Sunday, January 25, 2009

An Airport Bus Network

Australia's capital cities have different approaches when it comes to providing airport public transport. Perth (Domestic) and Adelaide run airport services as part of the regular bus network. Sydney and Brisbane have privately-built lines that charge a premium fare.

Like the smaller cities Melbourne uses buses, with the services offered representing both the extreme best and the extreme worst of bus transport in Melbourne. At the top end we have the premium fare exress Skybus, which offers train-level travel speeds and frequent service at all times. At the bottom end we have three very infrequent and poorly signed regular bus routes that not even airport staff know about (picture below).

The equivalent pictures for Sydney, showing wayfinding signs and timetables full of services, are below:

Somebody over at Transport Textbook has posted a piece that contains many good points. Most pertinent to this article is the fact that airports are major employment centres and should receive similar service to any other major suburban centre.

As mentioned in one of the responses, local buses around Melbourne Airport are being reviewed. There are also plans afoot to include the Airport as an orbital bus route stop. Hence if you want better services to Melbourne Airport, now is a good time to lodge a submission to this effect. The deadline is February 28. See the Department of Transport website for more details.

Following are possible plans for an airport bus network serving the major surrounding suburbs. The most frequent service would run to Broadmeadows to connect with trains. It would have limited stops, run every 20 minutes and be shown as a dotted line on rail network maps. Other services could run to (i) Sydenham via Airport West and (ii) Sunbury, with the latter timed to connect with V/Line trains. All centres served are significant local train, tram or bus nodes, so it should be possible for a significant part of the airport's workforce to commute with no or one change of vehicle.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Our recession threat and its impact on public transport

With opinions varying on what's in store for Australia's economy, it's worth reflecting on the effect the economy has on public transport.

Here's a few possible consequences of a slowing economy on public transport.

Recruitment and retention of key staff, eg train drivers Operators and maintenance companies should find staff retention easier. No longer will the big money in mining lure eastern states workers. Wages pressure may also moderate and the effect of the 'skills shortage', impacting industries from bus drivers to maintenance will lessen.

Unemployment and a reduced labour participation rate Should boost off-peak patronage on all modes, especially if households sell their second or third car. This increases the importance and use of local public transport, especially suburban buses.

Reduced tourism, overseas student recruitment and retail activity May affect the CBD and some student-dependent suburban centres. These groups have high public transport usage so patronage may also suffer, especially if retail and catering staff numbers fall.

Reduced immigration Would reduce the rate of household formation and thus housing development. Especially in outer areas a slower pace of growth would reduce pressures to extend bus routes to new areas.

Reduced business activity The Australian car industry, propped up by fleet and government purchases, is in for more hard times. Consumers might stick with small cheaper to run imports, despite lower petrol prices. Lower business activity (eg fewer taxis, tradesmen, couriers) may lower traffic volumes during the day and even provide relief for crawling trams and buses.

CBD employment and office vacancy rates Fewer full-time jobs, especially in the CBD, will reduce our very high rates of patronage growth. In a perverse way, decision-makers who did not predict the 2005 - 2008 patronage boom may heave a sigh of relief as 'train crush' stories no longer feature in the papers. Demands on infrastructure may be less and fewer improvements may be proposed. Job suburbanisation or casualisation is also bad for our existing transport network since driving is so much more competitive outside the CBD and 'business hours'.

Reduced environmental consciousness Historically green consciousness and activism peaks towards the end of long booms. During good times few people worry about the economy and environmentalism surges. But during a recession 'it's the economy stupid' and 'the environment' becomes less urgent amongst decision makers. Given that the environment is an often quoted justification for public transport investment, this reduced emphasis makes it harder to successfully advocate improved public transport.

The evaporation of private capital for big infrastructure projects Ambitious projects (eg the Very Fast Train and various road tunnels) often get proposed by entrepeneurs and financiers after generous tax write-offs. However during leaner times such projects are considered risky, credit is tighter and growth projections are less rosy so financiers lose interest. Big ideas die and emphasis instead turns to holding on what we have. However this applies to freeways as much as public transport, so the net effect in modal shift may be negligible.

