Sunday, October 16, 2005

Timetable tidbits

1. Back in August Adelaide Metro upgraded many of its bus services. Highlights include six extra 'Go Zones', doubled Sunday service on many routes, a 'Mega Go Zone' along the O-bahn and a frequent metro service to Adelaide Airport.

The outer north-eastern suburbs past the end of the O-Bahn seem to be the big winners. Several now have services every 15 minutes. Operating hours have also been extended, with some, like the route 544 series operating until after midnight, even on Sundays and public holidays.

The changes are also covered in the AATTC's Table Talk.

2. Here in Melbourne, outer suburbs are being given some much-needed extra bus services, with $44 million to be spent over 4 years on 50 new or upgraded routes. These services will be introduced to growth areas in Melbourne's west, north, east and south. Yarra Ranges routes to be improved are listed here. Industry and passenger groups say that about five times the amount offered was required to provide sufficient service to make bus travel more convenient.

3. Craig has been busy examining the quality of bus-train connections at important interchanges. This is very important; who wants to be stuck for 30 minutes at a bus stop on a cold, rainly night? Craig's findings are presented here. Particularly note the results for the Smartbus routes (700, 703, 888/9), the design objectives of which included enhanced connections with trains.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Learning from Perth

It's hard not to be impressed with the public transport improvements that have been made in Perth over the last 15 years or so.

From planning to close its rail system in the 1970s (Fremantle line services ceased in 1979) to restoring, electrifying, modernising and expanding the network from the 1980s, Perth public transport has come a long way. It is a credit to those involved that this was achieved despite the prevailing anti-rail mindset amongst transport planners at the time.

Where major decisions were required, the right choices were always made. The work was completed on time and on budget. Since the early 1990s, patronage in Perth has grown faster than in any other Australian city.

To tell how Perth did it was Prof Peter Newman from Murdoch Uni, who spoke last night at a well attended meeting convened by Environment Victoria.

Unlike in other states, WA has just one minister and one department responsible for planning and infrastructure. One advantage of this is that road and public transport proposals can be evaluated against one another and fairly compete for funding. The effect of this in WA has been a shift of resources from roads to public transport since 2001.

A casual observer might see the Perth rail improvements as being part of a coherent transport plan. After all it appears logical; restoring a defunct service, modernising the whole system, a new line, increasing services, some more extensions, etc. However in practice, the Friends of the Railways (in which Prof Newman was involved) vigorously lobbied for one project at a time, and had no big future vision.

Politically, Labor had been pro-rail, with one of its first acts being to restore the Fremantle service in 1983 after the FOR rallies revealed the strong public support. However since then it has been the Liberals that have moved furthest, from closing the Fremantle line in 1979 to promising a southern line in 2001. Peter also cited a change of mind by former Liberal leader Bill Hassell, who recognised that closing the Fremantle line was his party's biggest mistake and has supported rail in recent newspaper columns. Although there remain party differences (the Liberals are more pro-road and advocated a less direct southern line option), having a measure of bipartisanship in favour of public transport has been a real achievement.

Although state issues such as education, health and police are always important, rail extension was seen as 'building for the long-term' and thus had high public support. Prof Newman also said that the 2004 state election illustrated that it was possible to be pro-public transport and anti-freeway and win politically. Though to be fair, with the southern rail project decided and under construction, there were other issues that dominated debate, such as a proposed water pipeline and economic management.

The view that (at least for longish radial trips) rail was more popular than the bus substitute was substantiated with a 30% patronage loss when the Fremantle line was replaced by buses. This is despite a somewhat more frequent bus service. This loss was recouped when the rail service was restored. Prof Newman also cites the financial viability of the Northern suburbs line, with it breaking even on running cost (it doesn't pay enough to return capital costs, but neither do most road projects).

Perth has also been a pioneer with TravelSmart (direct marketing of public transport to households) and now Transit Oriented Design of suburbs. The 1997 Liveable Neighbourhoods strategy is supported by both sides of politics. It involves new developments around existing stations (Subiaco is the most high-profile success which has doubled station boarding) and also proposed stations (eg Wellard). TOD is also proposed when established tired residential suburbs are being redeveloped.

Peter Newman said that this acceptance may have drawn from the tradition of strong urban planning, dating back to Hepburn-Stephenson in the 1950s. This plan made provision for rail, but this was removed by subsequent road planners. What we have now, with a northern suburbs rail line, is more in accord with the original plan.

