Sunday, September 29, 2019

Recent history: May 1, 2018 bus protest

On May 1, 2018 many Victorian bus operators protested against contracts that the state government was planning to introduce. They brought their buses into town to circle State Parliament on its busiest day of the year - Budget Day. The fact that this was a pre-election budget would have heightened interest. 

Their message: 'Don't Trust Labor'. The video shows the procession of buses. There are also speeches at the end. The government ended up modifying the contracts. Bus operators signed up. Labor went on to win the election with an increased majority. While bus operators kept their assets, the public got few new services added (unlike the large offering that the NSW coalition government promised voters in its 2019 campaign). However greater flexibility to reform bus routes came, which is a good thing. 


Industry old-timers will remember protests in the late 1980s, also over bus contracts. That was followed by massive service cuts in the early 1990s and then more than 10 years of stagnation of routes and timetables. We are still seeing the effects of this today with inferior services that don't meet peoples needs.

More than a year on, the government and the bus industry appear to have kissed and made up, with the new minister to open a major industry event in a few days. However we've only seen a few additional bus services, with growth lagging population increase.




Friday, September 27, 2019

Building Melbourne's Useful Network Part 22: A cheap Inner-East link (Burnley St)


When Melbourne Metro works began in earnest about a year ago some long-term temporary changes were made to bus routes. These included splitting the cross-city bus routes 216, 219 and 220 to avoid the work site on St Kilda Rd. The Sunshine routes were shortened to terminate in the CBD while the Brighton area routes finished at The Alfred hospital. Those needing to continue into the CBD had to catch a tram. Hence there are currently two independently-run Route 216 services, separated by several kilometres. Ditto for the other two. The PTV notice is below. 


Although the frequencies and operating hours of the east and west portions are (generally) similar (ie Smartbus-like frequencies with the unusual feature of late Sunday evening service) their catchments couldn't be more different. The Sunshine - Footscray ends of all three routes (i) serve  predominantly low income catchments, (ii) are often the only transport option in their catchment, and (iii) are very busy. Whereas the Brighton ends of all three (i) serve predominantly high income catchments, (ii) often parallel or overlap trains and trams and (iii) have low to moderate patronage, especially given their high service level. 

What will happen to the 216, 219 and 220 after the works? Will the east and west portions be reunited? Or can other things be done? For example service levels adjusted to suit patronage, with the west getting more trips and the east getting less? Another possibility is doing something with the eastern portions of some of the routes to make them more useful. More on that later. 

Existing network

You often can't easily go north-south. There's lots of lore about 'north of the Yarra' and 'south of the Yarra'. Apparently people are either one or the other with little exchange between the two. Or is that all a myth and just down to transport practicalities, with few direct connections between the areas?

The map below shows the network around the eastern part of the 216/219. It is rich in trains and trams but they don't go everywhere. Buses are flexible enough to serve some of the gaps but often they don't. Or they might not connect to railway stations. For example 216/219 turns off before it can reach Hawksburn Station. This makes it a poor feeder as riders can't take advantage of trains to get into the city quicker. Further north the trains and trams run roughly east-west but there are few north-south bus routes. There's only the straight 246 to the west and the angled 605. Further north there's nothing substantial between the 78 tram on Church St and the 16 on Glenferrie Rd (the 609 bus with its one or two trips per day on Power St can be ignored). 


Burnley St used to have a bus but doesn't any longer. Service was removed in 1987. But signs remain.




Twenty or thirty years of densification has brought no bus. This is why I suggested it last month as one of the top twelve corridors that needs a bus. 

The map below shows the network 'hole' created by this 'missing link'.  


Also not having a bus causes a reduction in SNAMUTS accessibility, with the area around Victoria Gardens having good east-west access but nothing from the north or south.


  
The picture at the top shows the extent to which the area has changed. The population decline has reversed. Units have gone up, housing students or CBD workers. And increasing car traffic has made trams slower than ever. So there might be merit in a Burnley St bus being restored to span a missing link in the grid. And MacRobertsons Bridge (below) gets plenty of traffic, with the lack of public transport over it not helping. 


Richmond's political complexion has changed, with it going from safe to marginal Labor (Richard Wynne MP) with gentrification and the rise of The Greens. And Prahran has been a three-way contest with it currently held by The Greens' Sam Hibbins MP. With two marginal seats in play, the Burnley St bus also makes it in to this marginal seat public transport wish list, especially if it can be done cheaply

Expanded Useful Network with new Route 610

What if, instead of restoring the southern portion of Route 216/219 to the CBD you did something else? For example terminating them at Elsternwick with Brighton and Gardenvale being served as per Useful Network 8

And instead of running it to the city, doing things like the trains and trams now do, extending it north to Victoria Gardens via Hawksburn Station, Burnley Station and Burnley St? The resources used would be about the same as running it to the city and the service would be simpler with just a single route number (I've suggested 610). 

I've proposed every 20 minutes Monday to Sunday, but a 10 or 15 minute service would improve connectivity with the routes it intersects. And there's a lot of them. Six train lines and no less than nine tram routes. It would really connect the inner east with the inner south-east with the Yarra River much less of a divider. 

You'll get the idea on the map below. It doesn't go to any huge attractions but there's enough along the route (along with ever-increasing housing density) to make it useful. Not just for local trips but also train feeder trips as well. 



