Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Off to London on their quietest bus route

No local Timetable Tuesday today but enjoy this Geoff Marshall video of London's quietest route

Still on videos, did you know I have a YouTube channel? 

It's here

Friday, December 25, 2020

Did we get last year's Christmas presents the network needed?

Last year I listed ten things the public transport network needed to deliver a more useful service to more people. 

Here's what they were and progress against them:  

1. 20 min maximum waits on our trains, trams and buses

Not a lot in 2020 but 2021 is already looking better (see later).

There was welcome simplification of buses in Endeavour Hills with fewer but more frequent routes.  Route 460 to Caroline Springs had its timetable tidied up with a more even timetable. Its service has returned to a more even 20 minutes at most times although there are still some large afternoon gaps that prevent it from quite qualifying as a Useful Network service (as discussed in Useful Network Part 1). 

Some opportunities were lost during the year. We could have got more gain for our dollars, including longer hours and better frequencies on popular routes, if we were smarter as to where we poured bus resources. Back in May I highlighted how the poorly used 704 bus got a big service upgrade. Off-peak and Sunday upgrades for parts of the 733 or hours and weekend upgrades for the 800 could have benefited 10 times the number of passengers had these been done instead. 

Another missed opportunity was on our tram network where we didn't retain a temporary (but good) change regarding Route 12 that would have greatly improved northern CBD connectivity to Southern Cross Station. 

The big news though is just ahead. Next month's train timetable will introduce 20 minute maximum waits for (at least) the Frankston and Werribee lines. This is a substantial win that starts to undo the network-wide 1978 evening service cuts. That timetable's City Loop reform, 7 day consistency and 10 minute extended shoulder peak services on some lines are very welcome too. All we need is for the concept to be expand to more lines, starting with those with high patronage and/or with marginal seats (eg Sunbury/Watergardens, Craigieburn, Mernda, Hurstbridge/Greensborough, Belgrave/Lilydale).

2.Lots of new trams

2020's state budget includes an order for 100, costing $1.5b over several years. That will aid the move towards a more accessible system.

It is important that when we order new trams that the replacement of old trams is at least one for one, even if the new trams have a higher capacity than those they replace. This is so that frequency can be maintained. Although trams are more frequent (on average) than our trains, peak frequencies are lower than desirable and we still have 12 (rather than 10) minute off-peak frequencies on many routes. That does not ensure even connectivity with trains that are slowly moving towards a 10/20 minute pattern.  

3. Sunday service on the 13 bus routes that most need it

Zero progress on these. However the new Endeavour Hills network really helped in that area with local buses upgraded from every 120 to 40 minutes on Sundays. 

4. Better passenger information at major stations and bus interchanges

This is an area about which you can say there has been activity on but not progress. The Department of Transport dabbles with technology like information screens at stations and no doubt considers their installation an achievement. However results show a questionable record new stations like the rebuilt Frankston having major failings with information becoming less useful over time. Overall I'll chalk this up as a loss.   

5. Airport and western suburbs service upgrades

Airport rail construction was announced, with completion due in 2029. Moving some Geelong trains to their old via Newport route should free up space for much needed train capacity and frequency upgrades for Tarneit and Wyndham Vale. Happening sooner are some bus improvements in the Wyndham area (new bus routes 152 & 182). 

6. Unwrapping our fleet (so people can see out)

No real progress. But I think there's greater awareness that wrapped tram and bus windows are bad news for passenger wayfinding, safety, accessibility and amenity. 

7. Better tram priority 

No real progress. This is a real challenge since if they can't move swiftly through traffic it lessens the benefits from the new trams we're buying. 

8. More entrances at stations

No real progress. Our new stations are a mixed bag with some like Mentone still having just one entrance. A worrying trend is that some of our new stations (again including Mentone) are a longer walk from buses than the old stations they replace. 

9. Local bus service reviews to build a job-ready network

Limited progress.

The 2020 state budget was disappointing on the service side except for the very welcome Mornington Peninsula bus upgrades (implementation either 2021 or 2022). 2020's main achievements included mini-reviews in Endeavour Hills, around Keilor East/Airport West and Caroline Springs with the station gaining a second bus route. Given the lack of progress in previous years, we need about five times the bus network planning and reform activity to make serious inroads into a 30 year planning backlog. 

The Legislative Assembly Economy and Infrastructure Committee reported on sustainable employment for disadvantaged jobseekers during the year. I wrote a major submission on transport issues  for disadvantaged jobseekers and am pleased the committee picked up on this. This was pre-COVID 19 but is even more topical now given the increase in unemployment. 

10. Local pedestrian upgrades

Some. However we don't have a concerted high profile program like we do with level crossing removals (though some of these have pedestrian access benefits). 

