Friday, April 25, 2008

Service standards for buses

When people front up to a bus stop, they don't know what to expect.

For a start (unlike a tram stop or railway station) it might not have a timetable.

But assuming it does, the timetable can show a big variations in services. For instance, it may run frequently on weekdays but not at all on Sundays. Some services operate weeknights but not on Sundays, while other go Sundays but not weeknights. Regular routes may provide a superior service to SmartBuses on some days but not others. Public holidays and reduced December/January timetables are other causes of confusion as there are no network-wide standards.

Since the service levels of some bus routes can be low, it is easy to tar all with the same poor brush. And this is understandable given that even a single route can be simultaneously good or poor depending on the day of the week and time of the year.

The SmartBus program provides a premium and visible level of service on five routes. Currently they are all in Melbourne's east but eventually they will extend around the northern and western suburbs via proposed orbital routes. Except possibly for peak times, SmartBus provides a consistent level of service on weekdays. However weekends and evening SmartBus services still have a way to go, with some regular non-SmartBus routes offering superior service.

At the local level there are the minimum standards improvements which will give local routes at least a basic hourly service until 9pm and standard public holiday service arrangements. Over 200 of Melbourne's 300 bus routes are to be upgraded, and we are currently just under half way through.

When minimum standard upgrades are finished, it will be possible to talk about a minimum service standard of a bus at least every hour until 9pm. And given the 90%/400 metre rule, we could add it would be within a 5 minute walk of most homes as well.

Left out of this is a big body of busyish routes that are neither SmartBuses nor quiet local routes. They may serve shopping centres, universities or a major corridor. They may be highly patronised routes, such as the 200-series out to Sunshine or 250/251 to Northland/Latrobe University. Or they might be the only direct link for some suburbs missed by trains or trams (eg various City-Doncaster routes). Many of these already operate to quite high service standards, and even, as noted before, run more frequently and later than SmartBuses.

It is these intermediate/'nonSmart' routes that are currently getting a bad deal. They don't get the promotion or infrastructure of SmartBus services. Neither have they had the public holiday standardisation of local routes. Where these services comprise two or three similar routes, timetables may not always be in composite form, so Joe Public can't readily see the higher service level offered. Unlike SmartBuses or local routes they don't have documented service standards. To the passenger it's just another route number, and study of a timetable is needed before knowing whether the route is hourly until 7pm or every 20 minutes until midnight. These good but 'non-smart' routes will never reach their potential until this is addressed and their superior service is highlighted.

The solution to all this is contained in a media release quoting Bob Cameron, the Member for Bendigo West, when announcing upgraded local bus services in Bendigo.

The salient sentence is this:

"There will be services at least every 30 minutes on prime routes and every hour on secondary routes,” Mr Cameron said.

Since the hourly 9pm 'minimum standards' are just that - minimums - we can label all those routes that conform as 'secondary', just as Mr Cameron did for Bendigo's quieter routes.

SmartBuses are usually better than that, so it's logical that they are 'primary'. Ditto for the 'nonSmart' routes if their service level is high enough. Document these primary standards, make some minor improvements to ensure adherence and standardise public holiday arrangements and we've effectively doubled the SmartBus network for very little cost. After all, who really cares if a bus is 'smart' or otherwise if it's like Route 220 and runs every 15 minutes until after 11pm?

The few routes that conform to neither primary or secondary status (perhaps because they are peak-hour only or serve semi-rural areas), can be labelled 'tertiary'.

Once we have a proper primary/secondary/tertiary standard, it can be explained easily to passengers; just as the MP did in his one-liner. We can say things like: Primary routes have a bus at least every 15 minutes during the day and every 30 minutes until midnight and secondary routes are at least hourly until 9pm. This exercise now is impossible since current timetables have dozens of variations and requires hundreds of words to explain.

Primary service can be promoted at stops, in timetables and on websites similar to what Adelaide does with its 'Go Zones'. Local public transport maps at all railway stations and bus interchanges would show the primary routes as thicker lines. The remaining secondary and tertiary routes would be thinner lines.

By differentiating primary and secondary routes, and heavily promoting the former, we've created a quite different, more versatile and more usable bus network. And this should translate into higher bus patronage overall, with the potential of upgrading popular secondary routes to primary status.

And we've met the challenge set at the beginning, which was to ensure that passengers know what service to expect, just as they do now with trains and trams.


Daniel said...

Of course, even some Smartbuses (the original routes) don't meet the Smartbus "standard" on weekends.

But agree with your point -- frequent routes could be brought under the Smartbus banner. The most important thing to users is the standard of service, not whether the buses have shiny silver paint jobs, electronic signs (which sometimes work and sometimes don't) and traffic light priority (which rarely works).

Anonymous said...

Hi there.

Thanks for your balanced blog on SmartBus. As the Communications Manager for the VicRoads SmartBus project it's great to see democratic dialogue of this nature. Keep it up, and check doi/smartbus for updates.

Unknown said...

Great post Peter - I think your final comment is in many ways one of the most important. People generally know what the service standard for trains and trams are. Even if I think they are way too low (in the case of trains), I can't deny that people have a reasonable idea of what to expect and make their decisions accordingly.

But with buses, there's little knowledge of service standard, and because most routes are rubbish, people assume all routes are rubbish. It's going to be a difficult issue to resolve, and I'd favour getting the axe into most bus routes and replacing them with frequent (every 10 mins) services along the major roads.

The problem is that the Herald Sun will pick up on some little old lady who can't go to the shops on Thursday afternoon because her bus route was axed. The politicians simply won't go for it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Phin.

Although even with trains and trams there seems to be an extreme official reluctance to set down service standards, even though they can be summarised in a sentence or two, and in my view are a key part of marketing.

One example is the 'Fares & Travel Guide', where there is mention of spans but not frequencies. This is even though this publication is the first port of call for tourists and others, and is almost invariably stocked by stations even if they don't have much in the way of bus timetables.

It's true that not all services run the same frequency, but giving a range of frequencies is acceptable if that range isn't too wide or is qualified by words like 'most'.

I do this (insert plug) on Meltrip and I think it works well for trains and trams. Buses are harder for reasons explained above, but at least I've made an attempt.

As well as service standards, a widespread criticism of buses is 'people don't know where it goes'. This is opposed to trams or trains where most people, even if car drivers, have at least a rough idea.

To fix this, we should be painting red lines on all roads served by primary bus routes. Paint is cheap, but it's nearly as good as tram tracks. And you can say things like 'red line = bus always every 15 minutes or better', we've made a whole heap of bus routes like trams for very little money.

Anonymous said...

Good post.

I would rather 'zones' were done than routes, if funding be tight. Helps with navigability. Routes are an artefact of transport operation, not of passenger expectation.

Trains run on routes because they have no choice. Buses should 'swarm' rather than 'haul' and if they are hauling its because the critical mass for rail construction has not been reached (but may one day).

I at least like the idea that the CBD (with trams) is done first, then say StK to Parkville, Port Melb, Hoddle and Flemington (meaning a proliferation of 401s) then a Greater Dandenong, Greater Frankston, Greater Werribee and Greater Box Hill and Greater Ringwood set of zones.

Then extra zones as they can be afforded.

If routes be done rather than zones, they need to be genuine line-haul style, not just some trumped up cross-suburban route like they do.

Why is it Queensland gets proper busways yet Melbourne gets a few splashes of red paint on the gronud near a traffic light and call that a busway?