Those who follow buses and their reviews closely might remember seeing something like this before. They would not be mistaken. A similar concept (though involving the 220 via Orrong Rd rather than the 216/219 via Williams Rd) was proposed in 2010. However like many bus review recommendations it was never implemented.  


Conclusion

What do you think? After the Melbourne Metro works finish should Routes 216/219 revert to going back into the CBD? Or would this just duplicate trains and trams, noting that usage was never particularly high? Is a north-south bus route like the 610 suggested the type of east link we really need? Would people use it and should be we be introducing it permanently now? If you have thoughts please leave them in the comments below. 

PS: More Building Melbourne's Useful Network posts are here. Do these and you've transformed buses and public transport generally in Melbourne for not much money. 

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Timetable Tuesday #41: Widdershins on the 582 bus


What’s Melbourne’s most frequent public transport at 7am on a Sunday morning?  With its 20 minute frequency, one of the least likely correct answers is this unassuming bus route weaving through semi-rural semi-suburbia east of Eltham. 

582’s high frequency trumps any train, all SmartBuses and most tram lines. Apart from some trams the most you can expect from those busier lines is a 30 minute headway. 

The intensive Sunday morning service isn’t the route's only quirk. There's more as you'll find out later. 

The route


582 is a simple anticlockwise unidirectional bus route. Its only significant origin and destination is Eltham Station. It has been cleverly designed so its run time is 16 minutes. This allows a single bus to operate a 20 minute frequency, neatly meshing with trains at Eltham (mostly every 20 minutes with some unfortunate larger gaps). 


The network map extract shows it in relation to other routes. It's only when you get off the main road that the 582 has unique catchment. For there were no local network changes when the new 902 SmartBus came in.  


Timetable


As mentioned before, the 582 timetable has a flat 20 minute frequency, giving it an extraordinary service on Sunday mornings. A constant journey time is scheduled, whether it is the morning peak, school drop-off time or early Sunday morning. Just one bus is needed to complete the loop. 

Route 582 has the standard post 2006 pattern for public holiday service. That is a Saturday timetable applies on all public holidays apart from Good Friday and Christmas Day which have a Sunday schedule. However its operating hours have not been standardised with other routes.  Consequently it has an early finish - before 8pm on weekdays and around 7pm on weekends. 

The Saturday and Sunday timetables are almost identical, with the same number of trips per day. Weekends have only six fewer trips than weekdays due to weekend's shorter operating hours (about an hour less at each end of the day). Nevertheless 582's weekend service starts much earlier than most other routes, particularly on Sunday. 




Change over time

What has happened to the 582 timetable over the last few decades? Despite an unpromising catchment for buses (eg low density, high income, high car-owning), Route 582 has had upgrades. Unlike more important routes that have had service cut.   

In the 1980s and 1990s 582 had fewer services than now. However trips ran clockwise and anticlockwise. There was a confusing noon reversal, such as remains on City Loop trains and bus route 558. You can see old 582 timetables on Krustylink.

Patronage comparisons

Route 582 carries about 74 000 passengers per year. Is this productive or not for one bus fully used for about 90 hours a week?  

We can compare it with other one-bus routes. An example is Route 844, from Dandenong to Doveton that we looked at in June. The catchment and demographics of 582 and 844 could not be more different, especially when it comes to incomes and social needs.  Despite 844 having some overlapping coverage, and its not having a Saturday afternoon or Sunday service, it carried 112 000 passengers (also in 2016-17).  By this comparison 582 is an underperformer that gets an undeservedly high service. 

Another comparable is the 559. Like the 582 it is a unidirectional loop operating every 20 minutes. It serves the train at Thomastown and shops at Lalor. It has an aged, low-income catchment.  Despite it not having much unique catchment and also lacking Saturday afternoon and Sunday service, it carried 88 000 passengers. 

If you were to take the Saturday afternoon and Sunday service off the 582 and put them on the 559 it is likely you'd gain more patronage on the 559 than you'd lose on the 582. The same is also likely for the 844. 

The varying service days and hours illustrated different approaches to providing bus services.  582 is based on the view that once you have a bus you might as well have it in revenue service all day every every day, even if you need to pay driver hours. Whereas the 559 and 844 are based on scrimping service hours and keeping buses off the streets even when people might wish to travel. As the examples show, the approach taken is more a historical remnant than anything to do with a route's patronage or the social needs of its catchment. 

Conclusion

Route 582 is operationally efficient, with one bus needed to operate the whole route. However its single direction running makes some trips not possible or indirect. Service is high for its catchment and a transfer is required for trips to larger centres such as Greensborough. There is also significant overlap with other routes that a reformed 582 could potentially overcome

What do you think? Please leave your comments below.

PS: if you're wondering about 'Widdershins', it means anti-clockwise. That's the direction the 582 runs. 

Friday, September 20, 2019

Building Melbourne's Useful Network Part 21: South-West Sunshine


It's helpful to study network maps and timetables if you want to make a local bus network better. Demographic data is also helpful. For example population densities, car ownership, average incomes, where people work and so on. 

This week we'll look at south-west Sunshine. Even though it's not that far from Melbourne CBD, its patchy development makes it quite difficult to serve. For example instead of the continuous road grid that places of equivalent distance in the eastern suburbs have, there's freeways where you'd expect arterial roads and gaps where one might expect a bridge across a creek.