Less favourable government budgetary position Every person who loses their job makes the government at least $30k pa worse off (from less tax revenue and more benefits paid). Company tax and stamp duty revenues also fall. Governments also lose heavily if they 'play business' and bail out failed companies or finance dodgy public/private partnerships. The effect of all this are 'across the board' cuts, which affect public transport since it is majority government-funded. Infrastructure spending, maintenance, staffing and service levels are the main casualties, if the 1990s experience is anything to go by.

Big 'recession-busting' infrastructure projects In contrast to the above two points, governments facing recession may be willing to follow Keynesian-style economics and go into deficit to 'stimulate the economy'. Major capital infrastructure benefits (which provide jobs and build for the future) may be funded. Sometimes these involve public transport, such as the Cranbourne electrification. However these have long lead times, and recent government policy has instead been to provide one-off cash bonuses to certain groups such as pensioners and first homebuyers since these can be spent quickly. While the federal government has invited submissions for infrastructure spending, few asked for projects will proceed since the money's already been spent.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Must there always be a 'bad side'?

Go to almost any rail-based retail strip in Melbourne and you'll find a 'good side' and a 'blighted side'.

The good side has the busy shops; the bad side has the empty shops, derelict buildings, tattoo parlours, pawnbrokers, sex shops, secondhand dealers and other low-rent and marginal uses.

The reason is visibility and pedestrian access. A thriving retail shopping strip caters to many needs and tastes. You won't want to go into every shop, but if there's one across the road that grabs you, one expects to be able to walk directly to it and be inside within 20 or 30 seconds. Poor visibility, waiting or backtracking kills the shopping experience and reduces customer count and sales. This is because the number of shops one can impulsively entered in a 30 minute visit to the strip is reduced. If people can't get adequate and accessible variety they they'll go elsewhere (eg a large shopping centre where the traffic problems are left outside in the car park).

This goes some way to explain why shopping strips based around or near traffic sewers (North Road Ormond or South Road Moorabbin) are failures, while those based around smaller streets (Puckle Street Moonee Ponds or Koornang Road Carnegie) are successes. And along the same street, eg High Street Preston, those sections with closer intervals between pedestrian signals win more shoppers than those that don't.

Nevertheless traffic along a shopping street (or more precisely long gaps between pedestrian crossings and long cycles for those that exist) isn't the only enemy of easy access to shops. Railway lines or major highways, running across a shopping street can divide an area, reducing visibility and/or access. Shops require much closer links between them than do houses; customers often go from shop to shop, but people seldom go from house to house in a street. Not only does visibility have to be good, but retail shops need to be almost adjoining and on the same level to maintain interest and encourage the shopper to 'drop in'.

Anything like a major highway or railway line violates the need for good sight and quick access and condemns the less favoured half of the shopping strip to decline (*). An underpass helps, but not if it is indirect and results in extra walking (as many low-grade DDA-compliant ones can be). Overpasses have similar problems. Even the 'cage' appearance of at-grade gates or booms reduces sightlines, even though in 80% of cases these won't be closed and access is faster than the perception of same.

What about grade seperation of road and rail? Local retailers appear to like this and think it will fix all their problems. While there may be other benefits of grade seperation, fixing a divided retail strip is not necessarily one of them. Indeed it could make matters worse; making a two dimensional problem into a three dimensional problem, further 'killing off' the less favoured side.

Oakleigh, Huntingdale, Sunshine and Richmond station grade seperations are all failures from an urban amenity standpoint. All have caused or encouraged significant urban blight in the overpasses' shadow. Even Elsternwick, which I have praised before, has it's 'bad side' of the line, as Reuben points out (and it was that post which encouraged this one).

If grade seperations aren't the cure for divided shopping strips, what is? I don't think there is one given the clear sightlines and continuous access required within a shopping strip for it to function as a whole. In this case it might be better to admit defeat and rezone the 'blighted sides' of shopping strips from 'retail' to 'residential - high density' with mixed uses also permitted.

This has a number of benefits. For a start it increases the pedshed of the railway station and local shopping strip, generating custom for both. While residents of this area will need to cross the railway or road to reach the shops this is acceptable since once over the line access between all shops in the strip will be good. Urban blight will be minimised since the retail strip will no longer be divided and there will be increased pedestrian traffic from local residents. And if the strip needs to be expanded, some houses could be rezoned mixed use or commercial towards the unblocked end of the strip.

(*) Reservoir seems to be one exception - with two active shopping strips on both sides of the railway.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Melbourne Public Transport Standards Review

Booz & Co (who are also doing some bus reviews for DoT) have also been busy researching on service standards for Melbourne public transport overall.

