Friday, June 26, 2020

10 steps to 200 million: Achieving Melbourne's bus patronage target (Useful Network Part 50)

Other Australian cities are doing big things with buses. Adelaide is increasing its frequent network by 42%, delivering frequent buses to 200 000 more people. That's 800 000 if you scale it up to Melbourne's size. Canberra, which introduced a new frequent network last year, is boosting services by 17% to give everyone a local bus every 30 minutes or better on weekdays from next month. Perth has a continuous review process that's transformed its network in 20 years. And Sydney regularly announces bus service upgrades that make us envious. 

What about us? Our buses just limp along. The infrastructure-heavy program under senior minister Jacinta Allan grabs all attention. Until this week public transport services were left to rookie minister Melissa Horne with a tiny budget for anything new or even to reconfigure existing routes. Pre COVID-19 metropolitan bus patronage had stagnated near 120 million passengers per year versus 200 million for trams in their much smaller catchment.

We haven't had a publicly available bus network plan for years. You'd have to go back to 2006 for Meeting Our Transport Challenges which spawned some large upgrades. The Rail Network Development Plan from 2012 showed how buses might operate as part of a coordinated network. The last few years have, in contrast, been quiet. But don't discount the iceberg theory (below).

A rare insight into what might lurk below the surface was given by Department of Transport secretary Paul Younis at a Metropolitan Transport Forum meeting last November . He flagged a large bus order and an ambitious bus patronage target of 200 million passengers per year by 2030.

This target is 64% growth in 11 years. That works out to be about 5% annual compound growth or at least double our (historically high) recent annual population growth. In other words more people, more trips and a shift from other modes. The growth required is 78 million extra boardings, about four times what all our SmartBus routes carry each year

You won't get this sustained increase without either a plan or some bigger favourable external force at work. The latter happened for trains in the 2003 to 2010 period. However there wasn't a proper growth plan and booming patronage was accompanied by plunging reliability. Bus use also grew strongly in this period, with service upgrades helping greatly.

The 200 million target sounds great. It's achievable but only with a lot of effort. Implementation would make our network much more capable and useful, with big gains across the community.

Unfortunately it doesn't quite feel real (yet). For example there is no mention of the target on the DoT website, no known public endorsement of it by the minister and nothing in last year's state budget documents. For it to be credible we need backing from the minister, an implementation plan and a budget. Especially in these times when unfavourable forces (eg COVID-19) have caused network patronage to fall not rise.

What would Infrastructure Victoria do?

We don't hear much about what underpins the Department of Transport's work when it comes to transport network planning. Their strategic plan from last year didn't say much.

To their credit more has come out of Infrastructure Victoria. Detractors regard them as technocratic economist types obsessed with pricing. Our state government, which humours IV's existence but otherwise gives them short shrift, is equally single-minded about infrastructure. No one important (not even the Department) visibly champions service sufficiently to balance the other forces. This is why public transport is such a shaky one or two legged stool with poor asset utilisation.

Infrastructure Victoria occasionally talks about bus reform in limited terms. Notwithstanding their kookiness on things like fare policy, they deserve a hearing, especially if they engage in a public or semi-public arena such as at the Metropolitan Transport Forum. Last October, for example, they presented at MTF Loves Buses.

A key slide from that presentation is below. It shows the bus routes with above what they regard as viable (20 passenger boardings per bus service hour) in green and the quieter ones in red. Most underperforming routes are in the four main clusters I've circled.

 The next slide (below) discusses their proposed treatments.

This approach if flawed. It's expressed in terms of individual routes rather than networks or regions. These impose an artificial division between high and low performing routes and seek to tackle them separately with different priorites accorded to each.

This is both misguided and inefficient. For example you may have a busy and under serviced route operating in the same area as a quiet but excessively serviced route. The most economical approach might be to transfer buses from the quieter route to the busier route. But you can only do this if you simultaneously review all the routes operating in an area, regardless of which company runs them or their patronage performance. You might not be able to afford upgrades to strong routes if you were unable to touch quieter routes at the same time (listed under Priority 2). Whereas you could if priorities were ordered by area.

A route may sometimes perform poorly due to poor network design. For example multiple routes going the same way may overlap. Removing overlapping routes may be enough to make a previously quiet route viable. In other cases moving it to adjacent roads might give it unique catchment and extend coverage to more people while allowing another route to be straightened and made more frequent. Again this requires a network-based approach to deliver the best coverage and frequency to the greatest number. Unfortunately IV is weak with wider network thinking, as demonstrated by its proposal to fragment fares by public transport mode.

Removing poorly used routes can save money but is often politically controversial. IV has obviously never been in a room full of people angry that their local service is being cut. Planners need all tools available to deliver the most efficient generally acceptable network, including changes to other routes that make network reform more 'swings and roundabouts' rather than straight losses in an area.

An example of a failed fragmented approach was the 2015 Transdev greenfields network that had some merits but, because it was done in isolation from other operators' routes, short-changed some areas and got rejected by the minister.