Also housing development was not on the progressive front that steadily rolled from the inner to the outer. Instead it happened in bursts over five or six decades, leaving quite a few industrial areas, open space and disconnected road networks.

There's fewer local shops than what one might expect (possibly due to the limited population catchment of the above pattern). Also, due to the cul-de-sac fashion of much of the time, we have been left with impermeable street layouts that impair pedestrian access to local facilities and transport. 

Sunshine West is a large suburb. The Glengala Rd area (which we won't discuss much here) is dominated by 1950s and 60s weatherboard and cream brick homes. Parts are near Ardeer Station. Because it was laid out before the cul-de-sac rot of the 1970s had set in, its road layout is both walking and bus friendly. Advantage was taken of this in 2014 when the new Brimbank bus network introduced two-way bus services along Glengala Rd from Sunshine to Deer Park and Watergardens (new route 420).

Before then Glengala Rd had the Route 454. It got more complex over time. For example in 1971 it went in a single direction. In 1972 the 454 got an AM/PM reversal, with the 437 route to Laverton also in the area. By 1978 the 437 had gone (likely due to low patronage) but the 454 kept its AM/PM reversal.  By 1992 the 454 had reverted to a single direction, but going the opposite way it did in 1971.

Then in the 2000s, as the area to the south developed it got an extension with much bigger one-way loops to serve areas to the south (which we will soon talk about more). The extra coverage was nice but some people had to go three times the required distance just to make what should be a short trip to Sunshine. 2006 saw some service improvements including new Sunday service (which had long existed in other parts of Sunshine). 

A little later the Red Orbital (903 SmartBus) came. This overlapped parts of the 219 west of Sunshine. This was at one time very complicated. It went one way 5.5 days/week, another way 1.5 days/week. It could be justified as a way of providing a full weekend service when Route 471 didn't have it. However the deviation lingered long after the 471 got upgraded (Melway map below). 


Most of the complications, particularly in the west, were tidied up in the 2014 Brimbank network review. Its centrepiece was the Route 420 which gave Glengala Rd a two-way service with new connections to Deer Park and Watergardens.  The southern area got two new routes from Sunshine. The 427 approached from the north (via Forrest St) and the 428 from the south (via Hampshire Rd). 

You can see the local network on the PTV map below. 


What it (and all other) PTV maps don't tell you is the frequency (and thus usefulness) of each of the routes. In summary these are (on weekdays): SmartBus 903: 15 min, Metro trains at Sunshine: 20 min, 420: 20 min, 219: 30 min, 400, 427 and 428: 40 min.  

Some, such as the 219 and 903 don't harmonise with train frequencies so offer uneven connections. The network is quite complex in some areas such as around Wright St. And there are neighbourhoods, such as the eastern end of Warmington Rd, with no coverage. 

Existing Useful Network

I explain the Useful Network concept here. It's those routes that are frequent enough and run over long enough hours to be useful for many trips. I've specified a 20 minute frequency on weekdays and 7 day service until 9pm. In other words the coloured lines on the Melbourne Public Transport Frequent Network map with the 20 minute frequency selected. This map shows the sparsity of Useful Network routes in most fringe areas, despite their sometimes high population densities. 

Below is the existing Useful Network for south-west Sunshine.  Unless you can walk to the 420 or 471 it's quite sparse. But it might be possible to simplify things to extend it to more people. 



A detour via Warmington Rd

Before we'll expand the Useful Network, it's worth visiting Warmington Rd. Detours like this are sometimes desirable because sometimes there are cases where you end up benefiting more places than the original aims of your network revamp. And if the cost is nil or low then why wouldn't you do it? 


Warmington Rd is the sort of isolated low-income neighbourhood that would benefit from public transport. However it was the 1970s and it got built at a time when they 'forgot' to locate and design suburbs that could be economically served with buses. 

While its western part could be served by a bus on the main road, this is too far away for reasonable coverage of the east. Warmington Rd is effectively a dead-end peninsula. The only way you could serve it is to run a dedicated bus route. Which is expensive. And it might not get many passengers unless it could be made more broadly useful, eg by building a road bridge and routing north via Hampshire Rd to Sunshine.  


The area was built in the 1970s. The primary school opened in 1976 (Glengala Park Primary). Note the footbridge from Boreham St, which would have helped kids walk to school (something taken more seriously then than now). No bus routes are shown but this was because Melway directories did not show them until about 1980. 

Fortunately we do know, from the 1978 map, that Warmington Rd had a bus not long after the school opened and people moved in.  Before that they would have had to walk from Boreham St over the bridge (if it existed then), which had the 452 from Sunshine (which goes back to at least 1971). 

In the 1990s a few things happened. Not many good. This being one of those declining neighbourhoods that keeps getting things taken away. The Boreham St bridge, shown in the 1989 Melway, became an ambiguous yellow line in 1990 and then nothing in 1993.  


The 455 bus remained up to 1991/2. But it was only shown as an extension, implying not all trips went up Warmington Rd. By the 1993 Melway even that had vanished, with the 455 terminating on Fairbairn Rd. 

