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Bus Los Angeles Lyon

Reorganizing the Bus System within the Network Hierarchy

» Lyon’s bus network is enlivened thanks to reorganization and new branding.

The advantages offered by street-running bus operations, such as offering a variety of routes and the ability to alter them at will, can sometimes be a curse. Many individual routes may provide direct service to and from specific destinations, but if they are not able to attract enough riders, the resulting low frequency of service makes them ultimately difficult to use for both those dependent and those choosing to use transit.

The New York Timesstory last week on the cancellation of a bus route in Los Angeles raised a number of questions about the manner in which bus routes operate. The Times signaled out L.A. Metro for supposedly being willing to sacrifice the mobility needs of a heavily transit-dependent community, forcing riders onto indirect buses that require transfers. But Metro’s efforts — intended to concentrate users on its most frequent services — will likely improve the quality of public transportation for far more people than are being hurt by the loss of a direct route that only comes every half hour or so. As Jarrett Walker noted, the poor frequencies offered by bus service on the cancelled route meant it was only quicker if the bus was there exactly when you needed it; more frequent services built on transfers will bring better transit for more people at all times of the day. And they mean better access to parts of the city not directly along the route of the local bus.

Indeed, reconfiguring operations to put different services in an understandable hierarchy, focusing better services on a grid of routes, is a tool transit systems must take advantage of to improve the ability of locals to get around by transit. Yet L.A.’s reforms have clearly not been well-enough publicized or justified to attract the understanding and support of much of the public.

In Lyon, France’s second-largest metropolitan area, a rebranding of the local bus system to come on line in late August offers the possibility of reworking the transit network so that it avoids many of these problems and improves service. Lyon already has high transit use, the region’s 1.76 million inhabitants using buses, trams, and the metro 1.24 million times a day. (Compare that to similar-sized U.S. regions Indianapolis and Charlotte, whose transit systems carry 30,000 and 83,000 passengers daily, respectively.)

For that city’s transit operators, there is room to grow — and certainly ways to make the system more convenient for its existing users, which explains why the transformation plan is being put into effect. Bus service kilometers will expand by 6%, but the TCL transit agency hopes that other reforms in service will be even more effective in encouraging increased ridership. A campaign building up to the change is designed to alleviate public concerns.

There are four basic components to the transformation plan: A reduction in the complication of bus routes by ensuring that the most-used routes always have the same origins and destinations and are branded uniformly all day; reliable, 10-minute all-day frequency on about a third of the bus corridors that complement the metro and tram networks; expanded circumferential bus routes that allow people to get from periphery to periphery without having to pass through or transfer in the center and produce a citywide grid of bus lines; and better connections between bus and rail at tramway and TER regional rail stops. The bus service change is branded atoubus, which, depending on how you read it, can mean either “bus for everyone” or “bus with assets.”

The introduction of 26 major bus routes branded “C” — just like the “M” for the metro, “F” for funicular, and “T” for tram — is perhaps the most significant change. Though bus rapid transit was introduced in Lyon in 2006, it only extended to two routes. Now this collection of branded routes, complemented by 71 more typical bus lines, fills out the network. On the maps, C routes are easily visible thanks to bolder line weights and clear, labeled station stops. One hopes the frequent network maps, including the C lines and the rail corridors, is positioned around the city.

For the sake of understanding, the network revision also takes an important step forward by eliminating attenae or partial termini from routes, a frequent source of irritation for users. Instead, all major bus routes in Lyon will have one origin and one terminus at all times of day. No longer will customers be caught confused by a bus number whose meaning changes seemingly at random.

Finally, the introduction of additional circumferential lines — five of the seventeen will be C lines — will allow better navigation of the city by those whose destination is not downtown. Since most of the rail lines are radial in nature, this improved bus network can in many ways fill the gap — as long as customers understand it, which explains the emphasis on new graphics, signs, and labeling.

As the maps below show, the improved network is designed to emphasize to users the equivalence of the frequent bus routes with the metro and tram. Though most of the routes have not been significantly changed, the map has been reworked to show which bus routes are most frequent. Buses that run only occasionally have been deemphasized, had their lines made more skinny, to reflect their place in the network hierarchy. For both tourists and locals attempting to get to parts of the city they have never accessed, this implies that it is possible to rely on some bus routes just as one would on a metro or tram: Without looking at a schedule.

Bus and rail network in Lyon’s 7th District before reorganization Bus and rail network in Lyon’s 7th District after reorganization

One of the significant advantages of Lyon’s approach is that it is heavily oriented towards customer perception, but involves little actual capital investment. By focusing on branding, TCL will be able to offer riders the feel of a vastly improved bus network — one whose frequent lines effectively double the scope of the rail network — with no initial spending on investments like bus-only lanes (though some may come later). If riders come to understand the changes, they will be able to get around the city in many cases more quickly thanks to well-marked bus routes that are integrated with the rail lines in a region-wide grid.

