On Public Transit / Public Transport

We all know that public transit is a pet obsession of mine.  I even have an entire Flickr photo set dedicated to it.  I’m going to share what little knowledge I have of transit in the places I’ve been in the last year or so, and what’s really worked and what really hasn’t… This entry is massive so I’ll attempt to bookmark it to let you click to whatever you want to see.  A note on terminology: I use “public transit” and “public transport” interchangeably as the terms have the same meaning (the former being Canadian, the latter Australian).  I also use these terms loosely to include “mass transit” that is not actually owned/operated by the public sector.

If you just want the executive summary, click through to the “summary” at the very end.

Canadian cities:

Australian cities:

Summary

Toronto

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For all its faults, the TTC, especially combined with GO Transit to reach the outer suburbs, is a good system.  Transit fares in Toronto are partially integrated – riding a subway, streetcar, RT, or bus within the city of Toronto (or occasionally outside of it) only costs one (or two) fare(s) from origin to destination, regardless of the number of transfers or modes of transit.  The exceptions, of course, are the ferries (using completely separate fares that take forever to acquire), GO Transit (the suburban train / bus network), and at least 4 different bus networks in immediately adjacent suburbs (Mississauga, VIVA, YRT, and Durham region).  As you’ll see later, this is still worlds better than some locations (looking at you Sydney), but could certainly be better.

When I left Toronto, a one-way cash fare was $3, an all-day pass $10, and monthly pass $121.  There are options to combine your fare with other networks, but like everywhere else that tries to do it, they’re confusing and often expensive.  You can pre-pay your fare in bulk, but can’t buy passes or get change on any vehicles, and must make your payment or show a transfer before getting on the vehicle, with the exception of Proof-Of-Payment (POP) routes, which are poorly communicated.  GO Transit (and VIVA, for that matter), of course, is more costly, requires pre-payment, with fares based on your destination, and is entirely POP.

 Empty subway car

But the value you get for your fare within the city is pretty good – vehicles come frequently (assuming you’re not on Queen Street or travelling late at night), are kept reasonably clean, and (finally) all have stop announcers and displays telling you where you are.  As a traveler I can say without reservation that stop announcers are incredibly useful, and an essential part of any transit system if its proprietors want visitors to actually use it more than once. Airport service, on the other hand, is an embarrassment – one bus that goes infrequently, rarely has room for luggage, and brings you to a far-away subway station with only one elevator that only occasionally works.

Generally, it’s all pretty easy unless you want to switch networks, or go anywhere the ferries go, or anywhere outside of the city of Toronto.  Then it becomes infrequent, inefficient, and often expensive.  The coverage of the transit network is far-reaching (pretty well all the way to the US border, and well into the suburbs to the Northeast as well), though difficult to navigate if you want to go far, and it’ll take a long time if you’re not along a major route.

Ottawa

I’ll be honest – I only rode one bus the entire time I was in Ottawa. Fortunately most things in the city were within walking distance. The system seemed reasonable, but really all I can remember is the redundantly-bilingual stop announcers! 

Montreal

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I primarily rode the subway in Montreal.  There were buses that came infrequently but at least shared the farecard system and the fare was integrated so you could switch from subway to bus or vice-versa quite easily by showing or dipping your cancelled fare card.  I can’t remember the fares exactly, but I know a monthly pass was about half the price of a TTC pass, and a single fare only slightly less, with a single-fare to cover the whole system. The downside of their farecard system was that you always needed to buy a card when using the subway system (I think you could pay exact fare using cash on the buses), which was a lot of work just to get into the system.  As far as I could
tell, none of the routes were POP-based, though it’s possible the suburban trains may have been.

There were sometimes stop announcements, and sometimes not, though always on the subway and exclusively in French (which, as noted above, was really not a problem since place names don’t change).  The one major annoyance of the subway is that it’s almost always very cramped, and the layout of the cars creates tiny little pockets where people can stand, so even if the rest of the car is empty, if you happened to get in the wrong doors you could be sharing a few square metres with 10 other people and no room to move into the next area.  I also don’t even know if there’s an airport service at all, it’s certainly not promoted well at the airport!

The coverage of the system was quite extensive – the subways certainly covered most places in the city and just outside of it that you would want to go, with buses connecting you to local destinations once you arrived (albeit infrequent).  There’s also an extensive suburban train network to get much further out – I never used it so have little to comment on it.  On a whole, the system seems entirely adequate, and extremely well-priced for what you get of it.

Vancouver

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Vancouver’s system is (now) fully integrated.  The SkyTrains, privately-operated Canada Line, the ferries, the singular commuter rail line, and all of the buses (operated independently by a small handful of local municipal bus companies) fall to one degree or another under TransLink.  Through TransLink you get travel/map information (including very efficient and accurate next-bus text service), and an integrated fare for all modes of transit.  You can pay exact fare on the bus (and get a ticket good for travel
for up to two hours within the number of zones you choose – which could in theory be a return fare), or buy a ticket at the completely-automated SkyTrain station; else, you can buy fares in advance at various fare vendors as in most cities.

Unlike Toronto and Montreal, though, Vancouver’s system is zoned – while it covers a larger geographical area and what would be the equivalent of four or more different transit systems in a place like Toronto, you pay more for further distances (in addition, there’s an extra fare to buy a ticket at the airport, and the commuter line has its own fare system).  That said, the zones are fairly simple – generally bounded by municipal boundaries, so if you cross from Burnaby into Vancouver, you pay a two-zone fare, but if you travel exclusively within Vancouver or exclusively within Burnaby, you pay a one-zone fare.  The downside of a geography-based fare zone, though, is that in theory travelling two stops could be a two-zone fare if you cross a boundary.  The friend I stayed with in Vancouver used to live on the Vancouver side of Boundary Road (being the boundary between Vancouver and Burnaby), but the only buses travelling on Boundary went to a SkyTrain station in Burnaby.  Technically, this meant travelling through two fare zones (Vancouver & Burnaby) even if I was just going to downtown Vancouver – which in turn usually meant walking further to catch different buses, which is a big disincentive for people to take public transit.

