Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Timetable Tuesday 81: How Perth makes bus reform work - its frequent route 915 and how we can do it here

Last Friday I wrote about the collapse of bus network reform in Adelaide. In just three weeks a bold network proposal went from being 'a new era in public transport' to 'never again' as the state premier pulled the rug from under minister Stephan Knoll to cancel all changes. The backdown couldn't have been bigger, especially given how buses dominate transit in Adelaide. 

Reasons for the failure include them trying to do too much too soon, the severity of some coverage losses, insufficient information on alternatives for those affected, understating the number of stops losing service and poor public consultation. 

Today's item is about a place where bus network reform succeeds. Perth. Transperth's recipe is different. Gradual network refinement for them is regular day to day business rather than being a special project tied to a new transit operator, contract arrangement or rail upgrade. This contrasts with bigger but less frequent changes in Canberra (which seems to have 'big bang' network reforms about every 10 years and smaller ones roughly yearly) and what was just attempted in Adelaide. 

Melbourne sits near the other extreme. Its natural state is stasis, punctuated by the occasional new route, often inefficiently layered over an existing network. Even small changes need to go through the government budget process, adding a year or more to when it can happen, and, more often than not, ensuring it doesn't (remember the iceberg?). Brisbane is another place where little happens, stymied by their ungovernable mix of state and city government involvement in buses. 

Today I'll talk about Perth's latest announced bus network reform. I'll ignore the odd added or withdrawn trip. Instead I'll concentrate on two changes of network importance. One is about what they are adding while the other is about what (I believe) they wish to remove. 

Perth's new high frequency Route 915

Most cities have a premium tier of bus routes or corridors offering frequent all-day service. For example Adelaide has Go Zones, Brisbane has BUZ corridors, Canberra has Rapid routes and Melbourne has SmartBus. Perth has its 900-series routes. 

While a 15 minute frequency is standard on weekdays there is more variation on weekends. For example Adelaide, Canberra and Melbourne typically halve frequency to 30 minutes, far short of 'turn up and go'. In contrast Brisbane and Perth maintain a 7 day 15 minute or better frequency, although their frequent networks are sparser (especially Brisbane's). Having high all-week frequency makes buses more like trams in their ability to board at all times with only a short wait. And it has potential to lower car ownership rates, further encouraging patronage. 

Almost all premium routes serve radial corridors, to or towards their city's CBD. Key exceptions are orbital and other cross-suburban routes in Melbourne and Perth. However even these are typically frequent on weekdays only, not weekends.  

Perth's upgraded Route 501 will break this mould. Although the timetable change involved is quite small, It will deliver the first non-radial, non-CBD 7-day frequent service long hours bus route in any Australian city outside Sydney.

What is the 501? It's a direct east-west route through Perth's southern suburbs. It runs from Fremantle to Bull Creek Station via the large Garden City Shopping Centre. The catchment is best described as middle-class middle-suburban. 501 has multiple functions, including feeding people to stations at both ends and serving the shopping centre. It can trace its origins to 2007's Mandurah railway where it soon became one of its strongest feeder services. 

Subsequent upgrades saw weekends boosted to every 15 minutes during the day. Evenings remained with 60 to 90 minute gaps, although these were steadily pushed later. Finally, with the gaps closed to 30 minutes and later trips added, the 501 will join Perth's family of 'high frequency' all week bus routes in two weeks. Like similar frequent services it will get a new 900-series route number (915). The Sunday timetable extract below shows how few extra trips were needed to make it qualify. 

Click on the links if you wish to compare the 2018 Route 5012019 Route 501 and 2020 Route 915 timetables in more detail.

501's changes took place over several years. They have been simpler than other 900-series routes, such as the 930, 950 and 960, that required consolidation of several routes in a corridor. This example gives an insight into how WA's PTA plans bus networks. There'll be more on Perth later. In the interim we'll look at what scope Melbourne has for 915-style service upgrades to routes that almost but not quite meet SmartBus service standards. 

Ten cheap new SmartBus corridors for Melbourne

Melbourne last expanded its SmartBus network in 2010. We've since added nearly a million more people. But no more SmartBus routes have since been added.   

You saw before how Transperth continually looked for cheap opportunities to expand its 900-series frequent bus network. If they didn't have the money to go the whole way in one year they would gradually add service so it wasn't as big a leap the following year. 

Where can be do this in Melbourne? Here's ten routes or corridors that are 'nearly there'. Service is often already quite high so only minor upgrades, more intensively using existing buses, are mostly all that's needed. 

* 200/207 City - Kew (combined corridor) 
Very minor span improvements desirable. 

* 216 City - Sunshine
Requires very minor weekend span improvements.

* 220 City - Sunshine 
Requires very minor weekend span improvements (<6 410="" a="" and="" ballarat="" conjunction="" connections.="" corridor="" desirable="" docklands="" href="https://melbourneontransit.blogspot.com/2019/10/building-melbournes-useful-network-part_18.html" improved="" in="" per="" provide="" rd="" reform="" route="" service="" simpler="" to="" trips="" vu="" week="" with="">More here). Desirable to reform with Route 410 to simplify Ballarat Rd services and a direct CBD - Docklands - VU - Sunshine connection. 

* 234 Queen Vic Market - Garden City 
Requires very minor weekend span improvements.<6 p="" per="" trips="" week="">

* 246 Clifton Hill - Elsternwick
Requires earlier morning start times 7 days (2 - 3 extra trips each way per day).

* 250/251 City - Northcote (combined corridor) 
Requires slightly improved operating hours. 

