Archive for Buses

Why can’t a bus … be more like a tram?

Buses could operate like trams, but only if we find an alternative to drivers checking and selling tickets.

The simplest way to make an excellent bus network for Oxford would be to allow two-way bus operation in Queen Street. This is probably what would happen if Oxford had a tram system. There are similar situations in (for example) Basel and Freiburg, and the trams run straight through the city centre without causing too much of a problem. There are also cities like The Hague or Antwerp where the trams run under the main street. This is very expensive (hundreds of millions of pounds), and would be quite hard to justify. But what these cities have in common is that the trams go through the very heart of the city.

So why are buses different? Why are they so horrible that we want to remove them from our city centres? It’s still rare for a bus to be fully-electric, but they are a lot less noisy and smelly than they used to be. Well-driven hybrids, in particular, are hardly a problem at all, when moving. The main difference is the amount of time buses are stopped, to let people get on and off. The occasional bus isn’t a problem, but in a busy city centre you can quickly end up with a wall of buses, destroying the pedestrian feel of the street.

The length of time for the stop is the result of selling and checking tickets. At peak times, it can take five minutes to take on a full load. At less-busy times, two minutes is quite normal. By contrast, a typical tram stop takes between 15 and 30 seconds.

The usual system for checking tickets on trams is to have random inspections. These are never frequent enough to stop widespread fare-dodging, with 25% or more of people travelling without tickets. Clearly it is fairer if everybody pays.

The solution adopted for bus rapid transit in South America has been to create gated stations at the all the bus stops. A simpler version of this could be considered for Oxford. This would start by having someone to sell tickets at the busiest bus stops at the busiest times, then maybe a couple of people to check tickets, so the rear doors can be used for boarding. It would help if all buses had rear doors.


Even so, it wouldn’t be possible to load a full double-decker in less than a minute. The best option then is to split the boarding between two stops, say at Bonn Square and Carfax. Buses would stop at Bonn Square to pick up half a load, then at Carfax to pick up the remainder. This gives more places to catch the bus, and keeps the impact at any location to a minimum. A possible alternative would be to have two stop-positions at one stop. But for this to work efficiently, the buses would need to run in pairs (eg by despatching them in pairs from the railway station).

I think if we seriously focus on improving dwell times, and have multiple credible stops in the city centre, we can run the buses much more like trams, so they have much less impact on the pedestrian environment.

The best arrangement is to run most services from the east through Queen Street (two-way) to the railway station. A few services (mostly the coaches) would still use St Aldates, but there would be many fewer stops (none at the top end), and the pavements could be much wider. Buses from the south would generally run via the new Westgate development and Castle Street to the station. Similarly, buses from the north would run through George Street to the station, reducing the amount of space needed in Magdalen Street, and providing easy interchange with other services.

Excellent BusMap

Integrated Transport

The railways should be given the role of coordinating Integrated Transport. Information about buses (and cycling and walking) needs to be considerably improved, so people can readily understand and begin to trust the quality of connecting services.

When I’m going to visit a new city, I look to find out how to get from the station to my destination – be that somebody’s offices, where I’m staying, a conference venue or the city centre. In a small city, I’ll probably just walk. If there’s obvious public transport – a tram or a metro, I’ll use that. It’s usually next to impossible to decipher the buses. If I’m travelling on my own and feeling adventurous, I might look up potential cycle routes. But failing that, I’ll probably resort to a taxi.

Basel All ServicesWhy is it that integrated transport is so good in some countries, but so hopeless in Britain? A large part of it is down to our lack of trams. Tram and metro systems are generally simpler to understand, because the cost of infrastructure limits their complexity, and most routes have a good frequency. There is a strong tradition of diagrammatic mapping that people are used to, and which works well. Because it’s a diagrammatic map, you do then have to go to the effort of finding your station/stop on a street map, but the diagrammatic map inspires confidence, and makes that worthwhile. Here’s an example from Basel (there’s an even simpler version which just has the coloured tram lines, and leaves out the buses).

LuxembourgBusMapBus maps are generally more complicated. The norm in the UK is to use a different colour for each route in the suburbs, in an attempt to mimic metro maps, but to give up in the city centre. Buses often run in complicated loops in the centre, and if you have one colour per bus route, you would end up with multiple parallel lines, and an unintelligible tangle. Mostly, this type of map never sees the light of day, but here’s an example from Luxembourg.

