Thursday, August 25, 2011

The armchair bus planner

He idly leafed through the Melway street directory as a sedentary diversion from gardening outside. Such an activity could have been done anytime since about 1980 when the directory started showing bus routes as well as streets.

The page turning stopped at Map 17. Straight streets, but bent bus routes. Almost as soon as the bus would have got up speed it was time to turn the corner, hand straps swinging from side to side.

This was Hadfield, built by the Housing Commission in the 1950s. Nine miles north of the Melbourne CBD and a mile from railways either side. Boundary Road betrays a former outgrown limit, while North, South, East and West Streets reassuringly prevent those in between from getting lost.

Less known than Pascoe Vale to the south or Glenroy to the west but still deserving capitals, Hadfield is a real suburb. As opposed to a mere locality like the nearby obscure lower-case Westbreen. The ‘50s were probably the golden age of the small lettered locality name. Like Bellfield, Pennydale, Coatesville or Coonans Hill. Built after the railway ceased being a necessity for a suburb but before children and housewives routinely motored beyond it.

Three of the area’s four bus routes (513, 527, 534) go to Coburg at the south-east of the map. Three (513, 534, 536) also run to Glenroy Station, back a page to Map 16. Glenroy roughly marks the limit of pre WWII development and forms the edge of the inner suburban fare zone. Two run to quiet Gowrie while none run to busy Broadmeadows, the area's main suburban centre just off the map.

The map showed that bent routes were typical – buses would typically head west, north and then west or east. A couple seemed unsure of themselves. 534 might as well join the communists. Once out of Coburg it sways wildly left, right, left, until deciding far left, to Glenroy, was its destiny. Route 536, slightly to the north, is so indecisive that, for good or evell, trips alternate between parallel streets.

536 veers off Map 17, with a small incursion into Map 6, to 17’s north-west. Map 6 is dominated by Broadmeadows. Shopping centre, library, town hall, schools, Centrelink, police and courts. One could almost live one’s entire life there, and some may have. Plus a major railway station and two orbital SmartBus routes, including the main route to the airport.

‘Broady’ has long had big things planned for it. It’s in successive government plans as a district centre, principal activity centre or suburban central business district. The idea is that people from surrounding suburbs would take jobs there rather than in Melbourne CBD, thus decongesting trains and shortening commutes.

To make the diagonal trip from Map 6 to Map 17, one may take Widford Road as this passes over the Metropolitan Ring Road. North of the Ring Road is a community centre and a shop or two. Bus Route 538 runs behind there via back streets, no doubt to the chagrin of Campbellfield commuters. Most homes in the area are near Widford Street. Hold that thought, for unlike chewing gum on a bus seat, it may come in use later.

Flicking across to Map 7, one sees the 538 paralleling the 902 along Camp Road. There’s only a barracks and a business park, so a single route every fifteen minutes, such as the 902 SmartBus, should suffice.

Ahead and to the left is the Campbellfield Shopping Centre. It’s got the beginnings of a transit oriented hub. Just fifteen kilometres due north of the CBD on its most important road, industrial or millitary land that could suit higher and better uses, an orbital SmartBus and a train that passes (but does not stop). Here the 538 runs north along Sydney Road, and then east, eventually terminating in Campbellfield’s Somerset Estate, most definitely not designed for transport other than the car.

Despite the neighbourhood being off the highway and not on the way to anywhere else, Route 538 is not alone in these parts; Route 531 between North Coburg and Upfield also goes there. Timetables for both are time-capsules; a reminder of how buses in Melbourne used to be. Route 538 runs every 40 minutes until 7pm weekdays and Saturday mornings, while the 531 is weekdays only, operating hourly until 8pm. Two limited service routes serving the same low-density residential streets. Reread that last sentence and hold that thought.

The armchair planner’s mind sped and his felt pen quivered, with blobs forming overleaf. A messy side-to-side red has been drawn, running east, then north, then east on Map 7, over the entire Route 538. Why keep it when it almost entirely overlaps other routes?

During a candid moment he professes a slight satisfaction in wielding the pen, not unlike a dentist after an extraction or a surgeon after cutting a cancer. Although, perhaps unlike the last two, pecuniary interest is not involved. This joy is not because the planner revels in denying people a bus. Rather it is due to the opportunity made; after the cull can come the creating (with some compensating).

It remains likely that some from Somerset will still wish to visit Broadmeadows, preferably via a direct means. Deleting 538, at first glance, appears to remove this option. However the 531, which we’re keeping, terminates at Upfield Station. As does 540, which runs to Broadmeadows.

Joining the two would restore this link, albeit via the slower north than the faster south. And pay homage to existing practice, footnoted in the timetable, of the 538 and 540 being linked. Loadings should be reasonably bidirectional – some will be travelling south to the tram and Coburg, while others will be heading north to Upfield station and Broadmeadows.

