Travel Early, Travel Free – Reducing Congestion on Singapore’s MRT

Last week, Steven wrote an interesting post about the psychology of travel decisions for public transit riders.

Unlike driving, riding a bus or train tends involve a host of a variables  (i.e. ticket price, wait times, transfer times, and dwell times) which ultimately affects a passenger’s decision. One of these factors, price, is probably one of the largest determinants in the minds of a passenger.

Knowing this fact, Singapore’s MRT system this past summer implemented an innovative 1-year pilot program to combat congestion — Travel Early, Travel Free.

The program is very straightforward — passengers who “tap out”/exit before 7:45am from one of sixteen designated MRT stations will not be charged for their ride.

Officials hope that for those who are willing to alter their schedules, they will travel just slightly earlier to help spread out the peak, and thereby, reducing peak hour crowding.

To help riders understand how their decisions can affect congestion, the LTA posted some telling images of what a huge difference 15 minutes can make.

730am. Bishan Station.

745am. Bishan Station.

800am. Bishan Station.

830am. Bishan Station.













Their overall objective is to entice 10-15% of riders to take advantage of this program. And to sweeten the deal, they decided to offer early-bird commuters free coffee on the first three days.

Whether or not this trial is successful remains to be seen but the results of this should definitely interest those in the public transit field.

While I do think this program will yield positive outcomes, one odd thing that I immediately noticed was the absence of a “leave early, leave free” deal. I mean, if you’re trying to reduce congestion during the morning, shouldn’t a similar program exist during the afternoon?

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Is Public Transit Merely a Means of Mobility?

Post by Charlotte Boffetti.

Undoubtedly, one of the primary reasons for building subways, streetcars, and cable cars is to improve urban mobility. These systems are designed to transport passengers from one destination to another. And in the minds of many transit planners and engineers, this unfortunately tends to be the sole motivation – however, I feel that public transit is much more than a simple means of transport.

Around the world, through planned and/or spontaneous efforts by passengers and cities, surprising, beautiful and unconventional uses of the transit network often emerge.

The transport network can be a place of expression, of art and even fun. As an element of an urban space, people find many ways to reappropriate a public transit system.

For example, subways are often playgrounds for street artists. It offers a huge platform for expression and diffusion. Sometimes the goal is just to create a nicer environment and sometimes it is to convey a political message. I, myself, am really sensitive to all forms of expressions found in the transport network that makes my travel more interesting.

In my city of Lyon, France, street art can be found adjacent to more conventional art. Since the subway was opened in 1978, it has displayed many different types of artwork. Unfortunately, over the years, many of these displays have been neglected. So last year, the director of transportation started an “Art Metro” initiative to upgrade the artwork and make it more noticeable for passengers.

On one hand, one of the goals was to take art out of museums and make it accessible to all members of the public, while on the other hand, it was to improve the subway’s overall design and enhance passengers travel.

Public art in Hotel de Ville Station on Lyon’s Metro Line A. Image from Systral. 

Many cities have taken similar kind of initiatives which sought to improve the transport network’s appearance, and thereby in hopes of improving the overall travel experience.

Stockholm T-Bana

Station T-Centralen on Stockholm Metro. Image by Flickr user Kotka Molokovich.

Subway Munich - Germany

Candidplatz Station on Munich Metro. Image by Flickr user kleiner hobbit.

But does this really change anything for the users taking transit? In my opinion, art really does enhance the travel experience. But moreover it changes a transport system’s representation and perception. A subway’s representation can be changed from a long, cold and grey tunnel to a colourful and welcoming place.

In turn, the transport network becomes so much more than a simple place of passage, it becomes a place of life. And this becomes especially important, if you’re like me, where I find myself spending more than 2 hours each day on a train.

London Subway, 1970s-1980s. Reading, sleeping, talking, the transport network is a place of life. Image by Bob Mazer from

Aside from art, a transit network is also a social gathering space.

