Monday, April 07, 2008

Professional versus political in service planning

The interplay between professional opinion and politics and the resultant services we get is always worth watching. The priorities that prevail are particularly noticeable during times of significant growth, such as we're currently seeing with Melbourne's bus network.

I count the operators, industry associations, private consultants, transport academics and (marginally on this topic) Metlink as the 'professionals' who pride themselves on their expertise. The 'politicians' comprise community groups, local governments, MPs, ministerial staff and the Minister herself who are 'generalists' but know what they want from a transport system. In the middle of this interplay is the Department of Infrastructure which has professional and political elements and must reconcile both.

Objectives naturally differ between the two main groups, which is why their priorities will vary. Despite what one group may say, both are necessary. Decisions and funding come from the politicial while expertise comes from the professional. Professionals need to humour the political process and the occasional publicity tricks, while politicans must acknowledge that networks aimed to please everyone end up pleasing no one.


A bus network designed by professionals to maximise patronage would probably comprise frequent buses running along a grid of main roads with bus priority. Not only would it have the highest patronage, but such a network would also have the highest farebox recovery ratio, the highest boardings per kilometre, the highest average bus loading and the lowest greenhouse emissions per passenger.

This means a more legible network with fewer but more frequent and longer running routes. Poorly used routes might be withdrawn if it can be demonstrated that higher patronage is possible by improving services elsewhere. Hence passengers may need to walk further to their nearest bus stop. Key performance measures would include direct routes, wide service hours and high frequencies.


The 'politicians' network emphasises route coverage - even to areas that could never sustain a well-used bus service. This produces impressive network maps, but generally low service levels. Network legibility suffers as routes are split and occasional deviations are introduced in response to lobbying from constituency groups. Politicans' preference of coverage over frequency is not recent; recall the railway 'Octopus Acts' of the 1880s which proposed miles of unviable rail lines and others that only saw weekly trains.

In its defence, the politicians' network gives priority to social need over maximising patronage, efficiency or environment. And of the socially needy, the organised might receive preference over the casual passenger by scoring a deviation that lengthens the latter's trip.

A high route coverage standard is generally provided, but at the expense of other important patronage attractors such as directness, operating span and frequency. This has meant that the politician's network mainly provides a social service for people without cars and has a low potential to grow patronage or further environmental goals. An example politicians performance measure might be something like '90% of the population is within 400 metres of a service', with little concern over whether the service is every ten minutes or twice a day.

What is our current network like?

The existing local bus network is more like the politician's network than the professionals network. In some ways this is understandable given that perhaps 80% of bus operating costs come from the taxpayer (not the farebox) and thus must pass through political hands. The routes that approximate nearest the professional's network (ie direct and frequent) are the SmartBus routes and some inner-suburban routes that have retained tram-like service levels.

Recent and proposed changes

Elements of both the political and the professional can be seen in recent and proposed changes.

Case study: Gowanbrae and Route 490

A recent triumph of the political (and hence, in a way, democracy) is the proposed Route 490 to Gowanbrae. This is an enclave isolated by freeways, railway and a river. It has no shops, services or public transport. Its roads are too narrow for standard buses and there is only one way into the suburb, making an efficient service to the nearest railway station impossible to provide.

No sane urban planner would have recommended Gowanbrae be developed in its current inaccessible form. And this error having been made, no efficiency-minded transport professional would recommend a bus since other areas have greater merit. Transport-wise Gowanbrae is a basketcase, and perhaps the only efficient public transport project possible would be a high quality cycleway to Glenroy Station!

Socially there is a case to provide transport to an area currently distant from it. And politically, active residents and council have lobbied for years. Their patience was rewarded; last week the Minister for Transport announced that Gowanbrae would soon get a bus service. Everyone was happy and no one has yet been impolite enough to mutter phrases like 'opportunity cost'.


SmartBuses are at the other end of the spectrum. Direct, fast (if provided with priority), frequent and (ideally) connected with trains, they make the public transport network far more versatile and not just a feeder for CBD workers. As existing SmartBuses have shown, this is exactly what is needed to boost patronage. Hence all in the 'professional' camp support SmartBuses, even if some have reservations about orbital routes.

