Friday, March 22, 2019

Unpicking Melbourne's Principal Public Transport Network

One of the tools intended to guide land use planning in Melbourne is the Principal Public Transport Network (PPTN). It's basically the set of rail, tram and major bus corridors that are (or will be) served by high quality service.

While 'high quality public transport' is not defined, common ingredients include fast and direct routes, long operating hours and high frequency day and night. That is service useful enough for people with a choice to use it instead of driving.

There is a symbiotic relationship between the PPTN and land use. Having transit-supportive land uses around PPTN stops encourages patronage growth and further service improvements in a virtuous spiral. Once service becomes competitive, car use and then ownership falls, with people walking, cycling, using public transport or car sharing instead. Businesses on the PPTN gain from increased customer catchment populations, a wider labour pool and turnover growth not limited by parking spaces.   

In contrast, very low densities around frequent public transport routes limits usage despite the good service. That's important because, at least until transit is driverless, frequency is expensive to provide. Whereas the greater the density clustered around PPTN network stops the more jobs and homes benefit and the higher the patronage will be. This has external benefits such as cleaner, more walkable and space-efficient cities less dependent on fossil fuels. 

The PPTN was the centrepiece of the Melbourne 2030 plan of the early 2000s. Plan initiatives included higher densities around activity centres linked by high quality public transport. Public transport's mode share would more than double (to 20% of motorised trips). And sprawl would be limited with an urban growth boundary (that subsequently got expanded).  A 2004 version of the PPTN appears in Linking Melbourne and (less clearly) below. Trains and trams were to provide high capacity radial travel while PPTN buses link suburbs to complement and feed radial rail.  

Little was publicly heard of the PPTN for several years. Unlike other cities we had not communicated it as an easy to use frequent network. Instead we treated all bus routes the same, whether they were an occasional shopper service or a major route that does a tram's job through a dense area.   

However, with little fanfare, the PPTN returned in 2017 via Plan Melbourne. It's an incorporated document, meaning it must be considered when making planning decisions and the minister must authorise amendments. More on the new PPTN here.

The new PPTN is above. It's changed since 2004. For example the PPTN bus network has been removed from areas where it would have been quite marginal, eg the industrial area between Laverton and Sunshine.  However it reflects network reforms over the last 10 years in certain areas, particularly in the north and west. It's viewable as a pdf (which needs to be zoomed to see poorly rendered PPTN bus termini like Werribee, Chelsea and Frankston) or embedded in a mapping tool with a choice of base images.  

Service standards

Before commenting on the PPTN maps we need to know PPTN's service standards. I couldn't find it in Plan MelbourneThe earlier PPTN was based on SmartBus services every 15 minutes on weekdays and 30 minutes on weekends. Neither of these matches the now more widespread 10 and 20 minute train frequencies. 30 minute weekend service is unattractive. And even a 15 minute frequency isn't sufficient in big cities with congested traffic. So, consistent with movement we've seen on train timetables, a real multimodal PPTN should be more frequent. Perhaps every 10 minutes for most of the day, with a 20 minute frequency during quiet times.  

A higher frequency standard makes the PPTN better but smaller. Routes barely good enough for PPTN every 15 minutes wouldn't qualify for a PPTN every 10 minutes or better. Instead you might make it a strong non-PPTN route every 20 minutes with wide operating hours. Later comments about routes that are considered weak inclusions in the PPTN should be read in this context. 

Review by area

The remainder of this post will look at the PPTN network, moving from west to east. Is there enough of it? Or too much? Does it reflect existing practice rather than what's best for the future? And are there corridors that should have PPTN service while it's an extravagance to have it on others?

A proper analysis would explore tram extensions, train service upgrades and buses. However today I will only review buses as these are the PPTN's most changeable and contestable element. They shouldn't be if intended to guide long-term planning. Although that makes it even more important that the PPTN is soundly based. Is it? Thoughts on that later. 

Melbourne West

 Starting at Werribee, the PPTN includes existing routes 170, 180 and 190. These operate between two train lines, and in 170's case, serve a major mid-route trip generator (Werribee Plaza/Pacific Werribee). On weekdays all three routes run at train frequencies (mostly every 20 minutes). 190 also features long operating hours due to its planned connections with trains to and from Geelong. These routes, along with the 495 mentioned later, are less than six years old, having been delivered as part of new bus and train networks in the area. 

While the map features an employment cluster at East Werribee, there are no PPTN bus routes to support it. That's growing, although the major proposed development there has stalled

Neither is there a direct PPTN route between Tarneit and Williams Landing Station (eg existing Route 150). Should there be? While there is a significant residential population remote from rail, Route 150 lacks the big mid-route trip generators you see on SmartBus routes in the eastern suburbs or even the 170 mentioned before.  Are such attractors a requirement for a route to make it on to the PPTN? As you'll see later the answer is 'it varies'. 