By 2000 the service had become the 471, having been extended from Newport. This extension made sense. But it meant that even if you wanted to serve Warmington Rd again you would have to divert it in, inconveniencing through passengers. Hence the importance of being on the way, otherwise you might not get a service, however deserving your case might be.  

The school changed from being a general to a special development school in 2000. And sometime around 1980 a Catholic school had opened nearby. But apparently neither warranted the footbridge remaining. Instead kids were being driven or bused in, while their parents complained about traffic. 

This is how Warmington Rd went for a decade or so. It is quite possible that few who don't live there (apart from those who study street directories) realise how cut off it is, with no shops or services of its own. 

Good news came when Brimbank Council built a playground and redeveloped Buckingham Reserve. Most notable (from a transport access point of view) was a new footbridge across from Cannon St. The 2013 map below shows how close it was to the then alignment of the 219 bus. This  bridge would have brought some (but not all) of the area within coverage of buses. 


However this improved access was not to last, with the bus removed from Cannon St soon after. This increased the distance of Warmington Rd from buses and reduced network coverage. Bear that thought in mind as we'll return to it later. 


Expanded Useful Network

Here's an expanded Useful Network. Routes are simpler, more frequent and connect better with trains. And coverage is efficiently returned to parts of the Warmington Rd area. 


The big change is a doubling of Route 428's off-peak frequency. Instead of being every 40 minutes, connecting with every second train, it goes to every 20 minutes, connecting with every train. 

How could this be funded? Route 219 (every 30 minutes) is shortened to start at Sunshine. The portion south and west of Sunshine is absorbed into the upgraded 428. 428 is much longer than the western portion of 219. However only one trip every 40 minutes needs to be added to get the required 20 minute overall frequency. 428 already has a 25 minute service during peak periods. Also, when I've been on it, 428 has significant mid-trip dwell time that might allow scheduling efficiencies. 


You'll note the kink in the 428. This is to retain coverage (within 300m) to the area that loses the 219. Also routing via Cannon St should help Warmington Rd access via the bridge. This is probably one of those cases where you'd tolerate a slightly less direct route in exchange for better coverage and frequency. 

428 finishes at around 9pm. 219 stops much later. To compensate for 219's withdrawal you'd improve 428's span, with earlier weekend starts and later evening service. If you had resources left over you might do the same for 420, at least east of Fitzgerald Rd. At the ends of the day it might be efficient for outbound trips on the 428 dead running a short distance along Fitzgerald rd to form inbound trips on the 420 and vice versa. 

What about the 219 east of Sunshine? Its shortening makes it identical to the 216 (which got shortened when the 426 was introduced). Therefore 216 and 219 can be merged into one frequent route which, at most times, operates at a SmartBus level of service. This should improve the legibility and appeal of the network through areas like Sunshine, Braybrook and Footscray.

Not essential to happen with this change (but desirable for efficiency) is the replacement of the poorly used Route 903 beyond Sunshine with an extended local route (modified 412) from Altona. This is shown on the map above. A small (largely industrial) area would lose the service until midnight. However the longer hours on the 428 would help those on Hampshire Rd, compensate for the 903's removal and provide a service that connects evenly with trains. This initiative, which delivers a new direct SmartBus-type service for the Footscray, Kingsville, Altona North areas, is described in more detail in Useful Network Part 5

With every change there are swings and roundabouts. This is no exception. Some would lose their one seat ride to the city. However it's a slow trip and a connection to a train would be faster, especially if connections are optimised and buses are more frequent as suggested. There are also significant improvements in coverage and frequency that people who are poorly served now would get.  

Conclusion

What do you think about this network? Would it be an improvement? What other things would you do? If you have ideas please leave them in the comments below. 


Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Timetable Tuesday #40: Route 503 - the "last mile" bus


If you're a Brunswick hipster and like doing things the inefficient old way that your parents ditched, riding the route 503 bus might appeal. And you won't need to go far to catch it. 

Linking two train lines and five tram routes, the 503 is your typical inner northern suburbs bus route. Starting at Essendon Station in the west it intersects trams 59, 58, 19 and 1 & 6 before terminating at the start of Tram 96. It also passes near Anstey Station on the Upfield line. Its catchment includes Brunswick (Tim Read MP) which has a lower than average proportion of homes with cars. The area's densifying too, with multi-storey apartments full of students and young city workers replacing houses. 

You can see its map below. Benefiting from our grid streets and the tendency to put railway stations near cross-roads (something that motorists may curse but aids public transport connectivity) the 503 follows a very direct path apart from a bulge north of Essendon.

The photo above shows the 503's catchment a mile east of Essendon and a mile west of Anstey. The 58 tram is about 600 metres east but that's slow so a good rail feeder bus has a lot of patronage potential. Especially given the population density. However, as you'll see later little has changed about the 503 in most people's living memory, despite the changing surrounding land uses. 


What's the dotted line on Fletcher St? This is an odd after 3pm Saturday deviation. It's included in the timetable on the new PTV website but for a description I went to the (superior) old PTV website.


The network map is below. The scrapped and then resurrected 509 eats into a little of its catchment to the south. As does the occasional Coonans Hill deviation on the 512 to the north. The 503 has higher frequency than both. However it misses the big activity centres like Moonee Ponds and Coburg. Essendon is helpful for connections to schools, trains and other public transport. However it isn't much of a destination in itself. Nevertheless 503 is one contributor to making Essendon station one of the busiest on the Craigieburn line, especially when it comes to people who got to the station by bus.

