Saturday, August 01, 2009

What's in a route name? (Part 1)

People use several ways to describe a bus or tram route. Descriptions can relate to an area served, destination suburb, major road or significant trip generator. Route numbers, though used in major cities, tend not to be displayed for regional coach or country town services.

Governments may wish to give special names to new services, for instance 'Knox Transit Link' or 'Manningham Mover'. Colloquially, certain routes might be known by the colour of the bus (eg 'the brown bus') or the name of the operator. Then there were some that had a 'nameless name', such as Route 787, which was formerly known as 'The Bus'.

The history of route descriptions is intertwined with changes within the bus industry and suburban expansion. Recent developments such as Metlink, unified signage and timetables, website timetables, and real-time information delivered by mobile phone promise further changes. These will be discussed in the next few paragraphs.

The pioneers of the bus industry in the first few decades of the twentieth century were often small owner-operators running a few short routes each. Suburbanisation in between the tram lines, the spread of the internal combustion engine and a large number of households without their own cars would have all contributed to growth. Fare revenue covered costs without government subsidy, although legislation was introduced in the 1930s to prevent bus operators from competing with government tramways.

The early 1970s saw a reorganisation of bus route numbers and government subsidies after declining patronage made their operation unprofitable. The 1980s brought fare integration and, later, some standardisation of passenger information. Routes were often amalgamated and/or extended into new areas, so became less 'local'. After a period of service cuts and fragmentation in the 1990s information integration returned in the 2000s through Metlink's website, journey planner and printed timetables. Connectivity and timetable integration with other services varies but improvements are promised after the current local area bus reviews.

The structure of the bus industry has changed radically in the last 40 years. State funding did not come without strings. The modern bus operator has had to become more professional with extra tasks including the need to account to government for subsidy, uphold modern maintenance and workplace standards, provide 'service change' information to Metlink, administer Metcard ticketing, and participate in bus service reviews. Just ahead is the spread of real-time information and Myki smartcard ticketing. Larger operators are steadily buying out the smaller operators with at least three takeovers so far this year. Route 509 along Hope Street, Brunswick remains today's only fragment of a previous era of shorter routes and 'one-man' operators.

While buses are still mostly for local trips (rather than CBD or corridor travel, as is the case with train and tram) their localism has diminished. This can be partially attributed to the operator and route amalgamations mentioned previously and 'super-routes' like 903. Better publicity of services (chiefly through the online journey planner), longer service spans (hence more drivers), a more transient population and (in some companies) the larger number of routes that a driver may be rostered on, further reduces the chance of drivers knowing their passengers (limited service routes like 606 may be exceptions).

The above trends have changed the way that routes ought to be described as the potential user base is more widely spread than in previous times. The 'Hope Street Bus' may be pefectly understood by Brunswick locals, but doesn't cut it in a metropolitan area with about 10 other Hope Streets. There are many K-mart stores, but the big ones known by locals are in Campbellfield and East Burwood. Conversely there are many 'Sydney Roads', but most would know that there's only one really big one with trams every few minutes. Is Tram Route 19 best described as to 'Coburg North' or via 'Sydney Road' or both? Similarly Tram Route 78 serves Chapel St, but has a destination of Prahran, which is its main service area, though it actually terminates near enough to either Balaclava or St Kilda East.

Route destination and via information needs to convey meaning for both locals and visitors. If well-used they can be a succinct way of providing service information. They enable passengers to form a sensible 'mental map' of the network and can highlight cases where frequent service is provided by identifying the common sections of routes or 'route families'.

Even route numbers can convey similar information if wisely chosen. The division of the frequent route 600 into the related (but slightly different) routes 600, 922, 923 was probably a mistake overall, although it did extend Sunday service to some areas. If it was done at all the allocation of 601 and 602 instead would have assisted legibility. It is worth mentioning that choosing 922 was not without merit since it replaced the former 822 in the area. However this short-term gain reduced long-term legibility so it was a poor choice in hindsight. Similarly the related 802, 804 and 862 would be more legible if 862 was renumbered 803 (803 was briefly a trial night/weekend service but could safely be reused now).

The aim of this part has been to illustrate the various ways that bus and tram services have been described. Attention has also been paid to some of the changes that have reduced localism. Reduced localism requires that services need to be made legible for a wider passenger base. Route descriptions are a key aid to this, with further details to be provided in Part 2.


Andrew said...

Not something I had thought about, so quite an interesting read about bus routes.

Many years ago Balaclava and St Kilda East were almost interchangeable, but not now. Balaclava has a very definite border identity, as does East St Kilda. I would suggest that the 78 terminates in Balaclava, or St Kilda or Elwood, but not St Kilda East. While the Prahran destination is silly so far as indicating the terminus, I suppose it is quite helpful to many non local passengers.

Daniel said...

You might know that Melbourne's 601 and 602 have some (ancient) history: they, along with 600, were once run by the same company, out of the Elwood depot.