Thursday, February 02, 2006

How to kill a bus route

Some bus routes are inefficient wastes of fuel, bus and driver time and deserve to be scrapped.

An example is Melbourne's Route 509 along Hope Street, Brunswick. Long regarded as a curiousity amongst bus enthusiasts, it is Melbourne's shortest bus route, being just 2km long.

Its very existence is a symbol of the inertia that has stymied sensible bus reform in this city. Though routes like the 509 might have sustained a veteran and his modified truck after the war, they have no role to play as part of an efficient and effective public transport network today. Rather they sap resources that are better used to improve service connectivity on adjacent routes.

It's not as if the 509 is a twice-daily 'seniors' or 'shoppers' service that costs almost nothing to run. Rather, despite the existence of nearby parallel routes, the Hope Street bus runs every 20 minutes, which is twice as frequent as the average Melbourne bus. Its Saturday morning service frequency is exceptional, even beating the premium 700 Smartbus, the key route serving the massive Chadstone Shopping Centre.

If the bus network was being redesigned, no competent service planner would have proposed any service along Hope Street, let along one with the frequent service offered. There is likely no economist would defend its inefficiency. No greenie could condone the waste of fuel for so few passengers. And no sane public transport lobbyist would support its continued existence given higher priorities elsewhere.

The only reason why the 509 lingers on is that the government keeps subsidising it each year without question. And it's not as if the the bus company that receives the funding is going to object and say 'we haven't had a passenger today, please scrap this route'!

The poor service of the parallel routes 503 and 508 (weekdays excepted) further underlie the need to divert resources from the 509 to these more useful routes. Despite serving major railway stations, the 503 and 508 run every 16, 25, 30 or 70 minutes, so any rail connection is a fluke. In contrast the 509's 20 minute headway admirably matches the trains, but guess what, it's the one route that serves no railway stations!

Sensible route reform would mean that instead of having three dud non-connecting routes (503, 508, 509), Brunswick would get one or possibly two 'good' routes. Overall access would improve and nearly everyone (including those who live on Hope Street) would benefit from the better train connections, longer running hours, frequency, possible on the 503 and 508. The sort of improvements necessary are the sort recently introduced on the 454 and praised in an earlier entry.

So having established that route rationalisation is necessary, how shall it be done?

Some decision makers will nod their head and agree that in theory the 509 is a waste, but consider the political fallout would be too great to countenance its abolition. If they are departmental officers, they may warn their minister that the change is good policy, but a courageous decision!

Nevertheless, there are ways to scrap a bus route without the ruckus. It just takes a little longer, but the result is equally good in the end.

Here is a way forward:

1. Fly a kite. Spread the word around that bus route reform is being planned for the area and that the 509 may be replaced by better services on surrounding routes. Put it in the public domain and have your underlings monitor the local paper and conversations at bus stops for possible adverse reactions.

2. Consider a partial backdown if response is hostile. If there is a groundswell of opposition (from the three people who regularly use the route and possibly a local councillor), it might be politic to make a tactical backdown. Don't admit that your (correct) decision was wrong, but merely say that you will review it with input from those affected.

3. Do some research. Talk to people. Compile patronage data through validation statistics and do an on-board passenger survey. You'd ask some token questions about preferred travel times and purposes of trips, etc.

4. Due to the public outcry (from the aforementioned three passengers), announce that there has been a change of heart. The route will continue, but on a reduced timetable (the passenger survey data will be useful here). Announce that it will be a six month trial, with the final decision based on patronage.

5. The local councillor (who has achieved something for their constituency) praises the 'reversal' and urges people to 'use it or lose it'. The issue is out of the local papers and is 'dead' as far as 99% of readers are concerned.

6. Draw up a revised reduced route and timetable for the 509. Having a kink in the middle of the route and a deviation on every second trip (possibly to serve a school that closed down 10 years ago) may be appropriate. The new timetable could involve shorter operating hours, the abolition of Saturday services, and a basic service frequency of 70 minutes (or some other non-clockface figure). As the driver has to have lunch sometime, some random headways and/or a three hour gap in the middle of the day works wonders. If timetables at stops are updated at all, they should be in small print and not include maps. Nevertheless the passengers are happy about their partial victory.

7. Add some services on the 503 and/or 508, using resources from the cuts to the 509. Make Saturday services connect with trains, extend operating hours and upgrade passenger information. Every house along Route 509 is sent a brochure advertising the extra 503 and 508 services. The only reference to the 509 should be a note saying service are under review pending patronage surveys.

8. Three or four months later, patronage data is surveyed. This shows modest increases on 503 and 508, but a sharp decline in the use of the 509, with an average of just 0.5 passengers per run. Most of those who previously used the 509 now walk to the other more frequent services.

9. You regretfully announce that the 509 trial was a failure due to insufficient patronage. The local councillor and MP accept the trial results with their reputations intact. They can furnish adequate evidence that 'they tried', but in the end public support was insufficient to save the route.

10. With this potential opposition neutralised, the way is clear to carry through with the original plan to delete the 509. entirely. This is presented as a package of local service changes 'to suit modern travel needs' (which is entirely true). These include goodies like better weekday services, longer hours, Sunday running, connections with trains, etc, all of which make 503 and 508 more attractive to passengers and further boost patronage. Of course some of the resources have come from the deleted 509, but by now noone laments the loss of such an infrequent, circuitous service that had odd deviations and little passenger information.

Thus the mission previously thought either 'courageous' or 'impossible', has been achieved with eventual community acceptance and even support as reflected in patronage increases.

With the project being considered a success, simlar efforts can then be extended to other suburbs which also have their fair share of routes almost as useless as the 509. And there's no doubt Melbourne needs Transperth-style area-wide service reviews, even if overall resourcing is held constant.