Going the other way the 503 neatly feeds into Anstey Station and several tram routes. That's potentially efficient, allowing bidirectional peak period patronage. The main impediment here is low peak frequencies on the Upfield line (barely better than off-peak, with a single cancellation causing a 20 minute delay). 


Timetable

As is common with many northern suburb bus routes (eg 526, 538, 552, 558), 503's timetable is stuck in time. This is because, like Greater Dandenong, Melbourne's inner north largely missed out on the evening and weekend bus upgrades most other areas got. So the timetable you see in 2019 might be much the same as that of 30 years ago, when Saturday afternoon trading was new and Sunday trading only something that rebel traders did under threat of a penalty.

On weekdays Route 503 runs a constant 20 minute frequency during peak periods. Interpeak frequency is 25 minutes. Intersecting trams are normally at turn-up-and-go frequencies but intersecting trains, at every 20 minutes, are not. 503's 25 minute frequency is unharmonised with trains and is hard to remember so users need to look up a timetable and/or do a journey plan every time they travel.  Finish times, like the typical pre-2006 pattern for buses in Melbourne, is around 7pm. Also its morning start times remain later than the 6am standard. Overall there have been negligible changes to 503's timetable since at least the 1980s. Current 503 timetables are below. Click for a larger/clearer view. 



What about weekends? Again a traditional timetable applies. That is an early Saturday am start (a good thing), an intensive Saturday morning service (to cater for the old morning rush) at the same 25 minute frequency as weekday off-peak, followed by an afternoon fall-off (to 30 then 40 minutes). The finish time is very slightly earlier than the finish on weekdays.



There is no Sunday or public holiday service. Route 503 is run by Moonee Valley Buslines. With the tendency of bus operators to merge, Moonee Valley is the smallest one left. The only other route MVBL runs is the 506, which, despite its higher patronage, also operates to limited timetable.

Run times

Large bus operators analyse actual run times and use advanced software like HASTUS to optimise bus scheduling and driver rostering. Because they have so many routes and drivers even small efficiencies can result in big savings in reduced dead-running and vehicle layovers and driver slack times. Also measuring actual journey times can assist with altering trip schedule times to better suit traffic conditions and aid punctuality.

All that seems overkill for a small operator running a couple of routes. However some attempt has been made to vary 503's run times to suit traffic. For example, weekday travel times are a flat 28 minutes, except for the first and last few trips, where it's 25 or even 20 minutes. Saturday trips are slightly quicker, with more 23 and 20 minute run times.

A historical timetable

A 1986 timetable via Krustylink is below. It had a better early morning peak frequency than now. However there were hour gaps on Saturdays, presumably to account for drivers' lunch breaks.


Conclusion


The 503 has huge potential. Running existing buses on it for more of the day and week could make it a useful and popular bus route for diverse trips. It could support the density increases that are already happening. It's the sort of route that needs an upgrade if public transport is every to be useful for more than a small proportion of  trips.

I've already had my say on it; the 503 features in this Inner North Useful Network feature. But what do you think? Should the route be extended to a busier destination or is it just right as is? Does its timetable meet modern needs or are improvements required there as well? Should the nearby 509 be deleted to enable more 503 trips for little cost? And how important is connectivity with trains anyway? Your comments are welcome and can be left below. 

Sunday, September 15, 2019

[Event] The 'Urban Happiness' Northern Urban Explore (Sat 5 Oct 2019)

This is an event that Melbourne-based readers might be interested in. Especially if you're into urban geography, housing, transport and suburbs. Doesn't cost you anything except a myki and money for lunch. 


Here's a bit more about it: 

A bus and walking tour of 60 years of suburbs, from the 1950s to the 2010s. Everything from postwar prefab houses to new project homes. Visit fast-disappearing milk bars, '60s shopping strips and the latest town centres. Wander through the heart of Australia's old protected manufacturing precincts and fill up with delicious middle-eastern fare. See how we've gone almost full circle (or rather full square) with our street patterns via rabbit warren culs de sac and Radburn layouts. Consider and discuss the economic and social forces that have widened class divisions and degentrified our northern suburbs. And last but not least, watch, listen and think as we walk the streets and ride the buses.

The Northern Urban Explore is hosted through the Urban Happiness Melbourne Planning and Design Ideas Facebook page. I'd recommend you join UH for discussion on all things urban planning and access to the event page. But if you're not on it you can still come, with numbers only limited by who can fit on the regular route buses we'll be riding. Just RSVP in the comments below. 

Friday, September 13, 2019

Building Melbourne's Useful Network Part 20: Fixing 302/304 crowding, Box Hill and Templestowe


Those who write to politicians advocating public transport service upgrades soon become familiar with the standard form-letter replies. The answer is generally a diplomatically-crafted “no”. The government may “have no current plans”. They may say that they “continually review services”, “service provision reflects available resources”, or that “proposals must be considered against state-wide priorities”.

The 'expectation management' reality in which these replies are drafted includes fixed funding for service kilometres. In other words a decline in public transport service per capita due to a growing population and stagnant services (graph below).


One might think that this relative decline would increase interest in getting the most from what we do have. However it's been the reverse, with less network reform occurring now than five years ago.

