Public transit: lessons from the great cities of the world

The world’s largest cities are resorting to tough love to reduce traffic congestion and pollution, according to UBC urban planning and transportation expert Jinhua Zhao.

Zhao points to Shanghai which auctions off only about 10,000 car registrations each month. To get on the road, residents in China’s largest city of 23 million people must bid on vehicle license plates. Depending on the number of bidders, each license can cost as much as 60,000 yuan ($10,000 CDN).

And while residents complain about the cost, they have accepted the policy and are more concerned about the fairness and transparency of revenue use, says Zhao.

“Not only do these auctions help to reduce congestion, they provide a financing tool. Shanghai generates up to $5 billion yuan ($0.8 billion CDN) annually in revenue,” says Zhao, who serves as a commissioner for the China Planning Network, a think tank focused on China’s urbanization. He will discuss these and other strategies at next month’s annual conference for the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning in Cincinnati, Ohio.

“If you look at any of the great cities in the world, people have asked themselves ‘where do we want to be in 20 years’ and then found a way forward,” says Jinhua Zhao, an assistant professor jointly appointed in the Dept. of Civil Engineering and at the School of Community and Regional Planning.

In Beijing, for example, residents must enter a lottery to obtain a license plate. And in the U.K., drivers have to pay the equivalent of $13 CDN during week day work hours to enter central London—the world’s largest congestion zone.

“While these approaches may not offer Vancouver direct solutions, it helps to bring transportation and urban development options to the table that otherwise would not even be discussed,” says Zhao, whose research areas include public transportation, transportation economics and policy and information technology.

After all, hot button issues of public transit funding, congestion and neighbourhood density are only going to intensify, he says.

“Vancouver wants to grow by one million, so how does the city want to distribute that population? Is it possible for Translink to achieve their goal by 2040 that most trips are by transit, walking and cycling?”

Since joining UBC in 2010, Zhao has been helping Translink explore the use of an automatic data collection (ADC) system to improve public transit.  ADC refers to sophisticated systems that gather, merge and analyze data from passenger-use patterns and GPS-equipped buses and trains.

“ADC provides a spatial and temporal picture of how people are using transit and where it needs to improve,” says Zhao, who over the past decade has worked with New York, Hong Kong, Chicago, London and Boston to hone their ADC systems.

While public transport agencies in the past were limited to less reliable and costly data collection methods such as manual surveys, today’s planners can apply robust ADC tools to monitor, diagnose, and ultimately, design a better transportation system.

A case in point is the City of London, he says. “My team and I developed methods that have been used to refine public transit’s scheduling process and service quality measures. London was able to improve forecasts for customer demand and the provision of customer information.”

At Translink, Zhao is focusing on ADC data that will give users and planners a sharper picture of bus service reliability. “For example, customer information will report more than just the average travel time. It will also inform users the variation of the travel time, and the probability of bus arriving and getting to the destination on time.”

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