Oxford Smart Zone MapThe best you can usually hope for in the UK is a central street map showing the stops, and a guide which lists the stops you can use for each destination. There might be another list that tells you how frequent each service is, but not how frequent they are in combination. You can work it out if you need to, but most people will have given up by then. Sometimes the city centre is just a mystery, like in Oxford.

paddingtonIf I’m visiting a city, I want to know whether there’s a frequent service from near at hand to roughly where I want to go. British bus maps are mostly useless for this purpose. The best in the UK are TfL’s spider maps, which are produced individually for each small area, and rely on the fact that most services are high-frequency and planned as a system. Even these maps resort to destination lists and stop codes, so take a bit of deciphering. Here’s an example for the area around Paddington.

An alternative approach is to treat buses like low-frequency transport, and provide a journey planner. This will give you a list of departures, but it doesn’t give you a feel for how good the service is. It might tell you there’s a journey every few minutes, but they might take different routes, or involve changing in different places. The great thing about a map is that you can see this straight away, not have to decipher it from a list.

BusMap_150_CentrePlusI’ve been developing a solution for my Oxford bus map, which is to use a small range of colours to show the routes that buses take in the centre. There are usually only a few distinct routes through the centre, which then spread out in the suburbs. I’ve limited the map to the routes taken by higher-frequency services, to keep it reasonably simple. Lower frequency branches in the suburbs are shown as dashed lines, to give a clear visual indication of where the quality drops. In this way, the central map blends seamlessly into the whole-city map, so it can be zoomable, and overlaid on a street map.

Why can’t we get good information already? Well mainly because the private bus operators are focused on selling services from the suburbs to the centre, not on providing a service that works for visitors. Some operators provide excellent information, others little more than a printout of a spreadsheet. The councils have responsibility for public transport in general, but are very patchy in the information they offer. Mostly they have subscribed to providing journey planners to discharge their basic responsibility, and left the private operators to provide further information.

This is why I think the responsibility for Integrated Transport needs to be formally given to the railway. The railway already takes on part of the responsibility, but it’s still rather patchy. The railway companies are the key beneficiaries of good integrated transport – they are the ones that get the income for the majority of the journey. So the railways are best placed to make a system that works well for visitors.

Integrated transport is mostly about information. In an ideal world, the bus companies would be improving their connecting services, and the local authorities would be improving conditions for cycling and walking. But for the moment, it is mostly a matter of providing the information, good and bad, and letting travellers choose accordingly. When we can easily see the good examples, there will be more incentive for improvements to be made.

In recent years, there’s been a lot of enthusiasm for providing bike parking and bike hire. In countries like the Netherlands, there are huge cycle parking facilities at stations, and the two modes definitely complement one-another: 40% of train trips in the Netherlands are combined with cycling. The railways certainly have an interest in providing cycle parking and cycle hire, because there is never going to be enough space for commuters to take their bikes on the train. So this is a significant part of the market, and it does need to be provided for. But unless the conditions for cycling in our cities improve dramatically, it’s hard to see cycling becoming a major choice for visitors.

I think the emphasis needs to shift to promoting walking and local public transport. The NationalRail website needs to be much clearer about providing onward travel information, starting with walking. There should be a link to a zoomable street map for each station, perhaps as an icon next to the arrival and departure station, as on the Swiss Railways site.

Reading Station PosterAt the moment there is a link about three levels down which takes you to a pdf of the station information poster. While it’s good that these posters have been produced, they are unwieldy and a long way from best practice. Outside London and the major cities, the posters are very basic (in London and the major cities, they use TfL or PTE maps, which are slightly better, but still limited). The maps don’t give you any feel for what the city is like – the cartography is minimalist, and the cycle and walking routes seem to be almost random. They don’t really tell you whether this is the sort of station where you walk straight out into the city centre, or whether cycling is fairly safe, let alone where buses run.

