of our buses have automatic passenger counters, which count every single person who gets on and off. They have an invisible infrared beam at the doors, which produces a record that says someone got on or off, and the place and the time. So we can then construct a profile of the route and look at the patterns of ridership.

We also go out and count at the SkyTrain stations, and SeaBus customers are always counted through the turnstiles. And we also have supporting information like the trip diaries, and regional screenline surveys, and the census. As well, we have an ongoing dialogue with the companies, like Coast Mountain Bus Company and British Columbia Rapid Transit Company that run the service every day and can tell us about issues they see. The discussions we had with drivers in the fall were great. They produced lots of great ideas that we were able to put in the project for consideration.

So after that, how did you decide which routes to focus on?

We started by sorting the data to see the most productive services in the system and the most unproductive. Then we broke it down into pieces. A particular route might be very productive on average, but it might have an unproductive segment or time of day. Likewise on the busy end, some services are very busy but only at certain times.

So we were very targeted. What were the busiest places and times? What were the least used places and times? And then we identified for each of those how significant is the issue. When we identified possible options we also developed and used a set of evaluation criteria, and I can bore you to tears with that stuff. But basically they related to the things that are important to us and to our customers, like crowding, what types of impacts there would be on the network, the change in revenue we would expect, and so on. Using those criteria, we tested to see which possible options made sense. We ranked them, and pulled out ones that made sense that we developed further.

How do you test these assumptions about the routes?

The evaluation criteria are the primary way of doing that. Several years ago we developed a set of Transit Service Guidelines that set thresholds of acceptable levels of crowding and acceptable levels of productivity, and bus stop spacing and route spacing, and a whole bunch of different criteria to guide what makes a successful public transit system. So in service optimization, we’re looking at the routes, or segments or times that don’t meet the guidelines. And even among those, there’s lots of nuance. They might be underused for a short period of time, or overcrowded for a short period of time, and we examine them quite closely, sometimes making trip-by-trip adjustments. On the bus side, CMBC’s planners have been very involved in our joint team, working through an evaluation of every route in the system and bringing forward lots of the potential initiatives.

Given all that criteria: how would you characterize the April 2011 service changes?

Well first, it’s hard to see any one of the quarterly changes in isolation from the others. Remember I said that CMBC planners have been working through all the routes in the region? That takes time, so not all the initiatives are at the same stage of development. There are also some practical issues, like the desire to balance how the resources are deployed in each depot in any one change.

So April’s changes are one part of a bigger story.

One thing most people will notice is that it looks like there aren’t as many projects where service is being reallocated to as where it’s being reallocated from. But that’s a bit of an optical illusion. One way that we’ve tried to make the initiative work as effectively as possible is by making a large number of fairly small reductions that limit the effect on customers. Then we’ve pooled those resources to make some significant increases in really busy places.

Many of the changes are changes to fleet type. The customer won’t see any changes in service level, but a different vehicle will show up. In some cases it will be a bigger bus because they need more capacity. In some places it will be a smaller bus that provides the same frequency at lower overall cost.

There are also changes in service frequency. So to address crowding, we’re running more trips, or to address underproductive service, we’re running trips less often. It’s a mix of both of those. A really important thing for me is that service optimization is understood as both reinvestment and reduction – a balance. Considering how many systems in North America have had to make deep cuts to transit service, we’re fortunate to be able to work with balanced resources.

That means there will be more changes in the upcoming year?

Correct. One thing we’ve been saying to people is that it does get harder. We’ve been working on the lower hanging fruit right now, and it will likely become more challenging as the year goes on.

Also, when we get into the fall, we’ll also get into those times when crowding builds up. Everybody knows what the return to school is like in September. Demand tends to peak in the fall. So we’ll be looking for ways to have resources available to address our customers’ needs.

If customers have feedback, how do they reach you?

I encourage them to use our feedback form. That’s the most productive way.

And… that’s all I had to ask! Is there anything more you would like to add?

This is a really important project, because it gives us a chance to serve the needs of the region. By providing services that more people can use so they don’t have to drive, that allows us to make better use of the resources they’ve entrusted us with.

Thanks Brian!

Again, if you haven’t seen them yet, here’s a few handy links on our April 2011 service optimization:

And note that I’m away until April 11: I’ll get answers to your questions after I’m back!