Keys to successful waterborne public transports

How do different cities work with waterborne public transport? And what are the keys to successful transports? A report from KTH analyses waterborne public transport systems from 23 different cities. The report is written by Harsha Cheemakurthy, Karl Garme and Lighthouse Postdoctor Michael Tanko, all of them at KTH.

Photo: Prioryman, CC BY 3.0 (Wikimedia Commons)

The following is a extract from the reports final conclusions, download the report below.

Cities have designed their networks in a number of different configurations to meet local needs. This may depend on population density, surrounding land development and topographical constraints. However, one of the common themes is integration with other transport. The most successful cities have sought to include the planning of water transport early in transport and land use planning policies, something also concluded in the Swedish studies, Waterway 365 (Stenius et al. 2014) and Koll på vatten (Trafikverket 2015). The presence of a central publicly owned transport authority that is able to manage and plan a city-wide network is beneficial for facilitating this connection and the consideration of water transport as a key transport mode.

However, such planning and management may prove to be more difficult to implement in some contexts than others. For example, in cities with complex land ownership rights and difficulties in coordinating fragmented transport agency and private operator responsibilities, it’s possible that boat operators may be excluded from discussions on development of multimodal transit systems. Such circumstances are present in the case of Bangkok, where water transport has not been included in the future transport planning dialogue of the city moving forward, with instead an overemphasis and reliance on land based transit solutions.

Design and infrastructure
The design of vessels and supporting terminal infrastructure is also a key consideration in finding the right balance for each city. While systems were show to vary between locations, many cities have predominantly continued operating older vessels on primary boat routes. However, with the concurrent modernization of other public transport modes in terms of the use of more environmentally friendly fuel systems and inclusion of modern amenity features, there are question to the degree this progress has occurred in waterborne transit. Many cities have been hesitant in large scale investment in water based modes due in large part to the low economic return value when compared to the carrying capacity of other transit modes. Cities that have pursued modernization have either been led by private sector entrepreneurship, or strong political leadership focused on making longer term transformative change in the use of urban waterways for transport.

In the former case, the Thames Clippers system, while initially receiving government support, now operates largely on its own. The latest generation custom built catamarans in London cost around $3M USD with modern convenience on board. This is catered largely toward a cost insensitive market that is willing to pay for a “premium” service. In the latter case, other cities such as New York have decided to keep water transport in line with the fares of other transit services, a symbolic vote of confidence by subsidizing more modest vessels in order to facilitate passenger demand. In either case though, this requires belief that a system is viable in a specific context and the required investment to make it possible.

In this regard, empirical evidence has suggested that boat users value the transit experience differently when compared to other land based modes, raising questions as to what exactly constitutes passenger experience in water transit. It was shown that passengers travel more when compared to equivalent bus journeys and this suggests either aesthetic or productivity benefits that accrue to water transit users. Unpacking this distinction and understanding such attributes is needed in order to meet the demands of commuters when designing such systems. Furthermore, including such factors in expanded forms of Cost Benefit Analysis may also facilitate better decision making processes. Research has begun in this regard around the passenger experience in Stockholm, with future planned comparative studies in Brisbane and London to follow.

No best practice
The specifics of route design and managing operations of vessels and terminal infrastructure can be also be a key difference in determining whether a system is successful or not. While there are acceptable and widely used best practice guidelines for planning land transit networks, there is little empirical evidence that has looked at water transit specifically due to its recent development as a public transport mode. However, there are key differences that can potentially affect service viability, such as challenges in loading and unloading passengers quickly without increasing terminal times, and additional safety and vessel crew regulations that are unique to waterborne transport. Further research is therefore needed on incorporating these additional factors in developing best practices for transit route designs and timetabling that reflect the specifics needs of water transport. Work in currently ongoing at KTH to further address such issues in order to ensure vessel designs are congruent with such findings.

Environmental benefits
Finally, the environmental benefits of water transit may prove to be an important consideration for cities who wish to measure success by other metrics in addition to passengers numbers and economic benefits. Many inland waterways are currently underutilised, and by shifting transport to these waterways, benefits can be achieved in reducing not only vehicle pollution and congestion, but travel times. Another potentialavenue is shifting freight movements from urban streets to waterways to increase delivery  reliability and remove trucks and other delivery vehicles from congested streets. Such metrics could prove to be key indicators in the development of water transit in cities looking to achieve these environmental goals.