Reading OSMA proper zoomable street map would at least give you a feel for what the area around the station is like: are there major roads to cross, do you have to walk along a main road or cross at a major junction to get into the centre? Is there a pedestrianised area and shops close by, or is it industrial? Open Street Map already gives a good impression of this, though it could be improved (it doesn’t show pedestrian crossings, for instance).

In the same way, you could have a map focused on cycling – one that shows where the routes are (not just odd bits of cycle path), whether there’s any provision on main roads, and whether you can cycle in the pedestrianised area. There can also be links giving more information on cycle hire and how it works.

The biggest challenge is to map the central bus services, but that’s not impossible, as I have shown. Some of the TfL and PTE maps are pretty good, though they are often focused on taking you off to the suburbs, rather than getting about the centre. And of course, every map is different. There needs to be a consistent zoomable map, showing clearly where services run in the centre.

In the UK, I think the starting point is to make the railways responsible for providing good consistent readily-accessible information. We have the technology; all we need is an informed customer.

Driving into Oxford

There are a large and growing number of people commuting by car into Oxford from beyond the city fringe (the big red 19000 arrow in the diagram below). We haven’t provided public transport of sufficient attractiveness to get people out of their cars. The consequence has been severe congestion on the outskirts of Oxford, on Botley Road and Abingdon Road, and around the hospital.

Oxford has successfully used bus lanes on several corridors to give buses priority. The closure of the High Street to through traffic in 1999 had a similar effect, making the cars go the long way round. Coupled with parking restrictions, and cycling and walking, this has been very successful in reducing car use within the city, especially to the city centre – where the car modal split is 10%.

There are two other major centres of employment in the suburbs: Headington and Cowley. The main employers in Headington are the hospitals and the universities, and they have only been allowed to develop on condition that they limit parking. This has been reasonably successful, mostly as a result of people walking and cycling from within the city. In Cowley, the major employment site is the car works, and the business park that was developed on part of it, both next to the ring road. There is little parking restraint, though a fair number of people walk and cycle.

In terms of commuting from the rest of Oxfordshire, beyond the city fringe, the three main employment sites are all important:

Some of these drivers will be using Park&Ride, but there are only about 4000 spaces available, and they have to be shared with drivers from the fringe, and from further afield. People driving to the Park&Ride are also contributing to the congestion on the outskirts of the city. We need a significant increase in the number of people using public transport from further away.

The first chart shows where people are commuting to central Oxford from the rest of Oxfordshire, beyond the city fringe. The origins are in rough order, going anti-clockwise around the city, with the principal towns separated out (Cherwell, West Oxon, ValeA420, ValeA34 and South Oxon cover the remainder).

There are respectable levels of public transport use, particularly from Didcot and Banbury (half-hourly rail), Abingdon and Witney (buses every 10 minutes or better) and West Oxon (hourly train). But many still drive, despite the congestion: public transport is far from being dominant, though it is definitely a contender.

The second chart shows the situation for Headington. While some people use conventional public transport, it’s mainly from Abingdon (there are three buses per hour direct from Abingdon to the main hospital, plus parking restrictions to support its use). The third chart, for Cowley, shows how public transport is almost irrelevant.

So the best prospect for modal shift is still for city centre workers. The strategy is probably to try to crack the congestion issues for buses to the city centre, to really make public transport dominant. The prospects for public transport direct to Headington and Cowley don’t look very good – the market is too dispersed. Public transport works best when it focuses on key centres of demand, preferably all-day demand. So the only sensible strategy is to link the key employment sites to the public transport hub at the main railway station.

While there has often been talk of reviving the railway line to Cowley, a bus service would be the starting point, probably running fast to Cowley Centre, then via Garsington Road to Blackbird Leys. This would give it an all-day market. For Headington, a bus service along London Road almost to Headington shops, then into the hospital and on to Northway and Barton West might work better than the existing indirect service via Marston.

But doesn’t this mean yet more buses in the city centre? Yes a few, though partly it is about rearranging existing services. The key problem with buses in the centre is boarding times, and that can probably be tackled by increasing use of smartcards and off-bus ticket purchase.

By looking at where people currently travel by public transport, and where people drive, we can see where and how public transport is most likely to work. It takes a lot of people travelling for a variety of purposes throughout the day to make a successful public transport service. Oxford has an excellent bus system for a medium-sized city, and with a bit more traffic management, it can be adapted to work well for journeys from the rest of the County as well.