Local routes

Local routes are somewhere in between. The main changes to them at the moment are the 'minimum standards' upgrades. These will upgrade most local routes to at least an hourly service until 9pm seven days a week. This compares to the 7pm finish/6 day running that was normal until 2006.

Is this mainly 'political' or 'professional'? My answer is a bit of both.

There is no doubt that minimum standards were needed. No professional or politican who supported improved buses could oppose them. So I call that a consensus. Even though the light evening patronage on some might make the professionals wince and prefer a more intensive service on the popular routes.

However the order in which services were upgraded cannot be the making of a transport planning professional. As an example the lightly used Route 701 was one of the first to benefit. On the other hand popular nework-strategic routes like 665 and 737 had to wait until 2007 or 2008. Though this doesn't matter much anymore (since many important routes have now been upgraded) the order that it was done does give some insight to the process; criteria other than network utility or patronage potential must have been key.

Bus reviews and current service planning

With a few exceptions, the minimum standards program represents an upgrade to existing routes. The bus review process reaches further, promising revised local networks.

The interplay between professionals, politicans and the public has been fascinating during the reviews currently underway. The results of these are yet to be seen, though much of what is said (and public sentiment) has favoured the 'professional' aims of directness, operating hours and frequency over the political. However the politcal has not been completely absent, since there have been calls from groups or councils for deviations, extensions or improved coverage, especially in newer areas.

Current service planning appears to be driven by the following standards:

* 90% of the metropolitan population within 400 metres of transport (high target)
* Most routes running until 9pm, 7 days a week (moderate target)
* A 'safety net' 60 minute service frequency for local services (low target)

Both political and professional influences are apparent. If there is a skew it it towards the political, as seen by the high coverage target. The main effect of such a high target is that with a given level of resourcing it is harder to make more local routes run every 15 or 20 minutes instead of 40 or 60 minutes.

A slacker coverage target eg '80% within 800 metres' combined with a tougher hours/frequency target eg 'at least every 15 min day/30 minutes night' is likely to be favoured by professionals and deliver better patronage outcomes. However this will leave large areas (not just Gowanbrae) without service, so these need some modification since the political calculus is adverse (removing service from 100 people is 'courageous' even if 1000 people benfit from an improved service nearby).

Thus we might end up with a compromise approach where we have a breakdown of (say) 40% primary routes (every 15 min to better than minimum hours), 40% secondary routes (every 30 min to minimum hours) and tertiary routes (say every 60 min). This mix would greatly lift the status of the sub-smartbus but direct local routes and provide a far better network than SmartBus + trains alone. If the bus reviews can result in the implementation of that sort of service, then it should be possile to reasonably satisfy both professional and political tendencies.


Jarf said...

Re Gowanbrae, it might be worth the government considering a short bus-only bridge over Moonee Ponds Creek, running into Glen Park Ave in Glenroy. To enhance coverage of Gowanbrae itself, extending Primula Bvd to Marigold Cres might also be necessary.

Combined the two projects would allow route 490 to be turned into an Airport West-Glenroy route, which would most likely improve patronage while still being reasonably direct. It might also be possible to through-route with another route at Glenroy, say 534, to extend it to Coburg.

Peter Parker said...

Matt, an Airport West to Glenroy bus is an excellent idea and would plug a major network 'hole'.

Then a really good service through Gowanbrae would be justified on sound route planning criteria.

But would residents support it or would they oppose it, worried it could be widened and introduce through car traffic in the future?

A Fawkner to Reservoir busway is another that springs to mind since current barriers severely restrict what can be done with buses in the area.

Anonymous said...


Phin and DrWaddles mentioned that you have some good material on transit theory. Am doing a mini textbook on my blog. Any existing work you've done would be gratefully reproduced, cited and acknowledged.

Let me know any links you're happy to share. Mine will have more of a rail lean than buses though I will cover both