That said, once you’ve paid your fare, you can switch from one vehicle to another easily – making the bus-SkyTrain-ferry-bus trip much easier and more affordable than in other networks.  Fares were also reasonable, with a 1 Zone fare being $2.50 and an all-zone day pass being $9.  The whole network is technically POP (there are generally no humans working on the SkyTrain or in the stations), though you’re usually expected to dip your ticket when you enter a bus regardless of whether or not it’s already been cancelled.

The experience of the system itself is pretty good – besides next-bus text service, you can usually access their schedules fairly easily, and the major routes operate frequently.  The further out you are, the less frequent the service, and narrowly missing a bus can be really annoying when the next one isn’t for at least another half hour.  Most vehicles have stop announcers, and the Canada Line vehicles (and some newer SkyTrains) have cars that internally connect so you can easily shift from one car to the next if it gets too full.  Most trains, too, have at least part of the car clear enough to carry luggage from the airport or bicycles – especially on the Canada Line – and all buses are wheelchair accessible and have bike racks.

Sydney

Let me just say I’m glad it’s usually warm enough to walk everywhere in Sydney.  It took me at least two months to figure out what I’m putting down here, and I’m sure much of it is either wrong or understated.

Sydney has a complex and very extensive network of transit routes… if you have time, money, and patience, you can go virtually anywhere, near or far.  It’s worth enumerating the modes of transit available within the broader network, all of which are more or less independent of one another:

  • CityRail trains (completely electrified!) and buses, which operate to the furthest of the outer suburbs, but also operate underground effectively as a subway through the CBD (Central Business District or downtown core).  Given how much Greater Sydney sprawls (some trips take, completely legitimately based on their distance, over 4 hours one way), this network is essential.  CityRail is run by the New South Wales state government (through a government corporation), and covers huge ground in a hub-and-spoke network around the Sydney area.
  • Sydney Buses, also a NSW corporation, which runs the majority of city buses on the streets.  The buses are fairly frequent and usually designed to serve short / local trips. They’re great if your trip originate or ends in the CBD, but trying to use them to get very far isn’t easy, and attempting to figure out the route is usually best left to the 131500 online trip planner or the iPhone app.
  • Sydney Ferries are well-known and are a great way to get a cheap harbour cruise.  They travel fairly frequently, for ferries, and if you’re going to or from Circular Quay (in the CBD) from or to a destination near water, they’re usually the fastest way to get there.  The ferry network is also publicly-owned and operated, and famously on time.
  • There’s also Newcastle Buses (and ferries), which are separately run by the NSW government, though in theory part of the same networks as the other modes. Newcastle is a much larger suburb a couple hours out of town.
  • “Private buses,” which are essentially privately-owned-and-operated city buses that run their own routes commissioned by the government. There are numerous companies that run these in various parts of the great city.
  • The monorail, owned/operated by a private company called Metro (a subsidiary of Veolia, which also runs York Region’s VIVA service and most of Queensland’s public transport), travels in a circle (in one direction only, so if you want to go backwards one stop you have to go all the way around) in and around some of the tourist destinations in the city – it claims to be a good way to get to work and back (which, if you live in Pyrmont and work near Pitt Street, might actually be true), but is essentially just a tourist ride.
  • The Light Rail route, also owned and operated by Metro, travels out to Lilyfield from the CBD and back.  They’ve applied to expand the network and it would, in theory, connect to more logical locations and other transit networks, though the route does start at Central station where all the train routes and many bus routes go, and there are a couple stops where it connects to the Monorail.

Now, this would all be amazing if it were somehow easy to connect from one to the other.  But, of course, it’s not.  The fare systems make for the biggest complications – they were recently simplified with attempts to integrate them somewhat, which is why they have similar names, but they’re still mostly independent.  Believe it or not, the fares were actually much more complicated than they are now:

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CityRail is on its own fare scheme (“MyTrain”), using a 100% POP system similar to Vancouver’s SkyTrain (except with less automation) where you usually dip your ticket on the way into or out of the CBD station but just have to have it on you in the outer suburbs if they check (and they do check, frequently).  The fares are based on the origin and destination stations, and range from $3.20 to $7.80 for a one-way trip, with five different “fare bands” depending on how far you’re travelling.  You generally buy your ticket on the platform (in the suburbs), or at the station before entering the fare-paid zone (in the city) from a touchscreen machine or a ticket agent, and if you buy an off-peak return ticket there’s a substantial discount (cheapest return fare becomes $4.40).  To make it easier, you just enter your destination in the machine and it tells you how much it is – you don’t have to guess at what fare band you’re going to be in.  You can change from one train to another as many times as you like as long as it’s on the way to your actual destination (though stopovers along the same route are not allowed).  There are weekly, monthly, quarterly, and yearly passes available at varying prices.

Newcastle Buses and ferries have their own completely independent system… I’ve never ridden them but all the fare information sites suggest they just do their own thing when it comes to fares.  Essentially, the buses are a timed-ticket system where you pay for one hour or four hours of travel, and can travel to unlimited destinations on their buses within that time.  There’s only one ferry, with a separate per-trip fare.