Read their review here

My main observation was that though the report include a list of things that individually contribute to service (eg amount of rail infrastructure, span and frequency) it stopped short of trying to bring it all together to form an overall measure.

As a result reading the report provided a bunch of statistics that did not convey the user experience and the extent to which this varied between cities. Here's just a few questions one might ask:

* Is the public transport in my suburb good enough to go somewhere on a Sunday or stay out until 11pm?
* Can I rock up at a station or stop and expect a service in a few minutes in peak hour or should I instead plan the trip beforehand?
*Or is the train likely to be faster than driving, and if I need to catch a bus will the connection be good?
* What proportion of suburbs get a service every fifteen minutes or better?
* Are summer and public holiday service arrangements standard across the network or does each operator or route do its own thing?

These are the sorts of questions that a robust set of service standards (and study of same) would address. I have a rough idea of service levels and characteristics in some of the Australian cities mentioned. Melbourne trams good, Perth trains good, Adelaide buses good, Perth connectivity good, Brisbane trains poor off-peak, Melbourne's trains extensive, Sydney ticketing terrible etc. However I'm not sure if this report would convey this sense to the general reader (or policy-maker) so we know where Melbourne sits.

Another thing the report could usefully have done is to define an overall service standard for its client; especially since page 4 says service standards are 'largely undefined'!

The service standard method mentioned before on these pages involving coverage, frequency and span seems as good a starting point as any:

V % of the population within W minutes walk of a service that runs at least every X minutes between Yam and Zpm, seven days a week.

The figures to insert depend on what the policy maker wants the public transport network to do - ie compete with driving for many trips, or to provide a social welfare type service. For example:

* If you wanted to make it a high standard network intended to win modal share, V = 90%, W = 10 min, X = 10 minutes, Y = 6am and Z = midnight.

* If public transport is more a social service then W might be 5 minutes, X every 60 minutes and Z = 7pm.

* A network somewhere in between might have a substantial grid of primary routes where X = 15min, Y = 6am, Z=midnight supplemented by local secondary routes where X = 30 or 60 min, Y=6am and Z=9pm.

Of these three the last option could be achieved in Melbourne fairly quickly. The use of service standards to reduce the myriad variations in bus service levels to a three tier system of primary, secondary and tertiary routes with harmonised hours, frequencies and holiday arrangements would permit the sort of network legibility, information and marketing that other cities take for granted.

A good service comparison between cities might set a moderate to good level of service (such as an Adelaide Go-Zone) as a reference. The study would compare the proportion of the population within 10 minutes walk of that level of service. All Australian cities are likely to have only a minority of the population near a service of that quality, but it would be a substantial minority and comparisons would be readily made. In particular Melbourne's tram network would stand out as exceeding this level, while most of its buses (including some SmartBuses) would not exceed it. The latter would also be true of Perth for its buses, but it's train network would meet the standard, unlike Adelaide's or Brisbanes. And this sort of comparison would more closely align with the user experience mentioned above.

Robust service standards along the lines of that above can be very useful to a co-ordinating departmet. They would then flow into network design, service levels and then marketing. Adelaide excels here with it's 'Go Zone' buses where passengers are assured of a 15 min weekday/30 min evening and weekend frequency and wide operating spans and the service is marketed as a coherent network. And Brisbane has 'BUZ zones', offering services every 15 minutes until late at night. Instead of drawing from as many overseas cities, these concepts could have been proposed as practical, local and achieveable examples of effective service standards and marketing. Unfortunately, despite being raised in the body of the report, the need for genuine service standards did not make it into a conclusion, recommedation or summary of key points.

Now onto some specific points. All are fairly minor, but I can't resist mentioning them.

Page 4. Trams are ignored in the service comparison tables, presumably because other cities don't have anything matching it (although Sydney Buses could have been surveyed). In a survey this would tend to unfairly work against Melbourne bus frequencies since in other cities trams' purpose is performed by high-frequency bus routes (eg Adelaide's Go Zones').

Page 4. The report is correct in that 'Track Record' is not the place for train span and service frequency standards. However these are specified in the train operating contracts. Information from these could have been provided rather than the columns left blank. Again this make us look less favourable.

