Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A season for pruning?

It’s been a wet winter, the flowers are out and plants have grown fast. Gardeners are out with the shears, trimming undergrowth and unwanted branches.

Our bus network has had a similar windfall. A 15-year drought ended with many new routes being added in the last five years, a growth rate without recent historical precedent. Operating hours broadened, coverage spread and patronage surged.

Students of public administration will be aware that being required to spend large sums in a short time does not guarantee top value for money or high accountability. Careful planning and effective targeting of expenditure can be a casualty of blanket 'one size fits all' funding increases.

In public transport this could occur by boosting services on a route without regard to its network importance, relationship with other services or opportunity cost. Hence some corridors got more buses per hour but ‘lumpy’ timetables with long waits. Roads with overlapping routes were sometimes overserviced while adjacent high employment areas missed out. And buses are not all headway harmonised with trains like they are in Perth, despite our sometimes lower train frequencies making connectivity even more crucial.

The plant analogy can go further. If the bus network was a tree, parts would have strengthened greatly but others would still be weak, bushy and hardly alive. There would be many twigs, some well-placed and others with odd kinks formed years ago for reasons long forgotten. Not all supporting branches would robustly connect with trains or directly link suburbs.

Too much undergrowth can retard the funding, marketing and visibility of direct high-service routes most likely to attract patronage. Tangled scrub can also appear impenetrable, especially for commuters who drive past it on the way to the station.

If the political and economic climate favours service cuts, there can be coverage gaps. If it favours service increases there can be duplication. Our current network has both, reflecting past feast and famine. The latest feast has vastly improved buses and driven patronage to forty year highs. Nevertheless there remains great opportunity to carry even more through an efficient network that neither over or under services.

The patronage potential of buses is clearest when comparing their ridership with trams. Buses ‘should’ carry more than trams as their catchment population is higher, they exclusively serve the largest suburban shopping centres and run in the suburbs where most people live. But the actual figures are very different; 170 million for trams and barely 100 million for buses, indicating much higher service and patronage intensity on the smaller tram network.

This large disparity can’t all be due to trams’ CBD running, population density or a passenger preference for rails in tar. For there exist bus corridors that already have timetables and patronage that approach those of trams. The fact that buses don’t run on rails and overhead wires is no reason for low average patronage. However trams’ directness, legibility and frequency show aspects of successful service planning that can effectively apply to buses (as confirmed by usage of high-service ex-Met and SmartBus routes).

Both directness and legibility are a result of good planning, which is relatively cheap. Frequency costs scarce recurrent expenditure. But some can be raised internally from restructuring less efficient routes. However a growing city with a service backlog will also require increased external funding to develop the network. Such funding requests are more likely to succeed if there is evidence that the existing network is already planned efficiently and additional resources would boost rather than duplicate services.

Reviewing, untangling and making legible the bus network is key to making it more useful and boosting patronage. A good first step is to examine the current network for corridors that could be simplified. The multimode frequent service maps as presented above are useful tools for this purpose.

My examination of these maps has produced the following ‘dead wood’ portions of routes that may warrant pruning if 'greater good' gains can be obtained elsewhere:

219 (portion): Part west of Sunshine duplicates 903. A weekend variation serves areas covered by Route 471.

280/282 (portion): A local route that duplicates the 901 SmartBus along a low-density residential area (Foote St/Reynolds Rd Templestowe).

246 (Latrobe Uni extension): Overlaps with other routes between Clifton Hill and Latrobe Uni.

286 (entire route): Largely duplicated by two SmartBus routes (901 and 906) along Blackburn Rd

293 (part): Duplicated by new SmartBus Route between Doncaster Shoppingtown and Eltham (Main Rd roundabout).

295: Duplicates 903 along Station St between Box Hill and Doncaster Shoppingtown.

340/350: Overlaps with 250 between Ivanhoe and Latrobe Uni.

445 (part route): Duplicates other routes between Werribee Plaza and Hoppers Crossing Station. Truncation could allow removal of stopping restrictions (including to a local shopping centre) which lessen legibility.

478/479 (part route): Duplicates Route 477 and tram between Moonee Ponds and Airport West.

479 (City – Moonee Ponds portion): A weekend extension that duplicated by a frequent tram service.

483 (entire route): Freeway service for Sunbury. Will become less necessary after rail electrification.

500 (entire route): Duplicates 901 between Broadmeadows and Melbourne Airport. Duplicates 479 between Melbourne Airport and Sunbury.

544 (part route): Duplicates 901 between Roxburgh Park and Broadmeadows

563 (part route): Duplicates tram along a large section of Plenty Rd and 901 between Greensborough & Plenty Valley SC

623 (part route): Duplicates 626 and 900 between Chadstone SC and Carnegie. Scope for rerouting along Neerim Rd to replace portion of 624.

