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All about managing the transit network: an interview with senior planner Peter Klitz

All about managing the transit network: an interview with senior planner Peter Klitz

A detail from the cover of our Managing the Network primer.

This post is first in a series about Managing the Transit Network: all about how TransLink plans transit service in our region. See all the blog posts in the series here.

How do we design our transit network? What principles are behind building a good bus route? And does the layout of a city affect how well transit can serve its citizens?

We’ve aimed to answer all these questions and more as part of a new program called Managing the Transit Network. It’s an evolution of our Service Optimization program, which we’ve talked about before on the blog—and a big part is about helping the public understand the principles and evidence behind our work.

Check out the new Managing the Transit Network section of our website for many more details, especially:

  • the Managing the Transit Network primer: an easy-to-read booklet about our transit planning goals and principles
  • the Bus System Performance Review: a detailed performance report for 2011, plus a series of route-by-route technical summaries identifying just how our system is performing

And you can also join us for a multi-part Managing the Transit Network series on the blog in the coming weeks, exploring the concepts behind transit system planning. Think of it as a mini “Transit Planning 101” class—we’ll have lots of examples, expert advice from our planning staff, and discussion questions for everyone to think about!

To get us started, I asked senior planner Peter Klitz to walk us through the concept behind Managing the Transit Network, and a bit of context and explanations for the primer and bus system performance reviews.

How did the Managing the Transit Network project come about?

TransLink is responsible for what we call the architecture of the network – deciding where routes go, the places we serve, dealing with issues of chronic overcrowding and looking for areas where the level of service we provide is greater than passenger demand.

We’ve always designed our services based on sound planning principles— we don’t just throw darts at a dartboard and hope for the best. The Transit Service Guidelines are an example of past attempts to capture those principles. In recent years we’ve benefited from access to large amounts of ridership data through our automated passenger counting system. We’re learning more and more what factors drive higher ridership and productivity – those characteristics that contribute to the success of individual transit lines. Putting together the Managing the Transit Network Primer gave us an opportunity to gather those transit service design considerations together in one place and put them in a coherent document for everyone to share and learn from.

Planners are routinely asked questions about why we make the decisions we do…Why can’t a bus route divert onto my street to pick me up outside my house? Why isn’t there a bus route for every subdivision in Metro Vancouver? Why isn’t there bus service to the industrial park where I work? I just bought a house and realized there’s no bus service in my area…when are you planning on putting a bus on my street? The Primer gives us a tool to communicate to people our objectives for transit service, some of the constraints and challenges we face, what impact land use decisions have on transit ridership, and how people can make smart locational decisions. The Managing the Network primer is a summary of who we are, what we do, and what we think about when we design transit services. The Managing the Network primer is a summary of who we are, what we do, and what we think about when we design transit services.

What’s the difference between this and service optimization?

Network management is the evolution of service optimization. Service optimization was a one-time project aimed at achieving the goals of our 2010 Funding Stabilization Plan. We met the objectives of the project and through the process it became obvious that optimizing our service is something we always want to be doing. So we rolled the lessons we learned into an ongoing Network Management program.

What do you hope people understand after reading the primer—the cornerstone booklet outlining our work?

Hopefully you’ll understand three things. First, you’ll have a better understanding of what planners think about when we design services. Second, we hope people – particular people who make decision about land use – will have a better understanding of how land use decisions impact transit service – how certain land use decisions can help the transit system be efficient and productive and how other land use decisions can actually be harmful. Lastly, we hope people will have a better understanding of the importance of location as the key factor in determining your access to transit service.

The last point is the most important. If you take anything away from reading the primer it should be this – your access to transit service is not based on who you are, how old you are, your gender or your income. Your access to transit is based on one thing only – your location.

People have to take more responsibility for their locational decisions, especially as it pertains to transit. If you or someone in your family will use the transit system now or in the future, you have to think about locating in a place that has access to good transit service. Those people that move to the middle of nowhere and then call up TransLink saying “Hey, I just moved to this new subdivision and realized there’s no bus service out here so when are you going to give us a bus route”…well, we’ve all had a great example in the past few years of how hard it is to fund transit expansion and it’s not going to get any easier. Cities and developers need to make good decisions on where to build, and people need to make good decisions on where to live. That’s the key message.

What’s the role of the Bus System Performance Review?

The Bus System Performance Review is one of the most important things we produce. It tells us exactly how our system is performing. It gives us the ability to plan using evidence, and gives everyone else the understanding that we plan our services based on what we observe on our system. We generate summaries on a route-by-route basis, to a high level of detail—we look at a number of key performance indicators, and analyze our service by day type, by direction, by time of day.

At no time in the past have we had as much information about the performance of our system as we do now. Planners at TransLink are taking full advantage of the opportunity. We’re developing new methodologies and practices. We’re also making the information available to everyone in the region. Gone are the days when planners made decisions based on a little bit of data and a lot of professional judgement.