 Bus tipping zoneChristmas bus.IMG_0119

Sydney Buses and “Private buses” in the area use the “MyBus” fare scheme, which is now harmonised across all the different types of buses (until 2010 each private bus provider had its own fare system, and Sydney Buses had more fare bands than you could count).  You get a MyBus1, MyBus2, or MyBus3 ticket depending on the distance you’re travelling. First, each bus route is completely separate – if you have to get off of one bus and switch to another bus to get to your destination, you pay a second fare (this is completely normal to Sydneysiders, but completely unheard of anywhere else I’ve ever been).  The fare you pay (which you can buy in advance from various retailers, and on many routes and stops must buy in advance, though if you are allowed to pay in the bus the driver will give you change) is calculated based on the number of “sections” you’re travelling through.  To determine this, you have to get a hold of the map for that particular route, which has little arrows pointing out the section dividers (which are generally 1.6km apart).  When you get on the bus you’re in the first section, each time you cross a divider you’re in a new section.  Travel through 1-2 sections, buy a MyBus1, 3-5 sections and you buy a MyBus2, 6 or more and you buy a MyBus3 ($2/$3.30/$4.30, respectively).

Believe it or not, it used to be much more complicated than this.  It’s still generally advisable just to tell the driver where you’re going, and they’ll tell you how much it is – not that they really like it when you do that, but even the website tells you to do it.  That said, it’s apparently quite common just to use the MyBus1 as there are incredibly few fare enforcement officers on the buses – I often just guess approximately what it will be, use the ticket, and hope no one notices (they don’t, ever).  The fare medium itself, if you buy in advance, is a pre-printed ticket that says “MyBus 1” (or 2, or 3) that you “dip” into a machine when you enter the bus to cancel it. If you buy a TravelTen discounted set of 10 fares, it’s one single ticket that you cancel in the machine 10 times, each time with a new stamp imprinted.  Unless, of course, you’re riding one of the many private buses that don’t have machines, and then the drivers just manually scribble on the front of the ticket to show that you’ve used one additional ride.

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The ferries, of course, use MyFerry (“MyFerry1” and “MyFerry2”, $5.30 and $6.60 respectively), which is very similar to the MyTrain tickets and are based on the distance traveled.  You usually buy your tickets at the dock before getting on, though on wharves further out of the CBD you may have to buy your ticket on the ferry from a fare collector.

There are “MyMulti” options that purport to combine some or all of the above networks, which go for $20 per day (which is good for all zones), or starting at $41 weekly – for
weekly and longer passes there are three zones, depending on the locations on the train lines you’re travelling, which are in three zones remarkably similar to Vancouver’s system and nothing like the MyTrain tickets.  As of earlier this year, the Light Rail has been added to the MyMulti fares, which takes NSW one step closer to having real integration!

 Fly to Pitt St MallIMG_0091metro LightRail

The Monorail (which I apparently have an obsession with photographing) has its own fare system, and is a flat $4.90 per trip that you pay for at the station before entering (they even give you a token! How quaint!)  The Light Rail is $3.40 for one zone, $4.40 for two zones (which are arbitrarily divided about half way along the route), and you buy the ticket from the fare collector on board the train, if s/he gets to you before your stop.

There are also various options to “link” tickets between networks – for example if you’re getting off of the CityRail you can pay a lower fare to ride the light rail or the Newcastle buses, or if you’re going to Bondi Beach your Sydney Buses ticket is discounted when you connect from the train to Bondi Junction.  But only if you’re going to that specific destination on that specific route.

SO, if you were coming from somewhere in the suburbs that required a bus to get to the train station, you would pay one fare to take a bus to the station, pay a second fare to take the train into the city, and then pay a third fare to take another bus or tram to your final destination.  In this case, the cheaper option is probably a $20 day pass – a hefty rate to get to work and back from a reasonably near suburb.  Many people (like me) opt to walk to the train if they’re travelling a long distance, or take a bus a much longer distance to avoid dealing with both train and bus.  Of course, since changing buses means paying a second fare, this only works if you’re going where the bus near you goes – while it’s easy to change from one bus route to another given most of them go either to Circular Quay or Railway Square, paying a second fare means that travelling 7 km could cost $6.60 or more.

Thankfully, I lived within a 10 minute walk of the CBD, and a 15 minute walk of Circular Quay.  If I needed to travel a long distance, I walked to the train station or Circular Quay ferry docks and went from there.  If I needed to take a bus I either put up with paying a second fare (and having to figure out how much to pay), or walked to the nearest place where I can minimise transfers.  I can’t imagine how people who travel from an Eastern suburb to a Northern one handle it.  I suppose they just buy a really expensive monthly pass and put up with it!

This total lack of integration means, of course, that each network has its own map too.  Thankfully there’s an online trip-planner which helps minimise the stress of planning, because trying to piece together multiple maps to figure out how to get to your destination would be impossible.

And don’t bother trying to get information via SMS:

 Currently unavailable. What a useful service.

Oh, and speaking of online, all of these networks have multiple websites, just to further complicate things.  Many of them refer to one another (often in circles until you realise there really is no answer to your question), which frequently leads to dead links on one site when the other has updated without telling the first.  So far I’ve found 18 websites (some of these go to the same place but are still independently marketed locally, and others are bureaucratic sites related to transit that aren’t intended for riders – not that you’d know what while searching):

http://131500.com.au/

http://www.131500.info/

http://www.transport.nsw.gov.au/

http://www.airportlink.com.au/

http://www.metromonorail.com.au/

http://www.metrolightrail.com.au/

http://www.metrotransport.com.au/

http://www.rta.nsw.gov.au/

http://www.sydneyolympicpark.com.au/Visiting/transport/bus

http://www.newcastlebuses.info/

http://www.sydneyferries.info/

http://www.sydneybuses.info/

http://www.explorerbus.com.au/

http://www.cityrail.info/

http://www.tca.nsw.gov.au/

http://www.statetransit.info/

http://www.bts.nsw.gov.au/

http://www.railcorp.info/

There also used to be a MyZone website explaining the transition – but I can’t seem to find it anymore, so I imagine they’ve removed it.

And then, there are the private bus operators – listed here, they have a total of 30 websites amongst them:

http://www.131500.com.au/private-bus-operators

 IMG_0221IMG_0786Monorail, Monorail, Monorail!

