Friday, October 25, 2019

Building Melbourne's Useful Network: Part 25 - Buses for our booming "ethnoburbs"

Much has changed about our outer suburbs. They're dense, they're multicultural and they're growing fast. For all the talk about CBD apartments and urban consolidation, outer suburbs still account for most of metropolitan Melbourne's population growth.

They're no longer just about young homebuyers; renting is now also big business. Rentals outnumber homes owned outright by as much as four to one, with consequences for an area's socio-economic mix.

With more than half their residents born outside Australia, some of our big outer growth areas have been dubbed 'ethnoburbs'. Melbourne examples include Point CookTarneit and Craigieburn West, whose network I discussed earlier this year.

Because they're in politically safe seats politicians can take them for granted. This is why local upgrades don't feature in this marginal seat list . The quality of recent local political representation has possibly worked against western areas like Tarneit and Melton. And when infrastructure (like road/rail grade separations) does come projects are later, uglier and cheaper than what marginal voting suburbs in the east and south would get.

Planning doctrines that favour segregated land uses and coarse road grids has meant that outer suburbs generate huge outflows of traffic via a few critical bottlenecks.  What passes as local jobs have been zoned out of residential areas into isolated industrial estates with minimal transit access and pedestrian connections. Many jobs are unstable and unemployment is higher than average.

Road systems in growth areas are often stressed. Their populations participate in work or education at higher rates than the state population (due to both the skilled migration program and a younger demographic). This increases travel demand across all modes for most types of trips.

1950s to 70s suburbs were built with local primary schools within walking distance of nearly everyone. Many closed in the '90s as birth rates fell, populations aged, enrolments shrunk and governments slashed. Today's new suburbs are getting schools but they're more widely spaced and clustered to include pre-primary, primary and secondary years. This, the rise in private schooling and parental concerns about children walking alone has meant that nearly all take motorised transport to get to school.

It's the same with other services such as libraries. The outer suburban City of Melton has just two  libraries for its 150 000 residents (or one per 264 square km). Whereas the inner suburban City of Yarra has five libraries for its smaller area and population (one per 4 square km). Again the sparsity of services is generating demand for motorised trips. Add that to the raised population density like we're seeing in these new suburbs and you get increased congestion and difficulty accessing jobs.

Most outer suburban homes have garaging for at least two cars. We tend to assume that there is one car per adult in these parts. After all, you need a car to live in these parts. How else could one get to work to pay the mortgage or even the car loan? And that is largely true in some suburbs like Mickleham in the north and many in the outer south-east.

However other growth sububs, like Craigieburn West and Tarneit have many adults without cars, as this Charting Transport analysis shows. And we're seeing more renters in areas like these as well.  These demographics have implications and opportunities for bus usage and demand, as we'll see later.

What hasn't changed about the outer suburbs? The typical bus service that most of them get. The basic formula is still a bus every 40 minutes along an indirect route because developers didn't complete the road network or leapfrogged their estates. And buses can be a long time coming.

To be fair though, while residents of Mandalay Estate with their one bus per day may beg to differ, it's improved slightly from the 40 year backlog suffered by the City of Knox that to this day still has main road routes also with just one bus per day. Disparate bus operators back then were like dogs, marking their territory by providing a token but basically useless service that subsequent governments never saw fit to improve or scrap.

Consequences for buses

What are the implications for buses in our booming "ethnoburbs"? While they don't necessarily carry the most total passengers, they rank amongst Melbourne's most productive, as measured by boardings per bus hour figures obtained from the Department of Transport. Crowding on them has put paid to the idea that outer suburbanites don't ride buses. And the high boarding numbers don't always just apply during peak but can affect off-peak and weekend periods as well.

We discussed our most productive bus routes on Sunday. Let's recap the numbers. 

Heavily university oriented routes (the 601, 301 and 401 shuttles plus the longer 733 and 630) account for five spots. All the rest are "ethnoburbs" routes. That is 495, 529, 180, 167 and 150. Only 529 existed ten years ago with 150, 167 and 180 starting barely four years ago. Suburbs served include Point Cook (1 route), Craigieburn (1 route), and Werribee/Tarneit (3 routes). 630 and 733 are the two oldest routes but neither has had a substantal off-peak service boost in the life-spans of almost all of their student (and even lecturer) passengers. 

What about the next 10? Same story. University serving routes (406, 900, 703, 201) are again prominent. Ethnoburb routes (160, 151, 494, 170, 192) again occupy five places. The only non-university / non-ethnoburb routes to feature is the 318, which is a peak-only commuter route whose number is inflated by not having return trips. All these have 50 to 55 boardings per bus hour. 

The next 10 (43 to 49 weekday boardings per bus hour) are a little different. This time the tally is university serving (505, 424, 737), ethnoburb (533, 190) and peak-only (740). High performing regular routes include 907, 536, 410 and 508. While the last four do not serve the fringe "ethnoburbs" as defined before, all have significant student and/or low income populations with a high propensity to use buses. More on these in a future post. 

Are there any omissons?

The low boardings per hour figures on long routes need to be treated with caution as parts may be very productive and other parts less productive. If such routes were split parts may rank highly, displacing some listed above. However none are in the fringe suburbs discussed here.

