Sunday, October 29, 2006

Beauty in timetables

5:05pm: Werribee train departs departs Flinders St stopping all stations between Newport and Werribee
5:11pm: Werribee train departs Flinders St Station express between Newport and Laverton, then express to Hoppers Crossing. I board this train.
5:37pm: Look south from the express and see 5:05pm stopper just leave Westona.
5:38pm: Pull in to Laverton. Passengers for Aircraft Station alight.
5:39pm: Express through Aircraft to Hoppers Crossing.
5:41pm: 5:05pm stopper arrives at Laverton, picking up passengers for Aircraft.
5:42pm: Arrive and alight at Hoppers Crossing.
5:43pm: Walk to bus interchange. No buses to be seen.
5:48pm: 5:11pm stopper train arrives at Hoppers Crossing.
5:50pm: Buses start pulling into interchange.
5:54pm: Bus route 440 leaves.
5:55pm: Bus route 436 leaves, then route 442.
5:56pm: Bus route 437 leaves. About 20-25 on board.
5:57pm: All quiet at Hoppers Station interchange until the next train.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Should an expanded Melbourne City council run transport?

The Herald Sun has an article about a plan to create an enlarged inner Melbourne council to allow a more co-ordinated transport policy.

Such a council area could include not just the CBD and immediate surrounds, but also inner-Melbourne areas, such as St Kilda, Brunswick, Richmond, Footscray or even further out.

These sorts of things come up every now and then. Amalgamated councils apparently 'co-ordinate better' and 'have more resources', whereas divided up councils can be 'more responsive to local concerns' and are better at 'local solutions'.

But people should stand back and consider the implications before supporting it, rather than taking the 'grass is greener on the other side' approach and thinking it must be good.

Brisbane has been cited as an example of a powerful local government. The City of Brisbane has approximately 700 000 residents and has some tasks that would be state government functions elsewhere (eg running buses).

But I'm not sure if transport planning in Brisbane can be regarded as a success. Admittedly they've done very well lately with Translink fares and bus patronage, but for years Brisbane was less innovative than cities such as Perth, which has had genuine multimodal service planning for years.

A Brisbane-like structure just sets things up for big power plays between a big state government and a big local government. And especially if one controls trains and the other controls buses then you're going to get some pretty stupid decisions being made if an integrated approach is not taken (eg busways paralleling railways, or in other cases light rail where a bus would have been better etc).

After a few years of waste and politicking, people will be calling for an integrated body to be formed, and so the wheel will have turned full circle.

Fragmentation can also hinder or spoil big projects. Would Allanah McTiernan have got the direct (Narrows Br) Mandurah railway option up if PCC and the NIMBYs of South Perth were more powerful? The answer is no she wouldn't. The 'second-best' option of the train via Cannington would have been built, and trip times would be scarcely faster than the current freeway buses.

The other problem with public transport being controlled by inner suburban interests is that it will be divided into inner versus outer systems, with inner parts thriving at the expense of the outer parts of the network. This is effectively conceding that PT will not work in outer areas. However it is essential that it does since the liveability of the inner areas is a major beneficiary of it.

Is this pie in the sky stuff? No.

Go back to the Lonie Report, which recommended mass rail closures. Or the early proposals from the Kennett era.

If you wanted to travel after 8pm from the city to beyond Caulfield or Moorabbin, you will have to get off the train and onto a bus. This was predicated on seperate inner vs outer networks. Such a network would be particulary unsuitable for a city such as Melbourne where population density differences between inner and outer suburbs are quite small.

In summary, I have yet to see anything that convinces me that changes of this ilk are progress, as opposed to mere activity.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Route 900 Wellington Rd SmartBus

Bus waiting for passengers at Stud Road, Rowville. Note the timetable totems going up across the SmartBus network.

Two totems are pictured, but only use the front one for departure times. The rear totem is only useful if you're meeting someone and wish to know arrival times!

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Right Place Right Time (again)

(Daniel probably didn't think he was starting a meme when he wrote this, but this is too good to let go)

1. Board 6:23pm train to Flinders St at Werribee

2. Shortly afterwards AOs (aka ticket inspectors) walk through, checking tickets

3. Two graffiti dudes board at Aircraft or Laverton, lying on the bench seats at the rear of the carriage (Comeng train)

4. They got out felt pens and started tagging (and were dumb enough to date it!)

5. Emergency button pressed and the driver asked to call AOs

6. Driver does so over the PA so all the passengers knew what was happening

7. The whole carriage looks at them 8. At Newport AOs quietly bundle said yoof out of carriage for questioning

9. The train so relieved, continues towards Flinders Street

Yes, sometimes the system works, and occasionally the baddies even get caught!

