Sunday, July 28, 2019

5th anniversary of reformed Brimbank bus network



Comprehensive bus network reform is often talked about but too rarely happens. Especially in established suburban areas. Especially in Melbourne. 

Compared to other transport projects bus reform is cheap. And it potentially benefits catchments of millions whose nearest public transport is a bus. Politically though it's not seen as important as flashy infrastructure projects. And resistance from existing passengers, who tend to favour the status quo, can weaken interest, despite a new network's benefits. 

Public consultation and its limitations

Public engagement, especially face-to-face meetings, has problems of representativeness unless carefully managed. 

Local government,  stakeholder and community 'representatives', are often non bus-using professionals purporting to speak on behalf of their low-income bus-using senior, youth or disabled 'clients'. While well-meaning, what they say should be backed up by accounts from 'real passengers'. 

Even where attendees at meetings are bus users passenger samples can be skewed. There may be an over-representation of non-working time-rich older people and an under-representation of working time-poor younger people. So it's important to supplement town hall meetings with other means of engagement to get a fairer picture of community needs. Never choose meeting venues remote from frequent public transport, especially at night. And always ask 'Who is not in the room?'.

Consulting on the network, talking to passengers at train stations and bus interchanges can help. Though even that fails to reach non-passengers that a network redesign may benefit. So you might also wish to consult at shopping centres (where you will get both passengers and non-passengers) at various times. Online engagement is also handy, especially if users can be directly surveyed.

Opposition to reform


The time-rich organise petitions to scare politicians into keeping their (mostly quiet) routes while the time-poor fill, and are sometimes left behind by, the overcrowded buses they catch each day. Parents can also be vocal, with resistance to network changes that require their offspring to swap buses, wait at interchanges and/or use public instead of dedicated school services.



While public consultation, as mentioned above, risks not bringing out a fair sample of the community, not consulting can be even worse. When it gained the metropolitan bus franchise (offered by a Coalition government), Transdev, the winning bidder, thought it could introduce a more efficient 'greenfields' bus network with minimal opposition from PTV, the government or the community. 

Transdev succeeded with some (mostly good) network reforms in mid-2014. Also five years ago yesterday. Key changes included simplifying bus routes along the 200/207, 235/237, 250/251 and 302/304 corridors plus revisions around Ringwood (of less merit). You wouldn't dream of going back to the more complex routes of yesteryear, though crowding became a problem and some routes need more trips. 


Transdev's 2014 reforms were to be the entree for the main helping the following year. Their 2015 greenfields network had both big upgrades and big cuts, with the latter even on some busy routes. Perfunctory public information sessions were held before the changes. However it was not consultation and many passengers felt worse off. The new Labor government agreed and vetoed the entire Transdev change. Only minor changes have occurred to Transdev's network since.  

In contrast, the 2015 Wyndham and Geelong bus networks, planned in-house by PTV with public consultation, did proceed, not least because to have stalled would have meant new stations opening without connecting buses. These networks were quietly successful, though there were still localised objections that MPs would have seen.  

Wary politicians

These early experiences may explain why the first Andrews government and its transport minister, Hon Jacinta Allen, shied away from bus network reform. The government's then slim electoral margin (a problem it had in 2014 but not 2018) wouldn't have helped either. 

Today's stasis is a far cry from the expectations people had about 6 or 7 years ago when PTV was being set up. At least initially, this was not misplaced. Train reliability had rebounded from lows in 2010-2011. The Network Development Plan Metropolitan Rail promised upgraded frequencies on most lines. Transdev Melbourne was not the worry it later became. And patronage boomed on the new Point Cook bus network that started when Williams Landing station opened in 2013. 

Bus network reform in Brimbank


Five years ago yesterday, buses started running on reformed routes in the City of Brimbank, north-west of Melbourne. In an established area with no new train stations. In a safe Labor seat. Under a Liberal government. 

Sometimes governments do good things even when there are no electoral advantages for them. Or, perhaps more accurately, when there were no electoral disadvantages, as any seat in Brimbank is safely Labor. 

Unlike in Wyndham or Geelong the following year, most of the old route numbers remained the same. But all routes had changes to their alignment, frequencies and/or timetables. Some routes got replaced with new and more direct services. Network-wide 7 day service was instituted. And peak frequencies were upgraded on key routes. 

It wasn't without controversy as buses were removed from some streets. There were local newspaper articles and a petition presented to parliament (click for larger view below). 


The Hansard extract below is an answer to a question asked in parliament.  


This network reform is better documented than most. You can read more on the Bus + Coach Society website. And in this 2015 ATRF research paper here. But I will describe it briefly below. 

