Saturday, October 17, 2009

Melbourne's new bus zones and network connectivity

Integrated fares that provide free transfers between all modes is a requirement for transit to operate as a genuine nework. Introduced in Melbourne when patronage hit record lows and lines were under threat of closure, integrated fares contributed greatly towards transit's turnaround.

Subsequent advances gave metropolitan travel to holders of V/Line tickets and, announced this week, tidied up Melbourne's bus zone boundaries.

How do these latest bus changes improve network connectivity (from a fares standpoint)?

Probably the best demonstration is to map all the bus routes that cross a zone boundary onto a large sheet of paper. Use colours according to current zone. Then add the train lines, again identifying stations by zone.

You will find cases of different zones applying to different bus routes, even if they serve the same stops. This is hard to explain and discourages passengers from using multi-route frequent service corridors if the fare varies depending on the route number.

At other times railway stations may be in Zones 1 and 2 but the buses outside may be in Zone 2 only. This requires transferring passengers to pay an extra fare if travelling from the city, and so discourages feeder bus use. Instead many drive to the station, placing pressure on scarce parking space and sapping local bus patronage. And even if you usually walk to the station, having a bus in the same zone is a good back-up during train service disruptions.

Compare this map with the proposed zones and note the changes. Some of the stations whose passengers will benefit include:

* North Brighton
* Middle Brighton
* Bentleigh
* Oakleigh
* Reservoir
* Merlynston
* Oak Park
* Glenroy

Some major trip generators to get cheaper fares on more routes in more directions include Monash University (Clayton), Monash Medical Centre (Moorabbin), Northland Shopping Centre (Preston), LaTrobe University (Bundoora) and Sunshine Hospital (St Albans). With public transport already dominant for CBD travel, these are the sorts of major suburban trip generators that patronage will need to grow for transit to further increase its modal share.

Some of the well-served service corridors to benefit include Chadstone - Oakleigh - Monash University (Clayton), Oriel Rd (West Heidelberg), Bulleen Rd - Doncaster, Reservoir - LaTrobe University and Reservoir - Northland.

No fare system is perfect and there may still be real or perceived 'anomalies' that these latest revisions do not change. People just outside a zone boundary often want their location included in another zone or maybe put in an overlap. Having everything in a single zone is sometimes suggested but even this implies a judgement of some sort and large flat-fare networks do not necessarily offer the best compromise between 'value for passengers', 'revenue', 'simplicity' and 'perceived fairness'.

Transfer-friendly fares policy is less to do with whether (say) Box Hill is in Zone 1 or 2 than it is in ensuring that all trains and buses at a given station have the same zones to remove transfer penalties. Expressed differently, transfer penalties impose a marginal cost on the passenger, and their existence harms network connectivity. In contrast the location of zone boundaries affects the absolute levels of fares but need not impose transfer penalties if the network is zoned as one.

If I could only ask one question for each proposed public transport infrastructure, route, timetable, physical access or fares change, it would be 'Does this change strengthen network connectivity?'. In relation to these revised bus zone changes, the answer is an unqualified 'yes'.

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