Sunday, July 23, 2006

Car worlders, pragmatists and hostages

A set of guidelines (pdf 114k) for intending commercial sponsors provides an interesting insight into how Metlink, Melbourne's public transport marketing body, sees the world.

In brief, Metlink divides society into those who are 'car only' and those receptive to using public transport. This second group is divided into those who choose to use public transport and those who use it for lack of other choices.

This is pretty standard stuff. It identifies extremes of people who (i) will always drive no matter how good public transport is and, (ii) captive riders who will always take public transport no matter how bad it is. The critical middle are the 'pragmatists' or 'choice passengers' who can be wooed either way.

However the guidelines also contain some assertions that I think are shaky. There is also no mention of other factors at least as important as the coarse age/sex demographic groups used.

For example, 'pragmatists' (which must be a key target group for any marketing) are described as being in the lower income range. Unlike 'car worlders' they are not described as having higher than average educational attainment.

No one disagrees that 'captive passengers' are likely to be low income. For these people public transport's social role is critical.

However I do not think that the explicit income or implicit education generalisations about 'pragmatists' hold much water. Disturbingly this positions public transport as a a residual service for low income earners with limited appeal for others.

I would encourage anyone interested in the topic to get an ABS Social Atlas and look at the following three maps: (i) Percentage of people with degrees, (ii) Higher income households, and (iii) proportion of people who commute by public transport. Train and tram network maps will also be helpful.

What do these maps show? Most striking is that there is a fair degree of overlap between education, income, transport services and patronage. People with high formal education live in much the same suburbs as the high income people, ie within 15km of the CBD.

Given high (and increasing) average incomes of inner-suburbia residents can't all be 'hostages'. Given their public transport usage habits they can't be 'car worlders' either. Therefore, they must be 'pragmatists', willing to use it when it suits their needs. And because there are more services in inner suburbs than outer suburbs, this is the case for a greater percentage of trips. Which is reflected in the modal share statistics. Thus there are heaps of 'pragmatists' that are likely to be neither lowly educated or low income.

Now onto other important factors.

One has got to be family structure. The economics of car ownership are worst for single people and best for families. A family can be driven for the same cost as one person, whereas public transport fares are largely 'per capita'. Then there's the practicalities, including strict time deadlines or carrying equipment. In contrast the single person for whom car costs are a larger proportion of income may find public transport more attractive. The concentration of single people in inner suburbs and families in outer suburbs only reinforces this due to better transport nearer the city.

Another is geography. I have already discussed the inner suburbs. Outer suburbs in Melbourne comprise a mixture of the following (i) old rail-based hubs with large populations of low socio-economic 'transport hostages' in suburbs up to 3-4 km away (eg Werribee, St Albans, Broadmeadows, Noble Park, Dandenong and Frankston), and (ii) Newer car-based suburbs with no rail and only a limited bus service. These areas have low rates of transit usage, have many people with trades qualifications and higher average incomes than the first group. Examples include Knox and newer parts of Frankston. Though not strictly outer, the City of Manningham is also car-dominated. Manningham excepted, these suburbs are neither highly degreed or earn the top incomes. If all these areas comprise a large number of 'car-worlders' then factors other than income or education must be more significant.

What are my conclusions?

The first is that Australians tend to be pragmatic by nature. Where public transport is good (inner suburbs) they will use it. Where public transport is poor (outer suburbs) they won't. Our pragmatism is good news since it reveals potential for patronage growth if choices are broadened.

Secondly, 'pragmatism' is distributed across all income and education groups and there are no grounds for it to be regarded as a lower income trait. Doing so is selling public transport short. However I would link pragmatism with intelligence!

Thirdly, classifying people by age, sex and income, though old staples of market research, may give inadequate results compared to geographic and household living patterns which may have a greater bearing on transport use.

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Friday, July 21, 2006

Service increases: Liberal and Labor styles

Since the Kennett Liberal and Bracks Labor governments have been of roughly equal durations, enough time has elapsed to compare the different philosophies between them when it comes to public transport service increases.

Although people often claim that 'both parties are the same', this is not correct when it comes to public transport services, at least in Melbourne. As will be explained below, the differing emphases between the parties is stark.

Liberal

The previous post cited the Liberals' strengthening of the core train and tram network through off-peak service increases. In true Kennett style it was big and bold. It also changed minds and behaviour.

The mindset change was the way people viewed public transport; from being merely a weekday commuter service into something that could be used seven days a week and around the clock (with Nightrider buses).

The economics of off-peak service improvements are especially good with rail modes given their huge fixed costs. Why have a good service just 4 hours of the day (peak periods only) when for very little more you can have it for 18 hours a day? And there wasn't any doubt that patronage wouldn't increase since train and tram routes were already established corridors with known demand.

In contrsat, buses were largely neglected during the Kennett era except as things to be privatised or as substitutes for closed down country rail lines. However credit should be given for hatching the 'Smartbus' idea, ie frequent direct buses between major trip generators and transport interchanges.

Labor

Messrs Bracks and Batchelor have taken quite different approaches to service increases.

Part of this is regional versus city; the current government is very keen to avoid being seen as 'Melbourne-centric' and is upgrading country rail and regional city bus networks.