Pre 2014 Brimbank network

This is the old bus network in the City of Brimbank. Click on the map to enlarge for a better view. Note the following:

* Buses terminating in the middle of nowhere (routes 422 & 454)
* Many routes indirect or overlapping (especially around Kings Park, St Albans and Western Hwy)
* Single direction routes, especially in Sunshine West and Delahey
* Route 451 was duplicative and indirect but had the area's highest frequency
* Lack of direct main road bus route between Deer Park and Watergardens


Not obvious from the map were the timetables. Not all routes ran 7 days per week or much after 7pm. Some routes had frequencies that did not match trains. Or the service fell away on Saturday afternoons. Also off the map was the indirect and infrequent Route 460 which went an indirect way to Caroline Springs (via Hillside). That was a large population catchment with only limited service.

Post 2014 Brimbank network

The changes five years ago produced this network. Key features included:

* A two tier network, with direct main roads routes every 20 min and local routes every 40 min
* A new direct Route 420, operating every 20 minutes, from Watergardens to Sunshine
* A straightened Route 460 to Caroline Springs (mostly off the map)
* Improved directness of local routes, especially around St Albans and Sunshine West
* Replacement of old routes (eg 422, 451 and 454) with new routes (420, 427, 428)
* Simpler two-way running, with loops eliminated
* Improved coverage in some areas


All routes had 7 day service, including public holidays. Operating hours were also extended. In the case of Route 400 the longer hours reflect the fact that it now serves a residential area rather than it being purely an industrial / prison service as it originally was. Peak services were also increased to reflect high commuter demand from the area. Bus timetables were designed to harmonise with train headways and connect at designated stations. This however meant that some routes, such as 400 and 476, had their frequencies reduced at quieter times. Route 400, especially, has been a great success, with more commuters travelling to and from Derrimut on the improved peak service. 

Some outside Brimbank, particularly around Caroline Springs also benefited from this network. For example frequency upgrades for Routes 418 and 460 improved connectivity with the rail network. Some efficiencies came about as a result of better utilisation of buses around school times. 

The newspaper article above referred to the removal of Route 451 that ran between Deer Park South and Sunshine. It provided a handy one-seat ride at an unusually good frequency for a local bus route. The replacement direct 420 did similar but was beyond walking distance of some peoples homes. These residents would have had to catch a (less frequent) Route 423 (moved to replace 451) and change to a train at Ginifer, something that some found inconvenient. 

On the other hand the new 420, formed from the 451's resources, gave new southern connections to Watergardens that did not previously exist and greatly increased available routes and frequencies in underserved but high needs areas like Kings Park. It also helped Glengala Rd in Sunshine West, which gained a full two-way service and new connections to Deer Park and Watergardens. 

Subsequent changes

The changes five years ago were only the first phase. Others happened later. For instance revisions in the Caroline Springs area flowed through to Brimbank. Most notable was the simplification of routes along Ballarat Rd, with a new Route 426 and a rescheduled 456 providing an even 20 minute combined corridor connecting with trains at Albion or Sunshine. The 426 replaced the previous 216 that went all the way into the city (and beyond). Previously Ballarat Rd buses were confusing and unevenly spaced, rarely meeting trains. Busy Ballarat Rd now has a good service but the refusal to install pedestrian crossings limits direct and safe access to stops. 

Some routes gained increased service. Eg Route 460 gained increased frequency and an extension when Caroline Springs station opened. Service at one time was every 20 minutes but a subsequent timetable change made trips uneven, with 75 minute gaps. This is why it doesn't feature on the Useful Network maps. In addition Route 420 got weekend service upgrades and now operates every 20 minutes seven days per week (better weekend frequency than most SmartBuses but shorter hours). 

If you look carefully on the map below you'll see a reborn Route 422. It follows the same alignment as the original 451 but operates less frequently. There is very little unique coverage. Its existence is the result of local campaigning referred to before. Buses operate once an hour, like the restored Hope Street route 509 in Brunswick which was also restored after a similar deletion and campaign (though unlike the 422, there was no local bus network reform on the area).



Conclusion

The period about five years ago was very active in bus network planning. It was an era of new bus networks. Existing networks were reviewed with dramatic changes introduced. The result, in areas lucky enough to receive one, was a simpler network, better train connections, longer operating hours and higher frequencies on key routes. You can compare the simplicity of the above map with the complexity of unreformed networks in areas like Knox and Banyule (around Greensborough). 

The 2014 Brimbank and subsequent 2015 - 2016 Wyndham, Geelong, Epping North, Plenty Valley and Cranbourne networks marked a welcome departure from previous less efficient habits of simply grafting new routes over older routes with minimal change to the latter.

Latterly though, with a risk-averse state government generally uninterested in bus service reform, we've relapsed to the old ways, as seen with recent layered-on additions like routes 627 and (to a lesser extent) the 760 in place of the more comprehensive network upgrades we saw during a few 'golden years' of service planning.  The result is that much of Melbourne remains with unreformed  bus routes like 566 or 745 and the proportion of people near a good service is less than it could be. 

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