For instance, a few years ago the London Tube hosted events called the “Circle Line Party”. Participants would decorate a subway train, bring musical equipment, food, alcohol and party into this unconventional space. The participants claim that these parties are not meant to disrupt travel, but to “reclaim the public space from advertisers and give it back to the people to whom it belongs”.

Circle Line Cocktail Party

Last Circle Line Party. Image by Flickr user David Elstob.

In 2008,  Mayor Boris Johnson banned drinking alcohol on public transport and on the eve of the ban, thousands of people joined in the subway to celebrate the last night of legal drinking. Unfortunately, when the celebrations came to a close, several passengers and staff were injured along with several arrests.

I feel that most people have enough self-control and self-discipline to be afforded this privilege should they remain respectful to other passengers.

Two ladies drinking responsibly on the London Tube – 1970s-1980s. Image by Bob Mazzer from

My point is not to encourage drinking in public space, but to question how we should use public transport and how certain activities should be regulated.

What is important to understand is that the transport network is not merely a neutral place with just one simple function. Of course a transport system is used for mobility, but as we can see from the examples above, it is also a place of expression, of creation and sometimes of recreation.

Integrating art, colour and unconventional elements in the transport network can improve the travel experience for passengers, and thus alter its perception and its role in the eyes of the public.

If you can think of any other unique and/or interesting examples/project that has enhanced and altered a passenger’s  journey on public transit, please feel free to share!





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Essential Services vs. Essential Services

Swiss Ticket Machine

Image via flickr user eti.

You can talk about “Essential Services” in one of two ways:

The first way is as a commodity, as a necessity of society or as a basic provision of life. More often than not, these essential services take the form of monopolies and organized cartels. They’re necessary and useful, but rarely ever pleasant.

The second form of essential services are seemingly unnecessary services that go so far above and beyond the call of duty, that improve your well-being so greatly, that raise the bar so high; they become necessary accoutrements—they become an essential part of your life.

An emergency room, a public transit system and the police are essential services in the first sense that they are some of the bare minimum of services any responsible society needs to function.

Dropbox, on the other hand is an essential service in the second sense—it makes our lives infinitely easier, better and more pleasant to the extent that it becomes a regular part of our world; that it becomes essential.

Too often, public transit is the former, and not the latter.

That occurred to me on a recent business trip. As regular readers know, I spend a fair amount of time in Switzerland for personal and professional reasons. And when there, I use a prepaid cell phone.

On a recent morning sprint to the train station, I realized that—owing to a long weekend where all the stores were closed—I hadn’t topped up my phone and was desperately short of credit. As a foreigner, my provider’s online web portal doesn’t accept my credit card, so I was used to going to the supermarket to top it up.

Now normally that wouldn’t be a problem, except I was travelling to a city I had only been to once (three years ago) and had no idea what my train connections were and had not time to go to the ticket counter to request a schedule.

How wonderful, then, to learn that the train ticket vending machine also allowed me the option to purchase credits for my cell phone on the network of my choosing. And here’s the kicker: Instead of issuing a confusing receipt with a seemingly endless code to add credit to the phone, I instead received a simple text message informing me that my phone had been credited as per my request and the balance would be charged to my credit card.

In other words, the train station method of buying cell phone “guthaben” (as the locals call it) was a more pleasant, convenient and intuitive method than other more traditional means. It’s also a heck of a lot more convenient than standing in line at the grocery store.

There’s nothing “essential” about a train station ticket vending machine that allows you to buy cell phone “guthaben.” Life goes on without it and I’m sure I could’ve managed enough mangled German to figure out how to get where I was going. But here’s the thing:

The service was so good, so useful and so surprisingly intuitive that it became, for me, essential in the time it took to complete the transaction (roughly 15 seconds). That’s an Essential Service of the second variety.

Public transit needs to stop thinking of themselves as essential services of the first variety (read: monopolies) and instead start reimagining themselves as Essential Services of the second.