* 302/304 City - Mont Albert North (combined corridor) 
Require improved operating hours, particularly evenings and weekends. Complaints made regarding overcrowding.

* 402 Footscray - East Melbourne
Requires extended operating hours, particularly in evenings. Also improved weekend evening frequency (from every 40 to every 30 min). 

* 406 Footscray - Highpoint 10 min service
Requires merging with the largely duplicative Route 223 to form 10 minute corridor and compensatory rerouting of 409. Desirable for 10 min service to operate 7 days. More here

* 904 Coburg - Heidelberg 10 min service
Requires splitting of 903 at Heidelberg and merging with 527 to deliver increased frequency. Desirable for 10 min service to operate 7 days. More here.

You'd also boost 201 to provide a better Deakin University to Box Hill shuttle. There's no weekend service so it won't be a SmartBus. But, like the other successful university shuttles, it could provide a good weekday connection to the university for very little money by incorporating the duplicative 768. Details here

The above corridors were chosen because they would be cheap to do. The Building Melbourne's Useful Network series discusses other key corridors that could be candidates for SmarBuses. 

Perth's diminishing Route 103

Returning to Perth, another function of bus reform (especially if you wish to free up resources for frequent services like the 915) is to simplify the network, particularly where routes inefficiently duplicate and frequent alternatives exist. 

Bus route 103 provided the historic north-of-the-river road connection between Fremantle and Perth (with 106 - now 910 - doing similar south-of-the-river). It was particularly useful for travel between the south-western suburbs (whose buses mostly ran to Fremantle) and destinations off the rail network including the University (UWA) and major hospitals. 103's Stirling Highway catchment also included affluent suburbs whose children might attend the prestigious UWA and some student share houses. 

Although that catchment sounds promising for a bus route, 103's relevance to the broader transit network has been declining for nearly 30 years. About half of the route closely parallels the Fremantle rail line. After being closed in 1979 train service was restored in 1983. Electrification occurred a decade later. This was accompanied by frequency upgrades making the train relatively more attractive for those with a choice between it and the bus.  

Several years later Perth commenced its 'Circle Route' (then 98/99, now 998/999). With a weekday service every 15 minutes it greatly improved cross-suburban travel in Perth's middle suburbs. However in this area it overlapped most of the 103 along Stirling Hwy, sapping patronage from it. Parts of Stirling Highway also have other routes, for example the 102/107 corridor and some others not shown on the map (shown later or you can see the network map here). 

Route 103 has thus lost many reasons to exist. The main thing propping up its patronage has been the growth of the QEII hospital precinct. Parking there is scarce. Public transport use is encouraged with initiatives like the frequent 950 Superbus. The 103 helps with connections from the West Perth area. However it contributes nothing but a little extra capacity from the Fremantle direction due to the overlapping and already frequent Circle Route. 

Route 103's existing timetable is already well down on that which ran in its halcyon years. Today most trips operate between Perth and the hospitals only, with only a quarter extending to Fremantle between the weekday peaks. Catching the 103 from the city in the afternoon is particularly complex with buses terminating at four possible locations.  

It was thus little surprise to read that in two weeks Route 103's timetable will include fewer services. All city - hospital trips will operate on a new Route 26. Longer trips will remain with the 103. Route 26 will operate every 10-15 minutes on weekdays and hourly on weekends. Route 103 will operate hourly 7 days per week with peak service roughly half-hourly (less than now). Weekend services will however be timed between the two routes to provide a 30 minute combined service between the city and the hospital precinct. This is a doubling of Sunday service due to the 103's current hourly service with no extra short trips as run Monday to Saturday. However sharing it between two routes increases complexity compared to now for people travelling on the common section. 

The map above shows the revised network. Thicker lines operate approximately every 15 minutes with thinner lines every 30 to 60 minutes (on weekdays). With nearby frequent service from other routes, the transfer of most trips to the shorter (new) Route 26 and its remaining hourly frequency it does not look like the 103 has much of a future.

Rather than scrap the 103 overnight (as Adelaide was planning to for many routes under its New Network), Perth is taking the more gradual road of reducing service through timetable changes. This has the possible added advantage (for them) of not requiring public consultation as much as would be expected for a network change. Then after a few rounds (death by a thousand cuts) the route could be uncontroversially deleted with the resources being used to boost or simplify other services. For example weekend service on the 103 could be deleted with some resources being transferred to boost Route 26 to 30 minutes. This would restore simplicity as people would no longer have to remember two routes for connections to the hospital area. 

Another possibility for Route 103 is to reform rather than delete it. Transperth (sensibly) like using consecutive route numbers for overlapping routes whose times are evenly offset from one another along their common section before they fan out. 102 and 107 is the example in this area; both operate half-hourly on weekdays with a 15 minute combined service between Claremont and the CBD. The logical option then is to renumber 107 as 103 to provide a simpler 102/103 corridor. Resources freed could then be used to upgrade 26, 102 and/or the revised 103 depending on patronage potential.  

The last three paragraphs are highly speculative. However it does seem that there are ideas for the 103 given the creation of a new route from most of its trips. What is proposed in two weeks looks like a somewhat ugly transition stage that, though initially more complex, could be a staging post to an ultimately simpler, less duplicative and more frequent network.   


This has been a look at two Perth bus network reforms due to be implemented in two weeks. One involves small upgrades to form a new 7-day frequent route. The other involves some cutting back in (what could be) a step to reduce duplication and potentially boost frequencies on remaining routes. If enough reforms like these are done then it may be possible to deliver a transformed network within several years with a greater chance of success without the problems Adelaide  had. However for this to work network reform must be a part of regular business rather than something that requires an operator contract change or special budget process to initiate. 