Things not asked for (but we got)

There were things we didn't ask for but got anyway. I already mentioned infrastructure announcements in 2020's state budget. Also in the budget was a trial of zero emission buses. On this NSW and ACT seem to be ahead of us with the former announcing a full fleet roll-out

We also got a new minister in Ben Carroll MP who took over from Melissa Horne MP. Mr Carroll has so far displayed a good understanding of the portfolio and what's needed. And he has more seniority that I hope can translate into increased cabinet support and funding for better transport services. On this it's notable that if substantial vote-winning service upgrades are to be implemented in 2022 then funding will be needed in the 2021 budget due to lead times.   


To summarise, we got some things done, with next month's train timetable the stand-out on the service aspect. Not only for Frankston, Werribee, Williamstown, Altona but also Ballarat and Melton. There was an announcement on airport rail with a committed alignment and date along with a Geelong rail upgrade. Let's hope 2021 brings further announcements and action, especially on the service side, which had been lagging in recent times. 

More ideas at Building Melbourne's Useful Network

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Facebook groups to read about transport

No Timetable Tuesday today but that doesn't mean you've nothing to read. 

If you're on Facebook here are some local transport related groups you can read on. 

Public and Active Transport Victoria: https://www.facebook.com/groups/987259571642141

Melbourne Transport Group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/351646584847809

Vicsig: https://www.facebook.com/groups/vicsig

Urban Happiness - Melbourne Planning and Design ideas:  https://www.facebook.com/groups/311753722196970/

Better Urban Transport Australia and NZ: https://www.facebook.com/groups/urbantransportAustraliaNZ

Friday, December 18, 2020

Building Melbourne's Useful Network Part 74: Transport services for the night time economy

What are two of the more menial parts of meals out with friends, such as common at this time of year? Splitting the bill at premises that don't is one. Another is the transport home, or, more precisely, the waits after you go your separate ways.  

Unless it's a meeting of transport buffs, where the ingenuity of one's journey plan home can be unembarrassingly discussed, most people at social events like dinners out 'go with the flow'. That is they leave when others in their group do. After the initial wait, there will almost certainly be another before a change; in a big city few people can have a single line from their origin to their destination. 

Those who keep the night time economy going, that is the army of students and migrants dispensing the drinks, knocking up the nosh or guarding the gates have even less choice of finish time.  They are casually and often insecurely employed. Their pay may just cover the three big expenses of rent, food and transport and only then with substantial economies such as crowding a Docklands flat, not owning a car or an hour's wait for a night train instead of a taxi. 

Although they cohabit the same city, their job conditions compared to train drivers, whose union can veto whether they drive the same bit of track several times a day, or departmental bureaucrats, with their unending varieties of leave available, couldn't be more different. 

The person who said that being poor was expensive wasn’t joking. Life’s even dearer for the working poor, with a lack of transport service at the time they need to travel contributing hugely. I discussed how to counter that by providing a job-ready network here.

Today’s focus though is on the source of many of these jobs, the night time economy.

If we want to revive it to be even better than it was pre-COVID, we’re going to have to do something about public transport.  Both workers and visitors need improvements for the night economy to reach its full potential.

A wait for a connection is no less objectionable at night than it is during the day. In fact it can be more objectionable due to winter cold and perceived safety issues. For some reason Melbourne, much more than other big cities, deigns it acceptable to double or triple its length than during the day. 

If the night wait affects a lot of discretionary travel (which it would) then people would simply not travel and stay home. Or they might drive, which causes accidents, congestion and doesn’t help those, including casual workers, who don't.

Key issues I’ll discuss include Melbourne having the developed world’s least frequent evening trains, the tendency for our buses to shut down after 9pm and the four hour gaps that many suburbs have on weekend evenings before Night Network buses commence. Today I'll concentrate on the 7pm - midnight time slot (after midnight service deserves a separate post).  

Developed world’s longest waits between evening trains?

The sort of city that Melbourne likes to compare itself in world liveability rankings (like Montreal and Vancouver) get Saturday evening trains every 5 to 10 minutes. That’s about four times our service. 

Sydney, anti-fun lock-out laws notwithstanding, has since 2017, run trains every 15 minutes until midnight, or twice as good as us. 

Click below for more comparisons. 

Except for one line Melbourne runs its Saturday evening trains half-hourly from about 7pm. That's no better than smaller cities with less night life like Brisbane or Perth. 

Even US cities like LA and Atlanta, not exactly known for their public transport, run higher Saturday evening train frequencies than us, with 20 minute services in force.

To sum up, Melbourne's suburban rail network is large by world standards but is highly radial and  has about the least frequent evening service of any similar city in the developed world. Some welcome relief is coming in January 2021's train timetable. But even these upgrades will miss our busiest lines and half hour evening waits will remain more common than not.  

Mind the cliff

Something else distinctive about our train timetables is the extent to which service falls off a cliff in the early evening. Service can go from frequent to sparse within half an hour. The case study below shows frequency dropping by two-thirds, from every 10 to every 30 minutes around 7pm Saturdays on our busiest line.