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100% True Story

I was recently at a friend’s 30th birthday party back in Toronto and I was flying solo. I was at a table of old friends.

Maybe I should rephrase that. It was a table of people who were old friends of each other’s. I was the odd man out. They didn’t know me, I didn’t know them. No big deal.

The topic – as is typical in congestion-plagued Toronto – shifted to transit and the typical debates over buses vs. streetcar vs. light rail vs. subway.

Now in situations like this I have to be careful. I’m not going to jump up and down with the word “gondola” frothing at my mouth because that would just be strange and awkward.

So I generally just keep that information to myself and instead flex my transit nerd credentials by demonstrating how Toronto’s new light rail vehicles and lines aren’t actually light rail . . . which is what I did.

Out of no where a man at the table piped up with this idea he’d read about in some paper (probably either here, here or here) about using ski lifts as public transit.

No word of a lie, he turned to me and asked “so does that, like, work?”

An hour-long discussion ensued with most people coming around onside.

Sometimes the most satisfying part about my work are tiny, wonderful moments like that.

I love stuff like that.

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The Feasibility Paradox

Here’s a general rule we like to live by at CUP:

No matter how great your numbers are, if you can’t get anyone to read your feasibility study, then your project isn’t feasible. Full stop.

It’s a paradox, yes. A feasibility study should not inject itself into the feasibility process. It is supposed to be cold and impartial. The numbers and the analysis should speak for themselves. But we know that’s not the case now, don’t we?

Whether we like to admit it or not, planning isn’t a purely rational and comprehensive excercise because people aren’t solely rational and comprehensive. In this day and age it’s therefore necessary to engineer our documents in such a way that they’re understandable, enjoyable and easy to read.

To some planners that may sound shallow and glib, but it’s not. Those planners are likely to argue that their analysis and numbers are all that matters, nothing more.

Perhaps that was true at one time, but not so much any more.

Of course sound analysis and rigorous number-crunching are important – but they’re only part of the battle. The reason? Nowadays almost everyone’s analysis and number-crunching will be sound and rigorous. Everyone’s got Wikipedia and Google Earth and Microsoft Excel and Whatever Beta 2.0.

You’re not going to score points for sound analysis and good numbers. You’re going to score points for how you communicate not what you communicate. You’re going to score points for crafting work that advances a project an idea or a philosophy – presuming, of course, that your analysis is sound.

In other words: Your study and project is competing against every other study and project. We don’t tend to think of reports, studies and projects in those terms, but that’s the reality. Your studies and projects are competing for government and business dollars. And the way one accesses those dollars are through the attention-span of the decision-makers.

So next time you finish your study, take a second to look at it and ask yourself a very hard, very honest question:

If you hadn’t been the one to write it, would you even bother to read it? Would you bother to pick it up out of a pile? Would you even know that it existed?

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The Hohenwerfen Castle Funicular

This is a guest post by Ross Edgar.

Hohenwerfen Castle. Photo by “Sir James”

There are few castles in Europe more iconic than Hohenwerfen Castle which stands imposingly over the town of Werfen, 40km (25 miles) south of Salzburg on the Austro-German border. The fortress dates back to 1075 but in more recent years featured in the 1968 film epic ‘Where Eagles Dare’ in which the castle played the part of ‘Schloss Adler’.

Despite its considerable history the fortress is home to an altogether more modern means of transport to provide access from the valley below. From the castle’s car park visitors board a modern funicular which carries passengers from the foot of the hill into the heart of the fortress itself.

Hohenwerfen Castle single track funicular. Photo by Ross Edgar.

However, this funicular is far from conventional. Firstly, the funicular system only features a single car rather than the more conventional two cars. This is most likely due to the relatively short distance covered by the funicular. In place of the second car which traditionally acts as a counterbalance for the first, a set of weights travel in the opposite direction below the funicular’s tracks.

