Monday, October 16, 2006

Driver boosts patronage by 700%

Even though this area has an urban form conducive to walking, many homes without cars, a well-used tram service and and the highest journey-to-work train modal shares in Melbourne, almost no one takes the bus.

During the middle of the day you'll get a few elderly shoppers on board. Plus students before and after school. But that's about it. During the afternoon peak, while packed trains are spewing out passengers, it's common to see buses just metres away with 1 or 2 on board. And sometimes even 0 - in the middle of peak-hour.

I have often asked myself 'why was it so?'. I decided that it would be easy to treble patronage. So instead of 1 or 2 people on the bus, there could be 3 or 6. All you'd need is 5% of alighting train passengers to transfer, and this is simple as the bus route goes in the same direction as the main pedestrian flow.

But before we get onto that, I'll present a map to make it easier to explain.

The red lines are the roads, the blue line is the station and the yellow denotes a shopping strip, the most active part of which is south of the railway. The green boxes are bus stops.

Most important are the black lines, which indicate pedestrian flows during the afternoon peak. The thicker the black line, the more popular is the route. As can be seen by the thickness, most people alighting the train walk south, through the most active part of the shopping strip.

That tallys with what one would expect; the area north of the major road is mainly low-density residential with a railway station on another line about 15 minutes walk away. In addition, the road's width and lack of crossing points presents somewhat of a barrier to pedestrians.

The area south of the line has no such constraints. Indeed it has some features conducive to high use of the local station, including a busy shopping strip, high-density housing, high student and rental populations and no other railway lines nearby. So it's no mystery why most users of the station live south rather than north of it.

The streets with the densest housing are up to 15 - 20 minutes walk due south of the station. It would seem logical that some of these people would take a 5 minute bus ride on the way home from the station, wouldn't it? But as noted before, almost no one does.

The map above provides the critical clue why this is so. Note the locations of the two south-bound bus stops. The one nearest the station is to the north. Despite the new route sign, the timetable case remains empty. But since this is away from the dominant southwards pedestrian flow, it would be seen by relatively few people who might wish to use it, so the timetable's omission may be less a sin than originally thought.

The other southbound stop is quite a distance from the railway station, five (maybe ten) minutes walk, near the southern end of the shopping strip. By that time people might have thought that since they're one half to one third the way home, they might as well keep walking and not catch the bus. Since the basic service frequency is 30 minutes, and assuming a random arrival, probability theory is on the side of the walker getting home quicker. And the passenger numbers on the bus are enough to indicate that most people instinctively know that anyway unless they can see a bus coming.

What about my trebling patronage claim - doesn't that sound a bit outlandish? It might, but first I'll tell you about the kind bus driver who did even better, getting a 700% patronage boost.

It was about 6:20pm. A down train had just stopped and dozens of passengers were squeezing their way out of a narrow station exit. As per the map above, most started heading south. A bus with one passenger on board happened to be stopped at the level crossing at point 'X' (see pink line). This was right near where alighting passengers were about to turn, and the driver opened the doors and let them board.

A bus that otherwise would have carried one now carried eight. And before the bus could go, the boomgates lowered again, and most likely more people were able to board. This 700% patronage increase was the product of no planning; all it needed were passengers in the right place, a bus in the right place and, most importantly of all, a nice driver.

Now the particular spot that the bus stopped was ideal for alighting passengers, but due to a side-street, there isn't enough room for a regular stop. However there is room at point 'Y'. This is still quite close to the station, central to the shopping strip and also convenient for city-bound trains. Most importantly it is in the main pedestrian traffic flow, so it will be visible to most people.

The chances are that some passers-by would check the timetable before deciding whether to continue walking or take the bus. This is particularly the case with properly-designed (composite) timetables, so that tired passengers can consult one list, not three. Even if it's fifteen minutes to the next bus, some might elect to do some shopping in the interim. Since they won't be half way home before they get to a bus stop, psychologically they would be more inclined to opt for the bus.

It so happens that point 'Y' is outside a Metcard outlet and already has a seat. As mentioned in a previous post, it would be a fine place for a bus stop. The stop north of the station can then be moved north-east around the corner to the main road, where it could also be used by other services including a SmartBus and a NightRider (which already stops there).

What are the lessons from all this?

* Alighting passengers will not risk walking time to back-track to a bus stop (especially when the walking distance home is less than 2 kilometres and bus times are unknown)

* Alighting passengers will board a bus going their way if it's waiting and outside the station exit

* Alighting passengers are likely to consider boarding a bus (ie checking the timetable) if it is (i) near the station and (ii) on the way home

* Even if the wait for the bus is longer than walking, some passengers may still choose the bus if they can use waiting time to shop

Conclusion: Putting bus stops on major pedestrian desire lines is likely to generate significant increased patronage. At certain times when buses are lightly used (eg peak hour for local trips) increases of several hundred percent are not unreasonable when backed by appropriate service planning and passenger information.

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Blogger Daniel Bowen said...

Don't forget the irony that the bus driver broke the rules by doing that, letting people board away from a stop.

4:13 pm  

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