Monday, September 05, 2011

Should transit follow people - or people follow transit?

While not the exact subject of the post, a recent Human Transit post contains a general quote that's worth reflecting on.

This, to me, fits into a much larger agenda of insisting that everyone who makes a location choice -- especially about where to live -- should be required to acknowledge the transit impacts of that choice. Today it's still common to encounter the other sequence, in which someone (a) signs a lease or deed of sale or development agreement and then (b) yells at the transit agency because the service isn't what they desire.

This is pertinent in any city where transport service quality varies.

Here in Melbourne there are roughly three service tiers correlating with inner (0-10km), middle (10 - 30) and outer (30 - 50km) suburbs. The first is dominated by trams, normally on a 10 to 20 minute frequency, although a few ex-tram bus routes also qualify. The second has trains and/or higher service buses (15 to 30 minute frequency). Then there's the outer suburbs with buses and sometimes trains (40 to 60 minute frequency). To this may be added an exurban and near regional zone, whose service varies from nil to hourly.

The above is a broad generalisation and exceptions apply. There exist inner and middle suburbs (Kensington Banks, parts of Port Melbourne, northern Reservoir, parts of Sunshine North) with limited span, frequency and coverage. In contrast some semi-rural areas (Warrandyte, Yarrambat) have almost inner-type service levels. And others (Woori Yallock, Cockatoo) have buses running as late as in a regular suburb.

These are not academic discussions as service planning decisions have human impacts. These are disproportionate if a service (even if temporary) is introduced, relied on by a few, and then discontinued.

Take Kinglake, for example. It's a semi-rural lifetyle dormitory area north of Melbourne. People move there to 'get away from it all'. They may be semi-retired or drive to work in Melbourne's northern suburbs or the CBD itself.

It had one suburban bus each weekday to the major suburban centre of Greensborough. The area was devastated by bushfires and the government introduced a frequent 7-day service to assist with relief recovery. Average patronage was not high and the added services were withdrawn. A residents' campaign called for services to be restored. The government responded, introducing a limited service, to start next week on a trial basis.

People in Kinglake (like those in Mornington Peninsula, Pearcedale, Warneet, Kangaroo Ground, Mt Martha or Eynesbury) pay taxes and expect government services in return (including public transport). Even an affluent car-owning population in these parts may request public transport on behalf of others, eg for their teenage children with part-time jobs or elderly parents.

Unfortunately dead-end routes to semi-rural areas are unlikely to be well patronised. They require high subsidies per passenger. If the aim is the 'greatest good for the greatest number' better uses for the resources are likely to be found elsewhere. If we temper this approach to acknowlege the 'tyranny of the majority' and provide a minimal 'safety net' service to sparse areas, the extremes of under-provision are avoided but at some opportunity cost (most notably in services foregone to lower income outer suburbs or to provide main road frequent service corridors).

Jarrett's quotation suggests we should have little sympathy for those who move to a poorly served area and complain about the service. One might also add the irony of affluent city folk seeking to 'get away from it all' in an exurban hideaway but then demanding city-type services (largely paid for by others).

Moving house is a major decision and it's not unfair to expect people research where they're moving to beforehand. Such expectation of personal responsibility should rise with incomes; those who earn more by definition have more housing location choices. Families, in particular, are used to making these types of decisions, especially in relation to childrens' schooling. Ditto for some older people, though a regular suburban house has more nearby services to 'age in place' than a high-maintenance semi-rural acreage, so the latter may require an earlier move out.

I should add an important qualification. Jarrett sees a world where bus service quality is based on objective criteria like pedestrian catchments, population density or a corridor's importance. If we planned like this services are likely to be more secure since there is a reasonable alignment between service provision and demand. And cases of gross over and under servicing (neither of which are sustainable long-term) would be fewer.

However in practice we know that service levels and network need do not necessarily match. I mentioned Warrandyte and Yan Yean, both of which receive more service than density or demand alone may justify. In Yan Yean's case though, the service is only as good as it is because it is on a major cross-suburban orbital route. Provided through passenger numbers were high this may be justified, with Yan Yean being a lucky but incidental beneficiary.