Friday, July 03, 2020

Twelve lessons from Adelaide's attempted bus network reform (Useful Network No 51)

Last month the South Australian state government released details of a 'better, faster and more frequent' bus network for Adelaide. Within three weeks the proposal was dead, killed by public pressure and a threatened revolt within the ruling Liberal Party.

What happened? What was the proposed network like? And can we learn from the Adelaide experience? I'll answer those questions later. First up though I'll describe how bus network reform can be good, bad and controversial.

Network reform can be good

Bus network reform is one of the most cost-effective ways to make public transport more useful for more people. Without reform networks can become a time capsule, unsuitable for modern travel needs. This condemns buses to a future of declining usefulness and patronage.

For example unreviewed networks can contain routes that stop short of new suburban centres, still serve shut-down schools and retain timetables that reflect 1970s shopping and working hours. New routes layered over unrevised existing routes duplicate service, waste money and carry fewer people than is possible with simpler revised more frequent routes. Unchanged timetables can also make buses miss trains, making them less useful for all but very local trips.

Good network reform can fix all these issues. In many established areas it can be done cheaply with the existing number of buses. The main extra cost is usually the bus and driver hours required to boost historically limited evening and weekend services.

Bus purchases are needed for coverage extensions to new areas and/or peak frequency upgrades. However their utilisation can be improved if accompanied by route reform in areas with legacy networks. Previous Useful Network items present ideas along these lines for bus networks in Melbourne. Rail Back on Track's Frequency is Freedom paper is a good summary of similar network issues in Brisbane.

The graph below shows that in areas with duplicative unreformed networks adding buses and reforming networks provides more benefits than adding buses alone. The trade-off is that some network reforms can be politically controversial, especially if the new network doesn't add service hours or buses.

Network reform can be bad 

Not all bus network reform is good. Bad network reform can be worse than none at all.

It might be driven by perverse incentives contained in operator contracts. For example paying bus companies on the basis of patronage sounds good but can lead to a tendency to favour network designs that compete with trains and trams for radial CBD travel. The result is a more duplicative network that reduces frequency and/or coverage in suburban areas. Plus local non-radial trips may be made harder.

Another limitation is if it is done in isolation. This can happen where multiple bus operators serve an area and the reform is to one company's routes only. The ill-fated 2015 Transdev Melbourne greenfields network was based on the premise that their routes were quiet in the western suburbs but busy in the east.

Transdev sought to take buses from the west to give to the east. This ignored network shortcomings in the west like their routes 223 and 903 being largely overlapped by other routes or passing through quiet industrial areas. Had these been addressed, in concert with reforms to other operators' routes, the west and north could have ended up with a generally better rather than a generally worse network.

Maps of neat grid networks on main roads can be alluring. A main road bus route may look, on paper, near homes, but continuous traffic, large roundabouts and indirect streets may preclude easy pedestrian access. Passengers would reasonably oppose bus routes being pulled off local streets, even if they are indirect. There may be substantial local flows to shopping centres that a revised network might disrupt. And areas may have demographic characteristics, such as low car ownership, low workforce participation or high numbers of commuters that affect how frequently you design a service to run and at what times of day. Ignoring such fine grained localism can prove the undoing of bus network proposals that otherwise look good on the surface.

Network reform can be controversial

Existing bus networks, by definition, best suit those who currently use them. Ask existing passengers about network changes and they will often be wary. Whereas many non-users, when asked why they don't 'use buses, will cite things that network reform can fix like indirectness, limited operating hours, low frequency or poor connectivity with trains.

A revised network that contains many 'greater good' changes that benefit several times more people than it hurts can still come under fierce and visible opposition.

Existing passengers who would lose from a proposed network change can be counted on to vocally oppose it. Supporters or those unaffected will likely be less vocal. That can skew results of passenger surveys due to higher participation by opponents of change.

Supporters also won't write to politicians or contact the media. Whereas opponents will. Opposition can include sympathy from people who don't currently use buses. They might not be across the detail but don't see why services should be cut. These factors can lead to politicians being spooked by greater opposition than actually exists.

Squabbles between different levels of government can stymie reform when both run transport services. Brisbane found that out when the state government's Translink 2013 network review failed due to disagreement with the Brisbane City Council (which, uniquely in Australia, runs many buses). Bus services remain an ungovernable tussle between Brisbane City Council and the State Government with no prospects of reform in sight.

Reform is easier (and more politically acceptable) if there is an overall increase in buses and driver hours because some can be diverted to restore some of what an initial proposal removed. However the resultant network won't be quite as simple or consistently frequent as first proposed. 

Adelaide's proposed network

Adelaide's bus network needed reform. It's horrendously complex for a start. Not only are there many route numbers but many variants starting and ending with letters. You can see the current network map here, but even this understates the complexity with some services operating only occasionally.

Like Brisbane's, Adelaide's bus network is very CBD oriented. There are few cross-suburban routes. Those that exist are typically infrequent with short operating hours. A cross-suburban trip often involves going towards the CBD, waiting and changing to an outbound bus.

Many bus routes parallel rail lines for quite long distances. Adelaide currently has a mixed suburban network with some lines operating diesel trains and other operating electric trains. Frequencies are generally every 30 minutes off-peak except for the Seaford line to the south, some stations on the Gawler line to the north and the inner section of the Outer Harbor and Grange lines. This means that if you're on an inbound bus that intersects a rail line but continues to the city you are probably better off to remain on it due to the possibility of a long wait. Adelaide's rail network is relatively large for a city of its size but the low frequency of trains, the location of stations (often in industrial areas further from houses than the main roads along which buses run) and the large number of parallel bus routes make trains less popular. 