Leaving this aside, what is most interesting is the approach to planning Melbourne services. In the last seven years we saw none of the uniform network-wide train and tram upgrades obtained under Kennett. Instead most service upgrades have been confined to the odd extra peak train, or buses; either Smartbus or minor local routes. The latter have generally seen an extra service or two added. Hence their average finishing time is now a little after 7pm weekdays instead of a little before. Also the proportion of routes with Sunday service is now nearer to 30 percent than 20 percent, although their frequencies typically remain in the 60 to 90 minute range.

The recent 'Meeting Our Transport Challenges' document proposes more of the same but bigger. Sunday service will become the norm rather than the exception. The 7pm average finish could extend to 9pm or later. However services will be stretched thinly; as discussed in an earlier post about service capabilities, the capability of hourly services is low. Hence buses will remain chiefly a 'charity' service for those without other transport.

Overall

Jeff Kennett's extra services only helped the minority of the population within walking distance of the train and tram networks. However they strengthened the role of the dominant two PT modes in Melbourne. The increased service frequency made PT practical for many more trips and improved its position relative to the private car; an important consideration in gentrifying inner suburbs.

The economics are good as well, and it is not only due to high fixed costs of rail. Attracting choice passengers should cause average revenue per passenger to rise even more than patronage, with an increased percentage of full fare payers. This is because upgraded service levels (20 and particularly 15 minutes) have the potential to be considered by car drivers as an alternative. Lower service frequencies do not have this same patronage, revenue or modal share potential, and relegate public transport as a 'mode of last resort' for those with no alternative.

Assuming it meets its MOTC promises, Labor has concentrated on providing everyone (especially the 60% beyond train and tram networks) some sort of service seven days a week. However the hourly service levels are unlikely to be frequent enough to entice 'choice travellers' to switch. Patronage on these extra services will thus be confined to 'captive passengers' paying concession fares. As such they will play a useful social role, though local routes running every 30 to 60 minutes until 9pm still isn't the stuff that that 20% modal shares are made of (as Adelaide demonstrates).

I agree with Melbourne 2030 in that achieving mode share increase is critical. The current approach of adding many routes with infrequent service, though socially necessary, won't get us there by itself. Instead it is a recipe for an incomplete network, poor revenue, limited patronage growth and stagnant modal share.

Both Liberal and Labor have tried approaches that we can learn from. A mix of the two is probably optimum. Additional train and tram service improvements plus a network of connecting primary bus routes operating at train service frequencies have better modal share, patronage and financial prospects, while having the additional advantage of extending high-capability service to disadvantaged suburbs.

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Friday, July 14, 2006

Anniversary missed

July 4, 2006 marked the seventh anniversary of large Sunday service increases across Melbourne's train and tram networks. The boost removed the need for passengers to meticulously plan their trips and slashed waiting times across the network.

Though timetable and service improvements such as this are often overshadowed by other things their importance cannot be over-stressed. The Sunday increase occurred a few years after off-peak weekday train services in the eastern and southern suburbs went from 20 to 15 minute headways. Both increases, which occurred under the Kennett government, did more than anything else to make public transport more practical for the complex travel needs of a seven-day city.

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Friday, July 07, 2006

Capability, Choice and Capacity
the three Cs of successful public transport

Capability

Key is an ability to go anywhere anytime.

'Anywhere' requires good network coverage, a sensible route structure and easy interchange between services.

'Network coverage' comes down to service being available within reasonable walking distance of home, work, shops and recreation.

A sensible route structure involves direct and easy to understand routes that link major trip generators and transport interchanges with each other and surrounding residential areas.

Easy interchange between services require the following:

- No financial penalties: integrated and multimodal fares
- Co-ordinated timetables: for reliable transfers and minimal waiting
- Easy physical access: a short, safe and direct walk from station to bus stop, preferably unimpeded by car traffic

'Anytime' implies consistently wide operating hours combined with adequate service frequencies. The travel capability required should be reflected in the service frequency provided (as per the previous post). Where services are less frequent than ten or fifteen minutes, a network-wide headway hierachy should be adopted to assure consistent connections.

Choice

Choice is obtained by satisfying capability. This is because a high-capability public transport system satisfies a large number of travel requirements. This enhanced flexibility expands choice; many will no longer reflexively reach for the car keys as if this was the only option.

To further increase the number of choice passengers, the service needs to be grown to make it even more convenient and thus car-competitive (two more Cs!). Since total travel time is a major influence of choice, methods such as smart scheduling, frequency upgrades, interchange redesign, bus/tram priority, and express running are all important.

Capacity

Having provided a high-capability network that many people use by choice, the final problem is meeting this demand through providing sufficient capacity.

In some ways this is a nice problem to have, since it is the opposite of the spiral of declining patronage/declining revenue/declining service/declining patronage that many transit systems saw during 1950/60s.

Depending on infrastructure utilisation, substantial capacity upgrades are not always cheap. However the public transport planner can take some comfort that they are cheaper than freeway projects with equivalent or smaller people throughputs.

Enhancing capability and thus broadening choice should be key themes for public transport advocates. For their part, planning agencies should evaluate the merits of proposed projects on the basis of the capability benefits that they bring.

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