Friday, March 31, 2006

Competing for a Darwin Award?

We all know the hazards presented on our roads and the consequences that can accrue from momentary lapses of judgement by pedestrians and drivers. We're only human and it is fair to say that almost everyone has stories of lapses they regret later.

But some people's actions go beyond simple carelessness and enter the realm of active and extreme stupidity. It's as if they're conspiring to get a Darwin Award.

I saw such a case yesterday afternoon.

Many level crossings have pedestrian gates that shut when the boomgates are down. These often have 'bypass gates' so that it is possible to go around the automatic gates. These can be useful in special circumstances when authorised and qualified personnel are at hand.

If you're standing in front of the bypass gate minding your own business, it takes a special kind of fool to ask you to move so he can dart across the track when the boomgates are down and the bells are ringing!

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Saturday, March 25, 2006

Cool advertising on public transport

And it doesn't even involve wrapping buses/trams in plastic mesh and spoiling outside visibility for passengers.

iibus competition

(entries close March 31)

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Friday, March 24, 2006

Some transport gizmos

As mentioned in yesterday's post, Melbourne public transport has enough trouble keeping current electronic gizmos working money spent on them is less effective than on basics like adequate infrastructure, signalling, reliable services, co-ordination, service frequency etc.

So in a spirit of knowing that none of these will (or possibly should) be implemented, here are a few 'technical fixes' that might appeal to the passenger.

1. Walk Key: Our road system is designed more for maximum traffic throughput than pedestrian access or passengers transferring between public transport services. Hence even where pedestrian crossings are provided, traffic light cycles can be long, leading to extended waiting times and missed connections.

Walk Key fixes this. The same size and shape as an electronic car alarm key, this small transmitter sends a signal to the nearest pedestrian crossing. Press the button as you approach the crossing (50 or 100m is enough) and you'll get a walk phase by the time you've arrived at the crossing (or near enough). Thus you get a head start compared to where you must walk right up to the crossing and press the button.

2. Stop clicker: When you're waiting for a train, you at least get an announcement just before it arrives. And even if the equipment is playing up and you don't, the train will at least stop.

But if you're waiting for a bus, you must keep half an eye on the road so you can see the bus in order to hail it. But having to maintain vigilance spoils the read of a good book (as should be carried by all passengers).

The Stop Clicker keeps the read fun. Using RFID-like technology, a buzzer or sounder receiver is mounted on the bus shelter or timetable pole. The bus contains a transmitter. As soon as the bus nears the shelter (but allowing time for passengers to hail) the bus stop receiver clicks. The passenger can read contendedly, knowing that there will be a alterted that there is a bus. All they need do is check the route number, and if it is correct, they can hail it.

Of course if the driver fails to switch on the bus transmitter, it could be just as useful as the SmartBus PIDs, not to mention the installation/maintenance bill.

3. SMS timetables: We do it for trains, so why not buses and trams as well? Each stop has a stop number. SMS this to a special number and you receieve a message describing the next five services. More realistic than the first two 'gimmicks', as it's done overseas, but not here yet. The more advanced version has real-time running information and advice of delays as well.

Any more?

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Thursday, March 23, 2006

Herald Sun: Smartbuses a bomb

From Herald Sun 23 March 2006:

SMARTBUS, a central plank of the Government's transport vision, has bombed, leaving Victorians with a $68 million white elephant that is now being torn down.

The futuristic bus system designed to run on five major city arterials was meant to be a cure-all for road gridlock and public transport black holes.

SmartBus stops are meant to display real arrival times based on traffic conditions and satellite tracking of buses. more (HS link).

A couple of comments about the Herald Sun article. It is possibly unfair in that it doesn't mention the service increases that occurred as part of the SmartBus program. Though initially not part of SmartBus, these extra services became the project's only tangible and successful component and resulted in worthwhile patronage increases. This (cheaper) part of SmartBus therefore deserves kudos.

Daniel Bowen's comment though was spot-on. Whether it's the dead monitors at Flinders Street Station, erroneous PIDs on trains, very modern trams that still display superseded route numbers, or the aforementioned not-very-smart bus displays, Melbourne's record with electronic passenger information systems is mixed at best.

Until this record changes, the famous luddism of Melbourne passengers (apparent in any serious discussion about electronic ticketing and/or pre-purchased tickets) will remain a rational response to the host of expensive short-lived fixes that have cost heaps but delivered little.

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Monday, March 13, 2006

'Free' transport: a threat to the 'virtuous circle'?

Recent 'Age' articles have suggested that public transport should be free (or nearly so) with more funding coming from taxes.

'Free transport' is a populist mantra that sometimes gets headlines but doesn't solve very much at all. Though there are cases where fares are dear (eg Glenhuntly to Patterson costs $5.20, only slightly cheaper than a taxi), the overwhelming problem is a lack of service rather than the fare.

This is particularly so for the 60-70 % of the metropolitan population whose only service is a bus route, nine-tenths of which operate limited hours unsuited to modern lifestyles.