An Excellent Bus Network

Oxford’s buses are excellent – for getting to the city centre. Based on the inner cordon counts, over 40% of journeys into central Oxford are by bus. Buses run at least every five minutes on all the main corridors.

A large part of this success is due to bus priority, most notably the closure of the High Street to general traffic in 1999, blocking the only direct route from east Oxford.

But all these high-frequency routes don’t add up to a network. If we want a truly excellent public transport system, the individual routes need to connect – and the system needs to be clear and easy to use. At the moment, Oxford can’t really be said to have a joined-up network. In fact, as is typical in the UK, the local bus map doesn’t show what happens in the city centre at all.

There are particular reasons why the centre is too complicated to map. There are two major bus companies and several smaller ones. Bus services are profitable in Oxford, and this has led to competition and duplication. In the last few years, the two main companies have agreed joint operation of some of the busiest services, but there remains a huge variety of low-frequency services. Despite some joint-ticketing, services are still designed around route-specific ticketing.

In most of the rest of Europe, tickets are valid for a fixed time, so services can be designed for interchange. In the UK (outside London), there’s little coordination between services, even between services run by the same company, and pretty much everything runs into the city centre.

Even if low-frequency services were excluded, the situation in the centre would still be too complicated. This is because the high-frequency services take a variety of routes through the centre, with some running through, some looping round, and some doing both. By comparison, in a Swiss city such as Basel, one-way loops are rare, almost all the routes run two-way, and most of the main services run through.

This pattern is partly the result of operating trams, but it also applies to cities such as Winterthur which operate buses. The lack of loops makes it much easier to create a network map. There are fewer lines, and interchanges are clear and simple. It’s easier to understand the services as a network, and the usage reflects that – it’s not just a service into the city centre, but the normal way of getting anywhere in the city. This is one of the key reasons why car use in Basel is remarkably low (under 20%).

The Swiss even stick to two-way operation in quite narrow streets: they just run non-stop. As we’ve found in Queen Street in Oxford, buses have very little impact if they just run through a street slowly. Buses and trams only really get in the way when they stop.

How can we make Oxford’s buses simpler for people to use, for a wider range of journeys? It would be great if we had trams instead of buses, but since buses are cheaper to run, it’s probably better to stick with what we have – fares are high enough already. But even without trams, we can make significant improvements, by learning from the Swiss.

It’s difficult to run services through from one side of Oxford to the other, because demand is much higher on the eastern side, requiring bigger buses. So a lot of services do have to terminate.

We also have to cope with fairly slow loading, with every passenger having to pay the driver or show a pass or ticket. This has led to a situation where each main service has its own stop, and stands there for several minutes loading. Through journeys are tediously slow, and interchange generally requires a walk across town.

Some ticketing reform would certainly help. The central stops could have ticket machines, so the driver only has to check tickets. Tickets above a certain value could be valid for interchange between SmartZone services, for say 30 minutes. Smartcard ticketing could be extended to these 30-minute passes, rather than being limited to day (and longer) passes.

But the real solution is to run the main eastern services two-way, non-stop through Queen Street, to the railway station. This will give those services multiple credible boarding stops, no reason to stand at any stop for very long, and facilitate interchange with other services.

Only the main eastern services would run through Queen Street – the rest would turn down St Aldates and run through to the south, or terminate at Speedwell Street. Most southern services would run via Castle Street to the railway station, and northern services could run to the railway station as well. This would provide clear interchange between services, and allow a proper network map to be drawn.

More space would be required for buses at the station, but that’s achievable by moving the taxis to the short-stay car-park.

There would also need to be a clear bus priority route through Frideswide Square. That can be achieved by running the buses along Hythe Bridge Street, switching the general traffic to Park End Street, and crossing over at Worcester Street (a potential layout is shown below).

Unfortunately, the latest proposals for Frideswide Square rely on crossing over at a sequence of three roundabouts, which is almost bound to gridlock in the evening peak.

Two-way buses in Queen Street inevitably means compromising space for pedestrians. But if we want to have excellent public transport in Oxford, and get people out of their cars, we need to give the buses the space they need so they can operate as a network.