All that said, once you get past the stress of figuring out how to get to your destination, how much it will cost, and how and where to pay for each leg of the trip, the transit riding experience here is fairly decent. There was a time when I was actually terrified of riding a bus in Sydney (me, an avid transit enthusiast!) – but I eventually got the hang of it.  Unfortunately, stop announcements are virtually non-existent (except on trains where they exist but are completely inaudible) – you can usually figure out what station you’re at on the train if you’re paying enough attention, likewise with the ferries, and the buses are sometimes good, but you’re often left to your own devices. Speaking of devices, there is an iPhone app called TripView (that is free to trial but you have to pay to get any real use of out of it, and it was developed external to any of the transport authorities), which is actually useful — if you’re going to a neighbourhood you don’t know, you just enter your route and let the GPS tell you when you’re about to be there.  The trains are pretty substantial – 2.5 levels, with the entrance on the middle half-level (Torontonians – picture a GO train with the doors on the middle level instead of the bottom, and you have a CityRail train).  You can travel easily between cars on CityRail, and many of the trains have seats that flip so you can face forward or backward, which helps carsick passengers and allows for more or less socialising depending on your preference.  All stations have screens that clearly note what train is coming next, where it’s going, and when it’s arriving.

The buses are less predictable but usually come often enough you don’t have to worry (though the half-hourly routes can get tiresome to schedule around*), and the ferries are comfortable, reliable, and always give you spectacular views of the harbour.  (Trains to North Sydney all go across the Harbour Bridge, too, which is a pleasant way to experience the city!)  The Monorail is crowded even on a slow day, but provides nice views of Darling Harbour if you can see past the tourists and the advertising that blocks out the windows.  And the light rail is a really quick, smooth, ride, though paying your fare on board is especially annoying when it’s busy, and despite being fairly new the vehicles require the fare collector to (manually) bring out a big piece of wood to serve as a makeshift ramp to let wheelchairs on or off.  One final pleasant note is that the bus routes are actually marked with signs on the street showing the route number and direction – helping to ensure drivers don’t miss their turns, and passengers can find the next bus stop along the way.

As I started off saying – this all took me at least two months to figure out, as the websites aren’t very useful or easy to navigate, and the fare systems are usually either counterintuitive or just plain confusing.  If they could somehow (fully) integrate their fare zoning and route mapping, the transit networks here have the potential to be stellar. As it is, they’re a disaster.

* Since Torontonians are likely a big part of this audience, I’ll share a quick story of Sydney Buses that will easily rival any Queen Streetcar story.  I took the train to Bondi Junction to catch the bus to Bondi Beach – this is one of the few tickets where you can combine your train/bus fare, which came to $8.40 return, off-peak (for a trip that takes less than half an hour total from Kings Cross station, and would have been $10.40 on-peak).  The trip there was fine, though the bus was overcrowded and the ticket dipper didn’t work well so it took forever to fill. There are also two machines to dip your ticket into so in theory you could walk past the driver, pretend to dip your ticket in the second machine, and get a free ride – on a crowded bus like that no one would ever know.  But anyway, before the return trip, I grabbed dinner at a vegetarian takeaway place a short walk from the beach, on Bondi Road.  I sat there eating for awhile and noticed the people at the bus stop immediately across weren’t changing.  By the time I got to the bus stop, many had given up and gotten in cabs.  I waited no more than half an hour (for an every-10-minutes-or-less bus route), but others that were there told me they’d waited more than an hour to get on a bus.  Meanwhile, less-than-a-quarter-full buses were going by every 2-3 minutes in the opposite direction.  The problem? The buses going in our direction were either so full they couldn’t let anyone on or were completely empty and “out of service.” Rather than short-turning a bus from the opposite direction, or keeping the “out of service” buses in service long enough to pick passengers up going back to the city, they just kept going as is.  And this was on a rainy day, when the beach was relatively un-busy.  The lack of flexibility in scheduling, despite Torontonians’ complaints about short-turns, meant that people were left stranded at bus stops for 6 times the normal duration between buses – and people got into taxis en masse.  I would estimate that half of the more-than-a-dozen people who were at the bus stop when I arrived got into a taxi before a bus finally came that we could get into.  This, dear readers, is why so many people in Sydney own
cars.

Canberra

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I only took a few buses in Canberra, but after Sydney they were a pleasure.  The ACTION bus network covers a pretty good range, with connections in the downtown bus platforms (which are only sometimes useful – at one point I wandered for 10 minutes trying to find a platform that was not in numerical order with the other platforms.  Combined with the previous bus having already been 5 minutes late, I clearly missed my connection).  A single fare is $4, but if you avoid travel before 9am and between 4:30 and 6 PM (or if you travel on weekends), a day pass is $4.60.  And even the single fares let you -transfer easily from one bus to the next, for travel up to 90 minutes. Even on-peak the daily fare is less than the price of two single fares.

Besides that, I don’t remember much unique about the Canberra system. I remember the buses being a little too cramped to transport ANY kind of luggage, which made the trips to and from the train station somewhat unpleasant.  At one point a driver gave me a student ticket without asking, and then asked after the fact at which point he said it didn’t really matter and let me continue paying the student rate – which was pretty nice!  The routes seemed to go along most of the major roads which made the coverage fairly reasonable but weekend schedules were really infrequent which can get annoying.  Otherwise, though, it was quite nice!

Adelaide

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This city stole my heart!  On so many levels.  But specific to transit: they had light rail! And it worked!  And it was FREE for a big portion of its route. FREE!!

I didn’t take the buses while I was there – the maps, explanations, and systems were all kind of confusing and there didn’t seem to be a direct route to the airport, though if there was I just didn’t know!  (In retrospect, I should have used Google Maps, as the system is entirely integrated into Google Maps, unlike many other transit systems I’ve used in the last year).  From what I gathered about the fare system it’s completely integrated for buses and trams, and you buy your ticket in advance from ticketsellers, etc, or on the vehicles themselves, based on a zoned fare.