In many ways, this is what Los Angeles is attempting too, though perhaps its Metro Rapid branding of frequent bus routes is not as convincing as is Lyon’s atoubus (total transit ridership on L.A.’s Metro is little higher than that of Lyon’s CTL before the changes have been implemented, despite the fact that the former covers a far larger city). Indeed, if the Times‘ article misrepresents the value of the changes that city is making to its bus system, it is because the writers — and presumably many of the riders — fail to understand the added benefits of a transit system that relies on transfers and frequent bus routes on a grid of corridors. This is where, if implementation goes well, Lyon’s emphasis on customer communication and visible network connections may very well prove to be a model.

Images above: Trolleybus in Lyon, from Flickr user FaceMePLS (cc) (top); Before and after maps of Lyon bus and rail network, from TCL

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Light Rail Lyon

Lyon’s Rhônexpress Project Pioneers a New Way of Thinking About Public-Private Partnerships

» France’s southeastern metropolis readies a downtown-airport connection with help from the private sector.

After the collapse of the massive London Underground PPP scheme early this month, the future of major private involvement in the maintenance and operation of public transit systems was put on the skids. There, the city took back full control of a system whose maintenance and reconstruction had been signed off to private entities less than ten years before, claiming that municipal entities would be able to do the job keeping up the network more easily than had the PPP partners. Though there is no technical reason why such cooperation between the public and private sector had to fall apart, the recession underlined the vulnerability of having corporations assume risk over vital public resources.

The signing of a contract to operate two new transit lines between the Denver transit system and the private Denver Transit Partners, however, suggests that there may still be some merit to the idea of getting corporate involvement in public projects. Just finalized a few weeks ago, this agreement is too young to be evaluated on its merits.

But a new airport connection almost ready for operation in Lyon, France, provides an example of how such a cooperation might be structured efficiently and reasonably.

The Rhônexpress program will bring the Lyon Saint Exupéry Airport within 25 minutes of downtown’s Part-Dieu station every fifteen minutes. The line will operate using six Stadler tram-trains running on tracks partially shared with the T3 tramway line completed in December 2006.

The contract, signed in 2007 between the département (the French version of the county) and the Rhônexpress group, commits local entities to €31.35 million in expenses for the construction of a train maintenance center and a maximum of €3.5 million in annual subsidies for thirty years, increased at a standard 2% yearly rate. The French government also contributed €10 million. The private entity, operating under European Union rules for public service provision, has paid the majority of the corridor’s estimated €110 million construction costs and will be liable for any operational losses.

The Rhônexpress group is a cooperative between several French entities; it is controlled 36.6% by the Caisse des Dépôts et Consignations (a semi-public investment bank), 28.2% by Vinci (a contractor), and 28.2% by Veolia (a transit operator). Each has on its own been closely involved in other French public transportation programs.

Their willingness to commit to an initial investment in the line’s construction suggests that they expect it to be operationally profitable, at least above the €3.5 million subsidy they’ll be receiving every year to operate trains. Though the local and national governments have committed a total of €146.6 million to the project’s construction in 2007 dollars, that money is to be distributed over a course of 30 years. It will almost certainly be less than overall infrastructure and operations spending on the corridor.

Also, by agreeing to distribute most payments year-by-year rather than alone in the construction program, the local governments are minimizing the hit on any one annual budget. This could be a lesson for U.S. systems considering similar deals: Rather than pay for all of the infrastructure upfront and then assume that the operator can simply pay for operations, the local governments have ensured that the private group has a steady source of income throughout the 30-year contract — this may, in turn, have lowered the needed commitment to the initial infrastructure program. This could in turn be a relatively good deal for the governments.

Of course, whether the Rhônexpress program was worth any public investment at all is a matter that certainly merits debate. The new trains will replace the Satobus with a new service that is only five minutes quicker and almost 50% more expensive. Even if the project is profitable, it won’t improve service much for the region’s inhabitants. (Passengers are guaranteed a 50% discount if trains are ten minutes late and a full payback if they’re more than 20 minutes late.)

Nonetheless, Lyon proceeded quite reasonably in the implementation of this infrastructure project; a €146.6 million total commitment isn’t bad for a new airport rail link. But the city and its regional transit authority were smart: they have been planning since 2001 for this line and made a number of provisions in other transit projects to ensure lowered costs.

The region committed first to the T3 tram, which runs east from the Part-Dieu station in downtown Lyon to an industrial district. As part of that 9-mile project, the line included from the beginning bypass tracks at many of the stations — a minimal expense for a big payoff. Once the Rhônexpress project is up and running in August, the airport-bound trains, stopping at only two stops between downtown and the terminals, will be able to bypass local trams. On most of the tracks, the Rhônexpress will share tracks with trams and run at urban speeds. The only construction necessary for the new link, then, was a 4.3-mile track on a new alignment. There, the tram-trains will be able to reach 60 mph, not bad at all.

Lyon’s airport project suggests a reasonable way for private involvement in public infrastructure. Long-term payments, a commitment from corporate entities for initial infrastructure costs, and a reduction of costs through shared tracks with another transit program has likely saved the region money over the long-term.

Image above: Rhônexpress photomontage, from Rhônexpress