Should we be shifting some responsibility for public transport on the individual? Ie should people without cars live in a semi-rural area and expect urban-type public transport? Or should there be some obligation to consider transport in location choices?

I lean towards the latter, with two major reservations.

The first is that service levels are transparently determined and fairly reflect likely demand or need. That a route runs frequently only because it was an old tram, or that it does a special extension to a long-closed hospital would not be good service planning, for example.

Given the public subsidies involved, and the allied public interest, it could be useful to weigh up the merits of more widely distributing patronage data versus holding tight. Release would likely strengthen the hand of the service planner when pressing 'greater good' cases for service reform and educate the community about the trade-offs and opportunity costs involved. Such information would also be a useful antidote against those who may lobby to retain an indirect route deviation but never used it when it ran.

Secondly, there may be a need to provide coverage to some areas to 'complete the network' or 'fulfil social needs', even though these services may not be highly patronised. However their potential opportunity costs should be acknowledged by planners and shared with the public to better inform the decision made and increase acceptance of it.

For instance running an indirect route via a street with retirement homes in a low income area may be accepted (though ideally planning policies would only approve such developments near actual or likely bus routes). Whereas the strict '90% within 400 metres' coverage requirement could be relaxed in less needy or less dense areas (eg Brighton and Templestowe), especially where alternatives like trains and high-service buses are available to most within 800 metres.


Riccardo said...

Subsidies, subsidies, subsidies!!!!!!!

Where's the sense that subsidies are only there for market failure: externalities such as congestion or pollution, information asymmetry or merit goods.

Few of those apply in Kinglake. Even the old dears who do live up there would be better off with extra pension and spending it how they please - they may not choose to spend it on transport.

Remember much transport value is capitalised into land costs, and what you buy when you buy cheap land is poor transport connectivity. And when transport is improved at public expense it is appropriated privately.

Peter Parker said...

Riccardo - I wonder how significant the last para is in practice.

Eg in Melbourne we have identical bus routes serving Melbourne's poorest and richest areas (eg 216/219/220 from Sunshine to Elsternwick/Brighton).

Sorrento and Rosebud West have identical public transport access (Route 788) yet the former is vastly dearer.

Melton is only slightly cheaper than Werribee. Yet one has frequent sparks while the other doesn't. And if you were to standardise for distance from the CBD (Melton being 10km further out) the difference shrinks to nil.

Laverton has better transport access than Point Cook but the former is dearer. And Knox, Patterson Lakes, Eynesbury, Sanctuary Lakes, northern Reservoir and Sandhurst should be dirt-cheap but they aren't.

So if transport improvements are capitalised into land values the effect appears smaller than other explanations for variations between them.

Loose Shunter said...

Ricc & Peter,

The 'value' capitalised in land costs are for more than just transport alone. The value is inherent in quality and proximity of education, health, transport and community infrastructure and of course, that great catch-all 'amenity' which covers a gamut of other social factors.

Whatever way these factors are combined, I agree that the benefits accruing from these public goods tend to be privatised. Just wanting to point out that transport is not the sole factor in adding value to places.

Riccardo said...

Thanks LS.

In fact its probably multivariate autoregressing at work - good transport breeding good education, good health, good urban fabric, blah blah and leading to an overall improvement in amenity which is then value-captured.

Laverton is a furphy. The Housing Commission "captured" the value then squandered it by placing their clientele in the suburb. Others tried to avoid them.

Point Cook captures a westie myth of somehow building Patterson Lakes on the western shore, for 'people like us'. Even westies have to separate out their winners and losers.

Loose Shunter said...

Ricc, I agree with your comments on the contribution of a variety of factors. Also agree with your analysis of the socio-economic segregation of places in the hinterlands of our big cities. Out near Campbelltown (Sydney) where my cousins live, there's a fairly finely grained socio-economic place-based geography that segregates the 'housos', 'tradies', 'cashed-up bogans', 'aspirationals' and the 'old money'. Often the dividing line is less obvious and as little as a hill or a park, sometimes more obvious such as the walls and estate entrance (that could be quickly retrofitted with gates).