The trams, though, I did ride a number of times.  They basically do a short return trip through the CBD and then a long straight line out to one of the suburbs.  They were wonderful.  Almost everything one could want in a light rail route – the only exception being that they didn’t have signal priority, and in a country where traffic lights take forever to change, that’s a big deal.  That said, they were clean, quick, frequent (every 15 minutes or less for most of the day, every 20 minutes or so after 11), and quite
large (some were about the length of three of the non-articulated standard streetcars in Toronto).  They had automated stop announcers (both audible and visual, and some vehicles even said the place names in both English and the local aboriginal language, when they differed).  They had dedicated lines through the city centre and then clearly-marked but not dedicated lanes a little farther out.  In the dedicated lanes, the rails were often surrounded by grass which also made them look quite pleasant.  The stops were every few blocks in the dense areas, and a little further apart as you got farther away.  The doors on the vehicles had buttons that served both as a stop request and as a “door open” button – preventing the need for the doors to open when no one wants to get in or out through that door (saving, presumably, on air conditioning costs).

Another interesting feature of Adelaide’s Metro system is that there was a transit information centre in the CBD.  It was under construction while I was there so I didn’t really get to explore, but it was basically like a tourist information centre, but for transit.  There were pamphlets, schedules, maps, and all that information that you need to take
transit in a city, as well as ticket sales and all the usual features of a transit station.  I wish I’d been able to spend a bit more time but it’s an interesting concept!

One final thing I noticed was that at the bus station (which is actually an intercity bus station, and also serves tour operators) there were a number of public transit pamphlets.  A few in particular, very prominently displayed, explained changes that were being made to routes in certain areas. They were addressed “to the householder,” as if they were actually delivered to each home. Imagine! A public transit system that tells its constituents when it’s making changes, as if they were nothing to be ashamed of!  As if it were somehow useful information to the residents!  Shocking! Brilliant!

Perth

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I was at first put off a bit by Perth’s transit system. Its website is completely confusing, and its system maps, if and when you can find them, are often completely baffling.  I ended up taking a taxi from the airport because I couldn’t find where either the city bus or the mid-priced shuttle picked up from at the airport.

Once I got to explore it a bit, though, it wasn’t as bad. The CBD has three bus routes that are completely free, come fairly frequently (except when they don’t come for no apparent reason, or are really early or really late – something that seems to happens regularly), and travel in circles around some of the major points of the city’s core.  It’s also, theoretically, free to ride the trains within the city – however, to do so, you need to have a fare card with money loaded on it, even though the balance won’t be deducted when you enter and exit within the Free Transit Zone (FTZ).  All the regular city buses are free if you travel within the FTZ as well, which roughly approximates the downtown core.

I took a train to Fremantle, which was overall an easy experience, but the fare system is messy.  First, the good – the system covers a reasonable area around the city, with trains running usually ever 15 minutes during the day to most parts of greater Perth.  All routes go through the CBD and interchange easily with one another.  One plus to the fare system – it’s zoned, similar to Vancouver, only the zones are formed by concentric circles. Either way, you pay one fare, it’s good for approximately 2 hours (longer for more zones), and you can switch between buses and trains and the ferry quite easily.  If you buy their fare card, which uses a “tag on, tag off” smart card system, you just get on the vehicle (or enter the station), tap your card on the reader when you enter, do the same when you leave, and that’s it.  Your card is deducted for the appropriate fare.  If you hit the cost of a daily pass, it caps your charge for the day and doesn’t charge any more (a significant improvement over the “will I use fewer than four tokens, or should I just buy a day pass?” gamble in Toronto).

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The downside of their fares – if you don’t have a card, you have to buy a cash fare. On the bus, this is simple enough, you tell the driver how many zones you’re traveling (or tell them your destination), they issue you a ticket for that number of zones after you pay them cash (exact fare not required).  On the train, if there’s a person on duty it works the same way, or you can buy your fares from a machine.  A machine that may or may not take coins, may or may not take notes, and/or may or may not take debit cards (and certainly does not take credit cards).  It took me close to ten minutes to buy my fare to Fremantle – first, the card reader didn’t specify the direction in which to swipe the card and didn’t detect a card swiped the wrong way so it basically just didn’t react.  Then it declined my transaction because I chose “credit” instead of “chequing” (both should access my chequing account, the “credit” option provides additional card protection that Visa provides) – which wouldn’t have been a problem if it either a) didn’t offer me the option to use credit in the first place or b) told me that’s why it was declined.  Eventually I figured it out and got a ticket.  But unlike Sydney (or virtually any other network that uses gates to access its stations), the machine simply issues a receipt-style ticket.  A tiny piece of paper that said what my fare was good for and the date/time.  I then had to show this manually to a guard observing the only non-electronic gate, and carry it with me as the system is all proof-of-payment.  For a network that has a highly-elaborate smartcard system, it seemed backwards for its non-smartcard fares.

One side note – something I really liked is that they have something similar to RequestStop, whereby any time after 7PM they will let anyone off between stops (if it’s safe to do so).  Toronto only does this for “women traveling alone” – while I can see how this reduces unnecessary stops, the assumption that everyone else is somehow safe from whatever danger women traveling alone are supposed to face is bizarre, and it was nice to see a policy that doesn’t discriminate based on gender.

