Friday, June 19, 2009

What should we do about the 703?

Human Transit has done it again. Written a post that sparks one here. Jarrett Walker's post discusses transport service projects that expand yet dilute, potentially undermining their rationale and key selling point.

Here in Melbourne the opposite has happened with SmartBus. As its network spread the basic service level offered improved. All of the recently introduced SmartBus routes have better services than the initial pilot routes (703 and 888/889).

Route 902, the Green Orbital, will take care of the 888/889 when it starts next year. However nothing has been said about the future of Route 703, the other SmartBus pilot.

Route 703's key trip generator is Monash University Clayton, which it links to numerous Zone 2 trains and buses. It also has other transport interchanges and trip generators at Brighton, Bentleigh, Clayton, Sydndal, Forest Hill Chase and Blackburn.

A 15-minute service provides a SmartBus frequency on weekdays. Saturday buses run a 30 minute headway. The Sunday frequency is 45 minutes, with the Brighton end of the route receiving no service. Evening service mostly ends before the 9pm 'minimum standards' finish for local routes. The main exception is the eastern portion of the route, which sees hourly buses until about 11pm on weeknights.

A Sunday schedule runs on all public holidays. This is different to the new local route and SmartBus standard, which prescribes a Saturday holiday timetable except for Good Friday and Christmas Day. Partially balancing this are some extra services run on those public holidays that are university teaching days.

Hence Route 703's service level is best described as a hybrid between a regular bus and a full SmartBus route. Its weekday frequency equals or beats all metropolitan local routes bar two. The 11pm service on part of the route is almost as rare. On the debit side its weekend span and holiday arrangements do not meet local bus service standards, let alone SmartBus standards. Having said that, its 30 or 45 minute weekend frequency is roughly similar to the better local routes and the other pilot SmartBus (888/889).

How does one explain 703's 'limbo' status to the general public?

The answer is 'with great difficulty', especially when trying to market other SmartBus routes.

I can see three options for Route 703, as follows:

(a) Upgrade service to full SmartBus standards, though it doesn't fit in with any proposed orbital
(b) Keep its current timetable (or a slightly improved one meeting 'minimum standards'). Remove reference to SmartBus, instead treating it as a strong local route with a good weekday service
(c) Do nothing

(a) is obviously ideal. It would require additional funding, but is probably justified by its patronage. Maybe the university could chip in, given its revenue from international students (a key passenger group) and the opportunity cost of providing parking?

(b) is cheaper, incurring modest additional running costs for slightly improved spans (2 hours extra per week, plus public holidays and full route running on Sundays). The SmartBus totems could remain, but the service might no longer be SmartBus branded.

(c) is perhaps the worst option, unless you think that keeping SmartBus branding would encourage (a) above to be implemented. But if this doesn't happen, letting 703 limp along as a 'quasi-SmartBus' with its sub local route weekend span devalues the standing, meaning and value of all other SmartBus routes, due to 703's lower service levels and the need to keep saying 'except 703' when selling SmartBus benefits.

If nothing is done 703 risks being left behind as SmartBuses' unloved parent; one of the routes that started it all and proved it worked, but upstaged by its 900, 901 and 903 offspring.

For the good of the SmartBus concept specifically, and the bus network generally, a decision of whether to nurture or end Route 703's SmartBus status would seem desirable, with the urgency increasing as the Green Orbital start approaches.


Calembeena said...

I think the main problem with the 703 is its 'L' shape; all other Smartbuses are orbital or relatively straight. Certainly I think the 703 was a good bus to trial Smartbus on, being on a major arterial and quite close to the 888/889 too. The original 703 wasn't L shaped, but ran Blackburn-Monash University. The Middle Brighton-Monash University was a separate route, and I would probably support two separate routes, definitely with the Blackburn Rd section as a Smartbus, and possibly the Centre Rd section too.

Unknown said...

There is also another important location on the route which generates patronage... Kmart.

If this bus doesn't meet the "Smart Bus Standard" then why is it a Smart Bus? Upgrade it or get rid of that name. Thats my thoughts, but don't leave it as is.

Somebody said...

If the main generator of patronage is Monash Uni, doesn't that limit the potential weekend & evening usage a bit? The southern 903 has an advantage in getting much of it's patronage from Chadstone which is bustling on weekends.

888/889 doesn't really have such a clear destination but Glen Waverley seems popular.

I'd say it should be upgraded to the same level as the other SmartBuses for all of the route, but can't see it as being more than a low priority.

Peter Parker said...

Damo - exactly. Your last 3 sentences summarises the post perfectly.

Peter Parker said...

Somebody - my observations are that even though the university's teaching days are Monday-Friday, its library and computer labs (if they still have them) are open/accessible on weekends.

Also many international students live along direct bus routes (like 703) to the uni and use the bus heavily on weekends for shopping etc. Even smallish shopping centres like Pinewood on Blackburn Rd is a major destination on the 703.

Daniel said...

I've seen standing loads on Sundays from Clayton heading northbound, so yes, even on weekends, considerable numbers of people use some sections of the route.

Part of the problem is that the "Smartbus" upgrade only really applied to the Blackburn Road section. Although the signage exists at major stops along Centre Road, that section is not strictly a Smartbus, hence the early shutdown time and no Sunday service to Brighton.

But you're right Peter, something has to change.

Riccardo said...

Why do these things always end up a mess? A simple route from Blackburn to Clayton should be enough, with a change of terminus to Westall later when that locality is built up. All the other fluff is trying to cater to other markets. I can't believe the number of people wanting to go through to Bentleigh or Middle Brighton is that great - and can be catered for by a decent connection.

Russ said...

Riccardo, because there is no structure in place for deciding what form bus routes should conform to. Good models overseas tend to fit one of three main structures: a TUAG arterial grid, a nodal network model, or a pulse system connecting to a major transport trunk. Melbourne has both all three and none of them: SmartBus is a half-baked attempt at the first, there are loads of the second (including almost the entire tram network) and there are a handful of the third. Who knows what the rest of them are, but I am sure there were good reasons for creating them, at the time.

The problem is, in the absence of any structure for decisions, you can do anything, and over long periods of time, the dozens of people working on routes have done. Normally by kluging on the path of least resistance. Lots of kluges create cruft. And Melbourne has a lot of cruft.