Maps from Oxford Bus Company (pdf), Basel On The Move (pdf), and Google Maps.

Buses & Bikes – Rivals or Colleagues?

The biggest influence on public transport use is car ownership. If people own a car they tend to use it. So to a significant extent, buses compete with cycling for the non-car short-distance market. On the streets, that sometimes gets expressed as mutual antagonism between bus drivers and cyclists. Bus drivers complain that cyclists get in their way, and cyclists complain that buses drive too close. Buses and bikes often end up repeatedly overtaking one another, to their mutual annoyance.

But as cities try to reduce the amount of traffic, and become more liveable, we need the alternatives to the car to be working together. We need to focus on the different strengths of the two modes, and encourage synergies between them, to maximise their joint effectiveness.

At the highest level this is about modernising the image, both of the bicycle and of the bus. Modern technology can facilitate the flexible delivery of a variety of transport options. The target audience is seen as the young urbanite picking up their smartphone and choosing between a city bike, or the bus, or hiring a car, depending on their immediate needs. But at the operations level, we also need to be identifying and communicating the fundamental synergies, so the different modes start working together as colleagues.

So why should the bus industry support cycling? The main reason is that cycling is better at handling peak loads. Cycling is particularly competitive at peak periods when the roads get congested; it’s often much the fastest way to get to work or school. And this is the time when buses are often overcrowded. It actually helps bus operations if their peak demand transfers to bikes. The second reason to support cycling is that it works best for short trips, leaving the longer trips on buses. This reduces the extent to which buses have to stop and start in the inner suburbs, speeding up journey times. The benefits to the operator depend partly on the fare structure, but even with flat fares it means the longer trips get a better service. Also more generally, these short bicycle trips, particularly in the inner suburbs, help reduce congestion, and make it easier to provide bus priority.

And why should cyclists support the bus industry? Cyclists can often be a little too enthusiastic about their own mode of transport. But even so, most can appreciate that cycling doesn’t work well for everyone. Particularly for longer journeys (more than 3km), public transport becomes more attractive. So buses are critical to provide an alternative to the car for medium distances. By providing a range of alternatives to the car, it becomes feasible to reduce traffic, and improve conditions for cycling. Public transport is also useful for those times when cycling isn’t so appealing – for instance when it rains, for longer trips, or when you have children in tow.

For pedestrians in the city centre, there are further reasons to get a good balance between cycling and buses. If bikes cater for peak trips to work and school, bike parking can be reasonably spread out. But if cycling dominates for shopping trips as well, the city centre rapidly gets over-run with cycle parking. So it helps to have a good bus service, allowing journeys to key destinations to be handled more efficiently. But it makes sense to have a balance, because space for bike parking can be found in a variety of unused corners. Whereas the space for bus stops has to be concentrated on a few main streets. It can be tricky to find enough space for bus stops – and even harder to make attractive.

For cities trying to move away from being dominated by the car, there are important advantages to promoting buses and bikes in combination. Neither mode is perfect, and a good mixture avoids the problems of having too much of either. But beyond the benefits to the city as a whole, the synergies between bikes and buses mean that it is definitely in the interests of cyclists to promote the bus industry – to help reduce traffic, and in the interests of the bus industry to promote cycling – to help spread the peak, reduce costs and improve revenue. Bikes and buses should be colleagues, not rivals.

Buses, lots of buses

5 buses on High St

Oxford has promoted buses for nearly four decades, using bus lanes, bus gates and Park & Ride. Buses are able to avoid the worst traffic congestion, so almost all services can be run commercially.

Access to Oxford is 29% car, 43% bus, 10% bike, 17% walk (cordon counts – which include some cross-centre journeys). Compare with the famously bike-friendly Groningen in the Netherlands – 21% car, 27% bus/train, 31% bike, 20% walk (on-street survey).

Having lots of buses works quite well – buses are excellent at cutting traffic on the main roads, particularly from out of town. The relatively low bike share means that the shopping area doesn’t get overrun by bike-parking. Buses are a bit intimidating to cyclists, but at least they have professional drivers who can be traced (and they know it).

Buses in Pedestrian Areas

Buses run through this pedestrian area, at very slow speed, but don’t stop. Pedestrians are able to use the whole space.