Melbourne

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A lot of Melbournians like to complain about their public transport.  If only they compared it to Sydney they’d realise how great it is. Melbourne’s fare system is very similar to Vancouver’s, and is in the process (early 2011) of upgrading to an even more advanced one.  Its entire network is integrated; that is, buses, trams (light rail), and suburban trains all use the same fare media, and fare prices.  Melbourne has a very simple zone system: there is one zone (zone 1) which covers most of the central part of the city, and a second zone (zone 2) which forms a big circle around it.  You pay a single fare which allows you unlimited travel within the zone(s) you pay for, for up to two hours.  One bit of genius they’ve come up with would actually work to solve Vancouver’s zone problem: they’ve created a “zone boundary overlap” which is an area covered by fares for either zone and geographically between the two zones. That is, if you’re traveling from zone 1 to zone 2, you pay for two zones, if you’re traveling from zone 1 to the zone boundary overlap, you only pay for one zone.  This solves the problem of starting a trip near the zone boundary and having to pay for two zones or having to change your route to avoid traveling through the second zone to get to your destination.

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 Myki fare machine

Fares are currently done on the Metcard, which is basically a paper card with a magnetic strip that can be read by a machine.  You can purchase fares from a machine directly on a tram, at a select number of stops, and at a whole bunch of stores (including a store that is run by the transit agency itself in the Melbourne CBD).  When you board the tram you’re supposed to dip your ticket into a machine to validate it (every time – even if you’re continuing a trip – so they can keep complete usage stats); on the trains you run it through the turnstile on the way into the station – in all cases your ticket remains as your transfer to get from one vehicle to the next.  They’re in the process of rolling out Myki, which is similar to London’s Oyster card, a plastic card that you tap on a machine on the vehicle or turnstile.  In all cases, it’s a proof-of-payment system – which makes boarding trams very quick and efficient.  Sundays are the best day to travel – an all-day pass is only $3 for all zones!  The best part of the Myki card is that it will always charge the lowest fare – you tap it every time you get on a vehicle and if your total trip come to more than the cost of a day pass, you only pay the cost of a day pass, which eliminates the need to guess in advance if you’ll be taking enough trips to warrant the cost!

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Melbourne is one of the few cities outside of Europe that has kept and maintained its tram / light rail network, and it has quite an extensive reach with its Yarra Trams system.  Most of the inner suburbs are reachable by tram from within the city, and the network intersects with itself enough to make traveling in and around the city very easy.  In the city centre the trams run in dedicated right-of-way lanes on the streets, and in some of the inner suburbs they travel in their own rights-of-way (through parks and other off-road areas) but most trams outside the CBD run down the middle of the street similar to those in Toronto.  The trams are supplemented by a rail network which runs fairly frequently but stops less frequently, allowing for faster travel to further destinations.  There are also buses that go across the streets that aren’t served by trams, and I’ve taken a couple of them and they’re fairly reasonable – never exactly on time but never that late either.

 Arrival times screen

The transit riding experience in Melbourne is so simple. There are maps posted everywhere that clearly show the tram routes, their destinations, and where they stop – even the tourist maps (both on paper and posted in countless places in the city) have the tram and train routes shown clearly on them.  Most of the stops in the city have a screen that shows all the trams that stop there, their destination, and the time of the next one.  This is in addition to clearly-marked signs on the safety rails that protect the tram stops from the street, as well as signs clearly shown on the vehicles themselves.  Another great feature is that every tram stop has an assigned number – so despite the lack of automated audible or visible stop announcements (some drivers do announce the stops but many don’t), you can generally figure out where you are by the stop number, assuming you looked up the number of your destination in advance (or on their free iPhone app).

One downside is the only the newest sets of trams are easily wheelchair accessible – Melbourne still uses a number of older trams that, like Toronto’s old streetcars, require multiple steps to board.  Still, even the oldest vehicles have driver controls at both ends, and doors on both sides. This means it’s very easy for the vehicles to manoeuvre the streets, and at the end of the line there’s no need to build space-consuming turnaround loops as the driver just has to get out, walk to the other end, and start driving again.  Sadly, they still haven’t fully automated all of their track changes, so changing tracks still sometimes requires the driver to get out and manually switch the track to the route’s direction.

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An interesting phenomenon the city has developed to deal with cars blocking tram lanes is the “hook turn.”  In the CBD area a number of intersections require vehicles that are turning right (which, on a left-hand-drive road, is equivalent to a right-hand-driver’s left turn) to turn from the left lane.  This allows the cars to be out of the way of other drivers and, more importantly, the trams while the straight-ahead light is green.  Once the intersection clears, they then make a long right turn across the intersection – without having blocked the intersection waiting to do so.  It works in theory, but is often terrifying to watch as even in only a few days I witnessed a number of near-misses.

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There’s also a free tourist tram which is a nice recognition of the value of trams to Melbourne.  It runs in a circle around the CBD, and uses historic vehicles which have been maintained in excellent condition – it’s so nice being somewhere that prides itself on its public transport!

Queensland

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Most of Southern Queensland is connected with a single, integrated, transit system called TransLink.  Like its similarly-named counterpart in the Greater Vancouver Area, the same fare system (and network website) is used for buses, trains, and ferries.  Unlike Vancouver, though, most of the system is privately owned and operated by Veolia (which is the same company that runs Sydney’s ridiculous light rail and monorail systems).  And if you want an example of why privatised public transport doesn’t work – Southern Queensland is IT!

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I didn’t use (or need) transit much when I was in the Gold Coast.  I really just needed it to get to and from the airport.  I wanted to take a regular bus, since I was staying directly on the highway so there was one bus route that went straight from the airport to my hotel.  When I arrived at the airport there was zero signage indicating where public transit buses went, and my only option was the expensive shuttle bus (which is also run by TransLink), which almost missed my hotel and ended up dropping me off a few blocks away (a big deal when it involves crossing a highway with luggage!)  The return trip was worse – I booked the shuttle, which didn’t show up on time.  I got a call from the shuttle operators that due to construction they would prefer to pick me up across the road (a process which takes 5-10 minutes – see my pedestrian post on that one!)  This call came 5-10 minutes after they were supposed to pick me up, but I crossed anyway.  One of their shuttle buses almost drove right by me, and only stopped because I was waving my arms madly at it.  I wasn’t on their list; it turned out a different bus was to pick me up, which came by about 10 minutes later as I heard over the driver’s radio.  It’s a good thing I got on the one I did, though, as I arrived at the airport with barely minutes to spare to check in for my flight.  If I’d gotten on the bus I was supposed to, I would have missed my flight altogether.

