Monday, February 01, 2010

Sydney's multimodal ticketing and lessons from Travelcard

Each city has its special difficulties when it comes to some aspect of public transport. For example, Brisbane has infrequent off-peak trains and Perth lacks a genuine daily ticket. Canberra has limited weekend services while Adelaide's diesel rail system is outdated (currently being electrified). Melbourne can design a sensible fare structure but has found each successive new ticketing system since 1990 heavy going.

Sydney's most obvious failing would have to be its unintegrated fares. Especially for a self-proclaimed 'world city' so dependent on tourism and international business. Most Australian state capitals introduced integrated fares 30 or so years ago. Sydney alone has lacked the political and organisational will to follow suit.

Furthermore it has institutionised fragmentation through a curious body called IPART. While its bailiwick covers a wide range of NSW government utilities and services and could well be useful in these areas, in transport it produces lengthy, earnest and probably unread reports that appear to entrench fragmented fares by treating each mode seperately.

What integrated tickets Sydney offers are either too cheap or too expensive and have limited appeal. The cheap options (eg the $2.50 Pensioner Excursion and Family Funday Sunday tickets) only work for a minority of passengers such as pensioners or families travelling together on a Sunday.

Meanwhile the $18.20 Day Tripper excludes private buses yet covers the outer reaches of the CityRail network. In the absence of other integrated fare daily tickets covering all modes within a smaller area, the Day Tripper is too overpriced to be a serious choice for either CBD-based tourists, locals visiting from the middle suburbs or regular commuters.

Hence if you're not a senior (or family travelling together on a Sunday), you'd often have to purchase separate tickets for seperate modes. And even if you stuck to the same mode, the lack of a time component (eg the 2-hour tickets used in Melbourne) incurred a penalty for transferring or otherwise interrupting the trip.

So although Sydney fares were reasonable value for the simple commuter trip involving one operator or mode, travel soon got expensive for the sort of diverse multimodal trips public transport must attract to gain modal share. In recent years Melbourne's transit patronage has boomed while Sydney's has lagged. Although it has existed for many years, Melbourne's multimodal fare system deserves at least some credit for this diverging performance.

A small proportion of the 193 different types of tickets currently used for travel on Sydney's public transport (according to the Tourism Task Force).

Hence it is pleasing that the liabilities of Sydney's ticketing mess has at last been officially recognised. The government's response, announced today, is the proposed Myzone fare system, intended to apply across Greater Sydney.

Myzone's key changes appear to:

* Simplify ticketing for each mode by amalgamating seperate section tickets into a smaller number of 'fare bands' (effectively larger sections)
* Apply the same rules to State Transit and private bus services
* Introduce a series of trimode tickets (applying for suburban train, bus and ferry, but not light rail, monorail, airport rail or Countrylink)

Unlike the established zone and time-based fare systems in Melbourne and Perth, Myzone remains based on section tickets without a time component. The justifications for this, which appear weak for interstate readers, is given here.

The claim that coencentric zonal-time based systems are biased towards CBD travel is not convincing. If anything they cheapen long-distance tangential trips not via the CBD, eg Frankston to Ringwood via Stud Road (in Melbourne) or Campbelltown to Blacktown (in Sydney).

Aiming to equalise fares to remove this anomaly would require a patchwork-style neighbourhood fare system, such as Melbourne tried during the 1980s. The experience here was that as most trips are either local or CBD-based any possible revenue gain was outweighed by the added complication of neighbourhood boundaries. As a result Melbourne had returned to a coencentric zoning by 1989 and will shortly be extending this model statewide.

There is no reasons given for time-based tickets (of less than a day) not being suitable. As mentioned previously, the time-based approach is superior for those who want a public transport system to be more than a single mode conveyances for city workers, school children and pensioners because of the added network versatility of free transfers.

Will the 'Mymulti' tickets win public acceptance compared to the 'Mytrain', 'Mybus' and 'Myferry' single mode tickets? The answer will depend on ticket range, pricing and availability.

Mymulti's ticket range is explained here. The emphasis is clearly on CBD commuters, as evidenced by the availability of weekly, quarterly and yearly tickets and the city-based distance rules applied. These distances apply in bands of (i) up to 10km, (ii) up to 35 km, and (iii) unrestricted. It's worth noting that these bands apply to Cityrail travel only and outer-suburban bus and ferry travellers can use any of the above tickets. Regular commuters who can afford periodical tickets are likely to gain substantially through this change.