Weeknight timetables have gentler cliffs on some lines. The abovementioned Dandenong line is a stand-out for good service on weeknights with trains every 10 minutes until quite late. However other busy lines like Sunbury/Watergardens, Craigieburn and Mernda have severe cliffs, dropping to the standard half-hourly service before dark (at this time of year) seven nights per week. More on weeknight train services here

Because most trains and buses have bedtimes more associated with nine year old children, the bottom right map shows the portion of the network still operating every 20 minutes or better around 10pm. Unlike during the day, when trains, trams and some buses run every 20 minutes, in the evening only the trams do. With one exception trains are half-hourly. Woe betide anyone who needs to make a connection as the same good connections between the two modes recur only hourly.

(links to more maps like this, including for other nights of the week, can be found here)

The ‘missing middle’

 I’ve mainly discussed trains. This is because trains often drop down to every 30 minutes while it’s only on Sundays that trams do. The table below shows a snapshot of the network by day of the week.

It also shows the limitations of the Night Network introduced in 2016. This boosted after midnight service on weekends. However it did not address the low mid-evening frequencies at times that night time economy workers might be starting. This shortfall makes the service significantly less useful, even for workplaces near a station (click for readability).  


It's important to stress how few extra trips are needed to fill the gaps, particularly for trains. 

Going from a 30 to 20 minute frequency requires just one extra service per hour each way.  Shifting the 20 to 30  minute cliff from after 7pm to after 10pm needs just two or three extra return trips per day per line. Multiply by the number of lines and you can boost the whole network with 400 to 500 extra weekly trips - all off-peak with existing trains. 

To put things into perspective this is only about 50% higher than January's upgrade which will add 280 trips per week and much less than other cities such as Sydney have implemented in recent years.  

Areas excluded

Thought the 9pm COVID curfew was tough? Many suburbs have a similar curfew operating every night due to limited bus services. This was captured in the table above under ‘local buses’. The biggest concentrations of people effectively locked out of the night time economy unless they drive are mapped below (click for clarity).

These areas are likely to include suburbs with large casual and/or night time economy workforces, especially in ethnically diverse areas west, north and south-east of Melbourne. 

Summary - key issues and opportunities

Low frequency network wide: Melbourne mostly runs evening trains only every 30 min. That’s worse than any comparable city in the world.  Sydney runs twice as many trains with widespread 15 min evening service. 30 minute frequencies are also widespread on other key routes including trams (Sunday evenings) and SmartBuses (all nights plus weekend daytime on most routes). Low frequencies make good connections a stroke of good luck and often makes waiting longer than travel time. 

The early evening cliff: Past 7 or 8pm  train frequency drops from every 10 – 20 min to every 30 minutes, largely due to cuts made in 1978 when Melbourne was half its current size.  Severe on weekends where some lines have just 1/3 the number of trains running at 8pm as at 6pm. Weeknights are a little better but the cliff still encourages those going out to tea to finish before 8 or 9pm and affects the ability of public transport to work for those with mid-evening starts or finishes (including a lot of retail for the latter). Lessening that cliff by adding one extra service per hour per direction on each line across the network would be a cheap fix. 

No connectivity with trams: Trains and SmartBuses every 30 min cannot connect evenly with trams typically every 20 min. That means long waits at stations and unreliable journey times. A 20 minute minimum 7 day 6am - midnight frequency for trains, trams and key bus routes would make the network vastly better connected, even without special coordination efforts. 

Most buses cease service shortly after 9pm, even on Friday and Saturday nights. Night Network buses don’t kick in until after 1am, meaning there’s long mid-evening gaps without service. Even the premium service SmartBus shuts down at 9pm Sunday, denying key corridors like Springvale Rd and residential areas like Doncaster service after then. Significant scope exists to run better evening bus operating hours (such as is more widespread in Sydney, Adelaide and Perth) starting to upgrades to (say) 20 or 30 high priority routes with established high patronage and favourable catchment demographics. As is a recurring theme, this can be done by working the existing fleet harder. 


The night time economy needs frequent public transport to reach its full potential. It cannot thrive if its customers have to cut short their evenings and employers can’t get staff due to transport issues.

Melbourne thinks of itself as a grown up city. Yet it can  never be until trains and buses have grown-up bedtimes. Their timetables should be upgraded so they are job and fun ready. 

Currently common half-hour frequencies should first be boosted to every 20 minutes network-wide, with further increases to 10 minutes on busier lines.  First priority should be the neglected 7 - 10pm slot (7 days) with the next round boosting the 10pm - midnight window. Unlike the very expensive to run Night Network trains introduced in 2016, this can be done without extra station staffing. 

People should be able to accept a job without having to think twice about how they are going to efficiently get there and back. They can’t yet do that, even for CBD and inner suburban jobs. It's not for a lack of public transport infrastructure, it's just that it's too lightly used, including at times people need to travel. 

