Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Timetable Tuesday #12: Why two isn't always better than one - Deakin Uni's two Box Hill shuttles

The most important factor that determines the usefulness of a public transport service is not whether it's a train, tram or bus but its timetable, route and stops. 

Today we'll profile two routes and mention a third in passing.  All serve the same key destinations and need to be considered together if taking a corridor and network approach. That wasn't done when the services were put in, with, as you'll see later, consequences for service quality, legibility and frequency. 

The routes involved are 201, 768, and an extension of Route 281. They substantially overlap (see map) to provide a potentially intensive service between Deakin University's Burwood campus and the major suburban centre, rail station and bus hub of Box Hill. This is topical right now since Trimester 1 teaching at Deakin starts next week. 

Extract from PTV Whitehorse area map ptv.vic.gov.au

If you're not familiar with the Burwood campus, it is located in the middle-eastern suburbs. Frequent east-west transport is provided by the Route 75 tram.  The 75 runs from the city but is slow. That slowness is significant as it could make travel involving other routes, such as we're discussing here, more attractive. This puts Deakin in a similar position to La Trobe University on Tram 86. 

One travel alternative for Deakin is a train to Box Hill Station then a bus south to Deakin.  Box Hill enjoys a frequent daytime train service with many expresses. Catching an express shuttle bus from there to Deakin would make a lot of sense. Not only for train passengers from the city direction but also those coming from Belgrave, Lilydale and Ringwood.  Along with people arriving at Box Hill by bus and tram, particularly from the north.  

That was Deakin University's hope when the Route 201 express shuttle was launched three years ago. 

Route 201

First some background. Route 201 between Box Hill and Deakin at Burwood is one of the newer of the x01 numbered university shuttles to go in. These shuttles are designed to solve a 'last-mile' problem where major trip generators, such as universities, are just beyond reach of the rail network. Services include routes 601, 401, 301 and 201, serving Monash, Melbourne, La Trobe and Deakin Universities respectively. As long as you live near a station on the line the shuttle serves you will probably have a frequent connection to your nearest university. 

The university shuttles generally enjoy high occupancy, with an impressive number of passengers carried per bus operating hour. Their express running speeds travel. And pressure on surrounding, often crowded, all-stops  bus services has reduced. Passengers treat them as turn up and go services, with three of the four routes running every ten minutes or better. Monash University has been able to use the success of its service to advocate for service upgrades and an improved interchange at Huntingdale Station (both delivered).

Route 201 is the exception.  The major difference between it and the other university shuttles is its low frequency (timetable below). Only trips to Box Hill are shown - service levels are similar for trips the other way. 

Timetabled run time is a flat 15 minutes, whether it is peak hour or night. The wide span of hours (7am - 10pm approx) should suit most campus users. Although a public holiday, the service runs on Labour Day as it is a university teaching day, although the cryptic note in the bottom right does not inspire confidence. Still, some clarification is provided (in duplicate with different words) under 'Service Information'. Services for 2019 commenced yesterday (February 25).  

The biggest problem though is the frequency. At every 20 minutes (even in peak times) you could be waiting for longer than the travel time to Box Hill.  It's also half or less the service of the other x01 university shuttles (all every 10 minutes or better).  

201's low frequency causes passengers to have a different experience compared to the other university shuttles. Instead of waiting a few minutes for a known frequent route to show up, they need to plan their travel around the 201's timetable. Or look around for other routes with erratic timetables (more on that later). Detailed trip planning to avoid long waits is especially required if a 
connection with a train or bus is required at Box Hill. 

As an example, above is the Lilydale line train timetable for weekday off-peak outward trips (click to enlarge).  Box Hill Station is the top line. Services operate to 15 minute frequency over most of the period shown. Beyond Ringwood frequency drops to 30 minutes on both the Lilydale and Belgrave sections. 

Because the 201's 20 minute frequency is not harmonised with the train's 15/30 min pattern, connection times vary greatly. Even though the individual services involved operate more frequently, optimum connections repeat only every hour. Whereas if frequencies were harmonised they would recur at the same frequency as the lowest frequency service. 

Route 201 lacks both the frequency and connectivity of the other (more frequent) university shuttle services. While it adds needed capacity to a multi-route corridor by itself it's not a particularly attractive service. That's why we need to mention other routes to get a full picture of what's available. 