How is this fixed?

The solution is to establish the conditions for a virtuous circle that build more attractive and usable services. Because fares bring in revenue, these can usefully be employed to make it a sustainable cycle of improvement, rather than a one-off boost. The revenue benefit is amplified if a disproportionate number of new passengers are those who previous drove, ie 'choice passengers', many of whom will be paying full fare.

The ingredients of the 'virtuous circle' in public transport are:

1. More/better service (cheapest improvements first)
V
2. Increased service attractiveness (especially to full fare-payers)
V
3. More patronage
V
4. more revenue (especially more passengers paying full fares)
V
5. even better services

And so the cycle repeats in an upward spiral.

Allowing some costs to be recovered by charging fares assists security of service. Indeed service security probably increases with higher cost-recovery. For example, when a system recovers 60% of its costs, it's much harder for a politician to save money by cutting services (as happened under Kirner when buses were severely pruned) than if it recovers only 30% of costs. A 'free' service that returned 0% of costs would be an even 'softer' target, and the biggest losers would be those with no alternative (the rest can just drive).

With service-driven patronage increases, PT would become a sort of 'sacred cow' that politicians daren't meddle with because its constituency is so large. This is much like neither Liberal nor ALP governments will touch veteran's entitlements as they fear the RSL (remember Bruce Ruxton?). It's the same story for negative gearing, private school subsidies and other things, but there is no reason why public transport shouldn't be on this list as well.

With a stronger public transport system meaning that more passengers and dollars are at stake, it will be easier to dismantle the road lobby's control of our roads. Finally the old paradigm of 'maximising throughput of car traffic' will have to play second fiddle to accessibility, bus/tram priority, pedestrian amenity, cycleways, etc. This further improves public transport's attractiveness and thus patronage.

My biggest objection is that making PT free or very cheap (eg a $365 yearly ticket) kills this virtuous circle and returns us to a stalemate of bad service with no improvements. The only difference is that crowding might be a bit worse.

As mentioned earlier, being able to take fares represents a leverage opportunity that can be used to magnify the benefits of service improvements.

How so? If transport was free (or very cheap), service improvements would not cause revenue to increase. Yet if fares were charged, $10 worth of service improvements might return $3 of increased revenue. If it's particularly high-value improvements (eg co-ordinating timetables, fixing bad connections and removing route duplications) benefits might be nearer $10, ie an elasticity of 1. And so you've got an extra $3 (or $10) which could go towards even more improvements.

In contrast, with free or very cheap PT, the financial returns drop to zero. Hence the business case for service improvements diminishes. Even fewer will be attempted. And if some are done, it will only be possible to get half the improvements for a given sum since returns are zero.

Eventually (i) service will deteriorate due to lack of improvement (and mounting road congestion in the case of trams), and (ii) those who persist taking PT will complain about all the begging vagrants. Then people will start calling for fares to be reintroduced, politicians will think 'that's a good idea' and the deed will be done (possibly manufacturing a financial crisis to justify it).

After a few years have been wasted then maybe it's time to return to the substantive issues, like creating the virtuous service - patronage - revenue circle mentioned above, which is what should have been done in the first place!

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Friday, March 10, 2006

Transport alternatives during the Games

With the increased patronage tipped for the Commonwealth Games it has been officially recommended that commuters take a different route, travel earlier or later or work at home during the Games.

The increased patronage is likely to be distributed from early morning to late at night, helped by substantial evening service increases on trains, trams and buses.

Even if the percentage patronage increase is smaller during already-busy peak periods, this may lead to crowding on already stretched services. Passengers have already been warned that they may not be able to board the first service that comes along.

Though the bringing forward of school holidays will help, my guess is that the short, intense 7-9am morning peak will present more challenges than the 4-7pm afternoon peak, which tends to be flatter and longer.

So with this in mind, and following the advice above, what should people do to ensure they get a seat or at least a standing spot?

Assuming that you don't wish to drive (which is being discouraged anyway), can't alter the time of travel and don't want to stay homebound, the only choice remaining is to take a different route.

The official material offers little guidance on the specifics, so here's some tips to get you started:

1. If you have a choice of a shorter railway line or a longer railway line, try the shorter line. The theory here is that as the train on the shorter line will have just left its terminus it won't have 20+ kilometres worth of passengers already on board, so you've got a better chance of a seat.

2. As above, but try other modes. Many suburbs around 10km from the CBD have a choice of tram or train. Again boarding near the tram terminus will guarantee a seat at the cost of a longer ride. But sometimes it's worth it.

3. Consider a less-known service, which in Melbourne is typically a bus. It might be slower and less frequent, but again could be worth it.

4. Combine several of the above, for instance a bus or tram to a different station or even to a tram or bus route.

5. To plan the above, a $2.00 Public Transport Map (available Met Shop & Premium Stations) is helpful. Add a Melways, Meltrip and updates from Metlink, and you'll get there quicker than almost anyone else.