The good news is we can have more useful evening services in little more than the time it takes to recruit sufficient drivers. And the costs are relatively low as we already have the train, tram and bus fleet that just needs to be worked harder. 

PS: An index to all Useful Networks is here.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Timetable Tuesday #100: FlexiRide: Rowville's rebadged Telebus

The sometimes lumbering and hobbled Department of Transport, rarely able to win support for even small cost-effective bus service upgrades from its political masters, has just introduced something radical. Or maybe not. 

They have just scrapped the Rowville Telebus. It its place is an app-based alternative called FlexiRide.  It started yesterday, without the usual prior public consultation that happens when bus networks are changed.

Naturally I wanted to write about the new service. However it's been hard as website information has been vague. For example there are no details on waiting times to expect nor the notice one should give to book a trip. The latter is important as existing similar services vary widely - from 10 minutes for Woodend FlexiRide to the evening before for GisBus

The app doesn't even reveal if it's a myki service or the fare payable (unlike other trips it can plan). For the answer you need to check the response to the question posed on the PTV Facebook page. It turned out myki fares do apply. Good.    

The PTV website article also says this:  

Passengers with accessibility requirements can request a more tailored service that picks them up from their door or an agreed accessible location. 

This implies that passengers without such requirements get a less tailored service. Which means they'll need to walk a bit. That's not necessarily a bad thing if it enables the service to be more frequent or direct. But users need to know how much of a walk they are in for. And, no, "just get the app" or "you'll know on the day" are not acceptable answers if you want to promote the service beforehand. 

The map below shows the zone in which FlexiRide will operate. At roughly 5km across, it's a wide area, including not just Rowville and Lysterfield but also parts of Ferntree Gully and the (unlabelled) Mountain Gate Shopping Centre. (click on map for clearer view). 

Existing services

See my item about Rowville area bus routes here for background. Rather than having one network, like most suburbs, what's there now is better described as two half networks. 

These half networks comprise  (i) some fixed routes (mostly) operating over limited hours at infrequent intervals (inferior to the hourly minimum service standard) and (ii) three 'Telebus' routes operating on weekdays only with different peak and interpeak service patterns and (again) limited service hours. These half networks have a large overlap, meaning that neither network is as good or well used as it could be. 

Away from the area near Stud Park shops (which has SmartBus 900 and 901), Rowville/Lysterfield has three fixed bus routes. The 691 is the best of the lot. This is a sometimes confusing route with some loopy bits. However its timetable operates close to minimum standards except for the early weekend evening finishes. The other two routes form the 681/682 loop. These are very indirect and infrequent routes with limited operating hours and no public holiday service. 

Telebus can be described as a cross between a fixed route and a fully flexible route. Buses leave and arrive at their termini at fixed times. They are meant to be at several intermediate points at specified times, with a five minute leeway period. That leeway gives an opportunity to deviate, on call, to be nearer passengers' homes. Passengers either turn up and wait at designated stops or phone ahead for the bus to deviate. On the way back they can ask the driver to drop them off nearer home. A surcharge (above the myki fare) applies for passengers wishing to get the bus to deviate. In contrast passengers who don't need the bus to deviate neither need to call ahead nor pay an extra fare. 

Telebus is less productive than most fixed route buses. But compared to other types of flexible routes buses it has performed well especially on its original routes in the Lilydale/Croydon area. It's not done so well in the Rowville area, likely due to less favourable demographics and/or substantial overlaps with fixed routes which would sap some of its patronage. 

Rowville, a 1980s/90s subdivision, is not an area that bus planners relish designing services for. It was planned during a lean time for public transport with not even established areas retaining service. Partly due to it never having much of a service, car ownership is very high. Politicians of all stripes promise trains and trams but have never delivered. And even if they did the area would still need a substantial feeder bus network to provide 'last mile' (or two) access. Spaghetti roads make direct fixed routes that provide reasonable coverage difficult. Not so difficult that we can't do better than now, but hard enough to make the Department of Transport give up and opt for flexible routes instead.  

Politically Rowville is a strong seat for the Liberal Party, held by Kim Wells MP. As a member of the opposition he is free to criticise the government in a manner that government MPs wouldn't. Despite being short-changed with some of Melbourne's lowest bus service levels, pressing for improvements does not appear to be a strong focus, with the member's most recent known advocacy being on school bus services to Wheelers Hill Secondary back in 2016. 


As much as I've been able to ascertain, given limited information, differences between fixed route, Telebus and FlexiRide are summarised here: (click for a better view)

If you were to have a continuum between fixed bus routes and something completely flexible then Telebus, with some fixed stops and the ability to travel to them without booking, would be near the middle. 

FlexiRide features and benefits

FlexiRide has some benefits compared to Telebus. Most notably its evening operating hours are about 90 minutes longer, with an 8pm finish (although there remains no weekend or public holiday service). The latter means that on public holidays just a single bus route (the 691) operates in the area. 