The paucity of reform means that department staff who answer correspondence can't say much. Regardless of their private views, the reality they inhabit rarely admits the potential of doing better by redistributing service kilometres from poorly used or duplicative bus routes to services that need it. This is despite (i) buses being easier to reform than rail networks with numerous precedents here and elsewhere, and (ii) the current network falling well short of the best possible, even assuming unchanged service kilometres.

Current official wariness to bus reform risks the perverse outcome where more departmental time is spent writing to people explaining that they can't have a network improvement than reforming the very service that is the subject of much correspondence received.

Political risks

On a crude 'political economy' calculus, not reforming can be justified on the basis that 10 voters disadvantaged by a reduced service make more noise than 1000 voters who would have gained under a reformed network.

It's asymmetrical: losses carry more weight than gains. And actual losses carry far far more weight than potential gains. Hence, despite the large gains in Transdev's aborted 2015 network (eg frequency upgrades on the busier eastern parts of the SmartBus orbitals), the then new Labor government lost no political capital in dropping the whole thing (though we have yet to see the promised 'more balanced bus network plan').



In fact Labor probably gained goodwill as Transdev's proposed network (i) had substantial cuts in some populated areas with no offsetting gains and (ii) it had little legitimacy as public consultation was very limited (Protip: Presentations to stakeholders like local and state government officials, who are generally quite privileged people who drive cars do not count!).

Before you think that politics closes off prospects for bus network reform, consider what else happened in 2015. Regional Rail Link. This was accompanied by reformed bus networks in Geelong and Werribee/Tarneit planned under the Liberals but implemented by Labor. Both networks successfully brought more service to more people and have had trips added since. Factors allowing these networks to succeed (with general public support and few problems for the government)  include (i) a multi-operator/multi-modal approach and (ii) better public consultation.

Then there's another type of political risk. The risk of doing nothing. Especially when service is known to be mediocre and existing passengers are either being delayed or left behind by full buses.

Labor paid that price in 2010 when it lost five marginal seats along the Frankston line (Frankston, Carrum, Mordialloc, Bentleigh and Prahran) and thus government. Transport service delivery was a major issue, with people no longer able to rely on trains to get them to places on time.  Because service provision lagged patronage growth crowding became chronic, further exacerbating delays (graph below). 


John Brumby and Co realised this late in their last term but for them it was too late. Even a train timetable change requires a good lead time. Train drivers can't be got off the street at a moment's notice. And we needed more trains to fix the peak hour problems.


For the rest of us though, late far beats never. A new and more frequent Frankston line timetable delivered a turn-around in performance from 2012. This improvement has been largely sustained since.

It thus confounds me why the government hasn't delivered a similar new timetable for the Ringwood train line, which, since the 2018 election, has replaced the Frankston line as the central artery of Labor's marginal suburban seats. When good politics meets good service planning, why wouldn't you do it?

The seat of Box Hill is in that Ringwood line belt. This includes the eastern ends of today's topic - the crowded and unreliable bus routes 302 and 304. As well as some major education, shopping and health destinations like some major but poorly connected hospitals. We'll try to help those out as well. 

An expanded reality

Luckily sometimes one sees replies that open rather than close possibilities to deliver services people need. 

A recent Timetable Tuesday discussed bus routes 302 and 304 in Melbourne’s inner eastern suburbs. These were the routes whose riders (sick of being left behind) established a support group on Facebook to advocate for better reliability and more service.  This advocacy included writing to local politicians like Tim Smith MP (Kew) and Paul Hamer MP (Box Hill). 


The reply from the latter was better and clearer than average. It concisely mentions the two ways you can improve bus services – more funding and more efficient network design.

The 'additional funding' approach needs to go through the government's budgetary process. That's a complication in itself. Whereas the 'operational changes on other routes' might not require extra ongoing funding so in this sense is simpler if everything can be found within the transport portfolio.

On the other hand, pruning other routes adds complication and  political risk. Luckily we're three years from the next election. So upgrades could be running before then if planning starts now. Also, if you're imaginative with network reform you can spread the benefits wider than just the routes we're planning to boost for no or little extra money. For example hospitals at Box Hill or routes that enable improved connections to La Trobe University.


Addressing crowding 

Like all commuter-heavy CBD-bound routes, 302 and 304 are not cheap routes to run. A morning peak trip into town takes over one hour. Short trips from Balwyn take about 40 minutes. A single extra bus could really only do one am full length trip during a 2 hour peak window. But it could possibly do two short return trips if one is early and one is late in the peak. There's already one morning short trip from Balwyn. Depending on the loading profile maybe more short trips could be added to relieve pressure on the other trips.

Afternoon peaks are a bit longer so you might be able to have the one bus contributing frequency in the early and late parts of the peak, even on full length trips. In both the morning and evening retiming other trips would even out frequency and lessen crowding. I don't know if you'd run short trips in the evening. As people may wish to travel beyond a terminus, short-finishing trips are less user-friendly than short-starting trips. However you'd consider them if there are large loads alighting early as they may allow a more intensive service. 

I haven't gone into the detail but something like three or four more buses should provide noticeable crowding relief and capacity boost. Other things worth considering include articulated buses (which would add capacity but not frequency) and cheap evening upgrades (particularly 304) to bring services up to minimum standards (ie 9pm or later finish on both routes).