Route 768

Route 201 is not the only short service between Deakin University and Box Hill. Route 768 commenced in July 2010, in response to crowding on Route 767, once the only service to Box Hill. While described as a shuttle it serves all stops along the route. It is mostly the same alignment as the southern two-thirds of the 201. The difference is that the 768 veers east at Canterbury Rd, with one stop on Canterbury Rd (outside a park) not served by any other route.    

768 runs between roughly 7am and 7pm. Its frequency is an uninspiring 40 to 50 minutes.  Unlike the 201 the 768 has a variable run time - between approximately 13 and 20 minutes. Route 768 is a Trimester 1 and 2 service only  (different to the 201 which appears to operate in all three).  Its 4 March commencement date is a week later than for the 201 and there is no mention of a Labour Day service.   

Route 281

This is not a dedicated university shuttle service. However it's included here for completeness. For it, like 201 and 768, also departs from the stop inside the campus. Services operate on weekdays every 30 minutes as a southwards extension of the regular route to Templestowe. This extension commenced in April 2010, just before the 768 started. Route 281 runs on all non-public holiday weekdays (including those that are not in a Deakin trimester). On Labour Day it runs a Saturday timetable, which excludes Deakin University despite being a teaching day.  

Summary of existing service 

Of all the university campuses with rail shuttle bus services, Deakin is the least served. This is despite growth in the number of bus routes between Deakin and Box Hill from 1 to 4 in the last decade.  Rather than introducing a high frequency shuttle that's so frequent everyone uses it, the approach for Deakin has been to layer multiple infrequent routes and extensions over one other without reviewing what was there underneath. A bit like a bad paint job.

This started in 2010 with the extension of the twice-hourly Route 281 trips to Deakin on weekdays. Shortly afterwards Route 768 commenced. Then little happened for a few years.  In fact frequency on nearby Route 767 was cut from 30 to 40 minutes (before being restored recently).  To fill the gap Deakin instituted its own shuttle from Surrey Hills in 2014. In 2016 Route 201 was introduced, but at a lower frequency than the other main university shuttles. 

The result is a complex and uneven service uncoordinated with trains. The combined frequency is high but splitting service across multiple routes lessens the benefit with long waits alternating with bunching. Semester and public holiday teaching day variations add further confusion. These problems do not arise on other campuses with their more frequent uni shuttles.

There is however hope for Deakin's shuttle. There are no planning reasons why it can't run as frequently as the others. And the high number of trips per hour presents opportunity for improvements at minimal additional operating cost. Especially if you can harvest run time benefits from this traffic signal priority trial on Route 201.

Some possibilities

Consider the following:

1. What if we were to consider the three routes that enter the Deakin campus (201, 281, 768) jointly? Could they be coordinated to provide a more even frequency, and if so would a better overall service be possible? 

Current service levels are as follows:

Route 201: 3 trips per hour (inside campus)

Route 768: 1.3 trips per hour (inside campus)

Route 281: 2 trips per hour (inside campus)

Adding them all up gives 6.3 trips per hour. If you were good with your spacing you'd have an even ten minute service if all routes were run every 30 minutes each. However unless other things were fixed, such as public holiday patterns and information presentation, legibility would still be poor. And, while not insoluble (as it's been done elsewhere) there's the issue of coordinating Ventura (201, 768) with Transdev (281) timetables. 

It would be an interesting scheduling exercise. But the service would remain complex. And the nice even frequency would likely be undersold, given PTV's current difficulties with communicating high combined frequencies along existing multi-route bus corridors. 

2. What if you just wanted to work with two routes - that is the two that were intended to be Deakin shuttles but are each too infrequent to do the job well on their own? Routes 201 and 768 operate at a combined 4.3 trips per hour. 

The simplest approach could be to delete Route 768 and incorporate all trips into an upgraded 201 operating every 15 minutes (12 min if possible in the peak). Such a frequency is still worse than the other uni shuttles but would harmonise with trains and many buses at Box Hill. Travelling would be simpler since unless a 281 was close by you'd almost certainly just wait for the upgraded 201. 

Subsequent improvement options could include a 7.5 or 10 minute frequency, with the latter possible at low cost (but likely some controversy) if the 281 was pruned back to Box Hill.  A 7.5 min service is nearer to true turn up and go while 10 minutes would mesh well with trains if the weekday interpeak Ringwood line timetable was upgraded to a 10/20 minute frequency pattern (ie similar to weekends). 

The question is: What (if anything) would you do with the 201, the 768 and potentially the 281? Do you like one of the above options or are there better ideas? Does the 768 have a purpose at all? Extra points if you consider wider area travel needs and other routes in the area like 732, 767 and even the 903.