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Shuttles aside, the regular transit in the city of Brisbane is sort of average.  The city has a well-developed busway, so developed, in fact, that it might as well be a subway. It’s dug underground and set aside for buses only – no other vehicles can travel on it.  It’s incredibly fast – buses come fairly frequently and get to their destinations in what seems like no time.  The trains are also fairly quick, but incredibly infrequent – the airport trains only run every half hour, and are usually quite full by the time they leave.  The ferries are iconic, and the view itself is worth the fare.

 IMG_0035Bike racks on the CityCat

Speaking of fares – they’re through the roof.  If you don’t have a “go card” (this is TransLink’s smart ticketing system, and you can only get a card by applying and providing a whole lot of information – a time-consuming and onerous process even for a casual rider who lives in the city, let alone a visitor), a single zone fare is $3.90.  Granted, this gives you up to two hours to travel within that single zone, but the zones are really small.  To get from my hotel in Woolloongabba (directly across the river from the CBD), it was two zones – a $4.60 fare, one way, to get into the city.  The airport fare, with its extra gate charge, came to a whopping $38 return – given the train only ran every half hour, it would have been worth the extra few dollars to take a taxi.  That said, you can get all the way to the Gold Coast from Brisbane by train (and bus for the tail end of the trip) for less than $25.

Of course, there’s no way I would have made my way around on transit if I didn’t have an iPhone and hadn’t thought ahead to download some of the maps into iBooks.  I accidentally got on the wrong bus once, even despite this.  The buses didn’t have stop announcers (the trains did), and it was generally ambiguous where buses went.  The Busway Stations didn’t have maps. They had little line diagrams that sort of showed where some of the routes that stopped there went, but no actual maps showing where those stops were in relation to the city.  The ticket machines were also incredibly confusing – since the zones are concentric circles you have to select the “low zone” and “high zone” through which you’re traveling.  I figured this out eventually, but what that means is you select the lowest zone number you’ll be in and the highest zone number you’ll be in, and it calculates how many zones you travel through, since you have to travel through zones 4, 5, and 6 to get to zone 7 from zone 3 (for example).  It certainly confused me, though, when trying to buy my ticket (with CASH ONLY) from their computerised machines.  Of course, if you had a go card, you could pay by credit or debit card – but not for single fares.  In theory, the entire system was POP, but buses required front-door entry so it wasn’t really all that beneficial – it didn’t actually save any time.

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As an aside, one really pleasant thing about public transit in Brisbane is that everyone (and I mean everyone) thanked the bus driver when they got off the vehicle.  And not just when they got off at the front door – even people disembarking at the back would should a “thank you!” up to the front of the bus.  It was rather pleasant, especially since many of the drivers were not as friendly as the passengers!  The drivers ranged from really-friendly, really-helpful to grumpy and useless.  I had one who hassled me about my ticket (which was valid but I didn’t show it clearly enough for him), and another, when asked if he stopped at any train stations, answered with “I stop at Mater Hill Station.”  After giving him a puzzled look (because I didn’t recognise that as a train station name) he then said “I also stop at South Bank,” which I knew immediately as the nearest rail station.  I learned later that Mater Hill Station was the Busway station between Woolloongabba Busway Station and South Bank Station.  To be fair, as a general rule, Queenslanders tend to answer a different question than the one you asked, but this was still not a useful response!  Anyway, I’ve lost my point here – other drivers were also very friendly and helpful, most were chatty without being distracted, and were willing to help with directions.  One even got asked for directions by another motorist while stopped at a red light and she more than happily obliged.

One final anecdote of how inefficient the system was – I took a bus up to Mount Coot-Tha, which is just outside the city and has some really nice views.  When it was time to go back, I waited at the bus stop for the bus which arrives half-hourly.  A bus arrived at the time it was scheduled, carrying passengers from the city.  When it arrived, the driver notified us that the bus was at the end of its route and was not taking on new passengers (Mount Coot-Tha is the terminus for that bus route).  This bus drove away, empty.  A few minutes later (and, thus, a few minutes late) a new, empty, bus arrived from the city to begin the route to the city.  I haven’t been able to figure out any possible logic that could make that a better way to do things than to have the arriving bus simply continue its route by returning the way it came.  At least the return bus had a broken fare machine so the driver refused to accept our payment. It almost made up for the expensive fares I paid the rest of the week.

Summary

I can only conclude based on my personal preferences, but some of my overall views on the best features of public transit systems:

Fare media – I think the best system needs to combine some of the existing ones.  A tag-on, tag-off, plastic card (or tab) system like Melbourne or Perth have / will have seems perfectly logical — it means only carrying around one “thing” if you’re a regular transit user.  If implemented in such a way that no matter what, you always pay the lowest cost, it would be ideal.  The most logical system to me would be one where tagging on and tagging off will automatically charge your account for a single fare subject to a standard discount (if this were linked directly to a credit or debit card, all the better).  In addition, this system would work best if a daily, weekly, monthly, and annual cap were applied, such that you never pay more than the price of a pass for that period (as is the case with some systems today).

A plastic card cannot, however, replace single-fare or multi-fare paper media – for visitors to a city to be able to use the transit system it needs to be accessible, which means making fares easy to pay. One should still be able to pay by cash or card at a machine in stations or stops, or on the vehicle, or from a person.  If a system is going to continue to have paper fare media for anything more than a single trip (which seems reasonable), it should still be somewhat electronic, even if it’s just a magnetic strip, to reduce fraud – and I think the better approach is to use a single piece of paper for multiple fares (such as Sydney Buses’ “TravelTen,” but ensuring that all vehicles have a machine to cancel the ticket), rather than selling booklets of tickets (as Vancouver does).