The map below is the north-western quadrant of the existing Adelaide network. Almost all stations on the Outer Harbor line are served by the roughly hourly Route 150 bus almost duplicating the train all the way into the city. As well Route 333 operates just three times per weekday day to Port Adelaide. Further south many roads have multiple routes with confusing numbers. Examples like this illustrate why people reviewing the network might see a need for change.

The proposed Adelaide bus network didn't just come out of thin air. The Australian city nearest in size to it is Perth. Perth restored, electrified and extended its small three-line rail network and reconfigured its buses to feed it. It proved a great success with an integrated network useful for travel to a wide range of destinations. Adelaide decided to follow with rail electrification and 15 minute interpeak frequencies, starting with its Seaford line. Full adherence to the Perth formula would also require comparable reforms to its buses to maximise rail patronage, usage of the bus fleet and frequency in local suburbs.

 More recently (2018) GTA consultants wrote a report describing a network approach for Adelaide. The concepts will be familiar to anyone who's studied bus network design and reform. It  proposed a three level hierarchy comprising priority corridors, regular routes and tailored services. Priority corridors would be the main train, tram and bus corridors while regular routes would provide a 'second tier' coverage for areas between or beyond the main corridors. Tailored routes could be your special services, for instance peak only, school and shopper services serving particular concentrated needs. 

The proposed network reflected the above principles. It had an ambitious timeline for its introduction. Feedback would be in June and July with review in August. New contracts (on existing routes) would start in July with the new network starting late 2020 in most areas.  

More Go Zones (that is priority corridors with weekday service every 15 minutes or better) and simpler services were the new network's key sales messages.  

The map below shows where the new Go Zones would be. Most were in the inner to middle suburbs within about 15 km of the CBD however some extended further out. Red were existing while green were proposed.

The Go Zone increase would boost the population near a weekday service every 15 minutes or better from around 500 000 to nearly 700 000.  This is more than half Adelaide's 1.3 million population. This coverage of frequent service is rarer in the suburbs of other Australian capitals, especially Brisbane, the other mainland bus-dependent state capital.  

Most areas that did not get a Go Zone got a 30 minute interpeak weekday bus frequency. These were described as 'connector' routes occupying the middle hierarchy. This is again superior to other cities. For example 40 minute frequencies are common in Melbourne and 60 minute frequencies are common in Brisbane and Perth. Fringe areas though received hourly services, described as local routes. 

The trade-off for all this is that many bus stops would close. The initial number given was about 500. However about 400 more stops would become for school bus use only, making the total number of stops cut nearer to 1000. Early warning of the reception this would get is contained in responses to the Transport Ministers's tweet promoting the network (some below).

Designers of frequent networks work on the basis that most people are willing to walk a little further to a better service. However difficult street layouts or over-severe cuts can make the extra distance involved more than 'a little'. You can see the effect of the sparser network on this proposed network map for north-west Adelaide.  Routes are a mix of 15 minute Go Zones and 30 minute Connector routes. There is less duplication particularly near the line to Outer Harbor. Those not willing or able to walk would get a flexible route bus similar to the phone one hour ahead service in Gawler.

Below shows the whole proposed network. The detail is too fine to see. However the colours of routes, with the red Go Zone, blue Connector and green Local are visible.

For more detail you can download the proposed network map pdf here (large file). You may wish to compare it with the existing (very complex) network map here.

A point of interest is that like Canberra's new network, Adelaide kept its stark weekday/weekend divide. Under both the new and old network Go Zone corridors had a basic 15 minute weekday/30 minute weekend frequency. This weekday-centric pattern is the same as Melbourne's SmartBuses, which in our case has caused weekend overcrowding. The middle-level connector routes do similar with service every 30 minutes on weekdays and 60 minutes on weekends.

New networks in Houston and Auckland, in contrast, operate their main routes every 15 minutes seven days per week. The same is true for the premium BUZ services in Brisbane and the 900-series routes in Perth (sparser but more frequent than Adelaide's Go Zones). This tram-like frequent all week service is desirable as it can promote low-car lifestyles and thus encourage higher bus usage at all times.

Also notable is that Adelaide's proposed network remained very CBD-centric. Part of this is because Adelaide is long and narrow. Its trains are less frequent than Perth's and stations are closer together, making them slower. Adelaide's one city centre station is on its northern fringe and road congestion may also be less. This could make the time savings for bus + train trips versus bus only trips less compelling than in larger cities with worse traffic and more stations. Even in the new network many routes still operate to the CBD. Some of the few cross-suburban routes went from every 60 to every 30 minutes but there are no frequent circumferential routes such as operate in Melbourne and Perth.

New network abandoned

The promised 'better, faster and more frequent' bus network was not to be. Two weeks into the consultation period the SA premier announced that the proposed network would not go ahead. Media report are here and here.

Information on the new network was immediately stripped from most (not all) SA government websites. Visitors to the Adelaide Metro site got this:

With the premier rather than the minister doing the announcing it couldn't have been a sharper repudiation of the proposed network and, indirectly, his transport minister Stephan Knoll.  Immediate prospects for bus network reform in SA seem grim with it regarded as a 'hot potato' that no politician will wish to touch for at least a few years.

12 lessons from Adelaide

What can we learn from this experience?

Quite a lot.

The mix of state a government with a reputation for cuts to public transport (eg 2018 budget and plans to privatise), poor communication from blinkered technocrats in the bureaucracy, a public wary of change and nervous politicians proved fatal. 