Timetable Tuesday simultaneously appears on melbourneontransit.blogspot and as an article on the Urban Happiness Facebook group. The timetable extract was from the old PTV website . 

You might enjoy these well-regarded books on transport topics

Better Buses, Better Cities: How to Plan, Run, and Win the Fight for Effective Transit Steven Higashide NEW!

The Public City: Essays in honour of Paul Mees Gleeson & Beza

A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, Institutions (Access Quintet Book 4) David Levinson

Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives Jarrett Walker

Transport for Suburbia: Beyond the Automobile Age Paul Mees

(Sales links: I get a small commission if you buy via the above - no extra cost to you)


Craig Halsall said...

The fact the 767 can't easily travel through the campus does further complicate things, and this might not be ideal anyway as the Presbyterian Ladies College would be skipped, a key generator at school times. So the best option would be look creating two-tiers, an express bus that goes inside the main campus and all an stops bus that just goes around the perimeter.

Although on paper the timetable for 201 is 15 mins, in practice in peak hour traffic some buses take 20+ mins each way, even with the traffic light priority. So you are really looking at a 40 min round trip as it is. Sit at Box Hill mid-trimester and watch the late afternoon buses struggle to maintain the timetable as each 201 bus arrives with heavy loads.

My hunch would be have the 768 bus absorbed into the 201 timetable, and a fourth bus added to the timetable, to provide a consistent 10 min service, probably dropping to 20 mins after 7pm. Medium term you'd be aiming for a 10 min interpeak timetable on the Belgrave/Lilydale Line, and the 109 tram is already every 10 mins & 10 mins also is friendly to the various half-hourly bus routes feeding into Box Hill from the Balwyn & Doncaster areas.

With a 10 min frequency, I'd add a stop at Wattle Park to allow easy transfer to the 70 tram, also on a 10 min headway (20 mins at night). (There would also be benefits for interchange with the 903 with this extra stop, but changing at Box Hill would remain an option, while the 75 to Warrigal Rd or 767 to Chadstone makes more sense from the south.)

So where does that leave the all-stops service on Elgar Rd?

Firstly, if one was to go back further to 2005, the northern end of Elgar Rd only had the 735 running every half hour in peaks prior to some network changes following the introduction of the 700 SmartBus which saw 767 & 735 swap over.

See - http://bcsv.org.au/vm/2005-07-24-knox-transit-link-wattle-park-changes-part-2/

Even further back to the '80s, there was no bus service at all along this section, with longer walks to the 70 tram or 700 bus required.

With this historical context, a slight drop in the overall frequency on Elgar Rd should be tolerable.

More broadly, the 767 is a strong performer (with Chadstone, Southland and several private schools along the way) and would be deserving of some modest upgrades. Depending on train frequencies in the medium term, a 15 min peak service & 20 min interpeak service is justified, resulting in only modest cuts to Elgar Rd all stops service.

By cutting the 281 at Box Hill (as was the case prior to 2010) this upgrade becomes affordable & simplifies the service offering along Elgar Rd.

This approach also gives those along the Glen Waverley line would also enjoy a higher frequency with their often forgotten 767 connection between Jordanville & Deakin Uni, particularly those coming from Glen Waverley & Mount Waverley which don't have one-seat access despite close proximity & currently have to rely on connections with north-south buses and the 75 tram on Burwood Hwy.

Craig Halsall said...

While this will probably seem like i am just recycling the recent Greens' Transport Policy from the state election, I am quite warm to the idea of limited stops buses from major activity hubs to Deakin Uni. But rather than high frequency though, these might be half-hourly but timed to suit class & lecture times.

My initial three would operate from Doncaster, Glen Waverley and Oakleigh (or Huntingdale) to make Deakin Uni accessible from a much greater catchment. These could be something to implement in the next few years, well ahead of the gold-plated Suburban Rail Loop.

The 2010 bus review actually recommended 281 operate to Deakin Uni directly along Elgar Rd, without the current dog-leg via Box Hill which can add up to 10 mins in the peaks. At present the one-seat 281 offers little advantage over a 201+903.

The Hurstbridge & Frankston Lines are probably too far away to justify such routes initially but if these three prove successful they should be considered. Even something from Fairfield via Kew if we wanted to really push the envelope here.

Private schools right around Melbourne successfully run school buses from large catchments, why can't we do the same for medium size universities in the suburbs, slowing the uptake of car dependency?

Maybe you'd have a small surcharge to use these routes to reclaim some costs, but less than on campus parking costs (which can be $6.40 a day for casual users)