Monday, October 16, 2006

Driver boosts patronage by 700%

Even though this area has an urban form conducive to walking, many homes without cars, a well-used tram service and and the highest journey-to-work train modal shares in Melbourne, almost no one takes the bus.

During the middle of the day you'll get a few elderly shoppers on board. Plus students before and after school. But that's about it. During the afternoon peak, while packed trains are spewing out passengers, it's common to see buses just metres away with 1 or 2 on board. And sometimes even 0 - in the middle of peak-hour.

I have often asked myself 'why was it so?'. I decided that it would be easy to treble patronage. So instead of 1 or 2 people on the bus, there could be 3 or 6. All you'd need is 5% of alighting train passengers to transfer, and this is simple as the bus route goes in the same direction as the main pedestrian flow.

But before we get onto that, I'll present a map to make it easier to explain.

The red lines are the roads, the blue line is the station and the yellow denotes a shopping strip, the most active part of which is south of the railway. The green boxes are bus stops.

Most important are the black lines, which indicate pedestrian flows during the afternoon peak. The thicker the black line, the more popular is the route. As can be seen by the thickness, most people alighting the train walk south, through the most active part of the shopping strip.

That tallys with what one would expect; the area north of the major road is mainly low-density residential with a railway station on another line about 15 minutes walk away. In addition, the road's width and lack of crossing points presents somewhat of a barrier to pedestrians.

The area south of the line has no such constraints. Indeed it has some features conducive to high use of the local station, including a busy shopping strip, high-density housing, high student and rental populations and no other railway lines nearby. So it's no mystery why most users of the station live south rather than north of it.

The streets with the densest housing are up to 15 - 20 minutes walk due south of the station. It would seem logical that some of these people would take a 5 minute bus ride on the way home from the station, wouldn't it? But as noted before, almost no one does.

The map above provides the critical clue why this is so. Note the locations of the two south-bound bus stops. The one nearest the station is to the north. Despite the new route sign, the timetable case remains empty. But since this is away from the dominant southwards pedestrian flow, it would be seen by relatively few people who might wish to use it, so the timetable's omission may be less a sin than originally thought.

The other southbound stop is quite a distance from the railway station, five (maybe ten) minutes walk, near the southern end of the shopping strip. By that time people might have thought that since they're one half to one third the way home, they might as well keep walking and not catch the bus. Since the basic service frequency is 30 minutes, and assuming a random arrival, probability theory is on the side of the walker getting home quicker. And the passenger numbers on the bus are enough to indicate that most people instinctively know that anyway unless they can see a bus coming.

What about my trebling patronage claim - doesn't that sound a bit outlandish? It might, but first I'll tell you about the kind bus driver who did even better, getting a 700% patronage boost.

It was about 6:20pm. A down train had just stopped and dozens of passengers were squeezing their way out of a narrow station exit. As per the map above, most started heading south. A bus with one passenger on board happened to be stopped at the level crossing at point 'X' (see pink line). This was right near where alighting passengers were about to turn, and the driver opened the doors and let them board.

A bus that otherwise would have carried one now carried eight. And before the bus could go, the boomgates lowered again, and most likely more people were able to board. This 700% patronage increase was the product of no planning; all it needed were passengers in the right place, a bus in the right place and, most importantly of all, a nice driver.

Now the particular spot that the bus stopped was ideal for alighting passengers, but due to a side-street, there isn't enough room for a regular stop. However there is room at point 'Y'. This is still quite close to the station, central to the shopping strip and also convenient for city-bound trains. Most importantly it is in the main pedestrian traffic flow, so it will be visible to most people.

The chances are that some passers-by would check the timetable before deciding whether to continue walking or take the bus. This is particularly the case with properly-designed (composite) timetables, so that tired passengers can consult one list, not three. Even if it's fifteen minutes to the next bus, some might elect to do some shopping in the interim. Since they won't be half way home before they get to a bus stop, psychologically they would be more inclined to opt for the bus.

It so happens that point 'Y' is outside a Metcard outlet and already has a seat. As mentioned in a previous post, it would be a fine place for a bus stop. The stop north of the station can then be moved north-east around the corner to the main road, where it could also be used by other services including a SmartBus and a NightRider (which already stops there).

What are the lessons from all this?