Although the theory seemed good, there were issues with the design of the proposed network. Opposition to it focused on the number of stops deleted. And some trips undeniably became more difficult.

Information was pulled so soon after the premier's announcement to abandon that I didn't see the changes in detail. However I did notice how they were communicated. Overall insufficient area-specific detail was provided, especially for those who would lose stops or have their journey altered.

Here's some possible lessons from the Adelaide experience. If they had been adhered to this post might have to introduce rather than farewell the bold proposed network.

1. Failure to explain the new network's impact by suburb Before it was taken down the website notes on the new network was divided into a few broad regions. You could select an existing route number and get short notes on its replacement route. However many suburbs are served by multiple routes. And people wanted more fine grained information on what was happening to their stop and any nearby alternatives. 

Avoiding suburb-specific information probably made the new network look worse than it was. It would also have made it easier to spread fears about it. Each suburb needed its own write-up on what was changing. Users should have been able to compare suburb network maps side by side. A feature where people can click on their stop to see how the new network affects it (including nearby substitute stops) would have helped. It can help public acceptance if people see that there's swings and roundabouts, not just straight cuts.  

Houston recently transformed its bus network along lines similar to that proposed for Adelaide. Its public information included dual trip planners on the old and new networks. People could plan test rides. This personalised information helped reassure people that the new network would be better, or at least no worse, for them.

2. Old network maps can exaggerate current service levels A new network map with fewer lines on it can invite unfavourable comparisons with existing map with more routes. The first instinct is for people to find their house and panic if service has been removed from their nearest stop. However old maps with complex networks can give an inflated impression of current service if they show buses that run only occasionally as prominently as more useful services.  

It may have helped consultation if occasional routes were made less prominent on the existing network map so that comparisons would be fairer. Also line thickness as well as colour might have made the frequent corridors stand out more in both the before and after networks.  

3. Operating hours are important The current network contains many part-time routes with occasional trips or limited operating hours. Some routes run Monday to Friday, some Monday to Saturday and some seven days. This might not be grasped by passengers until they try to plan a trip on a route only to find its timetable is unsuitable. One of the thrusts of a revised network is (or should be) to standardise operating hours so that more routes on the simpler network operate 7 days over longer hours. Unfortunately the information on the new routes was sketchy with regards to operating hours, potentially underselling the revised network.  

4. Did they really need to cut late night routes at the same time? Adelaide has a few routes that operate after midnight on Saturday nights. Their occupancy might be lower than daytime routes but they are a high profile part of the network, cheaper than trains to run and help some get to and from jobs. Night routes are also justified as a safer alternative to drink driving. The new network planned to cancel most of these services, increasing opposition from another set of people you don't want opposed. 

5. Prepare the ground by briefing key people beforehand A lot of work is needed before a new network proposal goes public. For a start it should be run past important stakeholders like bus operators and local council planners to comment on its workability. Local politicians should be briefed on the network's impact on their constituency with area-specific answers to likely questions. Such background knowledge would help them sort genuine from non-genuine concerns. Apparently this did not happen, with even government MPs claiming no prior information or warning. The threat of a revolt caused the premier to intervene over the head of his transport minister. This is about the most damning thing a leader can do short of dismissal. 

6. People like timetables with specific times (even if buses don't keep to them) One feature of the new network was that some routes would operate at defined headways rather than at specific times. There's a lot of operational benefits to this especially on corridors where traffic levels vary. For example trips can be sped by not having buses stop at time points at quiet times. That improves bus utilisation and potentially enables more routes to have frequent service.

However it's only appropriate when frequency is very high (a headway based 20 minute timetable is not acceptable). Resource-optimising planners love the concept but politically it's easy to ridicule. Hence it needs to be implemented in a 'high trust' or at least 'low controversy' environment. Impending privatisations and stop closures are red flags that make passengers wary of change, even if good. Many will also remember the Light City Bus fiasco caused by the government accepting a cut-price contract before dumping the operator due to continued lateness. More recently, in 2018, there were budget cuts to services. Now might not have been the best time to introduce it.

7. Don't hide the bad stuff The initial word was that 500 bus stops would shut. However this proved to be an understatement. It  turned out that hundreds more stops would also lose public routes (though they would keep school services). Understatement of losses is particularly damaging if it's uncovered by the opposition, as occurred here. And it overshadows the more important question as to how many of the closed stops had useful alternatives nearby.

8. Reassuring people is important Even though people are often more fearful of what they might lose than what they might gain from the new network, the information stressed the opposite, for instance the number of people who would gain Go Zone coverage. This was instead of reassurance like the number of people who would retain coverage with the new network. Better suburb specific information on alternatives would also have helped lessen concern.  

Reassurance and promotion messages have different roles. Stress the former when trying to win acceptance of a controversial network. Then once the network is operating and you want to get more people to discover its benefits then ramp up the marketing by selling the advantages. 

9. Too much at once? Adelaide might have tried to do too much too soon. Auckland, a similar city, split their reforms into eight regions done over three years. Perth is even more gradual, but the cumulative result is transformative with reviews being routine business. It's true that Houston successfully did all its reforms in one go. However, because it has a stronger CBD and a weak rail network, Adelaide's bus ridership includes many middle class commuters coming from politically marginal seats. It also has an older population, with a median age of 39 versus Houston's 33.  

A more measured pace with review regions like south, central, north and hills might have allowed a more consultative approach. If there were problems with proposals in the first area lessons could have been learned for other regions. And because issues would have been smaller (rather than city-wide) they would likely have been able to be addressed by the minister without the premier intervening and cancelling the lot.