FlexiRide offers access to Ferntree Gully Station at all times, not just during the peaks, as was the case with Telebus.  The station's half-hourly trains may make using it a gamble though if arrival times vary. 

The coverage area is a little bigger than Telebus, including around Mountain Gate Shopping Centre. Coverage area is a trade-off with flexible route buses. The bigger it is the more destinations reachable but the more waiting and deviating required. 

The Android version of the app requires 22MB of download space. You will need GPS switched on for  the location tracking. If you don't normally do this you'll will notice reduced battery life. Although you can manually enter locations if desired.

A good feature is that the app's planner includes not just FlexiRide but also regular train, tram and bus services. The screenshot below shows a trip planned 24 hours in advance from Stud Park to Mountain Gate Shopping Centre. You can order the trip and compare it with fixed route options. However the fare payable is not mentioned for the FlexiRide option. 

The app was tried on Sunday (before services were operating) and again on Monday (when services had started). When checked on Sunday the pick up time nominated was exactly as requested; I'm guessing that few if any would have booked trips yet.   

There are some questions we don't yet know the answer to. It would have been interesting for a group of friends to plan widely disparate trips at once. Would they have still got their desired pick up times or would the app have calculated an optimum route for the bus, meaning that some would have a later time?  

Stud Park is one of two known FlexiRide fixed stops (the other being Ferntree Gully Station). I then planned a trip from a random residential location within the FlexiRide zone (again 24 hours in advance). This did not recognise FlexiRide at all despite it potentially being a good option (the direct fixed route option being 26 minutes walk away).  

The test was repeated on Monday for this address. This time FlexiRide recognised it. Hence you can only plan some trips when the service is running. 

Several origins and destinations were tried. The maximum calculated waiting time was 8 minutes, which is good. The real test though is what happens when several passengers summon the service at once for travel in different directions. 

Can  you see the locations of FlexiRide buses on their app even if you haven't booked a trip? The answer appears to be no. In contrast you could see Telebus locations, such as tried yesterday for this one at Croydon. Not only that but Ventura have this feature for all routes they run. 

FlexiRide, in contrast, gets no mention on the Ventura website. Indeed there are still links to non-active Rowville Telebus maps even though these services have ceased operating. Instead one needs to go to the app for information about FlexiRide. 

Presumably app users will be able to follow their bus's progress with an expected arrival time given. I couldn't find any 'How to use FlexiRide' instructions in the app. Nor could I find any mention of any main stops, despite their existence being implied by the PTV website blurb mentioned before. 

FlexiRide risks

The placement of FlexiRide at one extreme of the table shown before makes it a high risk approach to providing public transport. 

Either usage is low, meaning it's not useful to many people, and cost-recovery is poor. 

Or many people want to use the bus but the geometry of the flexible route makes travel excruciatingly slow and arrival times highly variable (resulting in missed connections). The point at which the service degrades may involve fewer passengers (possibly less than 10) than on a regular bus (which could fit 60 including standees). The fix for this would either be to add more buses (with higher operating costs) or convert fully to a fixed route network (noting that a poor one already exists in the area). 

Maybe the app will have some smarts that bump you off to another bus if the system has limits on how long a single run can go for. That may partly help but could extend waiting times, including what may appear to be a bus no-show for those who have booked by phone. 

To some extent this degradation is self-correcting as people unhappy about the service will stop using it, leading to more direct and reliable service for existing users (in which case we're back to mostly empty buses and poor cost recovery). Also it's not a customer friendly way to run a network. Especially if you see public transport as being a useful service for many that delivers on wider economic, social and environmental objectives. 

Another risk with FlexiRide are the barriers to usage which are significant. Already a problem with regular route buses which are a kind of 'secret society' that most Melburnians do not bother with, barriers are doubly higher with flexible route buses. 

Information fragmentation is one reason. Instead of everything you need to know being on the PTV website or app, demand responsive services are notorious for having their own offshoot sites or apps. Both GisBus (Gisborne flexible route service) with its seperate website and now Rowville FlexiRide (with its app) are examples. 

Although even here PTV is inconsistent. For example Woodend FlexiRide appears on the timetable section of the PTV website whereas Rowville FlexiRide is not listed. The PTV website journey planner also omits FlexiRide as does (currently) Ventura's website.

While the FlexiRide app includes a journey planner for regular routes you can't look up their timetable. Thus people in Rowville may need to juggle between the FlexiRide app and the PTV website or app for information depending on which type of service they are using. 

Then there is the barrier erected due to the need to book. It's true that there is a phone as well as an app option to book trips. However with a fixed route bus no booking is needed. Neither does Telebus need it for its fixed stops. 

