Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Timetable Tuesday #57: 577 - the bus with stops you can't get to

At first sight there's little remarkable about bus route 577. It connects homes to stations and shops across Melbourne's middle-northern suburbs. It's relatively direct with operating hours and frequency fairly typical for a Melbourne suburban bus. 

577's map is below. 
The map below is how it relates to nearby routes. It's basically an east-west route serving homes off Findon Rd. It overlaps many others to allow one-seat access to Epping Plaza and the health precinct around The Northern Hospital.
577's catchment is basically 1970s to 1990s suburbia. It's mostly detached houses though block sizes are getting smaller. The area could be described as working-class with a high proportion working in industrial areas in Epping and off Sydney Rd. 

Epping was popular with Southern European migrants after WWII (who appreciated its spacious homes and gardens compared to the more cramped inner suburbs where many first lived) and, more recently, those from the Middle East.  Most of Route 577's catchment is in the safe Labor seat of Mill Park, held by Lily D'Ambrosio MP. 

Usage

Route 577 gets less use than one might expect. On weekdays it attracts just 16 passenger boardings per service hour. This is less than both the average for Melbourne buses (low 20s) and what Infrastructure Victoria considers a productive bus route (over 20 boardings per hour). Weekend usage is slightly lower, with 14 and 12 boardings per hour for Saturday and Sunday respectively. 

Why is this so? After all Route 577 is a direct route serving significant jobs, shopping, education and health destinations. Its demographics are not bad for buses and it's not overlapped by other routes for much of its way. 

Maybe the 577 doesn't stop where people would wish to catch it? Or people just can't quickly, directly and safely walk to where it does stop. More on this next.   

Coverage and access issues

The map above doesn't tell the full story about 577. Local roads have been constructed to the bare minimum standard that enables cars to drive along it. They have come under pressure from development to the north, north-west and east and rat-running drivers preferring them over busier parallel roads. 

It's a common road builder ploy to replace cross roads with roundabouts when traffic levels rise, apparently to 'calm traffic'. However all this does for the walker is to guarantee continuously flowing traffic with no gaps to cross. Hence walking becomes an impractical and unsafe means of transport, even for local trips that could reasonably be walked. 

The result is even higher traffic volumes and local campaigns to signalise the intersection (which might happen 10 or more years later). Roundabouts are cheaper than signals but those who commission them rarely bring themselves to add the paint required to include zebra crossings. At the very best one might get a stand-alone signalised crossing on one leg of the roundabout some distance back from the intersection which is usually the walker's desire line (eg the ones near Mill Park Secondary College on Civic Dr and Ferres Bvd near the council chambers (but 300m south of Findon Rd).  

Bus stop locations is another issue that's often missed. Wider stop spacing increases bus speed but reduces coverage. The wider they are spaced the more important exact location is to ensure adequate coverage. This means locating them at intersections, near popular destinations and at midblock locations where there are good connections to paths. 

A local bus route (like the 577) might reasonably have stops spaced every 300 to 400 metres.  However gaps can sometimes exceed 800 metres, such as in High St on trips towards South Morang where the bus turns right into Findon Rd.  This excessive spacing means that those who should have a bus towards South Morang and Plenty Valley Shopping Centre miss out, despite a route passing by.


Access to Route 577 can be difficult even where there are stops. Nowhere is this apparent more  than along Findon Rd, the main area where it provides unique coverage. You can get the idea from the map below. Although Findon Rd is the only possible through route for a local bus there's a 3km stretch where there's no crossings. Traffic volumes, even on weekends, are sufficiently high to make crossing the road to catch the bus slow, unsafe and difficult. This probably contributes to the route's poor patronage noted before.  


Those who need to cross Findon Rd, for example to reach the convenience store, are similarly restricted. Findon Rd goes back to the early 1970s. Back then it was just a 600m long access road from Epping Rd to the Darebin Creek. Later a bridge was built and it extended east, serving as the only access to the Boral quarry. By the late 1980s housing had sprung up to its south with some streets connecting onto Findon Rd.

A decade later it had extended east almost to its current extent, reaching the municipal offices and Ferres Bvd. By this time there was housing both north and south of Findon Rd. Route 556 was the only bus in the area, operating an indirect route along the western part of Findon Rd. Apart from quarry trucks overall traffic would still have been fairly quiet since the council offices were the absolute edge of suburban development. Route 577 commenced in 2002, with a similar route to now along Findon Rd but extending east to new estates on The Lakes Boulevard (instead of South Morang Station which opened a decade later).

Findon Rd is an example of a formerly fringe area road that gets extended as homes get built. The increased traffic is evidence that drivers along it find it useful for some of their trips (and may even make trips they wouldn't have beforehand with the new connection).

The road goes from being benign (when it's quiet) to posing a major barrier when people can't easily, directly and safely cross it even for a 100 metre walk to a convenience store or to a 577 bus stop. This in turn influences peoples private decisions like driving instead of walking, not riding the bus or prohibiting children from walking to the nearby secondary college. Which further induces demand for driving and depresses bus usage.

A preventative step could be a requirement that every pair of bus stops on every suburban road have a zebra crossing with stops typically about 400 metres apart and located to maximise walking catchment and connectivity with other routes. Road widths and conditions would be set to encourage cautious driving, as opposed to the 'open road' you see in the picture above. Large roundabouts would never be built, with signalisation occurring earlier if required by traffic volumes. Only through measures like these can roads in fringe areas support increased traffic without them blocking communities from facilities and services that they could and should be reasonably able to walk to.  

Timetable

As noted before, Route 577 operates to similar hours and frequencies as other bus services in Melbourne. This means 'minimum standards' service that is at least hourly until 9pm seven days per week. Peak buses are typically every 20 minutes approximately (over a broad peak) and 40 minutes on weekends.  

577's main oddity is its weekday service between approximately 11am and 3pm. Instead of being a flat 20 or 40 minute (both of which would harmonise with trains) it runs a lumpy timetable with alternating long and short gaps of approximately 20 and 40 minutes. This provides two trips per hour. Unlike a 30 minute frequency it is not 'clockface' memorable. However the staggering may provide better connections with trains than a flat 30 minute headway. 

Intervals are slightly more even for trips towards Epping.


Given the route's low usage one might think that a flat 40 minute service would be sufficient. Or, if you wanted to be more generous then a flat 20 minute timetable would be simpler to remember. However extra stops and improved pedestrian access is essential to get any patronage return from the improved service given how difficult existing stops are to reach.  

Conclusion


What do you think about the 577? Am I right that its main problems are lack of access? Or are timetable changes also important? Please let me know your thoughts in the comments below. 


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



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A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, Institutions (Access Quintet Book 4) David Levinson

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Transport for Suburbia: Beyond the Automobile Age Paul Mees

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2 comments:

Kevin Balaam said...

Removal of the roundabout at Epping Rd shown in several diagrams was completed in early-mid 2019. The view along the road from Brush Drive shown in one diagram has also changed, though the premise of the inaccessibility argument remains correct.
(https://roadprojects.vic.gov.au/projects/oherns-road-upgrade/stage-1)

Tom said...

Findon Rd is planned for duplication (some of it already is), which may make crossing it harder, although allow each road direction to be crossed separately. This also makes zebra crossings harder as they are generally restricted to one lane in each direction.