IV position themselves as champions of economic efficiency and social utility. However some of their prescriptions for buses can have the opposite effect. Priority 2 suggests several options for quieter routes but some are either unlikely to deliver the savings envisaged or would result in large service cuts.

As an example deleting off-peak trips from a route only saves a little money as the bus is still needed for peak trips and still has depot and maintenance overheads. Network performance on both economic measures (eg efficient asset utilisation) and social equity measures (as off-peak passengers are more likely to be on lower incomes than peak passengers) would decline. That's opposite to the idea about using school buses better which does have merit. Then there's the 'community transport' sometimes recommended.  It's a warm fuzzy name but with typically only a few midday shopper trips per week it's much less useful than a  7 day service on a conventional local bus route.

IV sometimes spruiks flexible route buses as a solution. Carrying more people on a flexible route bus is like pouring sand into cogs; the more there is the more the cogs slow and eventually seize up. With their high operating costs per user they are unlikely to save much money unless you also cut service. Service cuts directly reduce the service's usefulness and flexibility in the types of trips possible, returning us to the problems flexible routes were intended to solve. Because the concept sounds attractive (including to some in the Department) I'll elaborate on some of its problems below.

Note to Minister: Avoid the flexible route garden path

If we take IV's bait and go for a mass roll-out of so-called demand-responsive buses (which can be less rather than more flexible for the passenger) on the basis of them saving money we risk being dudded by cargo cultists selling the 'latest thing'. And not for the first time. 

Systems and technology attract a disproportionate number of well-meaning 'solution sellers'. They seem perfectly made for transport departments eager to be innovative without doing much of the grunt work themselves. Examples include scratch ticketing, Metcard, SmartBus passenger information (Mk 1), botched bus tracking and the myki debacle. The Department lacks consumer protection laws that we punters have if we buy things that don't work. Besides admissions can embarrass political masters so are rarely made. 

There have also been issues with over-promising but underquoting by aspirant transport operators. For example the early years of rail franchising promised massive patronage gains and diminishing public subsidy. We eventually got more passengers but cost blow-outs forced a renegotiation of contracts in the surviving franchisees' favour. Then, fifteen years later, the government thought it got a bargain when it picked Transdev to run our busiest bus routes. In 2015 the auditor general indeed found savings. However aspects of its operations were shoddy with a major fleet maintenance crisis in 2017 making at least some of the claimed economies false. 

'Flexible route' services involve both information technology and potentially different operators. That makes it vulnerable to all risks mentioned above. Especially since running costs vary more than with standard fixed bus routes operating a known number of annual kilometres.

In practice you are unlikely to unlock efficiency gains without making other hard decisions eg serious bus priority (good for frequent fixed routes) or accepting large cuts to service or driver labour conditions (which might not be). The latter risks the ire of driver unions such as the ALP-affiliated TWU and potential further fracturing of the party before a state election that has just become tougher than expected. However if costs are not reduced the government may miss out on savings that it hoped could boost stronger routes.
To summarise, at best 'demand responsive' services typically carry few passengers with poorer results than even low frequency fixed route buses. When more people use them they become much slower as they are forced to deviate for more people. In a way that is self-regulating as people find the service too slow so usage levels off at a lower number. At worst the service can fail with too few passengers to be worth running. In the few cases where flexible routes do succeed their service pattern evolves to that of a regular route with fixed stops.

Overall improving fixed route bus networks appears less risky with more assured results and better overall service. Such review work needs detailed local knowledge of demand and services.

This is more likely to be found within the depths of the Department of Transport (which has area-based transport planners) than the generalists within IV. Solutions will be different for each area as networks and historical service levels are different. For example areas A and D (see earlier map) have overlaps, major overservicing and poor catchment demographics for buses while B and C have many coverage and service gaps. All have prospects for significant and fairly economical bus network reform as often discussed here.

10 steps to 200 million bus trips by 2030

With no publicly available plans from DoT or good guidance from IV, what do you do? In one sentence, if you wanted to greatly boost bus patronage, you'd just run every route twice as frequently. However, apart from being expensive, this doesn't solve other problems like restricted operating hours, indirect routes, lack of coverage, wasteful duplication, delays in traffic and more. A more nuanced approach would be better to fix network problems, selectively boost high patronage potential routes, cut waste and be more cost-effective. It needs at least the following ten steps.

1. Funding. The existing bus network has inefficiencies but patronage growth of this magnitude requires new money on services. A couple of hundred million dollars per year would be a good start, with some recouped by higher fare revenue and wider benefits such as reduced parking pressures at stations. It doesn't have to be all in one go; funding can be ramped up year by year with progressive improvements implemented.

2. Bus drivers. Recruit them. Lots. Plus maintenance, support and other staff needed to run more services, especially off-peak and shoulder peak initially. Even if you don't yet know what route they'll be on hang out the vacancy sign anyway. 

3. New buses. Order them. Boost peak frequencies when they arrive (having already recruited the drivers). Cost-effective network reform (as often discussed here) will free up some buses but more are needed for the 200 million goal aimed for here. Get articulated buses with double leaf doors for high capacity and fast boarding on busy routes that already have frequent service.  

