Friday, February 27, 2009

Something else learned from the bus reviews

A bus review submission 'finished' at 4am has about five times more errors and inconsistencies than one finished at 2am on the due date!

Friday, February 20, 2009

Inside a bus review workshop

Community workshops for the current round of metropolitan bus reviews, covering 9 Melbourne municipalities are drawing to a close, except for some outer areas.

Who goes to them and how are they run? How can hundreds of disparate opinions be reflected in a revised bus network that's convenient, simple and affordable?

Meetings typically involve the following in attendance:

* Members of the public – numbers vary but probably average about 20 – 40
* Representatives from community, welfare and special interest groups – at least 5
* Local government councillors and/or staff – at least 3 or 4
* State members of parliament – 1 or 2
* Representatives from the Bus Association of Victoria – 1 or 2
* Managers from local bus companies – 2 or 3
* Staff from the Department of Transport – 2 to 4
* Staff from the consultants running the workshop – 4 or 5 (either Parsons Brinckerhoff or Booz & Co)

Each review area comprises two or three local council areas. About 4 to 6 day and night meetings might be held for each review. Attendees are arranged on tables of five to eight with a facilitator to collate ideas and report views to the wider meeting.

Two rounds of workshops are run. The first round is to harvest ideas through three exercises.

The first exercise asks people “what's good about buses”. Participants are invited to write three points – one idea per page. These are put up on a board by the facilitator. Examples of answers might include bus cleanliness, coverage of shopping centres and friendly drivers.

The second exercise is similar but asks people “what's bad about buses”. Typical answers include limited operating hours, poor frequency and coverage gaps.

Both exercises are aimed at big issues affecting the whole bus network – specific matters are dealt with later. Each participant has ten 'votes' to allocate to each main issue on the board. Through this process the three top issues are discovered and the facilitator reports the table's findings to the whole meeting.

The third exercise is the longest and most detailed. Participants write their ideas for improving specific routes – again one per page. Typical ideas might include making a particular route more direct, more frequent or operate over longer hours. Other comments might include better connections with trains, new routes to fill a coverage gap and improved information.

These ideas, together with input from submissions and other meetings, are collated and used by the consultants to shape a draft network. Attendees are shown this when they are invited back to a second round of workshops.

The second round uses the draft network as a starting point for further evaluation and discussion. These are generally held several months after the first round of workshops in the area.

The consultants final report goes to the Department of Transport, which, after ascertaining the resources available and liaising with the Minister's office and bus operators, decide what parts will be implemented.

The review process has been occurring for a little under two years. Most areas are part way through their reviews with the final two areas (CBD and inner-north) to be done by 2010. In that time 'Phase 1' route changes have been made in some areas that were reviewed first. These 'Phase 1' changes are typically span improvements and minor extensions, with larger network changes planned in the later phases.

As with almost anything occurring over several years, there have been some refinements and changes of emphasis. Three things spring to mind.

* The first was an improvement in the voting for the first two exercises. Initially attendees where given 'ten dollars' to 'spend' in the form of sticky dots to be placed on a board next to their highest priorities. The problem with this was better to 'vote' last to swing the results in your favour (you wanted your issues to be in the top three) while not 'wasting' votes. Some reviews this year (particularly by Booz) used a secret ballot process so voting order could not dictate your 'vote'.

* The second difference was the changing role of the Department of Transport representatives relative to the consultants at the workshops. In 2008 Department staff often gave the opening address and acted as table facilitators, so there was high engagement with attendees. 2009's workshops saw a much lower profile, with presentation and facilitation roles being performed by the consultants instead. A nice gesture though is the Department giving attendees souvenir buses (not always available in 2008 workshops) as pictured above.

* The third variation appears to be in the terms of reference and the treatment of non-route matters, such as span and frequency. 'Service span' and 'service frequency' were two of the top three issues for improvement suggested at every workshop held. However participants at some 2008 second round workshops (eg Wyndham) were encouraged to comment only about the routes; not span, frequency or connections. Other sessions covered both, recognising the trade-off between the two given limited resources. This difference is reflected in reports after the round two workshops; the ones that discussed service levels suggested some service frequencies and the importance of harmonised headways for reliable transfers. It remains to be seen what the trend for 2009 will be.