10. Would a staged approach have been less scary? As well as dividing changes by area, planners may, as a first cut, make their initial proposals less radical than what they might see as the ultimate network. For example rather than have all routes in an area operating frequently on a coarse grid they might skew the balance a little away from frequency to coverage. 

If a particular coverage gap looks a bit too stark or roads are too hard to cross they might introduce an interpeak-only shopper style route for in between coverage. Especially if this route does not increase the network's peak bus requirement its operating cost should be fairly low while also providing a service for people who are less mobile. 

That would have been a compromise but may have defused some opposition. Instead of the complete abandonment that happened it might have enabled a revised new network that removed most complexity while delivering some frequency gains. The option always exists of modifying or deleting it in a subsequent mini-review if usage proves disappointing. Those who follow what Transperth does sometimes see this approach where occasional deviations and duplicative routes fade away over several timetable changes.  

11. Don't assume universal technology use, familiarity or ownership This is another of your 'technocrat vs traditionalist' battles. Departmental bureaucrats and the private sector consultants who sometimes advise them are overwhelmingly tertiary educated, middle class and comfortable with technology. Many bus passengers, especially in a city like Adelaide with an older population skew, are not. 

Technology dependence has problems on two grounds. Firstly online-only consultation can exclude people from participating. Secondly the network's proposal for 'on-demand' buses in some areas may disenfranchise some users. The need to maintain two lots of credit (mobile phone and transport smartcard) may be an issue. The one hour prior notice requirement is another barrier that makes 'on demand' services less flexible than their promoters claim. While favoured by geeky technocrat types, on-demand buses are rarely operationally cost-effective unless service levels are cut.  

12. Where's the personal touch? What was proposed was a major network change that would have changed how people get around, and, even, in some cases, whether they have service nearby at all. It's standard for cities planning changes of this magnitude to have drop-in sessions where passengers can discuss concerns with transit planners. Consultation for Adelaide appears to be online only, apparently with no face-to-face meetings.

COVID-19 has undoubtedly made public engagement harder. Adelaide has an older age skew. Seniors are likely to be in COVID-19 high risk groups, less familiar with online engagement methods and are more likely to be disadvantaged if bus stops are closed. But when angry their letters, petitions and phone calls can spook marginal seat politicians. Especially Liberal politicans whose most loyal supporters are middle aged and older people. Now you know why there was a party backlash and the premier over-ruled his minister.

More than usual thought should have been given for those less comfortable with digital technology. Maybe they were, for instance notices at bus stops and surveys on buses? However this would not have been fully effective with fewer people travelling. Particularly amongst older high risk groups. Mail-out surveys might have been another approach. 

I offer no firm solutions. But some should have been found given the changes were intended to be long term. Though timelines were already tight so a deferral couldn't have happened without putting off the new network's introduction.

Even after the COVID-19 threat passes transit agencies need to think about consultation methods that maximise community representation and participation. Approaches that seem procedurally fair can end up skewed in ways that either downplay or magnify discontent out of proportion to its size.

For example town hall feedback sessions at off-network locations exclude many working people if held during the day and people without cars if held at night. The majority of attendees can be privileged local council or advocacy group representatives (who don't necessarily ride buses themselves) instead of the 'real' public that needs to be heard.

A tiny group (not all of whom are bus riders) can magnify a gripe out of all proportion to its importance or the number of people affected. This group should be heard but not so they drown out those who a new network might benefit.  Politicians and other decision-makers sometimes visit these sessions and may get an unfair impression of a network's merit.

The best way to get a reasonable sample is to use a variety of feedback means including online, social media and in-person. All methods need as large and representative number of 'not organised' passengers as possible including people who are 'time poor' and 'don't do meetings'. Along with non-passengers who might use buses if the network was better.

The in-person components of this should not include off-network locations where people must make a special trip. Instead engagement should be at places where people are at anyway (eg train stations, bus interchanges and large shopping centres at both weekday and weekend times). Weekdays are good for seniors while weekends suit many working families. Shopping centres attracts a good sample of potential as well as existing passengers.

Drop-in sessions, where people can stay as short or long as they like, seem to work better than a set time meeting. Surveys can be effective. These should be available in both printed and online formats. Social media and direct email can also be effective to encourage participation, especially if you have a ticketing system that has registered users that have email addresses. Communications people from transit agencies tend to engage with city-wide media more than local media. With the closure of many local newspapers alternative means of reaching people are needed, for example through social media, area-based Facebook groups, local community groups and even shopping centre noticeboards.


The failure of bus network reform in Adelaide is bad news. Passengers will be saddled with complex and confusing routes for years to come.  Politicians will be scared to support even less radical reforms due to the risk of a public backlash despite its benefits around the world (including in parts of Melbourne).  

Adelaide's sobering experience has given things other cities like Melbourne can learn from when trying to improve bus networks. I've mentioned a few. If you have any more please leave them in the comments below. 

PS: An index to all Useful Networks is here.

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 

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)

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Timetable Tuesday #80: The seven ages of Melbourne buses since 1950

Normally on Tuesdays we discuss the quirks of one particular bus, train or tram route's timetable. Today we'll take a different tack. We'll do a broad historical sweep over the last 70 years.

Helping us will be these 70 year PTV patronage statistics via the web archive. You can find them here. This covers all modes. The bus graph, showing annual passenger boardings, is below.

Looking through blurred glasses so one sees the big picture, there's a large drop, a temporary rise then another rise in the 70 years since 1950. 