Then there is the matter of service levels. Would Somerset residents prefer two limited service routes or one full service route? The latter since no stops are being denied a service. So the resources from the deleted 538 could boost the 531, giving it new weekend and early evening service, much like the 540 that it could join.

The armchair planner is tantalised by these apparently easy gains. A simpler network, fewer routes, the same coverage and better operating hours. Why did someone not think of this before?

Such euphoria potentially precedes pricking by the practicalities.

Not immediately obvious is that Routes 531 and 538/540 are run by different companies. This may test the art of the possible in management where the dreamers are fewer or don’t make the decisions.

Neither was much thought given to route lengths and service frequencies; a forty minute service may neatly meet every second train but is inefficient if the route is 41 minutes long. Then there’s other questions like whether Route 540’s current twenty minute frequency would apply over the entire extended route, none of it or only the current portion.

Still these are minor things for the dreamer, who by now has turned back a map. For he did not forget that Widford’s fate was left hanging on Map 6. 538’s deletion makes it deserving of a service to compensate, but only if made an economical part of something bigger. Unlike some previous excursions, which left a trail of unsolved problems across the pages, fixing this pleasingly returns us to where we started on Map 17, with some Map 16 changes on the side. Such circles are usually bad for the routes themselves but are good for their planning.

So the dreaming resumes. Possibilities include improving access to Broadmeadows by breaking the Ring Road’s historical barrier on route planning. And could services be improved if buses could be sped up by running routes not requiring as many turns? Maybe more straight routes and fewer L and S shaped routes.

The armchair planner partly closes his eyes. This blurs the smaller streets. He tries to imagine the main roads of Map 17.

Clear north-south routes include West Street/Cumberland Rd, and East Street/Sussex Street. One or two others are ‘maybes’.

East-west routes include Hilton Street/Box Forest Road and Boundary Road. There are others but they may be in other route’s catchments. Successful bus routes must serve several markets, for instance local shoppers as well as train connections. Given existing off-peak train frequencies, it was sometimes considered acceptable to break the grid to feed the main centres. For instance Glenroy instead of Oak Park or Coburg instead of Pascoe Vale. A bit like now but straighter.

Like a spider starting a web, his first move was a straight drop down (more or less). From the twig up at Widford Street, the bus from Broadmeadows turns right at Daley, then Morley, West, Cumberland and then east to Coburg Station, via portions of Gaffney, O’Hea and/or Bell. Hence it serves catchments of Route 536 (Morley St), 534 (West St) and 513 (most of the rest) in a roughly north – south alignment.

This modified 513 has the makings of a very strong route; Major stops at Broadmeadows and Coburg, two medium sized shopping areas in between and high directness. Given that it ends in distant Greensborough or Eltham it’s rather long, but that’s a problem for another day and another map. Glenroy loses this route but there remain others and Broadmeadows ought to attract more passengers.

The other key north-south route is 527. It’s already quite direct (with a wobble to meet Tram 55) and serves Coburg and beyond to its south. In the north though it ends with a whimper, skirting a school, a cemetery and the sometimes as quiet Gowrie Station.

‘527 deserves better than Gowrie’, the armchair planer thought. If not Broadmeadows, at least Glenroy. The aptly named Middle Street might get it there via the West Street Shops and Glenroy Road to the station. However traffic calming measures and residents may not agree. Either South or Hilton Street may be alternatives, with the former sacrificing coverage and the latter directness. Again the route has become longer and remedial treatment may be required on another map.

Sussex Street (Route 534) is a third possible north-south corridor. It’s nearer midway between Cumberland St and the railway line, so ought to be better than the parallel Derby Street, just 300 metres away. However, unless dead people can be persuaded to ride buses, Sussex Street loses its catchment north of Boundary Road. And buses on Sussex miss the Melville Road tram. It may yet deserve a service but only from the fragments left after the rest of the network has been built.

From north to south the first east-west route is the alternating 536. It’s more frequent than the 538 but it still lacks evening, Sunday and public holiday service. While some of its western catchment would be served by the extended 513, its east still needs service. The 536 could be kept but straightened, with routing via Hilton Street being the lesser evil.

Some numbers enter the dreamer’s mind. Train frequency: 20 minutes. Bus 536 frequency: 30 minutes. Existing bus run time: 20 minutes. Buses needed if route run independently (which it isn’t): 2. But if straightening could reduce the bus run time, could the two run a 20 minute headway harmonised with trains? Or if there’s more demand elsewhere, pull one off and leave a 40 minute service, meeting every second train? The hard question here is whether those in North East Glenroy will accept a faster and better connected route in exchange for a longer walk to it.