Point Cook's PPTN route is the existing Route 495. It serves the Point Cook Town Centre and a residential catchment that provides heavy peak travel demand, with an 11 minute am peak frequency offered.  There are few other all-day trip generators and, unlike most of the routes in Werribee that run between stations, its southern terminus is weak. Interpeak frequency is currently 40 minutes - well below PPTN standards. Although it should get better peak service, longer operating hours and possibly become a twenty minuter, I'm not sure if 495 has the makings of a strong PPTN route. 

Further east, between Footscray, Sunshine, Altona and Laverton is a Y-shaped corridor formed by the existing 411/412 and 903. We discussed the substantial service duplication in this area here. A consistently frequent service along the 411 corridor isn't a bad thing. Existing weekday service (as measured by buses per hour) along Millers Rd already exceeds what a 10 minute PPTN frequency would require. One might debate its need between Altona and Laverton, but, like Point Cook, Altona Meadows has a big population remote from a train station. Higher peak frequency, longer hours and upgraded weekend frequency (currently every 40 minutes) may be greater need than a more frequent weekday interpeak service (currently 20 minutes on 411/412). While there may be small-scale infill development opportunities in Altona Meadows, the location does not strike me as being suitable for large-scale job and residential intensification as it's not on the way to anywhere. 

A theme that should exist with the PPTN is to match transit-oriented land use with high quality public transport service. If there is a mismatch then one would expect plans to change either land use or transport service so they do reconcile. That appears not to have been followed in the Brooklyn area, which, due to being on the 903 SmartBus orbital, remains on the PPTN despite its unsupportive (for public transport) low-density industrial land use. 

What about Williamstown? Its PPTN bus route runs largely parallels the railway to Footscray via Newport. It starts at a quiet backwater and misses the shops at Williamstown. On the plus side it provides some unique coverage in Kingsville and serves a densifying area full of CBD workers. But does it justify PPTN status? Possibly not. It seems to get there by being an existing route (472) that features a 15 minute weekday frequency.

What have the Brooklyn and Williamstown examples illustrated? They appear to show some biases within the PPTN. That is a preference towards existing routes and alignments over potentially stronger corridors and future needs. Which does not seem a good idea for a planning document. 

Melton is easy to discuss since, despite having a massive projected population, it has no PPTN bus routes. This is notwithstanding a proposed town centre at Toolern/Cobblebank. Consequently the PPTN appears to be more an established suburb rather than growth suburb thing.  This is despite (i) the higher population density in outer suburbs due to smaller blocks, (ii) likely higher trip generation rates in growth areas due to high labour force and education participation rates and (iii) the potential for transport routes to shape development before it happens. Working against Melton is that, unlike the Werribee - Tarneit area, there are no direct routes that immediately jump out as being plausible PPTN material. Melton shows that if an area hasn't had a recent bus network review implemented, with direct routes created, it is unlikely to have PPTN corridors. 

The Sunshine - Deer Park - Caroline Springs area PPTN comprises routes 420, 460 and the 426/456 corridor. These are all products of recent local bus network revamps. All provide roughly a 20 minute daytime frequency. They are the sort of direct routes that one would expect on a PPTN, although the 426/456 overlap has a weak terminus due to the routes splitting and the frequency halving. 

The PPTN around Footscray and Sunshine looks much like existing major routes. Its density reflects historical high (15 min) weekday service frequencies. Route alignments included include 216/219, 220, 410 and 903. The main difference is that Churchill Av is on the PPTN even though it is only served by the 408 (which isn't PPTN) and by a once per hour deviation on the 410 (which is). 

North of Footscray appears to be a simplified service to Highpoint and further north via the 406. This is a strong route serving an area remote from trains. The 223 remains around Yarraville, despite its proximity to the train and 472 (discussed before). A historic remnant of the Footscray tram system, the 223 contributes little unique coverage to the network yet remains a frequent service with long operating hours. Again it's worth asking whether this is PPTN material. 

Further north at Essendon the mostly overlapping 903 and 465 alignments feature on the PPTN. The 903 loops around to Sunshine while the 465 retains a weak northern terminus (although the map doesn't show the Keilor Park loop). This brings us to a practical difficulty if anyone ever wanted to implement a network based on the PPTN map. Because it's based on corridors and not routes there is a geometrical problem where a corridor splits into two. Do you have two frequent routes with a forced interchange? Or is it better to have overlapping services with frequency lowered on outer portions? The answer will vary, but in hindsight it might have been better if the PPTN was more practically oriented and defined routes rather than corridors. In Essendon's case the opportunity was not taken to reshape the PPTN, solve a geometrical problem and provide a corridor to Highpoint to give the 903 a more useful purpose on its way to Sunshine via Churchill Avenue (already in PPTN).