The Bus System Performance Review is planned to be an annual report we produce. Every year, we’ll review the performance of the system on a systemwide basis to give us our baseline. We look at performance on a sub-regional level and on a route by route basis. And it will have a summary of past changes we made and the impact of those changes on ridership. We’re always looking for ways to improve so future performance reviews might have other elements as we go along.

When will it be released annually?

We collect the data for the performance review during the September quarter of every year because that’s generally the heaviest time of year for ridership. The September quarter runs from Labour Day to late December, at which point it takes about three weeks for the data to be transformed and uploaded into the system.

The reports are huge so generating a report from the data can take a few weeks and it usually takes a couple of weeks for us to look through the data reports, examine everything, summarize the data into the format you see in the performance review. I expect that a refreshed version of the performance review will be available in the spring of each new year.

There’s a lot of information on the route performance summaries. If you’re a novice, what should you look at to get a general sense of what’s going on?

We understand people have different levels of comfort looking through technical information so we tried to create different sections that would appeal to different people depending on your level of technical proficiency. The first page of each summary contains the basic line information on key characteristics and route performance. It should be relatively easy to digest.

The graph on the bottom of the first page is what we call the route thermometer. The graph measures productivity on two fairly easy to understand performance measures: boardings per revenue hour and capacity utilization. Both tell us how many people are using our services as compared to how much service we are supplying. The graphs are coded by colour: blue, green, orange and red. The colours indicate how the route is performing compared to the other routes on the system. Blue and green are good – orange and red are not so good.

For example, take the 99 B-Line summary. The 99 B-Line is the best performing line in the system. 99% of its service hours in 2011 are in the top 25% of all service systemwide. This is indicated by the long blue bar showing 99% of its hours were in the top 25% of routes performing in the system. For some of the lines in our system the story is not always as positive. Long red bars tell us that the majority of revenue hours on that line are performing in the bottom 25% of all services systemwide. So the more blue and green bars you see, the better the route is performing. The more orange and red bars, the poorer it is performing.

The second page of each route summary has more detailed information on performance by day type, time of day and direction. So the first page is designed for the interested viewer with less technical knowledge; the real technical detail is contained on the second page.

The primer talks about this briefly, but what does it mean for a bus to be efficient and productive? As a rider, what does it look like?

Think about sitting on your bus. You look around and see that all the seats are full and there’s a few people standing in the aisle. Not so much that it’s too crowded – maybe 4-5 standees. But that’s okay because everytime the bus pulls into the next stop a few people get off and a few people get on. So anyone who was standing can now take a seat.

This happens at almost all the stops on the route. You look across the street and see the bus heading in the reverse direction. That bus has just as many people on it as your bus, and there’s people getting on and off the bus at most of the stops in that direction as well. You remember that the last time you took this bus on a weekend there were about the same number of people on it then as there are now. You’re bus is busier during peak periods and it gets really crowded sometimes but because there’s so many people getting on and off the bus at each stop pass-ups are rare.

So that’s what a productive bus route looks like to us. Good loads that fill the seats with a few standees, a high degree of passenger turnover along the way, strong ridership in the reverse peak direction and during off-peak hours, busier during peak periods but relatively few pass-ups and the bus manages to keep a competitive speed versus the other traffic on the road.

So what’s an appropriate length of time for a bus route to mature?

It really depends on the service area. Different parts of our region absorb capacity at different rates.

For a bus route in a heavily urbanized area we can expect any new seats we put out there will be filled in a few months – sometimes immediately after a service improvement has been made.

Other parts of our region may require more time for additional capacity to be absorbed. A new line in one of our suburban areas may take two to three years to generate productive ridership. In those cases building a transit network is a longer-term investment.

The idea that we have different goals for our service across the region speaks to our three network design objectives: maximizing short-term ridership, encouraging long-term ridership, and providing access to transit service around the region. The question remains, how much of our resources do we spend on each objective? That’s a question for another discussion.

What are the next steps?

Based on the system performance review, we know how the system is performing. We also know the characteristics that make for a successful transit service. The next step is to go through our system, look for services that are underperforming and propose changes to those services to bring them into better alignment with our objectives and service design considerations.

Can be make a circuitous route more direct and legible? Can we serve an area of higher demand? Can we re-design a service to be more efficient and more effective? Can we make our services more useful to a greater number of people? What are the issues? What are the opportunities? What are the tradeoffs? Who might we impact? Are the potential benefits greater than the costs?

These are the questions we’ll be asking. We hope to have some ideas for people to comment on in the near future.

Thanks Peter!

Questions, comments and more

First, please do take a look through the Managing the Transit Network section of our website, and get familiar with the documents there. The primer is particularly an easy, informative read!

And please leave any feedback and comments below — I’ll pass them along to Peter and the rest of the planning team for a response.

I’m looking forward to digging into these topics more over the next few weeks!