Monday, December 03, 2007

Improving access to suburban stations

With our current suburban rail network (and any conceivable extensions to it) the majority of our city's population will always be beyond reasonable walking distance from a station.

The question then is how do we bring fast public transport within reach of more people.

Possible solutions to consider include:

(i) More walkable streets for faster, more direct and safer pedestrian access
(ii) More cycleways and bicycle shelters at stations
(iii) Better feeder bus services with improved connections
(iv) Park and Ride

The first two will appeal to some passengers only. However as they are low cost and have other benefits noone can really argue with them.

Feeder buses and park and ride are more controversial. People see that station car parks fill early in the morning peak so consider that more parking spots equals more patronage, so is a Good Thing. They might also look at the loadings on nearby buses and conclude that in a car-owning society few people will catch a bus.

Users of park & ride seldom pay for this privilege. Opposition politicians go crying to the press if even the possibility of charging is raised in some departmental briefing. However free Park & Ride is effectively giving one groups of people use of some very expensive land for 50 hours a week. This might not sound so bad until it is realised that by locking away this land we are denying other people more profitable and socially useful uses for it.

Such alternative uses could include additional retail, which provides services and creates local jobs. Or residential, which puts more people near a station and retail centre, so increasing usage of both. The more land for parking, the is less available for these 'higher and better' uses for the land.

Hence Park and Ride, particularly in established high-value suburbs, has a high opportunity cost that is not always realised by its proponents. Before it gets the nod, it should be compared to alternatives (notably better buses and better uses for the land) since these are likely to bring about better outcomes.

Now even if some scrap of land is deemed unsuitable for an non-parking purpose, commuter Park & Ride is not necessarily a no-brainer for that either. Local retailers generally want more parking, but hate long-term commuter parking.

The reason? A park & ride passenger is going to be 9 - 10 hours away working. In contrast a short-term 2-3 hour parking spot is going to be used by shop customers throughout the day. Hence there's more people and more business spread over the day, which must benefit local business more than an absentee parker. Though there are issues with local traffic management, short-term parking is clearly financially better for local centres than long-term commuter parking.

Then there is the scale that park & ride requires before it can substantially boost suburban rail patronage. Park & Ride requires heaps of land to benefit comparatively few people. Most people who catch the train in Melbourne continue to walk to their station. Enlarging P&R might encourage more beyond walking distance to catch the train, but the increase isn't going to be that great. That is unless there is a huge (and expensive) increase in P&R space, which in established high land-value suburbs will usually be at the cost of more productive uses and urban amenity.

Improved buses have none of these disadvantages. A bus carrying 30-50 people arriving every 10 minutes makes far better use of its bus bay than the handful of people who'd otherwise be parking there.

An improved bus service isn't cost-free either, but when compared to the increased value and trade from the more productive use of land, it looks a lot more attractive. And there's some elements of improved buses that are extremely cheap that we haven't done that well in Melbourne to date.

An example is bus service information at stations. A bus timetable installed at a station might cost between $1 and $1000 (depending on if a timetable case is needed) yet may benefit 100 alighting passengers. In contrast, one extra parking spot might cost $8000 (similar to a secondhand car) and benefit just one passenger per day. These benefit ratios of ten to one thousand to one are too large to ignore and tend to favour improved buses.

Timetable co-ordination to slash waiting and overall journey times is another low-cost measure. Wider spans and frequency cost a bit more, but again if opportunity costs of P&R are considered then it might even work out cheaper, as well as bringing other benefits such as better access to the local centre, urban amenity and a better-used bus service with reduced per-passenger costs and carbon emissions.

An objection to better buses is that most people have a car and most will use park & ride. This may be true with current bus services and levels of co-ordination. However it it not inherently true with every transport system, even in affluent high-car ownership cities.