673 (entire route): An hourly service entirely duplicated by parallel longer routes

691 (part route): Monash Uni extension – replaced by direct high-service 900 SmartBus

694 (entire route): Largely parallels 663 & the extended 688 for all but a few stops.

745 (entire route): Four occasional routes with very low patronage

777 (entire route): A short route with few services and trip generators

Apart from removing redundant routes (relatively easy since no coverage is sacrificed), there are other things that could further simplify the network and increase effective service frequencies, preferably using resources saved from route rationalisation. The most obvious is more evenly scheduling overlapping routes that share a corridor. Other gains could come from rerouting that lessens duplication and improves coverage. Such changes won't please everyone, but not considering them may result in higher gains foregone. Some examples of this type will appear in a future post.


gxh said...

Some excellent thoughts! One relatively minor additional point: where there are overlapping routes, let's have better signage at bus stops. Just by way of example, the stops for north bound buses in Queen St in the city are grouped so that buses that turn right into Lonsdale St stop at one group of stops, and the west bound buses stop at another. But although the route numbers are posted on the stops, the manner of this grouping isn't made clear. It would be helpful for visitors and occasional users to know that any bus that stops at stops in the first group would take them, say, to Melbourne Central.
Even more minor point - not sure why the 605 route has to have its own stops!

Dave said...

Canberra's just gone a round of route rationalisation and joint marketing of overlapping route portions.... it helps! I never thought I'd say this, but Melbourne could take a lesson from Canberra this time...

Anonymous said...

@ Dave - agree completely. The Canberra approach of colours is good for small cities and would work very well for Geelong.

For larger cities there's more high service routes than available colours and then you can just have a name for them all - like Adelaide's 'Go Zones'.

Canberra's main legibility problem is weekends where different route numbers apply. The 900-series weekend network was intended to be temporary but appears to be permanent now.

Michael Walker said...

In general I agree. However, there are some underlying assumptions that would need to be dealt with.
1. The assumption that interchange is equivalent to a direct route. The most obvious example is the route 500 being duplicated by 479 and 901. The 901 follows a more southerly route to the 500 so isn't entirely equivalent, but assuming it is of no consequence, the assumption is that connecting from the 901 to the 479 is equivalent to using the direct 500. However, as it currently stands there are 7 return trips a day on the 500 and 5 on the 479. If the 500 was withdrawn and no extra services provided on the 479, then there are 2 trips a day fewer between Broadmeadows and Sunbury, and 7 fewer between the airport and Sunbury. Would this be deemed equivalent - clearly not unless the extra services were provided in some way by use of the buses freed up. (In one sense this would be an opportunity to improve services between Sunbury and the airport, but this would be in no sense guaranteed as by your theory, the services may well go to improve other branches potentially more worthy)
2. That duplication is inherently evil, even if the destinations served are different. Your example of the 563 is probably the best example. It is notable that the 563 was cut back from Northland to LaTrobe Uni in the 1986 bus changes when the tram line was extended to Bundoora, and even further cut back to 3 return trips in peak hour to LaTrobe and the rest to Bundoora tram interchange in the bus reductions in the 90s. The service was reinstated to Northland in October 1995. At this end, although the route duplicates the tram, the tram does not serve the major traffic generator of Northland Shopping Centre. Hence again there is need for interchange. twice if travelling form north of Bundoora RMIT. This will be probably why the 563 travels to Northland, two interchanges will add too much time to the journey and become uncompetitive for a journey to a significant traffic generator. Even the Banyule bus review initially had removing this section of the 563 as an option in the workshops, but in the final report retained this section of the 563 despite one of the stated aims being to reduce duplication. Another example in the same area is the 566 section along Grimshaw St post introduction of the 902. Again they serve different western journey origins/destinations and interchange would be problematic.
3. Your assumptions behind equivalence are possibly a little too elastic. Whilst I would be prepared to accept the 901 and 500 route between Broadmeadows and Mickleham Rd as being near enough, the 563 and 901 between the Greensborough Bypass roundabout and Greensborough certainly are not! The 563 follows the former 565 through the Apollo Parkways housing estate whereas the 901 travels the direct route via Diamond Creek Rd. If the 563 were removed in this area on the assumption that the 901 served the same catchment area, there would be a significant loss of catchment. In fact, I suspect this very issue is one of the key reasons why the 563 has yet to be removed - there will be a loss of service to at least part of the area by redirecting another route to replace it (the bus review suggests the 520). Removing it without replacement is probably not an acceptable solution.
Having said all that, I don't disagree with the premise, but the devil is sometimes in the detail. For example, if the 7 trips on the 500 were used on the 479, there would potentially be a better service with a more viable interchange at the airport than straight removal of the 500 would provide. Ditto, if the issues on the 563 raised above could be dealt with by providing better services between South Morang and the tram, and the tram and Northland, again it would be an improvement. But straight removal to provide better services 'elsewhere' would deprive the areas covered by the routes described above with what little they have in the case of the 500, and a significant route lining several important trip generators in the case of the 563.