Patronage data also has limitations. For example it's important to know the extent of off-peak and weekend versus peak patronage. Routes in areas with high employment participation may have low usage interpeak. Those in areas with high unemployment may be busy off-peak while routes with lots of teenagers and students may have high weekend usage. This affects priorities for service upgrades.

A new service standard

We need to rethink how we plan bus services in our new dense neighbourhoods, especially those with lower car ownership and a higher proportion of renters.

The current 'hourly until 9pm minimum standard', is probably a reasonable 'safety net' for a low density suburban area. However it is short of what a useful service is for an active lifestyle involving modern working, education and social activities. SmartBuses are more useful but none have been added since 2010, during which time Melbourne gained about a million people and half a million jobs. Much of that growth is in the locations discussed here.

Such areas that are densely populated yet have few community services within walking distance of most people need something better. The boardings per hour results of routes in areas like Tarneit, Point Cook and Craigieburn are now amongst the highest in Melbourne. This indicates that these areas are likely underserviced by current timetables.

In such areas we need a new set of service standards for our busier routes in denser outer suburbs.

Two routes in the Wyndham area are a template for what is desirable. These are 170 and 180 from Werribee to Tarneit. Both have a daytime frequency of every 20 minutes Monday to Sunday. This is approximately double the frequency of most routes in growth areas and meshes in well with local train services. Weekend frequency is better than SmartBus, though span is less. The spread of such services is discussed in The rise of the 20 minuter. It's a handy concept worth extending. 

Operating hours are also important given flexible working hours. The 2006 minimum standards were a great step forward at the time. However their 9pm evening finish and late weekend start (8 or 9am) still make many trips a challenge. Extending spans by a couple of hours at each end of the day would make a substantial difference to the usability of popular local routes. Routes like 180 and some others like 495 go some way with service continuing after 11pm on Fridays and Saturdays but not on other nights.

While adding extra hours at quieter times of the day may reduce a bus route's productivity (because the extra hours may have a lower than average number of boardings), the appearance of long hours routes (eg 190, 279, 302, 900, 907, 908) in the 50 most productive routes list shows that wide spans and high productivity are not mutually exclusive if intelligently applied. The sorts of areas where they could work are exactly where our existing productive routes are. And because the buses are already there, sitting in depots unused, none need to be purchased unless you need to add peak trips.

To sum up, bus routes in high propensity outer areas should run 16 to 18 hours per day with a base 20 minute daytime service 7 days per week. Peak service could be higher where needed, with both the 495 and 529 being very successful with their 10 to 15 minute service.

Which routes? 

Where might you apply a new service standard? I would start with already busy "ethnoburb" routes. With few exceptions they currently only operate every 40 minutes during non-peak times. Here's a list with suggested upgrades influenced by productivity data.

495: Freq upgrade Mon - Sun daytime from 40 to 20 min / extra 3hrs/day span
529: Freq upgrade Mon - Fri peaks to 10 min, Mon - Sun day from 40 to 20 min / extra 3hrs/day span
180: Freq upgrade Mon-Fri peaks from 20 to 10 min / extra 3 hrs/day span
167: Freq upgrade Mon-Fri peaks to 10 min, Mon - Sun day 40 to 20 min / extra 3hrs/day span
150: Freq upgrade Mon - Fri peaks 20 to 10 min, Mon - Sun day 40 to 20 min / extra 3hrs/day span
160: Freq upgrade Mon - Fri peaks 20 to 10 min, Mon - Sun day 40 to 20 min / extra 3hrs/day span
151: Freq upgrade Mon - Fri peaks 20 to 10 min, Mon - Fri day 40 to 20 min / extra 3hrs/day span
494: Freq upgrade Mon - Fri peaks 20 to 10 min, Mon - Fri day 40 to 20 min / extra 3hrs/day span
170: Freq upgrade Mon-Fri peaks from 20 to 10 min / extra 3 hrs/day span
192: Freq upgrade Mon - Fri peaks 20 to 10 min, Mon - Sun day 40 to 20 min / extra 3hrs/day span
533: Freq upgrade Mon - Fri peaks to 10 min, Mon - Fri day from 40 to 20 min / extra 3hrs/day span
190: Freq upgrade Sat - Sun day to 20 min

All rank in Melbourne's 30 most productive routes. Being largely the product of recent network reforms, most are direct along good alignments. Where they are indirect (eg 167, 529, 533) it is because they serve frontier locations, may be the only route in the area and need to deviate to provide coverage. I discuss the latter two Craigieburn examples here.

The off-peak upgrades make use of existing buses. The peak upgrades are the dearest, requiring new bus purchases. However they would be efficiently used on productive routes like these with bidirectional peak patronage patterns. 20 extra buses, for example, could provide thousands of seats to local stations during each peak period, without the land acquisition, development, local congestion and opportunity costs of expanding at-capacity station parking.


Our outer suburbs have changed. The way we've specified buses hasn't very much. But it needs to. Our 'ethnoburbs', especially those with dense housing and low car ownership, are a major opportunity to be growing public transport patronage if the right services are specified and provided.

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

1 comment:

Level Crossing Guy said...

Just a minor point on the Old Geelong Crossing. The reason why a lot of crossings on the Werribee line are going Road Over is due to the potential expansion of the line from 3 tracks to 5 in the future (1 ARTC and 1 Broad Gauge). Building 3 rail bridges currently with 2 more in the future would be pretty ugly and make the rail corridor wider than what it is currently. Other than that a solid informative post!