Melbourne North

This map will be familiar to those who have looked at a SmartBus orbital network map. Because the 901, 902 and 903 orbitals are mostly still there. The main exception is the deleted South Morang to Greensborough section of the 901. This is a sensible removal.  The rural catchment (around Yarrambat) never did support a frequent SmartBus service and it is unlikely that locals would want the level of urbanisation that would make it so. Bus services to the area are best run with local routes coordinated with trains, which long SmartBus orbitals operating at unharmonised frequencies could never reliably do.

Key PPTN additions are north and south of South Morang Station. North to near Hawkstowe Station and south to the 86 tram terminus. Both sensible additions. A 7-day 20 minute frequency is already in place on routes 386/387 thanks to a bus network revamp a few years ago that simplified routes and improved peak services.

Greensborough has been (over?)fortunate with two SmartBuses. So has Fitzsimons Lane, when other north-south corridors to the west (eg Chandler Hwy) have none. Despite the pruning of the South Morang connection there appear to still be two PPTN corridors approaching from the south-east. This appears excessive given there is also a roughly parallel train line and the area does not strike me being suitable for large-scale densification.

There are what appear to be some PPTN network gaps. Craigieburn and further north, despite high growth, high usage of existing buses, a new town centre remote from the station and suggestions for Aitken Bvd to have bus lanes, has no PPTN corridors.

The LaTrobe cluster also has limited bus PPTN access. There is already a strong service to the south (Route 250 - every 20 minutes with long operating hours). Route 561 provides east west access between Pascoe Vale and Macleod. However only the La Trobe University to Reservoir portion of the 561 is included in the PPTN. This leaves a significant gap between Reservoir and Coburg, and also between Bundoora and Greensborough and/or Macleod.

Melbourne East

This should again be a familiar map that (mostly) replicates current services. It is here that has Melbourne's biggest concentrations of SmartBus services. Especially in the City of Manningham, the PPTN is far finer grained here than anywhere else due to four DART routes to the CBD and all three orbitals intersecting. 

I cannot see anything that has been removed. Low density Warrandyte, because it currently has a SmartBus, remains on the PPTN. Even though its locals are unlikely to be enthusiastic about increased density. And if one is to do density properly, one must be not just on one PPTN route but several to allow widespread mobility and low car dependence.

Where has PPTN been added? Most notable is Route 732 along Burwood Hwy. That currently provides a frequent all-day service over a short section, between the end of the 75 tram and Knox City Shopping Centre. Full length lower frequency trips operate from Box Hill to Upper Ferntree Gully, with some even extending to the hospital there. Even that minor extension is now PPTN according to the map. 

There are other significant additions. For example up Burke Rd across the Yarra to Ivanhoe. That would fill a major gap in the current network. Route 630 across from Elwood (existing weak terminus remaining) along North Rd to Monash University also gets added.

Where are the PPTN 'might have beens'? Access from the Monash precinct to the north remains a problem. Despite current high patronage, routes 733 (Clayton - Box Hill portion), 737 (Monash - Glen Waverley - Knox City portion) and 767 (Chadstone - Deakin - Box Hill portion) do not feature. These are some of Melbourne's busiest bus routes to some of its top trip generators.  Their only crime is that since they were not designated 'SmartBus' or only run every 30 minutes off-peak they were not included, regardless of current usage or future potential. 

There is no PPTN link between the end of the 48 tram and Doncaster Shoppingtown. Neither were Camberwell and Caulfield connected, if only to assuage the desires of those who'd like a Burke Rd tram extension. And, unlike the case with the 472, just because a route runs every 15 minutes is no guarantee that it gets on the PPTN. The 670 between Ringwood, Chirnside Park and Lilydale (twice the train's frequency), for example, doesn't rate. Some have liked to see the Route 900 SmartBus extended eastwards from Stud Park to Ferntree Gully. This would improve connectivity towards the train. However it would have no major intermediate trip generators and hasn't been included.

Melbourne South

The PPTN gets sparser in the south compared to the east. The three SmartBus orbitals are clearly visible. Though you will need to look at the more detailed zoomable map to clearly see the termini of the orbitals at Chelsea and Frankston. 

There are some welcome additions compared to current services. One is a north-south route down East Boundary and Chesterville roads terminating at Southland (like a straighter 822). This fills a large gap between the Frankston line and the Warrigal Rd SmartBus (903). The even spacing puts a large swathe of people within 800 metres of a PPTN service route. Oddly the corridor starts at North Road whereas if it was an actual bus route it would likely keep going north to Murrumbeena Station and Chadstone.

