Friday, June 18, 2021

Building Melbourne's Useful Network Part 95: Victoria's new bus plan


On Sunday June 13 Transport Minister Ben Carroll MP launched Victoria's Bus Plan (release here). It's the first significant bus plan from the state government since Meeting Our Transport Challenges came out in 2006. MOTC (as it was often abbreviated to) also covered other modes but the biggest impact it had was on buses.  

Here's my review. Either read it here or, if you prefer, jump down the page for a video session and chat. Even if you do watch the video make sure you come back here as there are many things explained not in the video. 

History and background

The MOTC upgrades boosted bus service by 25%, sparking a similar rise in patronage. Key MOTC initiatives were (a) minimum service standards on over 250 Melbourne bus routes (hourly until 9pm, 7 days), (b) new SmartBuses, mostly comprising orbital routes around Melbourne and Doncaster trunk routes, and (c) local area bus reviews. 

The MOTC program was about 60% completed. A substantial number of popular bus routes that should have it remain without 7 day service, not all promised SmartBus orbitals were completed and many bus review recommendations didn't proceed. The goal of synchronising timetables across train, tram and bus by years' end was never plausible and remains unresolved in 2021. Nevertheless MOTC deserves credit since what it achieved for buses far exceeded anything else for decades prior and in many years since. That includes 1988's MetPlan that fell victim to the early '90s recession.   

Bus network reform became cheaper but bolder after Labor lost government in 2010. Point Cook, Brimbank and some areas served by Transdev got radically reformed bus networks. However unless the buses were to feed new stations the funding was limited so these were 'smell of oily rag' upgrades. They lacked the grand sweep of the SmartBus orbitals but were cost-effective patronage successes locally. 

Not long after Labor returned in 2014 the transport minister Jacinta Allan flicked the switch to 'big build' infrastructure. Political interest in service or network reform slumped. The 2018 election saw the public transport portfolio briefly under first-time minister Melissa Horne before being taken up by the current and more senior Ben Carroll. Under his watch previously eschewed terms like 'bus network reform' could be uttered again. As indeed it was in 2021 budget documents.   

The plan

What's in the plan? There are 6 aims, 6 reform objectives and 6 actions. 2021 to 2023 will be mainly preparatory work with the big action happening from 2023 to 2030. The plan doesn't have funded initiatives for these so is dependent on future budgets.  

There's more after 2030. This is less defined but the thrust seems to be to build up buses as legitimate mass transit. The last attempt at this was over 10 years ago when SmartBus and DART routes started.  

These were big steps forward at the time. However with still slow travel times on the orbitals, half-hour waits at some times and, for a while, appalling cleaning and maintenance, SmartBus barely deserved to be regarded as a premium bus service. And within Australia it is inferior to the busway systems in Brisbane and Adelaide and even the frequent on-road 900-series routes in Perth.

Arguably this is less important in Melbourne due to our large train and tram networks. However it does make our fast public transport network notoriously radial. It may be that this inadequacy gave rise to the biggest proposed public transport project of the lot, the Suburban Rail Loop. Still that's just one corridor and fast and frequent buses remain needed to link key suburban hubs to each other, and on corridors like Doncaster, to the CBD. Not to mention the potential for the SRL corridors themselves before rail services start. Hence the plan's interest in reviving the neglected mass transit role for buses. 

Note the timing of the state election (late 2022) in all this. I'd imagine that work would be sufficiently advanced to be able to make some announcements in the campaign leading up to it. Due to the lead time involved between funding and implementation for a new bus route (about 2 years), the 2022 budget should give some clues as to how rapidly the government will move on bus service reform and expansion.  

The plan sets the scene with a 'what we know' section. For example frequency, span and timeliness of service are stated to be the primary drivers of customer satisfaction. These are the basics and it's really good that the plan acknowledges this. The plan even has an 'every 10 minutes' icon to hammer this home. 

The rise of a specialised 'user experience' professional group, split from planners (who should incorporate usability in their normal work) may have contributed to past misguidance where cost-adding gimmicks (eg free wi-fi) were given greater prominence than basics like useful routes and good service. This bias might, at last, be righting itself.  

