To build a more sustainable future, the public transport industry is navigating many complex changes.
We’re moving towards electrification, zero-emission fuels, and renewable infrastructure. We’re also reimagining our networks to make them more flexible and customer-focused, using modern technology for fare collection and easier access.
These efforts must succeed, because effective public transport is key to the quality of life in our communities. It all begins with getting planning right.
What’s riding on network planning?
Now that the COVID-19 pandemic is in the rear-view mirror, we’re focusing on bringing riders back to public transport and attracting new ones. The service offer must be reliable, effective and relevant. But, like many industries, public transport is finding it hard to recruit and retain skilled staff.
Planners must design networks and service that meet the expectations of all stakeholders, including employees and customers. Only then can public transport fully serve our communities by connecting people to opportunities for work, education, health care and recreation.
What challenges are planners facing?
One of the biggest challenges with network planning is how complex it is. Planners need to understand travel demand across all the areas that the network serves. They have to know the characteristics of who’s travelling, why, when, how often, and where they start and end their journeys. Planners need this information at the bus-stop level. The complexity of this challenge grew even greater with the pandemic, which made travel patterns more variable and less predictable, and this continues to be true.
Planners must create scenarios, analyse them, and communicate with multiple stakeholders about their findings. Doing this using multiple tools that aren’t integrated and aren’t always accurate takes a lot of time. It can also lead to the runcuts produced by the scheduling application – after routes have been planned and approved – turning out quite different from the ones that were planned. Planners face the added pressure of adjusting to continuously changing demand patterns.
This explains why it can take months to plan new networks, and why service alignments and frequency updates often take weeks.
Achieving better service, using integrated planning tools
Integrated tools give planners access to better data – directly related to the current and future services on the street. This lets them produce more accurate plans, provide plans more frequently, and run more scenarios to evaluate the impacts of various network designs and approaches.
In their own sandbox environment, planners can work with real-life data from operations: real runtimes, passenger counts, travel patterns, vehicle costs, deadhead times, dwell times, and more. This lets planners create realistic scenarios that the scheduling and operations teams can put straight into practice.
Working with real-life data means that less contingency is needed, resulting in more vehicle hours. Having more service hours means higher frequencies, with shorter wait- and travel-times. This all results in higher-quality service.
Integrated tools also allow planners to align services across different modes more easily. No more bunching buses, and customers get better connections across the network. Planners can also quickly provide dashboards and heatmaps that help decision-makers and stakeholders understand the effects of proposed changes from their specific viewpoints.
With integrated tools increasing the planning team’s productivity and accuracy, we have observed time savings of 75% and more.
Focusing on equity: a win all round
With the right tools in hand, planners can make equity a primary consideration in network planning, for everyone’s benefit.
A concrete example comes from SORTA in Greater Cincinnati. They’ve used GIRO’s HASTUS-NetPlan integrated planning tool in their Reinventing Metro plan to redesign their Metro bus network.
Since the tool enabled them to work with real-life data from their operations, planners easily identified how a highly transit-dependent area was poorly connected to the Uptown area of Cincinnati. This was making five major hospitals less accessible, including Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.
Being able to design and compare different scenarios efficiently, SORTA’s planners could reduce travel times across the region. They demonstrated how low-income communities benefited the most from time-savings, with 50% more frequent services to targeted areas, and 12% more residents in the service area having direct access to medical services.
Through their Reinventing Metro Plan, SORTA became a leader in post-pandemic ridership recovery in the United States. They achieved 100% recovery by May 2023
By focusing on equity through using integrated planning tools, SORTA improved overall efficiency of travel on their Metro bus network by 20%. The community can now access 40,000 more jobs by Metro, of which 20,000 are higher-paying jobs. In a major win for equity, 45,000 additional transit-dependent persons in Greater Cincinnati now have access to the Metro bus network.
The way forward
Sustaining public transport’s key role in promoting vibrant, equitable cities depends on planners being efficient and effective. With the right planning tools and focusing on equity, they can meet the expectations of their fellow planners, management, schedulers, drivers, public transport authorities, and customers. The right tools are integrated, accurate, and efficient. And they let planners demonstrate the impacts and benefits of proposed changes effectively to the many stakeholders involved in public transport planning. Most importantly, they bring people together by making sure that those who need it the most have appropriate access to public transport.