Also notable is the east-west corridor from Dandenong to Sandringham. This is roughly the 828 until Southland. But from there instead of going indirectly to Hampton it runs directly via Bay Rd to Sandringham. Or at least that's how I would have it if a single route. The 828 serves several rail lines, shopping centres and a large area remote from rail. Current weekday frequency is 20 minutes, with an infrequent weekend service. Arguably, like the current 828, the corridor could extend further east to take in at least Doveton, which while it lacks major trip generators, has demographic characteristics favourable for all-day ridership.

Thirdly there's Frankston to Narre Warren (though curiously, not Fountain Gate). This is provided for with the existing 791 to Cranbourne and 841 further north. Current services meet minimum standards but would need increased span and frequency to qualify for PPTN status, especially on the 841 portion. 

What isn't on the PPTN? There's nothing past Frankston. This is even though the 788 was a PPTN route in the previous PPTN. Overlapping routes out to Mornington provide a (roughly) 20 minute corridor but don't feature. Cranbourne area routes like 893 (a major north-south route) and shorter local ones to the east aren't included. Many of these were created or straightened during the 2016 Cranbourne area network revision and operate at 20 minute frequencies Monday to Sunday. Their span is shorter than SmartBus but their weekend daytime frequency is normally higher (20 vs 30 minutes).

I'm in two minds about whether you would include these on the PPTN. Few if any of the above would likely justify a 10 minute frequency, at least off-peak. And from a planning perspective having too many possibilities when locating trip generators may spread them out too much and lessen opportunities for desired clusterings.

Melbourne Inner

Melbourne's inner is dominated by trains and trams so I'll keep it short. Familiar inclusions include corridors that already have frequent routes, such as the 234 (to Port Melbourne), 402 (Footscray - East Melbourne), 250/251 to the north, 216/219/220 to the west, 200/207 to the east and 246 (Punt Rd) are included. Along with the Doncaster routes also to the east. 

The most notable PPTN addition is Route 506 between Moonee Ponds and Brunswick East. This is an east-west route through a densely populated area with low car ownership. You will note how close the PPTN map follows the actual bus route, including what appears to be the unnecessary historical dog-leg that slows buses to avoid a tram overlap. 

The main PPTN map deletions are 216/219/220 to the east towards Prahran via St Kilda Rd. These are historic high frequency and long hours routes. However they operate in an area with a fairly complete tram and train network and are much quieter than the western halves of these routes. 

Could there be more PPTN connections in the CBD and inner city area? East-west routes in the inner north would provide a genuine grid network in conjunction with existing north-south trains and trams.  It's off the map but there's nothing for the potential growth area (and employment cluster) of Fishermans Bend. Connectivity from Parkville to the Clifton Hill group of lines to the east is another possibility. Although if it was a service like the existing Route 401 from North Melbourne it would only be a frequent weekday service and not a 7-day PPTN corridor. 


This has been a quick trip around Melbourne's PPTN corridors. PPTN stands for Principal Public Transport Network. In other words only some corridors get a guernsey. But those that earn it should receive an excellent service, including long operating hours and frequent service. In return, land uses are sufficiently intensive and supportive to guarantee high around the clock patronage to make the investment in service worthwhile.  A program to upgrade bus service levels on PPTN routes, similar to SmartBus a decade ago, but with more frequent service, would make buses more attractive and better used. 

The main predictor of whether a corridor is likely to be on the PPTN network or not is whether it is occupied by an existing SmartBus or other route with a 15 minute or better weekday frequency (mostly ex-tramways board routes). In addition some 20 minute corridors have been added, particularly if they been the products of recent bus network reviews in areas like Werribee, Sunshine, Caroline Springs, South Morang and Cranbourne.  Like the SmartBus orbitals, PPTN bus routes are most likely to be between approximately 10 and 30 km from the CBD, with growth areas missing out. 

Some sections of routes considered marginal nevertheless made it. These include poorly used sections of SmartBus, routes with little unique coverage and one or two odd dog-legs, extensions and tram remnants. It is hoped that these get corrected, and, in the mean time, do not shape important land use decisions. 

Which corridors were least favoured for PPTN purposes? In short, almost any redevelopment or growth area. That goes for both inner brownfields areas (like Fishermans Bend), outer greenfields areas and even some National Employment Clusters. High patronage but non-SmartBus routes in the middle suburbs also didn't make it. 

To summarise, the PPTN map is most useful to support middle suburban land use intensification, drawing heavily on what exists now. It is less applicable for planning near-CBD brownfield or outer suburban greenfield areas with few corridors identified. Also, the PPTN would earn credibility if it defined service standards and was backed by a funded program to achieve them.

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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