Page 7. The claim that Perth has a standard 15 minute train service might better have been qualified as only applying during the day (Monday - Sunday) with some minor exceptions. Perth's night trains run every 30 minutes - ie similar to Melbourne Monday - Saturday (Sunday some lines). Hence the report oversells Perth's night services, when they are better regarded as comparable to us.

Page 8. While Perth's 'late night' trains do run later than Melbourne, it should be noted that this is at the cost of frequency - every 60 minutes instead of ours every 30 minutes. A true comparison would also factor in trams and NightRider buses, which have seen substantial boosts lately.

Page 9. The 10-20 minute evening train frequencies quoted for Melbourne are unrepresentative since they only apply to stations between the city and Footscray, Clifton Hill, Ringwood, Caulfield or Sandringham. Claiming a 30 minute average would have led to more robust findings. Claiming a wider range of peak frequencies such as 3-20 minutes would also have helped since the quoted 5-10 minute pm peak headway is only seen at a minority of stations.

Page 10. No Australian rail system beats Perth's consistent 15 minute daytime 7-day off-peak frequency, but nevertheless the claim is made that Melbourne performs better off-peak. If we were to make such a claim for Melbourne, it would have to be on a geographic and multimode basis, with trams included.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Happy New Year!

Best wishes for 2009 to all readers and contributors.

Public transport was never far from the news with three major themes dominating the headlines in 2008. Major themes for the year were trains, ticketing and transport plans.

A patronage boom tested the limits of a fragile train system with longer trains and revised timetables providing some relief in 2008. Other ideas to 'ease the crush' included free 'early bird' travel, a short-lived bicycle ban and plans to remove seats from carriages to increase standing room.

Ticketing items mainly dealt with the myki smartcard system, which first saw public use in Geelong. Marketing to promote 'bulk purchase' and 'weekend saver' travel continued, while more people got free Sunday travel through the broadened 'Sunday Pass'. Restrictions for seniors and periodical ticket holders were proposed but withdrawn before the effectivness date. Hence, unlike 2008's taxi driver protest, we were spared the sight of topless seniors in the streets.

Discussion about transport planning was largely in the context of Sir Rod Eddington's East-West Needs Assessment, which recommended road and rail tunnels linking east and west. The peak capacity of the rail network was a major point of contention with operators, academics, activists and gunzels debating the extent to which existing infrastructure can reliably accommodate the pathways needed for extra services. The Government responded with the Victorian Transport Plan. This multi-billion dollar long-term plan took up many Eddington recommendations but the major projects will require federal government funding.

To the above 'big three' should be added several topics of local or regional importance during 2008. In the inner suburbs rising traffic is reducing the efficiency and deliverable frequency of tram services year by year. Extended 'Clearways' have sought to provide relief, but not without opposition from local traders.

Further out, buses were the focus, with one major new SmartBus route introduced, continued 'minimum standards' upgrades to local routes and a boosted NightRider network with a doubled service frequency. Local bus service reviews continued with their consultations, meetings and submissions. The earlier reviews had their reports published and some of their less radical recommendations implemented during 2008. December 25, 2008 was the first Christmas ever where the number of local bus routes running exceded 150; a far cry from (maybe) 20 or 30 a few years ago.

Outside Melbourne regional buses received attention with revised timetables in some major centres. Less populous regions also got new or augmented community-style buses run by a local operator under DoT's 'Transport Connections' Program. These generally run a few times a week but provide access to the nearest major centre for country residents.

What's in line for 2009? (Advertisement)

With a three-car consist comprising one 'M' unit and two 'T' units, this flexible all-terrain vehicle is the future for passenger transport in 2009. Styled like the latest European trains it has straight polished metal sides. It also featurs round portholes to convey a luxury liner-style travel experience. Hence it should satisfy those who ask for cross-bay commuter ferries.

Just photographed at a secret depot in Western Victoria, an earlier model featured in a recent Connex advertisement. Enhancements now include fast army-style rear-door loading and quality-assured braking (see rego plate). No sticky overheads are required as the unit is self-powered. Also available in 3'6", 4'8 1/2" & 5'3" flanged wheel models, this vehicle is a must for the quality government or private operator.

I'll refrain from making any serious predictions for public transport in 2009 as it's much easier to be wrong than right. Besides there's no money in it in the slim chance the forecasts prove true. But if you wish to have a go at guessing what the year will bring, feel free to leave them in the comments below.