4. New depots and workshops. Needed to store and maintain the new buses if existing depots are full. Locate in operationally efficient locations. 

5. Work existing buses harder. That means longer operating hours and better frequency off-peak and weekends. Then more buses are in revenue service for more of the day. Key routes are turn-up and go while others have frequencies harmonised with trains for better connections. Most people to be within walking distance of buses every 10 to 20 minutes. All residential area routes upgraded to run 7 days per week including public holidays. And implement all-door boarding on major routes to cut dwell times. A good start is possible by the 2022 election if we start now. 

6. Reform networks to be simpler and more direct with better coverage.  This will require about 60 suburban networks reformed along Useful Network lines but beefed up with 10 minute frequencies on maybe 30 to 50 key routes. Also extend network coverage to fringe areas without buses and established areas (eg Knox and Mornington Peninsula) that never got a full bus service. Some changes will be cheaply possible by rationalising existing routes. However contrary to claims from Infrastructure Victoria one cannot bank on significant savings from flexible route buses without large and unwelcome service cuts. 

7. Train and tram frequency boosts. Needed to improve connections. First implement network-wide 20 minute maximum waits, then boost lines on which track capacity exists (ie most) to every 10 minutes, starting with shoulder peak and then daytime services. Boosting new driver training should be an early action.  

8. Give buses a free run through traffic to speed trips. Implement effective bus priority measures at intersections with high bus movements. Convert traffic lanes to buses only where there is frequent service and people throughput with buses is higher. Use time savings to increase service frequencies to further boost usage.

9. Make all bus stops accessible. Improve pedestrian and wheelchair access to stops from surrounding homes and destinations, especially those served by frequent routes on main roads. Local treatments may include roundabout removals, signalisation, reduced signal cycle times, zebra crossings etc. No passenger should wait for more than 30 seconds to safely cross any road at any time to get to or from a bus stop. Stops should be located at intersections to maximise catchment and improve interchange with routes on other roads.

10. Quality multimodal information and network promotion. Back revamped networks with signage, network maps, timetables and other upgraded information, particularly at interchange points. Strengthen marketing of improved networks.


I've discussed the laudable, ambitious but little known goal to boost annual bus patronage to 200 million passenger by 2030. There's been no known reaffirmation of this target since MTF members heard about it six months ago. And nothing official as to how it might be achieved. I've raised and critiqued Infrastructure Victoria's approach and have suggested ten steps of my own.

What are your thoughts? Is a target like this desirable? Could COVID-19 permanently change demand patterns to make patronage increases harder? And are the ten points suggested reasonable or are other things required? If you have thoughts please leave them in the comments below. 


Michael Angelico said...

Extending services into the evening should be fairly cheap - it has very few hidden implications and won't need very many new buses, if any. The main expense would be hiring more drivers.

As well as providing a service for passengers to ride, which will boost patronage by default, it will quite probably make the whole network more useful as people can get home as well as getting there, so people might take the bus instead of driving. In terms of bang for buck, evening services have to be the top priority.

Peter Parker said...

Thanks Michael. My priorities would be roughly shoulder peak (including some early evening), weekend early morning (extra span), weekday interpeak, weekend daytime then evening. On routes with lower weekend service than weekday interpeak I'd priorities weekend, especially if they go to big shopping centres etc.

Your point about flexibility getting home is really important. People can usually plan their am trip for minimal waiting (changing from a less frequent bus to a more frequent train) but pm trips are less easily planned due to variable work finish times and train unreliability. A good opportunity would be to have all buses used in the school pm peak to go onto commuter runs from 4:30 - 7pm (or later). A broader am peak would also be welcome - again this would be better using school bus vehicles.

Gary Pollard said...

A good overview with great detail and insights into the issues surrounding buses. I have to admit my experiences with buses in the Western Suburbs have been a mixed bag but it's unfortunately mostly negative. Reliability and frequency are major issues and evening buses are perceived as unsafe by some. Drivers have been cited as experiencing more conflict on evening and later services. Some efforts will need to be made to address these concerns for both drivers and passengers for extended hours services to get the chance they deserve. The need for "big picture" planning cannot be understated, we have buses that leave train stations just seconds after a train arrives making connections frustrating an inefficient. We have buses with confusing and convoluted routes and some services overlap without much apparent logic as to why. Someone needs to crack out the big data on this issue, technology is not an answer in itself but from the outside looking in our systems seem to be woefully under supported in this regard. Full disclosure, I prefer my PT on rails, despite some notable exceptions I have been able to rely upon rail a much higher percentage of the time that I have buses. In my darker moments I denounce buses as just a car on steroids, if traffic is the problem they just sit in it, trying their best but unable to make a significant difference in the face of so many dedicated motorists. That out of the way, I would support almost anything that would improve bus services but I would preference rail light or regular for the heavy lifting in moving people around. Melbourne's west is under serviced by PT in general and the packed trains (not so packed currently of course) demonstrate that the demand is real. The fix is most likely going to be long term and expensive, will a Government come along with the courage to take this issue on? I hope so, but I am not holding my breath.