The next big thick east-west line is Rhodes Parade/Pascoe Street/Boundary Road. Its west is seved by part of the 513. Its middle has no service, though there is one in nearby parallel South Street. Its east, near Merlynston Station, has the wavering 534 from Coburg (a relatively recent gain).

Given the first move was to straighten the 513, it’s only fair that the 534 get similar treatment. The grand swap commenced above can now be completed. 513, as discussed before, now up West St to Broadmeadows. Taking its place could be 534 routed west to Glenroy via Rhodes and Plumpton.

Dreamers are prone to thinking too much of what can (should?) be without sufficiently appreciating what’s there. An example was a fleeting thought to finish the modified 534 at Oak Park instead of Glenroy. However this was soon dropped. For part of the route (as 513) is within walking distance of Oak Park Station and the route’s shopper function is best met by keeping the Glenroy connection (Oak Park having few shops). The 534’s wavering section to Coburg is for now left alone but has been marked for later scrutiny.

It was getting late and way past bedtime. Washing up from breakfast remained. Lunch was a fridge visit. And tea had not been eaten.

But a wish to avoid a sleepless night would require that Map 17’s loose ends were at least listed if not solved. There is no loss so great as a forgotten idea. These night thoughts though are the craziest – radical, controversial and often half-baked. Who was it that said nothing good happens after 2am? Luckily none can be acted upon until daylight brings reason.

For example, could 536 have been extended from Gowrie to Fawkner shops on Jukes Road? Yes Fawkner gains but it’s a slow zig-zag across Sydney Road that would likely cost frequency.

And does Broadmeadows deserve a second major route from the south? It may even be an even stronger terminus than the Glenroy suggested for Route 527. If routed via Hilton St its East Street coverage would be restored and 536 could be moved north to nearer its current route.

Then there’s Pascoe Vale Station. Like Oak Park it has no bus to the east. Would a bus from it, via Gaffney Street, to Coburg work? Economy may dictate that this be a straighter redirected 534 from Coburg, with service withdrawn from parts near Merlynston. The Boundary Rd bus would need a new number (perhaps 537) and possibly a southward turn via Sussex and Shorts for coverage sake.

The armchair planner sees both pros and cons in these late bursts of radicalism. By this hour he has not the energy to seek more compelling evidence. Although his gut does see more winners than losers.

Legibility is certainly better. Two major routes north - south; Broadmeadows to Coburg. Three lesser routes east-west; linking stations on each side. Most stops remain in use and route kilometres is much the same as now.

Though the actual streets to use are not set in stone, the big picture network appears roughly sensible, with connectivity, bus running times and their efficient usage major caveats. In nutting these out the result of the dream is now subject to judgement, study, consultation and culling in the pursuit of a network that works.


Loose Shunter said...

Great post Peter and a change from your usual style. A very good exposition of how street directories can help planners (and schemers/dreamers) take what is known and create something new.

Peter Parker said...

Thanks LS.

The main purpose of the post was to faithfully document an actual thinking method (including all its distractions).

In other words to explain how as well as what ideas developed.

Riccardo said...

This is why I'm an occasional visitor to PP's blog, his micro-level transport exposition is the best I've seen. Really gets his bus routes, pedsheds, street architecture and so on.

Loose Shunter said...


There was also quite a wistful, lyrical quality to this post that was quite striking. There is poetry in the Melways and (sometimes) in the hearts of transport planners!

Luke M said...

I must say, as someone who lives within this area (Sussex Street), I thought I should say that I believe both of your options need work.

First of all, with the extensions of the 542 and 561 buses since the original post, I think a new potion should be done.

The changes that I feel should happen, are cosmetic, other than establishing one new Route.

Route 513 - Remain as is. Still provides a quite busy and direct service.

Route 527 (A option) - Remain as is. While not the most direct route, I think we still need to cover O'Hea Street at the current time.

Route 527 (B option) - Covert Route to Northland to Coburg only. New Bus Route needed to cover Gowrie to Turner Street section.

Route 534 (A option) - Redirect Route 534 to cover Sussex Street from Shorts Road to Bell Street, then Bell Street to Coburg.

Route 534 (B option) - Redirect Route 534 to cover Sussex Street from Shorts Road to O'Hea Street, then via O'Hea Street, Main Street, Bell Street to Coburg.

Route 536 - Redirect Route 536 to run direct via Hilton Street.

Route 537? - Glenroy to Broadmeadows via Glenroy Road, West Street, Hilton Street, May Street, Evell Street, Morley Street, Daley Street, Widford Street, Camp Road to Broadmeadows Station.

Route 561 - Redirect Route 561 to run along Gaffney Street from Pascoe Vale Station to Sydney Road. This service is more frequent and runs longer hours than 534 and would be more beneficial to the area.

Thoughts and ideas? Some road changes needed at Glenroy & West and Bell & Sydney.