Fare system – One of my biggest frustrations of public transit in the last year has been the fare systems in Sydney, and having seen how well it can work in other cities, I’ve become increasingly frustrated even with cities like Toronto.  Public transit fare systems need to be integrated for people to actually be willing to use the system for their whole trip.  That means that one singular ticket (or card) will get you onto every mode of transit (buses, ferries, light rail, subways, suburban rail, monorail, etc) in a wide geographical area, regardless of whether it’s a single fare or a multi-use / longer-period pass.  I would actually love if eventually there could be one singular ticket/card system that would be valid for all public transit within a province/state or a whole country, but recognise that may be impractical for many governments at this stage (with sufficient political will, I’m confident that NSW could achieve this fairly easily).

I support a modified Proof-Of-Payment (POP) system – where your fare swiped/tagged, but not manually checked, while entering a vehicle on surface routes but where you must swipe/tag to get into a station.  The amount of time this saves is obvious to anyone who’s ridden similar vehicles on both types of systems… but the system needs to be consistent across an entire network and not just on one or two routes (as it is in Toronto), as the confusion of this seems to kill any real time savings.  Most importantly, though, POP systems need to allow for all-door entry, or the whole point is defeated — very little time is saved by forcing everyone to queue up to get onto the bus anyway.

Finally, given the above, I think having zones in a transit  system are inevitable.  These need to be reasonably large enough that they’re not likely to affect a significant number of short-distance riders, and should be logical enough to make it easy (I like the Vancouver approach of having the municipal borders match the zone borders).  I also like the Melbourne “zone boundary overlap” to allow riders who enter close to a border not to have to go in circles to save money.  Finally, I think a timed ticket makes sense — paying one fare for a two-hour (or other reasonable time period) trip.  This could be easily integrated into a tag-on/tag-off plus paper single-fares system.

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Modes of transit – Where they’re logistically possible, I love ferries. They usually have some of the most direct routes and are pretty fast.  Obviously, they can’t work in most places, but I do think they’re underutilised by a lot of cities – Toronto and Vancouver being two notable examples.  Heavy rail (subway and/or commuter rail), while expensive, tends to be the most reliable (from my perspective as a rider), and is fast… but doing it with diesel trains is so outdated, and is so unnecessary given the technology available – electrified is the way to go.  Light rail tends to be a little slower, but if done properly (as in Melbourne) can be just as efficient as heavy rail – for lower cost.  Buses, in my view, should be a last resort for public transit — used to fill in gaps between rail vehicles, or to serve areas where rail is simply not practical (from a volume or geographical perspective).  Busways are wonderful, but I can’t fathom any logical reason for them not to simply be electrified and/or put on rails, given that they take up about as much space as, or more space than, a rail right-of-way anyway.  And, um, monorails are best left to the amusement parks in which they first appeared.

Integration – In addition to fare integration, transit systems need to integrate with one another – across modes and geographical areas.  One of the worst features of any network is a big dead zone, or two routes that come close to one another without connecting.  It should be simple to get on a suburban train, arrive at a station, and get on a local bus or light rail route to the ultimate destination.

Hours of service – I truly believe all transit systems should run 24 hours. I totally understand the need to reduce the frequency of service during off-peak hours, but people need ways to get to and from work and to and from play at all hours of the day.  As a regular transit rider who likes to go out late at night, it always seems like the last vehicle operating runs about half an hour or an  hour before I actually need it.  I truly believe that if there were reliable public transit at all hours (and I don’t mean one hourly-and-overcrowded bus, I mean reasonable service), there would be far fewer people drinking and driving.

Stop announcements – Every transit system should have both visible and audible stop announcers on every single vehicle, without exception. This isn’t just helpful to people with disabilities – it helps everyone from tourists to residents.  In addition to the stop name, it would also be useful to know about connecting services – announcing the intersection as well as the routes that can be connected to at that stop makes it easier to clearly identify the right stop.

Maps / Websites / Apps — First, these should be free… paying for information on a public transit system (I’m thinking primarily of apps) discourages people from obtaining it, and, in turn, using the system. As much as I hate the concept, I think networks need to be uploaded into Google Maps and clearly visible.  Websites need to be minimalist in appearance while providing the maximum amount of information — there’s only so much people need to know about transit systems, but what does need to be learned should be easy to access and clearly explained in a straightforward manner (it took me three weeks to figure out you couldn’t switch buses on a single Sydney Buses fare).  Maps should also be available in an offline format, and should always include all the routes that cross through whatever part of the city is covered by the map — because I lived on the border of 2 or 3 different area maps for Sydney and they only showed routes that both started and finished in that area, looking up a bus route required viewing three different files!

Overall, a transit system should be easy to access, affordable, and require minimal effort.  One should be able to do everything from figuring out the route to paying the fare to taking the trip with ease.  Until then, all the negative stereotypes of public transit, and all the arguments people have against transit and in favour of driving, will never be resolved.

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5 responses to this post.

  1. I thought Translink’s buses are mostly operated by Coast Mountain Bus Company (a Translink subsidiary). The only other operator I know of is West Vancouver Blue Bus.

    Reply

  2. […] for the weary walker or jogger.  And people do walk here.  It might have something to do with the transit systems (which in many cities are awful), or something to do with the weather, but there are always lots of […]

    Reply

  3. […] right in Melbourne is already a bit of a disaster with its hook turns (more about this in my transit post); doing so on a bike even more difficult.  There were a number of ambiguous street markings and […]

    Reply

  4. […] of municipalities in Canada.  This is not always a good thing (as you’ll see later in my post on public transit), but it means the municipalities have relatively little to do compared to Canada’s.  Generally, […]

    Reply

  5. […] On Public Transit / Public Transport […]

    Reply

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