While the current review process is our most effective yet mechanism of area-based bus service planning, some changes have occurred outside it. The main example is Manningham, where routes were restructured (eg the 280/282 'Manningham Mover' and other local routes changed) before the findings of that area's bus review were available. If the 'Manningham Mover' is found to be inconsistent with the review (which, if like others, will recommend more direct routes with longer operating hours), some participants may begin to ask whether the reviews are being accorded their due seriousness.

This post has discussed process more than any previous, and it is appreciated that this would bore some readers. At the parliamentary level, political toing and froing isn't everyone's cup of tea and at the administrative level the pace of change can sometimes test people's patience.

While it can't please everyone, the review process is an exercise in citizen engagement to design the sorts of services that meet taxpayer's needs. The draft networks seen so far fairly reflect community demands. It is hoped that the will so expressed prevails and we'll start seeing a revitalised bus network in more suburbs.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Promoting the bus reviews

Local area bus service review meetings have been running this week and last. The companies doing them for the Department of Transport are Parsons Brinckerhoff and Booz and Co.

Below are some examples of how the reviews are being promoted to increase participation.

1. A billboard outside the meeting venue. This was erected about a week before and is directly visible from the area's main bus stop across the street.

2. A locally-prepared information leaflet and questionaire. Provided on a table in the nearby public library. Includes a network map and some simple questions to answer.

3. A poster on a bin advertising the meeting. With tear off phone numbers.

4. A similar notice but on a shopping centre notice board. Some are also posted inside buses.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Stimulating public transport

This week the Prime Minister announced billions of dollars in cash handouts and funding for various projects to 'stimulate the economy'. The object appears to be, in Keynes style, to get people spending and thus retain jobs. There are some things like home insulation subsidies, road blackspot fixes and community facilities that might benefit. However the spirit of the personal handouts appears to be that it matters less where the money goes than if it ends up being spent. Besides most of those working aren't too badly off at the moment; lower interest rates and lower petrol prices are bringing relief to the key outer suburban 'mortgage belt' electorates.

But what if you had a stimulus package to spend on public transport? What sort of things would be in it, and what would be missed? Given the emphasis is on short-term spending on quick projects, very large rail and road projects would not be included. And though highly desirable, and necessary to maximise use of public transport infrastructure, off-peak and shoulder-peak service frequency increases involves some recurring funding so might not be sustainable if funded by a one-off 'stimulus measure'. Hence while important, they won't qualify for money from this particular bucket.

So having excluded them, here's my list of top five transport projects that would deliver lasting benefits from stimulus money.

1. Small scale pedestrian access improvements. Each metropolitan municipality might have an average of 50-100 such projects, which might include zebra crossings, underpasses, traffic islands, roadworks, roundabout conversion to traffic lights, cycle modification, etc. These would be focused around shopping centres, bus stops and railway stations, and also larger roads where there are long intervals between safe crossing points.

2. 1000 kilometres of new cycleway to form a new city-wide network, including grade-seperation with roads on major routes. This rate of construction is several times that which currently occurs.

3. Modification of suburban streets in transit-hostile neighbourhoods. This might include widenings (to permit bus movements), modified roundabouts (to permit buses), opening of culs-de-sac (to permit more direct bus, cycle and pedestrian movement) and new pedestrian and bicycle bridges over rivers and creeks between suburbs. The latter would expand the pedsheds of bus stops and railway stations and reduce backtracking. On larger roads, minor works to assist bus and tram movement could also be done, perhaps complementing the worthwhile 'blackspot' program.

4. An expansion of passenger information, with bus information at railway stations and general information in 'main streets' off the system. Travelsmart-style maps at interchanges and in public places would also identify key walking and cycling routes.

5. A program of works to improve train reliability and make the currently fragile network more robust. This might include projects such as accelerated concrete sleepering, better security for often vandalised trains, lightning protection of vulnurable signal boxes, track duplications, communication improvements and more.

A veritable shopping list for sure, but doing them would kill two birds with one stone; 'stimulate the economy' and deliver improvements of enduring value. At least the higher taxes we'll have to pay in the future to support increased public debt will have had something to show for it in this period of building.