Similar comments with regards to route lengths, peak crowding and requirements for extra buses may apply to the 200 and 207. Keep this in the back of your mind as one of the potential benefits of some of the more radical network changes discussed later.

Where's the overserviced routes? 

So much for the 'give'. That's easy.

What about the 'take' to free up resources for the upgrades we want? That's harder.

And potentially controversial. But necessary if we want fast, cost-neutral gains.

Otherwise, we'd have to take a ticket and wait behind dozens of health, education, housing and welfare interests also wanting money from the budget process.

So buckle in and prepare for this quick fly over local routes and corridors. To speed things up we'll group related services together. We'll discuss their potential for reform by group.

Bad news first. There are routes we can't drain resources from. Either because they are major and busy (that if anything need more rather than fewer trips) or are already infrequent and give needed coverage.

Those with better prospects include routes that (i) have low patronage, (ii) sparse catchments and/or (iii) overlap other routes. Where they serve sparsely populated areas the number of people affected could be far smaller than those who a reformed network could benefit. And even losses can be mitigated if we extend some existing routes to new and useful destinations. It's easier to win acceptance of a service reduction if some silver linings can be shown as well.

Most routes discussed here are operated by Transdev (who also run the 302/304 that we want to boost). This makes reform easier as it means that any resource transfers between routes can be handled internally.

* Various inner east routes (284, 285, 548, 609, 612, 624): Only the first two are run by Transdev. None run very frequently. Five of the six are daytime only with little or no weekend service. Some of these routes have potential for upgrade as strong north-south routes with stronger termini, as discussed here. At the very least they need reform as part of a local area review including stronger termini and 7 day service. For this exercise I'd leave them alone unless a change is necessary to make an alteration to another route work.

* Routes 279 and 295: Both routes run north-south along Victoria St. The trunk portion of 279 enjoys a good peak service and a 15 minute off-peak frequency. It has confusing deviations (eg to Blackburn) and multiple termini (eg either Shoppingtown or Templestowe Village). Also it finishes unusually early on Saturday evening despite frequent weeknight service until midnight. Despite these handicaps it's well used. More about the 279 in Timetable Tuesday #15. A local review would simplify the route but likely retain its frequent service.

295, in contrast, is more of a local shopper type service between Shoppingtown and The Pines. Much of its catchment is not very dense (rich people with lots of cars) and patronage is, as a result, low. It probably doesn't even justify its half-hourly off-peak service.


* DART routes (905, 906, 907, 908): These are well used routes, operating to Melbourne CBD, at least in peak times. They have had crowding problems of their own (and some may still do). However, unlike 200/207 and 302/304 some have recently had service upgrades. I'll leave these alone for this exercise though some may justify further service upgrades if cuts (discussed later) release sufficient resources. I'd also improve off-peak service on busier routes like 907, including 15 min weekend frequencies and Sunday service until midnight.

* High St corridor (Templestowe): Parts are served by routes 281 (limited service), 309 (even more limited service) and 908 (SmartBus). I talked about economical upgrades to this corridor back in July (UN 12). Again there's nothing to take from this for 302/304 but there may be interactions with other network changes. An upgrade here would be a byproduct of giving the hospitals at Box Hill a better 7-day service to Doncaster and Templestowe and make other network changes more palatable.

* 280/282 ("Manningham Mover"): This is a very large circular route whose aim is to provide coverage of many areas between the main routes. However it connects to no train stations, can be indirect and sometimes overlaps other routes, even in sparsely populated areas. Operating hours are limited, with start and finish times not quite suiting commuter hours. In brief it is a dog of a route that is everything that buses shouldn't be.

There's some history here. The Manningham Mover only started in 2008 as a result of local advocacy and a state government, unwilling to build Doncaster Rail and not yet ready to roll out the DART SmartBus routes, wanting to be seen to be doing something for transport in Manningham.  While it gave some areas improved coverage, the route's length (near enough to 90 minutes) makes it expensive to run (6 buses for a 30 minute frequency). Unfortunately it was not reformed when DART and orbital SmartBuses were introduced two years later. The result is a lot of duplication and extremely low passenger boardings per kilometre. Reform of this route may free up resources to boost more heavily used routes, extend operating hours and potentially provide some asked-for connections.


* Route 309: This route runs from The Pines Shopping Centre to the CBD via Reynolds Rd and Foote St. It is largely a peak only route though a few off-peak weekday trips also operate. It has little unique coverage. Almost all of it has overlaps with multiple routes including the 280/282, 281 and 901 SmartBus. Route 309 has no evening or weekend service.


* Route 901: This is a very long orbital route from Frankston to Melbourne Airport.  Of most interest is the portion between The Pines Shopping Centre, Foote St, Fitzsimons La, Greensborough and South Morang.  As a SmartBus service levels are relatively high - every 15 minutes on weekdays and 30 minutes on weekends. There is also service until midnight Monday to Saturday. The route has little unique coverage and goes through very low density suburbia on Reynolds Rd (map above) and rural areas around Yarrambat. Consequently patronage is low, especially for its high service level.

While governments have been reluctant to break up the SmartBus orbitals (Transdev tried in its unsuccessful proposed 2015 network), the north-east part of the 901 traverses areas that would hardly justify a regular route, let alone a premium service operating until midnight. How many buses are we talking about? I get about six.


