Thursday, October 15, 2009

REDEX - the Bus Rapid Transit you have when you're not having Bus Rapid Transit

Every time the ACT Government conduct a review of transport they have a predictable outcome - a recommendation to improve bus services (in lieu of really offering proper mass transit like light rail). Opponents of light rail say that buses offer the same service that light rail can. This of course is totally false, as the major limiting factor is passenger capacity and reliability of route service.

In the ACT, the government monopoly bus company ACTION have been struggling for years to offer a service that will get people out of their cars and onto public transport. The major problem with ACTION is that it is trying to do two things with the same bus. It trys to offer local services delivering people to transport hubs, or bus interchanges, and it also offers town centre to town centre services. You would think that this would make commuting in Canberra relatively easy and quick. Wrong.

The local service buses meander all over several suburbs in a counter intuitive fashion, with service frequencies of around an hour. Occasionally, they just dont turn up at all. So people drive their car.

The intertown service buses do not run as express services, but service all stops along the way between interchanges. They also share the roads with regular traffic, and are subject to slow traffic, congestion and delays. This impacts frequency and scheduling severely. in peak times, full buses sail past people waiting for them.

Earlier this year, the ACT Transport Minister announced a trial of REDEX Buses . Ostensibly, this is an intertown express service offering increased frequency, and servicing less stops, focussing on major stops where large volumes of people work or live. Bus Rapid Transit 'lite'.

Late last month, the Transport Minister updated the REDEX plans, announcing a delay to the trial and significant alterations. His media release is here.

Am I the only person who finds the use of the word 'improved' in the media release facile ? Slashing the service by 75% of its previously publicised scope, is NOT an improvement.

When announced in May, the service was to service all town centres, Civic and the Parliamentary Triangle. All major service areas, with significant passenger volume needing to be shifted with few stops (or none) along the way. A commendable aim, and one which I supported at the time. If it worked, it would be a demonstrable way to show those who commute by car that their travel times on public transport would drop, and service would be guaranteed to be frequent in peak hours.

The key to attracting people to public transport is to offer reliable, attractive and frequent service to the places people want to go. The REDEX announcement goes partway to satisfying the problem with buses, in that they would be a more direct express service than existing buses.

The 'improved REDEX service' waters down the much publicised trial to a single town centre, Gungahlin.

I was told that Tim Swift would be addressing the Gungahlin Community Council to discuss the REDEX trial, and decided to attend. Mr Swift and ACTIONS Business Manager, Jenny Bowler, attended and showed the audience a large map of the new service route.

The 'improved' REDEX 'trial' will now run from Gungahlin Town Centre, to Mitchell, Dickson and Civic along Northbourne Avenue, then Barton and Kingston terminating at the Kingston Railway Station. The return route is the same, just in reverse. The service aims to offer a frequency of 15 minutes in peak times.

It is disappointing that the Government and ACTION have slashed the REDEX trial to just one town centre. It is positive that they are trialling a bus express service.

There are a few things that ACTION could do to improve the success of the trial. I offered these suggestions to Mr Swift and Ms Bowler:
  • ACTION need to differentiate REDEX services from regular buses. I suggested large coloured panels in the front window, which could be removed when the bus ends REDEX duty and returns to other services. These would also promote REDEX services. 
  • Handling cash and providing change delays services. I suggested that REDEX services not accept cash, making REDEX a bus card only service. 
  • Coordinate the proposed REDEX brochure drop, with a free ticket to be used on REDEX only. This would attract an initial boost in service ridership, which if the service proved viable, would remain. 
  • Enable traffic light coordination so REDEX travels express down Northbourne and other traffic light infested roads. 
These suggestions if implemented could see the REDEX trial become a success. The 'Expresso' services seem to be popular as they do the things that people need public transport to do - offer reliable, attractive and frequent service to the places people want to go. REDEX, if implemented and promoted properly could boost public transport patronage in a similar fashion.

How can this trial fail ?
  • Two weeks out from the beginning of the service there are no timetables, routes or maps on ACTIONS website.
  • Only one bus will run every 15 minutes from Gungahlin town centre. If this bus reaches capacity, it will sail past people waiting at the special REDEX stops (a sign on a pole) and the person will have to wait for another bus.
  • The REDEX trial will use regular buses, not the new high capacity steerable rear axle buses.
  • There is no differentiation between a REDEX and regular service bus. No paint colour, sticker, nothing. Just the number in the bus route display window.
  • REDEX buses will travel on the same roads as Joe Commuter in his Camry. Stop at the same traffic lights and be delayed by the same road congestion. 
Essentially, ACTION are adopting elements of Bus Rapid Transit and grafting them to the ACTION tree. Other elements, those that cost money, are not being adopted. As I have said before - a sign on a pole is not transport infrastructure.

I am hopeful that this REDEX trial will be successful, but hope is not a business plan - REDEX needs to be funded, staffed and promoted properly by ACTION and government. It needs to use buses with increased capacity and provide a point of difference between REDEX and regular buses. Do this properly and attract regular increased patronage, and the need for increased road construction and increased parking spaces will alleviate.

The first step in creating a sustainable transport system is providing a functional transport system.

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