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Putting the passenger first

Manchester Metrolink’s Deansgate-Castlefield stop has recently been transformed into a ‘sky garden’, giving passengers another green space in the heart of the city. (Image: TfGM)

High-quality public transport cannot stop everywhere – stopping consumes time. Many transport planners attempt to attract riders, run efficiently and endeavour to compete with other private modes such as the car by spacing stops as far apart as possible.

The operation of many transport demand models is driven by concepts of overall travel speed and so inevitably pushes planners in the same direction. Unfortunately most of our potential passengers do not live at – or even in the immediate vicinity of – our stops, nor do they work or shop at tram stops. For the prospective rider the ‘journey experience’ includes access to and from the points where they board and leave the system.

Sustainable ridership depends on the quality of these access routes and the quality of the waiting environment just as much as it does on the speed and reliability of the in-tram part of the trip. The ability and willingness of people to walk a short distance to a stop is what makes it possible to gather many people on a single vehicle. This is the essence of any transport project.

Every stop has a catchment area – the distance people are prepared to walk to a stop. It is difficult to determine these distances precisely due to a wide number of variables, but planners have adopted a rough rule of thumb that the distance that most people seem to tolerate, and the point where ridership falls off dramatically, is around a quarter of a mile (400m). Yet many other factors should be considered; if most potential users of the system have little option other than public transport, then it may be possible to ‘force’ them to walk further.

But modern tramways are not just ‘better buses for the transit dependent’. They are intended to give a genuine alternative to the car, which is often parked outside the door, so that part of the market demands a shorter, better walk and a quality journey experience.

Access to the stop is provided along a network of streets and paths and the design of that network is crucial to the walking distance. A typical car-oriented network can be found in many modern housing developments; it is full of obstacles to the pedestrian and the actual area that one can walk is around a third of the ideal radius. Whereas the classic Edinburgh New Town/London Square or ‘Coronation Street’ terrace layout has a dense grid of pedestrian links that maximises walking access; twice as much of the theoretical area is accessible.

The car-oriented network can be made more permeable by the provision of walkways away from the road, but these must be well laid-out, well-lit and safe. Our potential passenger is not willingly going to go through dark or foul back alleys or threatening underpasses where anti-social elements may lurk. Thus the transport developer must work with the local authority and land developers to ensure good access to stops in the first place, while the operator must also accept closer stop spacing and find other ways to maintain high operating speeds if it is to grow its market share.

Form AND function

Having reached the stop from their departure point, our passenger is all too often faced with a disappointing environment. Stops are often a jumble of mismatched and ill-considered boxes and shelters. He or she may find a place to stand – if very lucky a place to sit – but it will often be under a canopy designed by someone under the misapprehension that winds never blow, and rain – and occasionally hail – only falls vertically.

Photographs of Edinburgh tramstops show shelters where the whole footprint was soaked with rain, pooling around the passengers’ feet, even on only a moderately wet Scottish day. While the design is striking, this is simply not good enough.

Shelters should be stylish and good-looking, but also fit for purpose. We should remember the experience of the former Zuidtangent busway in the Netherlands; the flagship stops had floral glass canopies and plant-inspired steelwork forms. Architects and designers were thrilled and the project won awards. Unfortunately in attempting to give an aspirational quality to the bus service which used them, the basic job of reliably providing shelter for passengers was overlooked.

The flower petal roofs were at a high level and the angled glass walls behind left gaps; on a windy day such an arrangement provided only a limited degree of shelter. Not only that, but the glass roofs themselves proved unable to withstand stormy weather and after some of them blew off, the rest were removed on safety grounds. When the busway was incorporated into the R-net local bus network the ruined shelters were replaced with a standardised product; they may be less impressive, but they actually do the job.

The location of stop equipment also needs careful contemplation. It is not acceptable to put ticket vending machines or validators out in the rain, passengers should be able to use them – and queue up for them – under cover. Even simple things like system maps need sensible placement as far too often they are placed on the back wall of the shelter above the seats, forcing people who wish to consult them to lean over those seated, pressing their stomachs into the face of intending passengers!

Form and fitness for purpose are an important element in attracting passengers to the system and reconciling them to the wait for the next service on their journey, and simple considerations like location and a clear understanding of the climate are crucial. For example, requirements such as air-conditioning and solar panels for stops in hot and humid climates such as Phoenix or Dubai will be very different to the heaters and more robust shelters needed in a colder climate such as that in Ottawa.

Likewise, provision of reliable passenger information is another key to the success of any transport network. At the very least, timetables and route diagrams overlaid onto maps that show the wider transport network of the local area and points of interest should be the bare minimum. It is always desirable – and is becoming increasingly possible with developments in technology – to also have real-time information displays that show the arrival time of the next service. If you have the ability to show details for connecting services then all the better.