Happy travelling during the Games!

Update 27 March, 2006: As it turned out, public transport performed well over the games period and once again proved its worth in efficiently transporting large crowds.

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Thursday, March 09, 2006

What should bystanders do?

Public transport is well, err, public, so passengers may see things motorists darting from remote-controlled garage to multi-storey car park don't.

Should bystanders render assistance or does this create other problems? There's some good discussion over on John Quiggin's blog after a woman suffered a stroke at a Brisbane bus stop.

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Friday, March 03, 2006

Some bus service stats

(compiled from http://www.alphalink.com.au/~parkerp/meltrip/bus.htm ).

Summary

Total number of metropolitan bus routes: 306*

Number that run until at least 7pm weekdays: 165 (54%)
Number than run until at least 9pm weekdays: 40 (13%)

Number that run Saturdays: 238 (78%)
Number that run Sundays: 87 (28%)

Number of 'full time' routes (run Mon-Sun and operate after 9pm weekdays): 35 (11%)

In detail

Routes that run Mon-Sun and operate after 9pm weekdays: 35

Routes that run Mon-Fri only and cease before 7pm weekdays: 32
Routes that run Mon-Fri only and cease before 9pm weekdays: 11
Routes that run Mon-Fri only but cease after 9pm weekdays: 2

Routes that run Mon-Sat only and cease before 7pm weekdays: 69
Routes that run Mon-Sat only and cease before 9pm weekdays: 82
Routes that run Mon- Sat only but cease after 9pm weekdays: 3
Routes that run Sun-Fri only but cease before 7pm weekdays: 1

Routes that run Mon-Sun but cease before 7pm weekdays: 17
Routes that run Mon-Sun but cease before 9pm weekdays: 32

Peak period only routes: 14
Limited service and special routes: 6
Sunday only routes: 2

Comments

* With Sunday service extended about 3-4 years ago, the proportion of routes offering Sunday service has increased from 20-25% to 28% today.

* More recent service increases (Jan and February 2006) have included some new routes, some extra Sunday services and one or two extra late services on weekdays. This has slightly reduced the number of 'C' routes (finishing before 7:00pm) and increased the proportion of 'D' routes (with the final service between 7:00 and 8:59pm). A few years ago the average Melbourne bus route ran every 40 minutes and finished at 6:53pm (source BAV). However with 54% of routes with a final service at 7pm or later, recent improvements will have extended the average finishing time to approx 7:10pm.

* Even under the slack definition used(**), barely 1 in 10 metropolitan bus routes can be considered to run 'full-time'.

Notes

(*) Includes only routes with a standard Met route number. 'The Bus' is includes as it has been assigned a route number by the Metlink website.
(**) Any route with a weekday service after 9pm is counted as 'full-time', even if it has no weekend evening service.

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A small improvement to Meltrip

One of the most popular pages on Meltrip is the bus routes index.

As well as updates due to recent service expansions, I thought it was time to overhaul the way routes were classified according to running times. For those new to the site, these are the letters (A, B, C, etc) after the route description.

Because there are many possible service variations, this has always been a balance between information content and simplicity. Up to now letters were added to tell if a service ran Saturdays, Sundays, evenings or whether it was a peak-only service.

Under this method, some routes were difficult to classify, and I used a cut-off time of 8 or 9 pm to determine whether a route qualified as 'full time' (no letters) or 'no evening service'. The problem with this was that it was too coarse, and routes that had a service at (say) 8:30pm were in the same group as full-time services, some of which run as frequently as every 20 or 30 minutes until midnight.

Because it includes part of the evening peak period (especially in outer suburbs) the 6 to 10pm period is critical for many travellers. Not all workers have full control over their finishing times, and the risk of missing the last bus is ever-present. Along with weekends (on some routes) 6 to 10pm is the period where there is the greatest mismatch between modern travel needs and service provided.

For this reason I have altered the codes to better suit travel patterns. A and B cover Saturday and Sunday services and are unchanged. However routes marked 'C' are those where the last service departs before 7pm. Allowing 30-60 min travel and transfer times, 'C' routes do not fully cover the evening peak hour, so are more suited to day travellers (eg shoppers and pensioners) than commuters.

Routes marked 'D' routes offer early evening service, with the last service departing at or after 7pm. On most, service ended before 7:30pm, though a few continue until almost 9pm. Most people on these routes should be able to work until after 6:00 or even 6:30pm and still have transport home. Some 'C' and 'D' routes have extra services on some nights (either Thursday, Friday or Saturday), but for simplicity I excluded these.

Peak-only routes that were marked 'D' are now shown as 'P'.

Unmarked routes are considered 'full time' as they include weekday service until 9:00pm or later along with weekend service. Reference to timetables is important as these later service may not apply on all sections of the route or on weekend evenings.

The changes will not cater for everyone, but they should allow most people to eliminate unsuitable routes quicker without needing to see the timetable.