Another issue is that Perth did do planning well, but much of it was car-oriented, so its street layout in many suburbs is transit and pedestrian-hostile. Because Perth is such a modern city, more of its suburbs are transit-hostile than (say) Melbourne or Sydney. However it looks as if the will to reverse this is greater in Perth than in other cities. Thus planning by itself is not necessarily a good thing; the question really should be what sort of planning, as bad planning may sometimes be better than none.

Prof Newman strongly emphasises the role of private developers in developing transit oriented developments. Although he didn't mention Joondalup (which is regarded by some as a failed TOD as it didn't pedestrianise enough), he saw great possibilities for the Murdoch precinct and Northbridge (when the line is sunk). None of these would have been possible without the southern railway (direct alignment) providing a catalyst.

Here in Melbourne it is nothing for local government to be pro-public transport and advocate better services to their area. However Peter Newman noted the opposite for Perth, with little support to preserve, restore or build services from local government. There was also no help from the Federal government or transport planners. The general view was that FOR were fighting a losing battle, despite the fuel price hike that year.

The helpful factors were that there was a bipartisan city planning culture in Perth, and that original plans had a place for rail. Research was key, as was community and media support. The bureaucracy were anti-rail before 1983, but came around when government policy changed. Hence the provision of leadership from the Minister and Cabinet was essential to achieving change.

In this vein Prof Newman warned that 'If you reject the Minister and Cabinet they will reject you'. For this reason it was important to tell a story, give credit to strenghten their hand, since politics is a numbers game. Thus transport supporters should also make use of networks in business, bureaucracy and community and build supportive coalitions.

In a statement that might not go down well with local Save our Suburbs groups, Peter saw potential for co-operation between transport planners and developers, including the recently in vogue public-private partnerships. 'They do it with freeways - why not public transport?' suggested Peter. However every Melbourne commuter knows that too much private control can emasculate transport interchanges, as occurred in the 1980s with Box Hill and in 2003 with the botched Melbourne Central redevelopment.

In response to questions, Prof Newman cited the tax system's bias towards cars and driving as an area of federal policy to change. He strongly praised the recent 'Sustainable Cities' parliamentary commitee report and mentioned Malcolm Turnbull as an ally. AUSLINK has the possibility of funding rail transport, but this was so far confined to freight.

Commenting on Melbourne, Prof Newman found that people here were cynical about public transport and the possiblity of improvement. He described our rail system as good but a trifle slow. TODs on railway stations were also needed; he criticised 'some film star' (Geoffrey Rush) for opposing a four storey development proposed for Camberwell Station. When asked about service frequencies, he said this should be sufficiently frequent throughout the day not to require a timetable; a basic 15 (maybe 10) minute frequency was suggested, with 5 minute services in peak periods.

Peter ended on an optimistic note, saying now was a good time to get improved public transport on the agenda. Opportunities to be seized included local government/community interest (Peter is talking transport at the Municipal Association of Victoria conference), the recent higher oil prices and the completion of Regional Fast Rail as presenting valuable opportunities to win ministerial and government support for improved public transport in Melbourne.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Designing the Metlink style

Sometimes one hears about aspects of public transport in the most unexpected of places.

An example was last night's Right, Left or just Centred debate, held as part of Character, a series of public discussions, displays and tours about graphic design.

The discussion was about the role of the graphic designer; are they artisans who are primarily accountable to their customers (normally fee-paying corporate clients), or do they also have responsibilities as citizens to be mindful of the political consequences of their work?

One of the speakers was Steven Cornwell from Cornwell Design which did the Metlink rebranding.

By any standards the Metlink rebranding is a massive undertaking, ultimately extending to thousands of railway stations, tram routes and bus stops across Melbourne. No two locations are identical, and the number of different signs required must be into the tens of thousands.

The organisational aspects are similarly complex; rather than just one client, there were six (Connex, M> Train, Yarra Trams, M> Tram, DOI and the bus industry). The project will cost $20 million, but uniquely, the operators will be spending it doing up infrastructure they don't actually own.

Stephen Banham from Letterbox described the Helvetica font used in Metlink signage as 'incredibly predictable' and 'banal'. In the world of graphic design, each typeface carries a certain voice. For instance, you won't see 'Wide Latin' lettering on skim milk cartons. Helvetica is seen as being 'corporate', 'homogenising' and 'responsible for blanding the visual environment' and has even spawned a 'Death to Helvetica' movement of which Stephen is a part.

Of course clients will not necessarily embrace the graphic designer's idea of cool, and since the former hold the purse strings, they get the final say. This was true with Metlink whose owners used consumer testing to filter possible designs. Even though this might cramp the creativity of designers, this is not such a bad thing; signage for essential services like transport is better readable and boring than unreadable and idiosyncratic.

Further reading:

Age article

Award for Metlink rebranding