When it comes to implementing new public transit initiatives, it is often assumed speed is the critical factor in creating the most user-friendly transit experience possible. Yet, studies show frequency is more important in determining how quickly commuters will get where they are going. This may be somewhat counterintuitive, but it is the difference between catching "the" bus and catching "a" bus. The former means a long wait time between buses, so you must ensure you get on the one that meets your needs; in the latter scenario, there are plenty to choose from, and if you miss one you can be assured another will arrive shortly.
If the idea that frequency trumps speed is difficult to grasp, imagine a gate at the end of your driveway that only opens every half hour. If you miss the opening, your entire schedule is thrown off and you are guaranteed to be late.
According to transit experts, catching "a" bus means ideally having to wait no more than eight minutes for the next one to come along.
Of course, frequency and speed do go hand in hand, and with most cities dealing with tight budgets -- and therefore unable to increase frequency by buying more buses and hiring more drivers -- they are instead turning to alternative technologies and policies to improve the efficiency of existing service.
One approach is to do away with on-board fare boxes in favour of proof-of-payment systems along key lines. Passengers purchase tickets in advance, and validate their ticket with a time stamp while waiting at their stop. When the vehicle arrives, they simply step on. Once in a while, an inspector will board and ask to see people's tickets, and anyone who fails to produce a stub will be fined.
The virtue of this system is that people can board quickly. The transactional hassles of payment and validation are handled during otherwise wasted waiting time.
A few years ago, New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority discovered nearly 30 per cent of the time it took for a bus to complete its route was spent idling as passengers boarded and paid fares.
Since the study was done, the MTA has moved to a proof-of-payment system on several lines, and buses are able to complete approximately four runs in the time it used to take them to do three, which increases frequency without having to operate more vehicles.
To save even more time, transit systems across North America are installing signal pre-emption systems -- wireless technology that switches a red light to green whenever a bus is approaching. Using global-positioning systems, a computer can calculate the expected arrival time of a bus at an intersection and either extend a green light or shorten a red one. The pre-empted traffic light returns to normal operation within a cycle or two. (The computer also knows the bus schedule, so empty vehicles and those running ahead wait at the light like everyone else.)
Not only does signal pre-emption increase the speed of the bus, it also improves the reliability of service, as vehicles are no longer as susceptible to being held up in traffic. This means more predictable wait times and fewer missed connections for passengers.
Additionally, the system saves money and reduces idling. In Calgary, for example, transmitter-equipped buses save 2,000 gallons of fuel and nearly 50,000 pounds of carbon emissions per year compared with buses on regular routes.
Moreover, cities can employ signal pre-emption technology on emergency vehicles to similarly improve their efficiency. Houston, for instance, has reduced travel time for ambulances by more than 20 per cent by using the transmitter system -- a huge difference for a patient being rushed to hospital.
Meanwhile, Plano, Texas, discovered its fire stations can each serve a wider area thanks to signal pre-emption. This saved the city having to build three additional stations, to the tune of $9 million in construction costs and $7.5 million in annual operating expenses.
Winnipeg Transit has investigated signal preemption in earnest in the past, and with Winnipeg's EMS services currently looking at implementing such a system, Transit ought to work with them to see if there is opportunity for collaboration to simultaneously improve the efficiency of both departments.
In addition, in the coming months the transit agency will be introducing articulated buses, which can allow for boarding at both the front and the back. As such, is there potential to introduce proof-of-payment systems along key routes where these larger vehicles will be used?
While local planners and politicians remain focused on building a new rapid-transit line out to the University of Manitoba, this project should not dominate the discussion over transit policy to the exclusion of all else. Decision makers need to ask what other measures could be feasible here, in order to offer improved transit service throughout the city. Equipping the existing bus fleet with technologies like signal preemption or a proof-of-payment system may not be as sexy as building a transitway, but investing in these types of new technologies could be an effective and affordable way to provide Winnipeg with the reliable and efficient public0°transportation network it needs.
Benjamin Gillies is a political economy graduate from the University of Manitoba, where he focused on urban development and energy policy. He works as a development consultant in Winnipeg.