Friday, October 04, 2019

Learning from Perth's bus timetable reforms

Today we'll take a break from Building Melbourne's Useful Network to see how another city is building theirs. More specifically Perth. We last looked at Perth only two months ago. But they're at it again, with a slew of bus timetable changes starting in just over a week. 

Individually they're quite minor but add several year's worth of changes every few months and you have transformed the network.  Next month's changes affect 42 regular routes. About the only time Melbourne has this scale of change is when train timetables change (in itself rare) and buses are recoordinated to connect. However even these are normally small tweaks rather than significant decisions like altering frequency or adding Sunday service. Shying away from even incremental changes has given us a decades-long backlog of reform touching many routes and suburbs. 

Not that Transperth are perfect. They're better at planning than sales and marketing. While I've seen nothing factually wrong with information conveyed, their words neither communicate meaning nor spruiks benefits well. Some examples later. 

In this they're not alone; I've seen past local cases where significant frequency upgrades are glossed over in public communication. And even when service increases are communicated, it's often done the wrong way in ministerial announcements. For example "We're adding 300 more trains per week" says nothing about how often they run and how better the service is than before. 

Part of the problem may be that transport agencies are typically CBD-based. Their management and communications staff are on good incomes. They can afford to (and often do) live in tram-land. This can skew their experience of the network which is quite different from your average suburban bus passenger. Trams are generally frequent, direct but painfully slow. Speed is thus their top priority for improvement. 

Whereas for buses priorities are operating hours, frequency and coverage. These are the 'big three' that passengers want. You'll hear calls for these pretty much everywhere you go. However  information put out when routes and timetables are changed doesn't always promote these benefits as strongly as it could.   

Getting back to Perth, what timetable reforms are they planning later this month? Here's a few of the main ones. 

* 81/82/83/84/85 Cambridge St These form a combined corridor connecting inner-suburban Cambridge St (and a major private hospital) with the CBD. Cambridge St had a long tradition of having a strong public transport service with trolleybuses operating there until the 1960s. Routes then fan out to serve affluent western beachside suburbs. Legibility in these parts is quite poor with several occasional deviations and weak termini. Timetables are available in separate route and multi-route form (which we'll discuss here).  

There are some small but useful changes. Most notable is the more even spacing for weekday evening trips. These previously dropped from a 15 minute combined frequency (up to 8:35pm) to an hourly service from 9:55pm until last bus (11:55pm). The revised timetable changes this to a more gradual drop, with the 30 minute service extending until last bus. 

There are weekend changes as well. Sunday service starts 30 minutes earlier and finishes 60 minutes later (10pm). These Sunday operating hours extensions are similar to the pattern seen for trains and other bus routes discussed back in July. The Transperth website item undersells these upgrades.

While few trips were added and the individual routes remain infrequent, the result of this timetable change has been longer hours and a generally improved frequency for more of the day on the common section. Also the number of trips with poorly used deviations is gradually being reduced. 

Are there Melbourne bus routes that could do with this sort of treatment? Yes there are. An example is Route 472 from Moonee Ponds to Williamstown. This has a 15 minute weekday service until 7 or 8 pm. It then abruptly drops to hourly until last service around 10pm. 

Another 472 oddity is its 20 minute Saturday frequency but 50 minute Sunday frequency. What appeared to happen was that the  2000s era minimum standards upgrades were just that - minimum standards. In other words they just tacked approximately hourly trips onto an existing frequent service. The result is routes with large fall offs in service after about 7pm and on Sundays (when the extra trips needed to be added). Route 472 has not had a timetable review in the decade since. There is a fall in demand during the evening but it's not a sharp cliff like many timetables might imply. 

Reform was even longer ago for main road routes like the 279 (Middleborough Rd) and 800 (Princes Hwy), which have a 15 or 20 min weekday service but a 120 minute or worse service on Sundays and even Saturday afternoons. 

* 402/403/404  Osborne Park area Another group of related routes with one (402) replacing a trolleybus. Of this cluster only 403 ran 7 days per week. 

The biggest change is the introduction of Sunday service to Route 402. Before the change inner areas had a 15 minute Monday to Saturday frequency but only a 60 minute Sunday frequency. The introduction of hourly Route 402 trips on Sunday increases Sunday's combined frequency to every 30 minutes, though operating hours remain short (service ceases approx 6pm). 

