Friday, March 29, 2019

More network pruning - how have we done since 2010?

Two weeks ago I asked whether we could make our bus network more frequent and efficient by pruning bus routes in areas where they overlap or provide service beyond what an area needs.

It was only later that I unearthed a very similar post from November 2010. It was written just before a state election defeat for Labor and victory for the Liberal/National coalition. Discontent with the increasingly crowded and unreliable rail network and the troubled myki ticketing system contributed to Labor's loss. However the Coalition lasted just a single term with Labor returning in 2014. 


Philosophically, Liberals like low taxes, smaller government, economic efficiency, private provision and self-help. Urban Liberals like Malcolm Turnbull and Gladys Berejiklian value public transport as a utility to be run efficiently with maximum patronage. Labor followers, driven by 'fairness', often stress the social importance of  services governments fund. They accept high per-capita subsidies for disadvantaged groups. Buses, in particular, are seen as community services. 

National Party supporters lean towards the Labor view for services in their own rural constituencies, especially if, like country rail upgrades, they can be sold as promoting regional development. If Liberals and Nationals are too far apart then coalitions (often required to govern) can split. Whereas if they are seen as too close then rural National voters may swing to protectionist minor parties or local independents. We saw this in 1999 when a rural backlash against the 'city-centric' Kennett government (which closed country hospitals, schools and railways) ushered in more than a decade of Labor rule, initially assisted by rural independents.

Before losing office in 2010, state Labor had just rolled out the impressive Smartbus orbital and DART services. However these new routes were often layered over the top of existing unchanged routes. This kept things sweet for users of existing routes but was horribly inefficient. It was this duplication, along with the unnecessary operation of SmartBus through sparsely populated areas, that kept SmartBus frequency lower than it should have been, especially on weekends. Passengers sometimes got left behind on busier sections of SmartBus, despite spare buses sitting in depots.

Strengthening strong routes of demonstrated high patronage is something that efficiency-minded Coalition governments can embrace. Especially with rail modes most costs are fixed. Up to the point where more rolling stock needs to be purchased, adding services is relatively cheap, just requiring some extra operational expenditure. It may even be possible to do this in a cost neutral fashion if offsetting cost savings can be found.

While it was most known for service reductions elsewhere, the Kennett goverment actually increased off-peak rail frequencies on the Dandenong and Frankston lines from 20 to 15 minutes. Later it greatly boosted daytime Sunday train and tram frequencies network wide. This century's Baillieu/Napthine Coalition government rolled out 10 minute daytime frequencies on busy rail lines in the south and east. And the recently re-elected NSW Coalition government introduced 7 day 15 minute train frequencies to most stations in Sydney.

Recent history of bus service planning

Getting back to Melbourne and buses, the Baillieu government signed a cut-price bus franchise contract with Transdev in 2013, taking over from National Bus and Melbourne Bus Link. Transdev routes include Melbourne's busiest and most frequent bus routes including DART (Doncaster Area) and orbital SmartBuses. Transdev's contract featured an obligation to introduce a more efficient 'greenfields' bus network.

Transdev simplified some of its routes in 2014. However the major greenfield changes, including splitting the orbitals and increasing frequency on busy portions on them, were to happen in April 2015. There was little public consultation and the network included service cuts on other busy routes. Meanwhile Labor had regained office and vetoed the 2015 network. Things turned from bad to worse with a major fleet maintenance crisis leading to Transdev Melbourne's contract extension being cut short.

While the Transdev network had good features, the cuts to busy routes in areas like Footscray were poorly conceived. On balance the minister was right to reject them. Even from a pure efficiency point of view it didn't completely make sense as service would have remained high in some low-patronage areas. And the single operator based approach to service planning would not have cut the duplication necessary to deliver an efficient network. Routes run by different operators would still have overlapped and timetable changes would have occurred independently rather than in concert. 

There was more success with non-Transdev routes planned by PTV. Reformed bus networks were introduced to Point Cook in 2013, Brimbank in 2014, Geelong and Wyndham in 2015, and Epping North, Plenty Valley and Cranbourne in 2016. Existing bus routes were deleted or radically straightened, coverage was increased and timetables scheduled to match trains.  Often there was a two tier network, with more frequent corridors operating every 20 minutes and local routes on a 40 minute frequency. This gave more people access to a direct bus route operating every 20 minutes or better.

Most of the above was planned under the 2010 - 2014 coalition government. While the 2014 - 2018  Labor government added bus service kilometres, it wasn't very interested in comprehensive network reform despite its wider benefits. This may have been driven by fear since the government had only a slim parliamentary majority in 2014 with many marginal seats. In such an environment it might have been thought politically unwise to upset 1000 passengers with a revised bus network even if it meant denying service improvements to 10 000 others.

Not making public transport as useful as it can be costs patronage. We've seen this in Melbourne with sluggish bus usage rates.
PTV measures usage but appears to lack a strong patronage goal and could do better at network marketing. Last year Labor was re-elected with an increased majority. There is also a new transport minister. It's too early to know whether these events will renew government interest in good bus network planning.  


So much for the context. Let's review my 2010 'dead wood' route list to see what, if any, has been pruned or reformed.

219 (portion): Part west of Sunshine duplicates 903. A weekend variation serves areas covered by Route 471.
* Extension remains but in simpler 7-day form. Weekend variation removed. 

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

280/282 (portion): A local route that duplicates the 901 SmartBus along a low-density residential area (Foote St/Reynolds Rd Templestowe).
* No change

286 (entire route): 
Largely duplicated by two SmartBus routes (901 and 906) along Blackburn Rd
* Route deleted. Issues with Route 906 peak crowding. 

293 (part):
 Duplicated by new SmartBus Route between Doncaster Shoppingtown and Eltham (Main Rd roundabout).
* No change.

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

* Extension deleted.

340/350: Overlaps with 250 between Ivanhoe and Latrobe Uni.
* Simplified to operate as 350 only. Peak service only. 

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.
* Reformed in 2014. Replaced by more frequent and direct services in 2015 Wyndham network.

478/479 (part route): Duplicates Route 477 and tram between Moonee Ponds and Airport West.
* Route shortened to remove duplication. Frequency increased. 

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

483 (entire route): Freeway service for Sunbury. Will become less necessary after rail electrification.
* No change. 

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

544 (part route): Duplicates 901 between Roxburgh Park and Broadmeadows
* Route shortened to start at Roxburgh Park.

563 (part route): Duplicates tram along a large section of Plenty Rd and 901 between Greensborough & Plenty Valley SC
* Route deleted in network reform. New route 382 retains substantial overlap with tram. 

623 (part route): Duplicates 626 and 900 between Chadstone SC and Carnegie. Scope for rerouting along Neerim Rd to replace portion of 624.
* No change. 

673 (entire route): An hourly service entirely duplicated by parallel longer routes
* No change.

691 (part route): Monash Uni extension – duplicates direct high-service 900 SmartBus
* Extension deleted. 

694 (entire route): Largely parallels 663 the extended 688 for all but a few stops.
* No change

745 (entire route): Four occasional routes with very low patronage
* No change. 

777 (entire route): A short route with few services and trip generators
* No change


Overlap deleted: 9/20 (45%)
Overlap modified: 3/20 (15%)
No change: 8/20 (40%)


Bus reform can happen. 45% of routes identified as being duplicative were removed within 10  years. A further 15% were modified in local area network reviews. Not as high as it could be but still encouraging. Opportunities remain to seek efficiencies with the remaining 40%. And that excludes any new or uncommented on overlaps such as discussed here.

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

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