This is only anecdotal, but I have seen a courtesy, deferential or self-sufficient mindset amongst some proudly independent older people who will do everything they can to not unnecessarily 'bother' others (even though it's their perfect right to do so). That includes phone booking a bus. Whereas if the service was there at a known time and didn't need booking (like with a fixed route) then they may use it more.  

Is FlexiRide incorporated in the PTV app? Of course not! It needs a separate app. When  your phone's full that's another barrier to using. Some of us like keeping our digital lives simple, avoiding as many passwords and apps as possible. But if you're curious you can download it here:  

Another issue may face lower income and/or less digitally organised people who may lack data credits on both their mobile phone (if they own one) and myki. The latter is a particular issue since on-board myki top-ups were scrapped under the cover of COVID-19 a few months ago, with those remote from stations hardest hit. Yes, there are efficiency arguments but it might also be an example of elite projection amongst policy-makers and a case where the system is unconsciously anti-poor.

Remember the game that kids played where they'd knock on someone's door then run away, making mischief for the unfortunate old people behind? What if teenage pranksters were to summon a FlexiRide bus to deviate it somewhere but either not board,  make rude gestures or deliberately forget their Myki card? Maybe that's stretching things but there may still be an issue with 'no shows' that deviate buses and passengers for no reason. Or there may be genuine reasons for not being there, such as being seen on the street and getting a lift from a friend. The bus company may wish to ban nuisances from using the service but, with transport being a basic service, this is the sort of thing that human rights advocates might legally challenge. 

FlexiRide is a trial. Passengers have not been told how long the trial runs for or what constitutes success. Hence there is no accountability with the Department of Transport (whose senior staff are unlikely to be personally affected) drafting the plan in secret. It seems that locals didn't get a look-in, eg being asked whether they would prefer alternatives achievable for similar cost, for instance a boost to their long-neglected fixed route services. 


The above may paint an unfairly unfavourable picture of FlexiRide. And, yes, I've stressed the risks more than the upsides. However PTV hasn't well explained the benefits compared to Telebus and I'd only be making stuff up if I tried doing their job for them. 

The real evidence though is in the eating. All we can do is to watch how the experiment goes. If usage remains low then it may well succeed for a niche ridership. On the other hand such services tried elsewhere do not tend to scale well for higher ridership. If you've tried FlexiRide or a similar service let me know how it went, especially in comparison with Telebus. I'd appreciate hearing how many others used it as it's easy for such services to work with a few passengers but much harder with higher numbers. 

PS: An index to all Timetable Tuesday items is here.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Building Melbourne's Useful Network Part 73: Five impediments to bus network reform in Melbourne

Recently I was invited to present to Melbourne University students on the main impediments to bus service reform. Following is an embellished and slightly updated extract. 


Bus service reform is incredibly cost-effective, bringing service to the millions the rail projects miss. It’s a massive enabler of social opportunity and the biggest creator of ongoing jobs in public transport. Infrastructure Victoria says we need improved bus services. As does nearly every transport forum you go to. 

But in the last few years it’s hardly ever happened. There’s a great graph that Graham Currie from Monash did showing service per capita falling for the better part of a decade. We’ve added people but not service by nearly as much.
It’s not been for a lack of money swishing around; it is infinitely easier to find billions of dollars for a capital works project than even ten million to improve buses, or in fact service on any mode. Even finding a few hundred thousand one-off capital needed to introduce reformed simpler more direct bus networks with similar running costs to now can elude executive teams whose own annual pay well exceeds that.    
The starving of service is so stark that even non-transport people are noticing. This is Tim Colebatch writing on last month’s State Budget in “Inside Story”.
“On the same page as the commitment to spend $2200 million on the preliminaries of the Suburban Rail Loop, the government has committed to spend just $4 million over the next four years to improve bus services — the form of public transport that residents of the outer suburbs most rely on. “
Consider the City of Wyndham. Unlike outdated impressions of outer suburbs, population density in Tarneit and Truganina is high and car ownership is low relative to other growth areas. Buses here are amongst the busiest in Melbourne, even if many drop to every 40 minutes off-peak.
Many local jobs are in the Laverton North industrial area. You can’t do those jobs at home. But there are no direct buses between homes and jobs two despite new neighbourhoods in between that could be served. Cycling links are also poor.

