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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great post, thanks for the experience, great to get an insight into the process, without having to go. I wonder if they would get a much more comprehensive input by posting a video of the session on their website and allowing comment. After all, not everyone is interested in the topic right at the moment.