Sunday, June 16, 2019

A look at the recent VISTA travel survey

Exactly one month ago today randomly selected volunteers were filling in forms to document their day's travel. A few days prior they downloaded a mobile phone app. That would track their movements for a week. At the end of each day they'd review gathered positions, make any corrections and input the mode and purpose for each journey, leg by leg. 


All this was in aid of VISTA - the Victorian Integrated Survey of Travel and Activity. Data from everyone's responses helps build a picture of where, when and how people travel. It feeds into the models that transport planners use when assessing future transport needs and evaluating projects.

Data provides evidence of usage. And, to some extent, demand. Although there's limitations here as one can't measure the demand of a service that doesn't exist. However we can make a pretty good estimate by looking at demographically similar areas where they do.

What happens with the mountain of analysis done? In theory there would be public transport network strategies  developed with input from sources like VISTA. However public evidence of these existing is scant. For instance we haven't seen a substantive Victorian Transport Plan for over a decade despite it being required by the Transport Integration Act 2010.




How much is our network is shaped by evidence as opposed to running what we've always run? The answer is not much. Population growth continues but network reform has stalled. For example our train timetables can reflect 1970s service cuts more than today's needs. As opposed to Sydney's  network where a 2017 service upgrade delivered fifteen minute frequencies to most stations at nearly all times - day and night.

Ditto for dead-end bus termini and timetables that persist with relics like midday Saturday shop closings. Crowding on some routes leaves people behind while others, unreviewed for years, carry fresh air through affluent suburbs.

One could conclude, that, based on recent service reform, (ie very little happening) history is king.

And because so little is done with it, data is uninfluential and therefore unimportant.  

Except when it is.

At certain times bus services have become a political issue, thanks to community, industry and academic advocacy. Governments may be galvanised into action, as occurred for a few years from 2006 when most areas got 7 day bus service and orbital SmartBuses linked the suburbs.

Sometimes effort can be wasted on matters of marginal passenger benefit, such as operator franchising, multiple rebrandings, vanity architecture (eg Southern Cross Station) and ticketing systems that no one asked for. The late 1990s and early 2000s era was notorious for that.

Meanwhile maintenance is deferred, infrastructure is failing, patronage is building and needed services aren't being added. Once that became part of a credible story about government mismanaging growth and being unable to run basic services its interest swung from buses to trains, with major timetable improvements on lines like Frankston and Dandenong. These had large benefits with train reliability rebounding from about 2011-12.   

There may be calls for a new line to relieve a clogged system. Politicians may warm to it. But evidence is needed for support to broaden, especially if it means deferring other projects or taking money earmarked for other portfolios. There's a flurry and everything is wanted yesterday.

Then data, unloved and unused for years, may be core to making a strong case when drafting and comparing alternatives. In which case it, based on what people wrote in their VISTA forms, becomes an unsung hero.

Back to the VISTA survey.

What do survey participants have to do and what data is collected?

Participants get a pack delivered to their home. It looks like this.



It's delivered by people from Ipsos, the opinion pollster and social research company contracted to conduct the survey. They'll tell you a bit about it if you're at home. 

The first thing they ask is to download a mobile phone app called rMove. Then for the next week or so take your phone with you wherever you go. This tracks where you go in conjunction with GPS data. After each day you are asked to review data accuracy and enter why you went places and how you travelled. This includes modes and connections for public transport trips and intermediate locations if you made stops during a trip. That's the first part of the survey.


The second part of the survey is paper-based.


You complete a detailed diary of your movements on a nominated day.


The survey is household based. Thus you need to complete details not only for yourself but any others living with you. You get asked demographic information such as age, income and vehicle ownership. 


Then there's details about your travel. An example page is below. It's quite a thick book. It needs to be since you're asked about every stage of your trip and you might make several of those per day. Questions asked include its purpose, where you went and whether you travelled with others. Public transport passengers and car users had their own special questions relevant to their mode. 


You can read more about VISTA on the Department of Transport's website here.

Publications making use of the data collected can be found here.

If you ever get a travel survey like this, do participate. And complete it well. Every trip counts.

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