Two new bus routes will come to Tarneit soon but neither will connect Laverton North jobs. All because we can’t find the three million dollars annually to build a local job-ready bus network that could also link in better to Sunshine, Altona North and Point Cook.
In contrast the wages bill for our 142 executives in the Department of Transport exceeds $30 million. Their job is to advise government on policy. Even if they can articulate what's needed (which can't be assumed) they are not necessarily always heeded. You could blame modern politics, including the rise of politically-driven ministerial flunkies from unions or think tanks as rival sources of advice. Though if our top mandarins can’t sell initiatives like cost-effective service improvements in marginal seats (that should cause even hacks to salivate) then you’d have to query their effectiveness.
Success here requires network knowledge, political smarts, internal advocacy and sales skills. However we expect more sales ability from the average teenage casual in JB Hi Fi than a degreed senior bureaucrat on ten times the pay. As Sir Humphrey Appleby once said about his minister, some past transport execs have been very ordinary.
As students and observers, don’t you forget that. Make them earn esteem in your mind from their record rather than putting them on a pedestal due to their position.
So what are the five impediments to bus network reform and service improvement? Here’s my pick.
1. Record low interest rates make ‘big infrastructure’ attractive 
If you’ve read the Barefoot Investor you’ll know that car loans are bad for your finances since you’re paying interest on something falling in value. If families didn’t need so many cars to get to the jobs they need to pay their loans then they’d be better off. Which is why buses are such a blessing if service is useful enough for households to manage without an extra car. This is kitchen table family budget stuff that transport bosses on three hundred thousand should be hammering the minister on.
Governments can borrow money for way less interest than you or I can. When interest rates are super low then the annual costs of servicing a large debt are tiny. So, especially with a growing population, it can make sense to borrow for well-chosen infrastructure projects with long term benefits. Not to mention the political benefits of building things and creating jobs. 
But humans (and transport departments) are simple creatures. They can juggle only a few things at a time. We spent the nineties obsessing over franchising (got some imported UK managers) and the noughies on myki ticketing (a bit of plastic). Service got ignored most of that time. 
Cheap money will always find a home, so today’s obsession has shifted to infrastructure borrowing with service again sidelined. This is why despite gridlock around the big shopping centres in the lead up to Christmas, the vast majority of our buses will be sitting idle in depots. And there are fewer bus driver jobs than there should be. An obsession with infrastructure is crowding out all the good service stuff we could be doing.
Your generation will cop the interest bill from today’s mega-projects in higher taxes. The credit rating agencies are getting antsy with Victoria down two notches to AA. It is not only your professional duty but also your self-interest as taxpayers to only support projects that return more benefits than they cost. What seems cheap for oldies could be expensive for you guys. And it’s time to get priorities right, end 30 years of cargo cultism, and make the 2020s the decade of service.

2. Treasuries hate recurrent expenditure 
Those spending capital make a one-off payment and the item is theirs without future commitments*. Unless they got a loan, in which case they have a debt. However, the benefits of having infrastructure now may be worth the interest payments. Especially given low government borrowing costs. And if you had qualms about debt appearing on the government books, there are creative finance options like public private partnerships to explore.
No matter their merit, financing train, bus and tram services is harder. Governments that boost services are committing themselves to indefinite ongoing spending. That requires spending cuts elsewhere, tax rises to fund or acceptance of a bigger budget deficit. None appear attractive. So, unless we're NSW, (which has a Coalition state government that understands transport service) we see little added.  
This is not helped by some of the funny doctrines around public finance floating around. They might make some sense. But when taken too far can result in poor value projects getting funded and good things missing out.
For example, borrowing tens of billions for one-off capital spending is considered more sound than annually borrowing smaller amounts (say $100 - $200 million) for recurrent spending such as on greatly improved train and bus frequencies. If we were to turn off the tap tomorrow we'd still have the railway, road or bridge to show for our past borrowing. Whereas if we pulled the plug on service funding we'd have massive timetable cutbacks (like happened under premier Joan Kirner). 
A bridge is tangible for all to see but when we invest in services we are 'just' supporting an idea. Although it is a very good idea. And one that should be celebrated as a human achievement. That is the idea that more than four million Melburnians can, after a short walk from home, access a frequent service that takes them almost anywhere for an affordable fare. The opportunities a useful network  gives for people to better their lives, as well as the money families save on not needing extra cars, are high but aren't as valued as they should be.