Six buses is too many to ignore if we're on the hunt for a few of them to help the people left behind on the likes of the 302 and 304. While changes to Route 901 are complicated they are almost certainly necessary if you wish to deliver cost-neutral service upgrades to the Manningham area.

* School services: Depending on the operator's peak bus fleet usage some low-cost means to provide service with existing buses may be possible. For instance 6-7am and 5-7 pm commuter trips may be possible by adding regular route shifts to school runs. There may also be potential to revise school routes in conjunction with local network reviews if the latter develops routes that better serves schools.   

In 'robbing Peter to pay Paul' exercises like these you need to be careful to prevent new problems being created. You need to provide enough 'goodies' that the overwhelming majority of people get a better service. And, as with any change, we need to be better at explaining why network reform is necessary, especially for those whose travel would change. But there's huge possibilities given we're often not currently running service where the people are or where needs are greatest.

What one might do

* Manningham Mover reform. Split 280 and 282 to two simpler linear routes mostly along existing alignments but extending to Heidelberg Station.

Southern portion (282) could start at Heidelberg Station, operating to The Pines via Shoppingtown.  Span could be extended to better suit commuter times. Off-peak frequency could drop to every 40 or 60 minutes to reflect usage and harmonise with trains at Heidelberg.

The northern part of Manningham Mover (we'll call this the 280) would also start from Heidelberg and terminate at The Pines. However it would go via Templestowe Village, Foote St and Reynolds Rd. Service levels could be as above for the 282.

The Heidelberg terminus will be beneficial for both routes due to access to a train station, hospitals and, via a bus connection, La Trobe University. This extension could also compensate Reynolds Rd for the shortening of Route 901 (described later). Overall this change increases rather than reduces the route kilometres of 280 and 282. However adjusted off-peak frequency may reduce service kilometres. And the Heidelberg extension may make other network reforms, such as we'll discuss with 901 acceptable.


* High St corridor (Templestowe): A low cost reform to provide a new 15 minute weekday corridor with 7 day service through a consolidation of Route 281 and 293. This is low cost, greatly simplifies the network and provides a major boost to 7-day service to the hospitals at Box Hill. It would provide a service boost for Elgar Rd passengers near the eastern ends of the 302/304 as well as those on parts of the 309 (discussed later). A map is below with more detail at Useful Network 12.



* Route 901: Reform to this SmartBus route is key to whether you can get cost-effective improvements or not.  The more you do here the more crowd-busting improvements you can buy on 302/304 and potentially other routes.

'Do something' options (in declining order of 'radicalness') include:

1. Delete Route 901 between South Morang and The Pines completely. No change to existing network.

2. Delete Route 901 between South Morang and The Pines. Changes to existing routes to compensate populated areas considered to be underserviced by this change.

3. Delete 901 between South Morang and The Pines. Add a new route, operating approximately every 30 minutes weekday/60 min weekend to connect with every second 901 at both ends (reduced service level would better reflect catchment though is arguably still excessive).

4. Only delete Route 901 for a smaller section - ie either South Morang - Greensborough or Greensborough - The Pines (both due to low population density of overlap with other routes). 

My bias is toward the second option. The compensatory measures in themselves could deliver benefits. For example Foote St/Reynolds Rd would lose the 901 but gain the 280 extended to Heidelberg with better operating hours than now. Similarly the current Greensborough - Epping connection  could be retained if the 566 is extended the short distance to Epping to compensate for the 901's removal. These and other measures are summarised below.


* Route 309: The High St portion of this route would gain a large service increase with buses every 15 minutes between Templestowe Village, Doncaster and Box Hill thanks to the 281 upgrade mentioned before. Foote St/Reynolds Rd would gain an alternative (though somewhat indirect) connection to the CBD via the 280 extended to Heidelberg Station. Given Foote St's low population density this route might drop back to a peak-only service if off-peak usage is low.

Conclusion

I have sought network efficiencies so that routes like 302 and 304 can be upgraded for low or no expense. As mentioned before this was made difficult because close to an operator's full available fleet would already be deployed during peak periods.

Even though the Manningham Mover uses a lot of buses, I wasn't able to squeeze much from it. One might free a couple of buses by cutting peak frequency to (say) 45 minutes. However the Heidelberg extensions add kilometres. Also the Manningham Mover is one of the routes that would compensate  some areas affected by the 901 being split and removed.

Which gets to the nub of the matter. Apart from minor economies that might be possible from routes like the 295 or even 309, it seems to me that reforming the 901 orbital is key to delivering bus reform in Manningham and nearby areas.

Am I right, or are there other potential savings not mentioned? And if there are do you think they would be publicly acceptable?

Please leave your comments below. And, even more importantly, due to the current political interest, let local MPs know your views if you use these routes.

Afternote

The above has kept service reform to a fairly tight area. But if you wanted to free up bus resources to provide additional peak service boosts for crowded routes one might wish to cast the net wider. Eg 906 has all morning trips starting at Warrandyte bridge, with a 5 min frequency operating. Could some of those be shortened to start at The Pines to free up a bus or two? 216/219/220's southern section and 232 are other quieter routes you might be able to find spare buses on. 

PS: An index to other Building Melbourne's Useful Network items is here