* Alighting passengers will not risk walking time to back-track to a bus stop (especially when the walking distance home is less than 2 kilometres and bus times are unknown)

* Alighting passengers will board a bus going their way if it's waiting and outside the station exit

* Alighting passengers are likely to consider boarding a bus (ie checking the timetable) if it is (i) near the station and (ii) on the way home

* Even if the wait for the bus is longer than walking, some passengers may still choose the bus if they can use waiting time to shop

Conclusion: Putting bus stops on major pedestrian desire lines is likely to generate significant increased patronage. At certain times when buses are lightly used (eg peak hour for local trips) increases of several hundred percent are not unreasonable when backed by appropriate service planning and passenger information.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Timetable preview: SmartBus 900

The fourth SmartBus service starts next week and timetables are now out.

Route 900 operates from Caulfield to Rowville. It runs roughly parallel to the rail line until Huntingdale, parallels Route 630 to Monash Uni and terminates at Stud Park Shopping Centre via Wellington Road. As well as providing quite frequent 7-day service to a swathe of suburbs east of Springvale that have never before had it, it will reduce the need to go into the city for local trips within Melbourne's east.

Monday to Saturday service spans are similar to trains: 5am to 11:30pm. Sunday service starts about 2 hours later and finishes about 2 hours earlier.

Weekday services are roughly every 15 minutes from approximately 7am to 9pm. However the effects of peak hour traffic can be seen, with longer trips and service intervals creeping up to 20 minutes. At other times, services are a clockface 30 minutes. However, it cannot be said to be a common timetable; Saturday buses depart Rowville at :28 and :58, while Sunday buses depart at :10 and :40. Coincidentally these exact times are also departures from Caulfield, but reversed by day.

Run lengths ranges from 41 minutes late at night, to 50 minutes on weekends to over an hour during peak times. These times are short for any route that goes by Chadstone, and the reason is apparent from the route map; unlike other services, Route 900 serves stops on Princes Hwy and does not pull in. The Chadstone interchanges must cost millions in wasted bus operating hours per year, but given its importance as a trip generator (and annointed 2030 activity centre) it will be interesting to see how long 900 can keep avoiding it.

There is one final question. Is 900 a limited stop service or not? The timtable makes no reference to it, but the 'Leader' newspaper ads do. It will be interesting to find out next week, as there's pros and cons in both approaches.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Gunzels in the paper

See Saturday's Age magazine for the full article and pictures. Or read an excerpt on Vicsig.

The article is a pretty standard example for the journo looking for an easy human interest story.

The recipe is something like this:

* Find an obscure interest that is poorly known outside its adherants. It helps if there's been a movie on it (though I'm surprised 'Malcolm' wasn't brought up).

* Gather a few adherants willing to talk.

* Visit them and get some pictures.

* Write your stuff. Recycle old cliches (again books or movies help). If there's something odd (like a higher propensity for some mental condition amongst enthusiasts), put that in as well.

Having said that, I didn't mind the article. I saw no glaring factual errors. Some gunzels said that parts conveyed a poor impression, and that might be correct. However a dispassionate reporting style can easily be viewed as hostile by those with the special interest. So it's very hard to write any article about a minority group without making participants appear a bit strange.

Whether you're a gunzel, amateur radio operator, timetable analyst or real estate investor (which are all minority pursuits) and someone from the popular media writes about it, they often don't quite 'get it' in the eyes of those involved.

This is probably inevitable given the generalist scope of journalists. Another thing is that many journalists have arts or humanities backgrounds. So anything that smacks of being technical is considered obscure, eccentric or 'abnormal'.

Social change shapes how topics are treated in the media. Australia is now largely a de-industrialised consumer society with most jobs in the service sector. Anything vaguely related to science, mathematics, heavy industry or 'making things' is now considered passe. Whereas 30 to 40 years ago it would have been mainstream and lauded as contributing to a high-technology future. Where are Telstra's Research Labs now?

Despite the percentage of people with higher education qualifications being the highest it has ever been, in some ways society is still quite philistine. Knowledge and intellectual rigour is held in low esteem (possibly by the jealous who lack it) and even linked to mental defects in some circles.

In the current environment, someone who can recite details for every bus route in Melbourne is more likely to be regarded as 'slightly odd' than valued for their interest and knowledge in modern Australia. This malaise could possibly explain why organisations such as Metlink have such difficulties with quality control.

Though the rant above has strayed off topic, I hope it has provided a few reasons why gunzels are, like other minority groups, portrayed as 'eccentrics' or 'misfits', and that social and economic change has made this more rather than less so.