What about the tourist or suburban resident visiting the city or even their local shopping centre? Unless they are a gunzel travelling trains, ferries and buses all day, Mymulti's $20.00 go-anywhere daily offers good versatility but poor overall value. In many cases paying single fares will remain cheaper so 'Mymulti' will be of limited use (unless they're staying near the city for three days and think far enough ahead to buy a $41 weekly).

Many tourists will not need the $20 daily's coverage. Instead the most pressing need is for a cheaper ticket allowing worry-free multimode travel within say 10km of the CBD. A widely available $8-10 multimode daily ticket would sew up most of the tourist and inner-suburban resident market.

Even if individual mode tickets remained cheaper, the sheer versatility of a well-priced daily would surely make it a winner. The equivalent (and highly successful) Melbourne Zone 1 Daily ticket costs $6.80. However the Sydney market could bear slighly more, especially given the inclusion of ferries, which tourists value. This ticket might just be the daily version of the 'MyMulti 1'.

Similar comments apply for the local visiting the city from a middle suburb. $20.00 for a daily fare is too high and does not encourage the use of multimode tickets. Instead a multimode daily ticket costing around $12 to 15 would do much better and not be dissimilar to Melbourne's Zone 1+2 daily ($10.60). This could be the daily version of the 'Mymulti 2'.

There is no doubt that today's changes are a positive step for fare integration in Sydney. But even allowing that the current multimode offerings may be transitional, having just one very expensive MyMulti daily ticket that covers too great an area is mistaken given that a good value set of daily tickets should form the foundation of a sound integrated fare system. Given that MyMulti weekly and quarterly tickets do come in a range of prices that would more closely reflect travel needs the failure to extend this principle to daily users appears an oversight that does not encourage the use of multimode tickets, and in the longer term, the phase out of single mode tickets.

Sydney would do well to look at the success, nearly 30 years ago, of Melbourne's Travelcard. This started in 1981 as a simple daily ticket available in all zone combinations (6 required for a 3 zone system). And just like Sydney in 2010 it was offered alongside single-mode tickets for trains, trams and buses.

Melbourne's Travelcard experience showed that if you're going to do multimode ticketing, some good value and widely available daily tickets are the best products to start with. Longer term tickets can come later and will be demanded if the daily product is good enough.

Why should a multimode daily come first? Firstly it's operationally simple. It can be introduced alongside single mode tickets, whether these be single-use or 2-hour, section or zonal. Secondly passengers understand it. Thirdly it's a popular ticket type. Dailies require low commitment from the passenger (most people know they'll need it for the trip home) and if priced well can provide good value.

What about its pricing? Multimode tickets should be priced attractive relative to single-mode tickets. They can be more, but not that much more. This is so that single mode tickets can be absorbed into the multimode equivalent after one or two annual fare rises. To properly balance revenue and value for the customer, it is probably optimum to provide a selection of daily tickets appropriate for the zones of travel. Melbourne has done this but Perth and Sydney have not. However the number of ticket combinations rises exponentially, so the number of zones needs to be kept down (even 4 or 5 may be difficult).

Multimode ticket availability also has to be good and at least that of single mode tickets. Daily (and shorter term) tickets need to be available from bus drivers, but MyZone tickets appear not to be available through this means.

Once multimode dailies are widely used, weeklies and monthlies would be the next priority (replacing single mode periodicals). This would encourage more regular commuters to use multimode ticketing. A 5xDaily product (on the single card) could provide a crude bulk purchase but flexible use option.

Further progress would require integration at the sub-daily level (whether section, single-trip or 2-hour zonal tickets). Fares for cash single-mode tickets would be adjusted over 2-3 years until they became no cheaper than multimodes, so then a phase-out would raise no controversy.

The other benefit would that the range of tickets would be less but those that remain would become more versatile and permit more flexible travel (including free transfers). Once sections vs zones are sorted out it would then be possible to consider time-based tickets and a genuine 10x2 hour-type product (preferably with automatic daily conversion).

With such a unified fare system, a Smart Card ticketing may be practical, although by then the main reforms for the customer will have already been achieved, in making multimode travel easier and ticketing easier to understand. Sydney wasted a lot of money on a Smart Card system (the abandoned 'T-Card' project) without getting the fare system right first.

The changes announced today for Sydney are a welcome though still inadequate step towards the sort of fare integration that passengers in other Australian cities have enjoyed for many years.

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