Redefining the value stream in Canadian public transit

Canadian public transit providers seem to be at a crossroads. The Toronto Transit Commission is seeing a downright revolt from its riders, Halifax can’t seem to get busses to arrive on time or with frequency becoming of a modern city, Charlottetown’s budding system is undergoing a complete overhaul after a drop in ridership, and others are all over the map. There is, however, an underlying connection between all Canadian public transit systems, one that doesn’t directly involve their funding (or, arguably lack thereof): the value stream.

Public organizations, as well as most corporations seem to view the value stream as minimizing the cost of their operation, no matter what. What sets successful organizations apart is the way they view their value stream. Integrated discussions with both suppliers and customers, ensuring that costs savings are achieved in the correct spots in the stream, and viewing the relationship with their customers (riders) in a different way.

Haligonians and Torontonians who ride the bus or streetcar with any frequency have surely seen drivers stop mid-route for a coffee break. This is an example of a practice that is entirely contrary to the concept of a value stream. First, the driver is taking a break while paying customers wait. This reduces the value of riding a bus in contrast to driving. Second, routes are not optimized from the perspective of serving the customer, since they use what Tim Bousquet of Halifax’s alt-weekly “The Coast” calls “California-style scheduling.” He means the busses all arrive at the hub at once, then leave a long gap before the next bus comes. It works well in California, where missing your bus means sitting in the sun, but not in Halifax, where it means freezing to death. Since Halifax’s busses often follow similar routes between the hubs, this practice is arguably silly, and could probably be refined.

When I lived in Europe, bus drivers never took a coffee break mid-route, even on the most rural of routes. I’m not arguing that drives should not be entitled to breaks – they should. In Europe, the drivers were swapped out at the central terminal, as well as other hubs when necessary, allowing them to take a break in the break room, with (presumably) comfy chairs and no paying customers to upset. With some re-alignment, this would not be impossible to achieve in Halifax or Toronto. Some drivers may get their break a minute or two early, some a minute or two late, but a competent management should be able to sell such a plan to the union, particularly if drivers are offered some form of compensation when breaks are curtailed.

With regard to route scheduling, two solutions immediately jump to mind. One is to realign the routes to cover the main arteries as frequently as every five minutes. Then, feeder routes would aim to arrive at the transfer point with about 3 minutes to spare, allowing customers to be whisked away quickly. The busses running down the artery should, but don’t have to, follow the exact same path. minor deviations can be accounted for in scheduling. This type of system was well implemented in Aachen, Germany, as well as a few other cities that I’ve visited. The second solution is to change the procedure for busses to leave transfer points. If a bus is marginally late (perhaps one minute or less) arriving at the transfer point, the departing bus should wait to allow passengers to connect. This would accelerate the travel of riders through the system, though has the potential to backfire if the same bus is held back several times (though more data would be required to confirm this assumption).

Changing drivers mid-route, or at the end, and having them take another route after the break has two key benefits. The first is reducing bus downtime, which on many routes in Halifax appears to be 15 minutes at each end of the route (through observation). This window could be cut to five minutes or less if the drivers were swapped, potentially reducing the number of busses required to maintain the current level of service. The second advantage, which would occur with less frequently serviced routes, is having drivers take a new route after their break. This reduces the monotony that comes from running the same route for an entire shift, and keeps drivers trained on various stop locations in case the regular driver isn’t there. This is one of the key principles in Lean thinking — cross-training employees to keep them interested and keep their skill level up.

When we consider effectiveness from the customer’s point of view rather than simply viewing the dollars we stand to gain in terms of ridership, customer satisfaction, reductions in vehicle downtime, and driver satisfaction. Re-aligning all of Halifax’s routes, which cover some 3,000 stops across an area of over 3,000 km2 is no small feat, though the benefits listed above, coupled with the potential for ongoing cost savings through increased efficiencies leads me to believe the long-term cost of the changes will be lower than the current costs. Of course, it would require access to all of Metro Transit’s route data, the collective agreement, and more, plus very complex simulations in order to estimate these costs precisely. On the surface though, the customer wins, and when the customer wins, they keep coming back — with their friends.

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