Perth is an example. It has higher car ownership than Melbourne and purpose-built park & ride facilities at railway stations. Despite this, the proportion of train passengers who arrived at their stations by bus is far higher there than here. While Perth's relatively smaller rail network may play a part, the main reason is that Perth has made some effort with passenger information and service co-ordination. There is nothing to stop us from introducing similar measures, and I believe good along these lines will come from the current bus reviews.

To summarise: Park & ride does have benefits for some passengers. Some passengers will always use P&R even if the buses are good. However big expansions of it in built-up high land value areas are not without considerable penalty, opportunity cost and foregone revenue that its proponents tend to ignore.

Bigger bus improvements will naturally cost more relative to smaller bus improvements. However they also offer other benefits since they do not contribute to the traffic and land use issues that reduce the attractiveness of P&R.

While a balanced site assessment of the pros and cons of each needs to be made, I believe that in most cases, at least for built-up areas, a 'better buses' option is likely to produce greater overall economic, social and environmental benefits than a purely park and ride approach.


Alex Stephenson said...

It may be deemed heretical by some but I believe the dominance of that Melbourne institution the tram denies resources to other areas.

I'd prefer an exponentially increased fleet of buses with a mix of models operating across designated bus lanes both on and off the freeways.

Another benefit would be that our skyline in the inner city would be enhanced by the removal of the overhead infrastructure required by the tram.

Peter Parker said...

I can't recall mentioning trams at all in that post, but I'll make a few points anyway.

* Public transport is hardly better in the outer suburbs of Brisbane (which scrapped trams) than the outer suburbs of Melbourne (which didn't).

* Melbourne Trams recover a greater percentage of their operating costs than do Melbourne buses.

* The average tram carries more passengers than the average bus. And both only have one driver.

* Imagine Swanston Street with four buses per one tram currently there!

* Freeway buses have their own problems and are not particularly cost-efficient or provide maximum service levels per route kilometre.

Trams are good for what they do. So are buses. There is a place for both.

Anonymous said...

Interesting read Peter.

Captilising on what stations already exists and improving these is a good way of increasing patronage.

A good way as you stated is to improve street access as well as station pedsheds. There is too much emphasise on single entry points this making it less convenient for the passenger to access.

Smartrider in Perth has had an effect on pedsheds too.

With regards to bicylce shelters, the key word would be shelter. Even with new stations u-rails are placed close to the station however these are left out in the elements.

Imagine you rode to the station, it rained while you were away then when you come back the weather is clear but your bike is wet and it especially makes it hard if you have a padded seat cover.

Basically if u-rails are to be installed so should a shelter over them.

I agree with you Peter that better feeder buses and connections are by far the best solution.

Even with stations that have buses serving the adjacent street, the bus stops aren't correctly placed.

For example, Holmesglen station in Melbourne have the 700 running along the adjacent Warrigal Rd yet the bus stops are inconveniently placed up by the Batesford Rd intersection which is a bit of walk especially if you have to cross the busy road.

Peter Parker said...

I agree Tyler.

Even if it's only 200 metres involved, a larger pedshed area could increase its patronage by 20%, with much of this being during off-peak times.

Improving the pedshed of a busy station like Frankston would bring similar patronage benfits to adding extra stations, but at a fraction of the cost and with no journey time penalties for through passengers.

Tyler said...

Yes, increasing the pedshed could increase patronage by that much Peter especially if it connected with the TAFE at the western end by an overpass.

This would be competitive to car travel as it wouldn't be that much longer then walking to your car in the adjoining TAFE car park.

Along with Franskston as you stated, there would be quite a few other stations that have the potential especially to improve walking distance between the different modes of transport.

Another candidate could be Box Hill where the 109 terminates away from the station (due to possible extension down Whitehorse Rd) and isn't directly with Box Hill station. The walking distance maybe ok for teenagers and adults but for the elderly it would be difficult especially getting to the bus station.

I think some bus services should extend through to the tram terminus and the 700 will eventually do that so that kinda overcomes the problem.