As with other system infrastructure, environmental initiatives should be considered, with the incorporation of green and planted elements where possible and systems such as solar panels to power stop equipment. LED lighting is more efficient than traditional incandescent or tube alternatives – not only providing a greater flexibility in light output, but also reducing long-term costs.

Interchanges aren’t the enemy

Too many commentators believe that interchanges are a barrier to public transport use. They claim that the private car offers a ‘one seat ride’ and that low investment bus systems allow a complex route pattern that can satisfy this aspiration, making high capacity rail systems redundant. This is, of course, nonsense, as almost all car journeys require a pedestrian element at one end of the trip – usually from a parking space to the final destination – and complex route patterns mean low frequency on each route.

This problem is made worse at the planning stage of a project because many transport demand models add weighted ‘Interchange Penalties’ every time a passenger has to make a connection. Whilst it is true that most passengers are resistant to an interchange and that these interchanges can be made far more irritating by poor layout and poor timetabling, it should be recognised that connections buy frequency by allowing simpler service patterns.

If we are to persuade passengers that transport interchange is acceptable then we must make the facilities attractive and efficient places to use. The ideal is a covered, cross-platform interchange; the passenger steps off one vehicle and either waits on the platform or – if the transport authority is really on the ball – they cross the platform onto the waiting connecting vehicle. If that cannot be provided then clear wayfinding is essential to direct passengers from one mode to another.

It is important to enable passengers to make the interchange reasonably dry-shod, sprints out into the rain or snow are justifiably resented by passengers – you don’t want them running in such slippery conditions anyway, increasing the risk of accident and/or injury. Efficient real-time indicators and ‘time of next connection’ displays encourage passengers and make them think that their journey is important to the transport operator. All too often passengers feel abandoned at interchanges, so if timed connections cannot be managed then at least a delaying signal needs to be provided for the connector so that it can be held back for a short time by a late-arriving tram or metro car – nothing is more frustrating than seeing your connecting vehicle roar off, empty of riders, just as your service draws into the platform.

If service frequencies are reasonably high and waiting times for connections are minimal then a simple interchange is all that is required, however if there is a risk that interchange times will be longer then a range of other facilities should be provided; lavatories and simple vending machines are an obvious example. Far too many transport authorities are closing the lavatory facilities they already have because they are ‘too much trouble’ or ‘cost too much to maintain’. This may be true, but taking trouble to look after one’s customers is how a responsible business builds brand loyalty – leaving passengers in discomfort and embarrassment, or hungry and deyhradated, is a sure way to ensure that next time they will make the trip by private motor car.

There is much to be said for making interchange points into real ‘transit centres’, with a range of facilities, kiosks, a tea/coffee shop, concierge services etc. It is even probable that providing a site for a ‘Metro’-type mini-market that sells everyday essentials may consolidate market share far more than a small car and cycle park. Of course a problem arises when services with wide headways are pulsed through an interchange. The result may be five minutes of frenetic activity as all modes converge on the interchange and passengers scuttle from vehicle to vehicle; this is then followed by a long period of quiet before the next pulse. The quiet time can be quite dispiriting for passengers.

It may be more attractive to establish connection-activated civic areas, public squares that serve as both a symbolic and functional heart of the community but where people connecting between transit lines form part of the square’s activity. The idea arises from the desire to have bus-rail connections happen in an interesting setting, rather than a typical suburban bus interchange that features an area where only bus passengers would be.

Interesting examples in North America and Syntagma Square (Athens), Alexanderplatz (Berlin) and Piccadilly Gardens (Manchester) are also worth studying. Piccadilly Gardens has its own issues, however, mostly created by use of the bus facility to stand dead buses and the amount of raw concrete in the area, but lessons can certainly be learned from it.

Connection distances should be as short as possible, preferably no more than 100m and some weather mitigation (trees or umbrella roofs over walkways) is desirable. Passengers would resent being made to animate an otherwise deserted public square – running 250-300m for a bus, dodging puddles with their umbrella blown inside out. The distances would be no longer than experienced in many London Underground stations and urban designers are always telling us that visual interest makes walks feel shorter.

Conclusions

The lack of attention paid to stops and interchanges is regrettable as they are the ‘third leg’ of the tripod of public service and the open door to the system. The great Frank Pick (architect of London Underground’s visual identity) observed that “the marketing of a transport organisation depended on communicating to the public the quality of service available and an apparent ease of travel”. Good stops and interchanges are integral to quality of service and as much attention should be paid to them as to route infrastructure and rolling stock.

Feature originally appeared in December Tramways & Urban Transit (936).