Route 404 remains the runt of the pack. In fact even more so since this change cuts some weekday and Saturday trips removed. It has very little unique coverage with a major frequent corridor (Wanneroo Rd) to the east. This might be an example of bus reform by attrition where weak routes have trips removed over several timetable changes. The same result in simplifying the network happens but it's more gradual and less controversial than deleting all trips in one go. Some background on a previous review of the 404 is here.

What's Melbourne's equivalent to Perth's 402? That is a direct route in an established area without Sunday service that partly overlaps another route with Sunday service. There's several examples, for instance the 802/804/862 corridor and the 281/293 corridor. In the latter, which we talked about here, the 293 runs every two hours on Sundays while the 281 has no Sunday service. The result is a combined 15 minute corridor on weekdays that drops to a two hourly service on Sundays. Giving Route 281 a 120 minute Sunday service would boost Sunday frequency to 60 minutes on the combined  Elgar Rd corridor, which features such attractions as Box Hill, Box Hill hospitals and Doncaster Shoppingtown. Again examples of the backlog mentioned before.

* 930 to Thornlie The 930 was a consolidation of several lower frequency routes. It serves a major corridor through the inner south-eastern suburbs before terminating at middle-suburban Thornlie. 

This is a 'swings and roundabouts' change. The two-tier weekday service, where Thornlie gets a 15 minute weekday service and Carousel a 7.5 minute service is changed to a 10 minute frequency over the whole route. Hence the inner areas get reduced frequency and the outer areas increased frequency. 

Other changes affect the whole route. For example the 15 minute weeknight frequency from the city is extented 30 minutes until 9:30pm.  Service starts earlier on Saturday morning but before 7am headways are lengthened (likely low demand). Saturday evening span is extended an hour (from 11pm to midnight). Late Saturday evening services are still hourly but there is doubled mid-evening service, with a 30 minute frequency now applying between 8 and 10pm. This removes an oddity where Sunday mid-evening service was twice as frequent as on Saturdays. The upgraded frequency makes going out later on Saturday night easier but Transperth doesn't stress this large benefit.  There's an even larger boost on Sundays, with service starting 1 hour earlier and finishing 2 hours later (until 11pm). 

These upgrades give Perth's Route 930 a service level that Melbourne's SmartBuses (particularly the busier Doncaster and Monash/Rowville routes) should be aspiring to. 

* 990 to Scarborough This route has had many upgrades over the last 10 or more years. It serves a mix of inner suburban, light industrial and dense coastal neighbourhoods. Midway along it is Glendalough Station that offers a faster trip into town for commuters.  

The big changes here are on Sundays. Sunday evening span has been extended by 90 minutes (approx 11pm finish). And the first trip is 30 minutes earlier.  Earlier Sunday starting has been a major theme of recent upgrades to train and major bus routes in Perth, with a few done each time. 

Perth was not alone in underestimating early Sunday travel demand. Melbourne did too. The 9am 'minimum standard' start (introduced from 2006 on many but not all local buses) is too late for many peoples' travel needs. The first Sunday bus of the day if often the busiest. 

The 7am SmartBus start, though still too late for early flights and V/Line departures, was also a step forward for its time. Night Network helped the trains with regard to Sunday operating hours but not service frequency (still commonly 30 - 40 minutes). Newer bus routes, such as the 760, have tended to have an 8am Sunday start instead.  However because we're less active than Perth is in reviewing timetables and service levels on existing routes, older routes mostly still have Sunday starts nearer 9am (and even 10am in some areas). In contrast, Sydney and Brisbane got it right, at least for their trains. 


What is the lesson? A transport network is like a garden that needs to be lovingly tended and pruned. You can be too savage with too much chopping and changing (one might argue like Adelaide and Canberra). Otherwise bus networks develop a reputation for volatility. One might be unwise to base a house purchase or even access to a job on them. 

On the other hand if you do very little, like has been the case here then you end up with a complex network with many service oddities. Again this reduces passenger confidence as you can't make plans assuming there would be a bus in a reasonable time or even at all (if travelling after 7pm or on weekends). 

The middle ground appears to be a generally stable network with continual tending. Perth more or less has that. We don't. Instead we need about five or six years of intensive reform to the two-thirds of the network that hasn't had a revamp in 10 to 40 years. Then followed by more gradual but continuous monitoring and reform. 

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

(Sales links: I get a small commission if you buy via the above - no extra cost to you)

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