However I would view some numbers with caution. For example a break in series, indicating a change in counting method, occurred in the late 1990s. This indicated a large patronage drop at a time when service levels and economic conditions were stable. In contrast a much milder drop is indicated when the state was in a deep recession and bus service levels were savagely cut in the early '90s. I remember discussing this with a long-time patronage analyst in 2007. He suggested that counting  then might not have fully captured the drop. So don't treat the graph's numbers as perfect, especially those from last century. But they do give some broad trends that we can marry with events, economic conditions and political priorities.    

Below is my attempt to split the last 70 years into 7 ages. Thanks to sites like Krustylink information from the mid 1980s is easier to find that material 10 or 20 years earlier. Route histories and network development via BCSV are helpful.  Trove newspaper archives are another rich source for news on timetable changes but more recent years are not represented so again there's gaps in history. 

For these reasons please forgive the tendency to lend more significance to the last 35 years of events than the 35 years before that. However the last 35 approximately tallies with when bus patronage started to rise from its nadir in 1981-82 so is an important turning point. 

The people pictured are the state transport ministers around the times indicated. More on their individual records here.  

I'll gloss over this a bit. The early postwar era was associated with returned servicemen having families and settling in then new suburbs which were thought more desirable than crowded industrial inner areas. The end of fuel rationing and general prosperity led to mass car ownership and use, at least amongst working men. 

However for some of this period the drop was lessened, and in some years reversed, by suburbanisation (where buses were the only transport) and bus usage by housewives and children. This was to prove temporary, as more women entered the paid workforce and more homes, initially in the affluent areas, became two car households. The result, for buses, was a vicious cycle of falling patronage, falling service levels and route closures.

By the early 1970s the government had to step in. It sought to reorganise buses with new route numbers and a network map. Public subsidies accounted for an increasing proportion of private bus company incomes. Routes were gradually extended to outer suburbs. However patronage kept falling for another decade. 

All modes of public transport had reached rock bottom in terms of raw patronage around 1981-82. Transport was a major part of the winning Labor Party's platform. A lot was promised with only some delivered. However it was enough to reverse the decline. 

Key contributions included fare and ticket integration with train and tram, route extensions in growth areas and improved information and marketing through The Met. Service levels also improved, notably on Saturday afternoons where trips were added on many routes (coinciding with increased trading hours). All this resulted in several years of strong patronage growth.

1988 marked the euphoria before the fall. That year's MetPlan detailed how things had improved and raised hopes for more. Notably it specified 30 minute minimum service levels for buses and trains along with a series of higher service Metlink cross-suburban routes not unlike today's SmartBus orbitals.

However, unknown at the time, the year also sowed the seeds for the industry rancour, decline and stupor that were to afflict buses for the better part of 15 years. Much stems from the bus contracts dispute and subsequent court battles that found in favour of the private bus operators. Bus operators had made business decisions based on undertakings that government officials made then broke. The legal action went all the way to the High Court (see Waverley Transit Pty Ltd v Metropolitan Transit Authority 1991).

The affair poisoned industry-government relations for years if not decades. Special hatred was reserved for Labor, though Coalition governments also did things family bus operators opposed like franchising to outsiders in the 1990s and 2010s.

The MTA's loss meant that it could not use its preferred operator (Quinces) to take over routes run by existing private operators. The government had to find an alternative use for the now surplus buses. It did this by getting Quinces to run two long and expensive routes (631 and 634) through Melbourne's eastern suburbs. 634, for example, initially ran from Lilydale to Middle Brighton every 20 minutes. While they were initially labelled 'Metlink' they were different from the sensible Metlink routes in MetPlan. And they often inefficiently overlapped existing routes. While some areas gained they were a poor use of resources.

These were bleak years for the whole state, not just its transport. The problems with scratch ticketing, industrial disputation and tram blockades were well known. Poor state finances forced the Kirner government into making cuts that would not have been considered during better times.

One of these were big reductions in bus services in 1990 and 1991. Numerous routes across Melbourne got their operating hours reduced and frequencies cut. Service upgrades, such as Saturday afternoon trips introduced just two years previous were reversed. Peak frequencies were made unusably low and very few areas retained service after 7pm or on Sundays. Bus service levels fell to close to the worst in any Australian state capital.

Before and after timetables for some routes can be compared on Krustylink. And because of the slow pace of subsequent bus service reform some of those cut back timetables remain with us today, even on well used routes like 536 and 800. Today's low peak frequencies on many middle suburban buses is another lingering legacy as post-2006 'minimum standards' upgrades mostly improved evenings and weekends but not peaks.

It is interesting to see what would have happened if the government had been a bit wiser in 1988 or won the court case against the bus operators. We wouldn't have had the mostly unnecessary Metlink routes as the buses would have been used on existing routes (possibly with some upgrades if they were on MetPlan's Metlink alignments). This might have contained costs and not led to cuts as deep as we saw.

Joan Kirner lost to Jeff Kennett in the 1992 election. The main political priority in transport was reducing costs, particularly for train and tram. Line closures were threatened but almost all were saved, particularly in metropolitan Melbourne. There were even off-peak train frequency upgrades, particularly in southern and south-eastern suburb seats marginal for the ruling Liberal Party. Sunday services were also later upgraded across the train and tram networks. Buses didn't get much of a look-in though.

Dismantling The Met included privatising its bus operations in two tranches. That was done as a precursor to the much larger train and tram franchising. This led to National Bus, mostly serving the north-eastern area and Melbourne Bus Link, serving western and southern areas. There were significant changes to National bus routes and timetables in the '90s including some service increases. 

In contrast changes to Melbourne Bus Link routes and timetables were less. Ditto for routes run by the private operators. If you took a 2001 network map and compared it to something from the early 1990s you'd see very few changes. And almost all timetables had the same restricted operating hours, low frequencies and confusing deviations. It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that nothing happened with bus services in this period. Meanwhile other cities like Perth and Brisbane were starting serious bus reform near the end of this era.