But the most unconventional feature of the Hohenwerfen Castle funicular is that it functions in a manner similar to a hotel elevator. Passengers at either station can ‘call’ the funicular by means of a button located next to the entry door. Once aboard the funicular the passenger then chooses whether to go up or down through the use of a button within the car itself.

The result is that this funicular is totally independent of any input being required from the operator. Therefore staffing requirements are comparatively low when compared to other means of transit or even more traditional funiculars. What is more, being operated by the passengers themselves means that the funicular is able to respond immediately to the demands of the visitors to the fortress. Waiting times are therefore reduced and operating costs are cut as the funicular does not confirm to a rigid schedule.

Hohenwerfen Castle funicular station. Photo by Ross Edgar.

The potential application for such a unique cable system within an urban environment is compelling. Such a funicular would allow a local authority to connect two areas of a city at considerably different elevations without the costs associated with other forms of transport or even other cable systems. The automation of the system would reduce staffing requirements to a very basic level of supervision and the system would be much more cost effective compared to a system that operates continually regardless of passenger demand. Moreover, the use of larger cars or even the addition of a second car would increase capacity considerably.
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Verisimilitude and Why it Matters To Transit

Verisimilitude is a big word for a simple idea.

Verisimilitude refers, quite simply, to fictional works of art that don’t replicate reality, but instead create an approximation of reality that feels realer than actual reality.

TV shows built around lawyers, crime and courtrooms are notorious for this. CSI, Law & Order and Matlock have implanted in our collective popular consciousness an understanding of our legal system so divorced from reality you might as well just put it in a bikini, photoshop it, and slap it on the cover of Cosmo.

Ditto with television shows about doctors. Doesn’t matter that the world portrayed aren’t true or even really very accurate. The stories they tell feel real and credible to the people watching them and therefore take on a truth of their own.

So what stories are people telling about your transit agency? You can bet they aren’t good.

Too often we’re telling stories about how crowded the subway was.

Too often we’re telling stories about how late the streetcar was.

Too often we’re telling stories about how rude the bus driver was.

Too often we’re telling ourselves that buses are for losers and that transit is a weapon yielded largely by terrorists.

How often have we heard the tale about Benito Mussolini who, despite being one of history’s most despicable villains, is still remembered for miraculously making Italy’s trains run on time? That story – which isn’t true, by the way – isn’t about Mussolini. That’s a story about how the only thing capable of making Italian trains run on time is fascism.

Or how about the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC). TTC service quality has degenerated so much so that it’s become Torontonians’ de facto excuse for tardiness of any kind. You could walk into work, drenched in sweat, wearing bike pants and a helmet and everyone in your office would believe you if you moaned about how the TTC made you 45 minutes late.

The TTC has become the Toronto commuter’s equivalent to the dog that ate their homework. The only difference being that no one believes the dog ate your homework but everyone believes the TTC is solely responsible for ruining your day.

It doesn’t matter that the vast majority of transit functions perfectly well for the vast majority of users for the vast majority of time – that’s even true for the beleaguered TTC. But those bad experiences we have – and the stories we tell about them – build up and begin to craft a reality in the public’s mind that influences their willingness to use the system.

Ninety-nine trips out of a hundred could go perfectly, but it’s that one trip that we’ll remember. It’s that one trip we’ll tell everyone about. Statistics don’t mean a thing.

That’s verisimilitude in action.

Transit agencies don’t seem to worry much about what stories people tell about them – or if they do, we don’t see it. Ditto for most government agencies and large corporations in general. Why would they care? Their monopoly positions confer upon them the power not to care what stories people tell.

But a monopoly isn’t a right – it’s a privilege.

If you’re in a monopoly position, you have the greatest obligation of all to care about the stories people tell about you. You’ve gotta’ find a way to get people telling positive stories about you because if the only stories people are telling are negative, you may not be in a monopoly position for long.

And then what are you going to do?

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