While we should be valuing service more, we should recognise that not all that gets built represents value for money. Indeed, 
some infrastructure has such a poor benefit / cost ratio that we’d have been better off not to build it. Yet low interest rates make it cheap to fund. But cheapness does not necessarily equal value. It's like watching some Ashens videos on YouTube, walking into a two dollar shop and coming out with a bagful of tat. "It's useless!" your partner might say. "But it was cheap!" you may reply. 
Meanwhile, good service policies like adding shoulder and off-peak services on key routes work the existing fleet (ie capital) harder, contribute to increased fare revenue, relieve parking pressures and improve the road system’s efficiency. What's not to like about any of that? 
We don’t have to think about transport finances and their benefits the way we do, but we do. The result, especially with low interest rates is pampered infrastructure and starved service. Even in strictly economic terms that can be inefficient due to poor capital utilisation.
You should ask one simple question when evaluating any transport proposal. “Who benefits?”. Given that better services can benefit catchments of millions including many left behind by big projects, you'd have to say that investing in service is one of the most cost-effective things you can do to make  the network more useful.   
(*) We'll ignore maintenance and any implied commitment to replace at end of life. 
3. Perceived political risk 
No one opposes the simple act of putting on extra buses. But if we want buses as useful, fast and efficient as they should be then we need to reform networks. That can upset some existing passengers. And you can bet they will complain if you take something away or require them to change buses.
A proposed bus network might benefit ten thousand people but be disliked by a hundred. Yet it is those hundred who will complain. They will lobby MPs and organise petitions. The opposition will try to score points.
There seems to be a view that politically it’s better to avoid upsetting 100 people than deliver improvements for ten thousand. Governments may get nervous and abandon a network reform. Or, they can, as has become common, avoid proposing it in the first place. The result is an underused bus system, like Melbourne’s today, stuck in the 1970s that is useful to only half the number of people it should be.
You can minimise risk while preserving the integrity of network reforms. For example planners should understand the community, know the demographics and consult widely. They could analyse complaints about the existing network to build the case for reform. And they should involve stakeholders like local councils who can help build support. A two tier network containing a mix of direct main road routes and neighbourhood coverage routes (like in Wyndham) can be easier to sell to those who still need a bus nearby. And although it might be possible to reform a network within existing budgets in practice it’s smoother if you have funding for tweaks to address the main criticisms.
Adelaide is a recent case-study where a whole city’s proposed reformed bus network was scrapped. The premier intervened and the minister was replaced. And just yesterday we heard he will quit politics. In contrast Perth and Sydney have been much more successful in reforming their bus networks. My blog, Melbourne on Transit, has detailed articles on how we can learn from these experiences (Adelaide's failure here, Perth successes herehere and here).
4. Low profile of existing bus services due to poor information and marketing 
Melbourne is hopeless at marketing buses. We spend millions on new stations like Frankston but PTV won’t put up a bus network map such as like you could print for $20 at Officeworks. Bus stops used to have timetables and network maps but the latter were removed several years ago. 
It’s true that many buses are unmarketable due to their short operating hours and low frequencies. But we have routes or corridors every ten minutes – forming a frequent network – that we don’t tell people about. For example times may be scattered over multiple timetable lists at stops rather than combined. Unlike other cities, PTV does not publish frequent network maps. This keeps bus patronage lower than it should be. And it means that fewer people have experience of what buses can do. Thus the impetus for reform to make them better isn’t as strong.
5. Elite projection 
I might have to be careful here since I’m addressing a Melbourne Uni crowd. Anyway if you don’t already read it, I recommend Jarrett Walker’s ‘Human Transit’ blog. Especially an article called ‘The dangers of Elite projection’.
Basically it says that policy makers and the people they interact with live in a kind of bubble that distorts priorities with regards to transport. As opposed to the service that is both affordable and useful to large numbers of people.
Take airport rail. The op-edders in papers have blabbered for 30 years about how much it is an embarrassment that Melbourne doesn’t have airport rail. Even though the average person would fly only two or three times a year, few airport area workers would benefit (even if they could afford the likely high fares) and there is already super-frequent SkyBus, airport rail is somehow considered critical. 
In contrast despite Melton being declared a satellite city in the ‘70s it still doesn’t have frequent electrified rail that many would use daily. The elite tend to fly a lot. But I doubt too many live in Melton. They also tend to get their pet projects up while people in Melton must wait. 
Fast rail is another vanity project talked up by elites with frequent media coverage. Yet we don’t read as much about the suburbs built 30 years ago, like Rowville/Lysterfield that still have 90 minute gaps between buses. We can fix the latter for not that much money but for some reason it keeps being put off. The nearest we get to Rowville area bus reform is when, without public consultation, the department swaps one underused variable route bus system for another while neglecting the fixed routes it heavily overlaps.  I doubt Rowville has too many elites either, or if it does they don't ride buses! 
A few years ago a part of the Department of Transport plotted where its people lived. It was opt-in so can't be considered scientific. But it was horrendously skewed. Most lived in the inner suburbs, including places like Carlton, Yarraville, Brunswick and Northcote. Unless they go out of their way their lifestyle, outlook and experiences are very different from those who they’re making policy for in Croydon or Craigieburn. They might not think themselves such, but people with a degree and a public service job are an elite when compared to the general population. The least they can do is to understand their position and seek to compensate where it distorts how they see things.
Whatever your personal circumstances you need to see ‘elite projection’ in others and most importantly yourself. Failure to do so can make you part of the problem and give you an irrational bias against cost-effective and widely beneficial projects like bus reform.
That means you need to jump on a bus to Craigieburn West or Tarneit and note the high patronage, dense housing and low service. Check out the scene at Frankston interchange on the weekend. While you’re down there catch the 788 every 80 minutes and note the clientele around Rosebud. Look at the pedestrian facilities at Laverton North and access to the 417 bus every 45 minutes. I can’t guarantee it but I wouldn’t be surprised if you get extra marks for the broader outlook this will enable.
Buses, and public transport services generally, has massive untapped potential. 
More examples are elswhere on this blog. 
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