The change of government in 1999 initially meant little for public transport services. The incoming Labor government kept Kennett's train and tram franchising for Melbourne though it did not refranchise V/Line when National Express pulled out. Buses, in theory the most flexible form of  public transport, retained their existing ossified routes and timetables.

The government was spruiking Melbourne 2030 - a future of denser living and more public transport - but wasn't backing it with commensurately good service levels. Service on some rail lines resumed but other promises were quietly shelved. The political focus was on retaining regional seats; hence so-called 'Regional Fast Rail' and a new roof for Spencer Street Station (renamed Southern Cross) were transport priorities. 

SmartBus was speculated about in the last year or so of the Kennett government but didn't start until late 2002. These were as trial services on routes 703 and 888/889 (Springvale Rd). They delivered 15 minute off-peak services but weekend timetables and operating hours were still limited. Late 2002 also saw some upgrades to suburban bus routes including new Sunday services. It was large based on the little that happened in the ten years prior but still small on a network scale. Hence the title of this period. However there was some optimism that more could be ahead, with SmartBus confirmed as successful, and the third being implemented on Warrigal Rd (Route 700). 

Public transport was emerging as a political issue. Trains were full and reliability was dropping. Melbourne's population was growing much faster than during the 1990s with large suburban subdivisions to the west, north and south-east. 

The government came out with 'Meeting Our Transport Challenges' in 2006. From a rail point of view it was a damp squib and was thought so at the time. One of its signature projects, a third track to Dandenong, was never built. However it promised a lot for buses and delivered maybe half (which was still a lot). In fact it was an amazing time with a new bus announcement at least every month for a very busy four years from 2006.

Major wins were minimum service standards. More than 100 bus routes got upgrades including 7 day service every hour or better until 9pm. That might not sound much but the low level of previous services made it a substantial gain. Most of the operating hours and weekend service cuts from the early 1990s were reversed with better service than before. Public holiday timetables were also standardised on many routes. Route 900 started as a SmartBus to Rowville to replace a hoped for train or tram extension.

Sixteen local area bus reviews were done, covering all of Melbourne. Implementation was patchy, especially where substantial route reforms were recommended. The same can be said for the promised coordination with trains; in 2020 we still have areas where buses every 22 to 24 minutes fail to meet trains every 20 minutes.

2010 was possibly the biggest year ever for buses. The SmartBus network grew dramatically from its few eastern suburbs routes. This was the year of both the Doncaster area DART SmartBuses and the SmartBus orbitals. They brought more frequent service over long hours to middle and outer suburbs. 

The orbitals were however a 'broad brush' approach, with some sparsely populated areas being over-served by them and some busy areas being underserviced. Efforts to reduce duplication with regular routes were only sometimes made. Combined with the limited progress on local bus reviews the result was a network that was still too complex and in some places inefficient.

Nevertheless buses had been given more love than they had for decades. Patronage grew about as quickly as services were being added, reaching 50 year highs. This is why I call it a new golden age.

Unfortunately for the Labor government trains were where the politics was and with plunging reliability it was clear they had lost control of the network. They were penalised on this when they lost 2010's election.

The Coalition victory kept the train service upgrades happening with new greenfields timetables commencing. There were no new SmartBus routes and the new Transdev contract ripped money out of the system. However minister Terry Mulder was more supportive of major bus network reform than either his predecessors or successors. And he set up Public Transport Victoria as an organisation with better focus on public transport service than previous or subsequent arrangements. 

The result were 'smell of oily rag' network reforms in areas like Brimbank and new networks in areas like Point Cook, Werribee and Tarneit. These new networks were based on a hierarchy of simple and more frequent routes along main roads and coverage-type local routes serving areas in between them. Later areas to gain simpler networks include Epping North, Cranbourne and the South Morang area. Transdev's mid-2014 network was also bold in some areas. Its route simplifications were generally good but service on some routes was underbaked for the patronage being achieved. 

Labor returned in late 2014. Networks planned under their opponents continued to be rolled out for a while later. However ministers tended to be risk-averse (for example in rejecting Transdev's proposed 2015 greenfields network and recommending nothing in its place) while their governments were infrastructure oriented. This was to set the stage for what happened next in the service arena.

We appear to have entered a new stupor. The government put on a few extra resources for buses  in early 2016 (notably new university shuttles) but interest in substantial network reform collapsed. This is even though there remained much unfinished business from the bus reviews and some areas had inefficient networks that could be reconfigured to benefit more people.

Will this stasis be sustained? There has been a recent small but discernible increase in activity. For example a new Endeavour Hills bus network. Some changes in East Keilor/Niddrie. Also Caroline Springs, Essendon Fields, Craigieburn and Donnybrook.

While beneficial, the Endeavour Hills and East Keilor revisions have not simplified services as much as 2014's bolder reforms in areas like Brimbank have. At the current pace one would be very old until the planners had got around to reforming what would then be 50 or 60 year routes and service levels. Especially when it's possible to waste effort on projects of little network importance, eg the recent upgrades to the very quiet Route 704.

Last week, as this history was being written, history was also being made. A ministerial reshuffle in the wake of the Adem Somyurek affair led to Melissa Horne losing public transport after eighteen months. Her replacement is Ben Carroll who is also responsible for roads (bringing roads and public transport together once again).

The chapter is not closed on this age. It might even be renamed, depending on what happens next. Maybe the recent changes will end up defining this period, more positively, as a second stirring, depending on what happens next.