Another thing that's obvious but always bears repeating (which the plan does) is that most passengers walk to the bus. Which figures as buses are the nearest public transport to two-thirds or more of the metropolitan population. Walking access to stops is key. Progress here requires work from parts of the Department of Transport well outside bus planning such as that responsible for roads. Importantly access needs to be viewed from a directness and catchment coverage lens as well as a safety lens (that if applied on its own can make walking around roads and barriers so indirect and convoluted that people either stay home or drive, thus perversely achieving pedestrian safety objectives).  

Use of information about the service is about evenly split between online and at the stop. We need to do a lot better on the latter, especially at interchange points. This is most effective where you've got a legible network. In the words of the plan we need to 'unscramble complex routes'.  

The plan talks a bit about innovation. It's worth a cautionary note here. Nothwithstanding some job titles in the Department of Transport, it often gives better returns to do something that's proved and successful in 100 places than 10 instead of chasing every last speculative 'innovation' for 'pilot projects'.

Demand responsive / flexible route services may have a place but it's not a very big one if you've got a well developed local and trunk route network. In Rowville they've made what I consider a mistake in starting FlexiRide before revamping the regular network then considering whether flexible routes are still needed at all. Flexible route services are discussed in more detail here

Before you can fix a problem you need to know what it is. The plan diagnoses key issues with bus services well. 

The mismatch between demand and service level was particularly noteworthy as it implies opportunity for cost-effective network reform that is generally beneficial. This should be done sooner rather than later as it needn't wait for large funding. At the same time we need to be mindful of the big picture, which is declining service per capita in the last 8 or so years, and that more bus service kilometres are needed to deliver true network transformation, especially more ten minute corridors.

Praiseworthy is the aim is to integrate bus reform with 'Big Build' infrastructure projects. This is well overdue. Many bus routes stay one side of the railway line in areas like Box Hill, Ringwood and St Albans as long boom gate down times would have reduced reliability. Removing level crossings would lessen that problem but bus routes were largely not rethought to take advantage of this. Hence level crossings remain somewhat of a 'Berlin Wall' for bus passengers still forced to change despite better road access across them. 

Another example is Southland Station which could have spurred on local bus reform, for instance simpler routes and a direct bus along Bay Rd to Sandringham (which could be beneficial when rail lines are closed for future projects). So I hope the plan encourages some catching up on neglected network reform at sites like these. 

Net zero emission buses is another theme. There are currently trials and general consensus we should be moving faster. There was an announcement about a faster transition in the 2021 budget. It's even better if we get people into high occupancy zero emission public transport which is why you also need network reform. 

Planning bus travel is acknowledged as being complicated. Mention is made of the need for real time information and simpler journey planning. It was good though that direct routes were mentioned. This is critical as far more people know their main roads than their bus routes. I'd have liked more mention of the need to simplify timetables and operating patterns. For instance on the long weekend that the plan was launched confusing variations on what bus routes ran on the public holiday Monday made catching buses a gamble

Six reform objectives

These can be summarised as: 

1. Making the network simpler, faster and more reliable

2. A cleaner, faster fleet. This may include smaller and larger buses. With a transition to zero emission. 

3. Better performing buses with priority measures and better interchanges. The rapid running trial on Route 246 where buses maintain a headway rather than a timetable is also mentioned as something that could be done more widely (although there is only one other standard bus route in all of Melbourne with a 10 minute weekday frequency - the 402). Implementation here would requires a different approach to measuring performance, for instance reliable headway maintenance rather than notions of lateness against a timetable. This in turn flows into how operator contracts are written including penalties for under performance. 

4. Better customer experience. Includes factors like accessibility. I'm pleased that network design is included as a factor here. Timetables could have been mentioned more since we have so many routes with restricted operating hours and days. Or non-clockface frequencies (like every 22 minutes) that are hard to remember and don't mesh evenly with trains every 20 minutes.

5. Governance and systems management. This is important as from personal experience information systems are not as stable, reliable and accurate as they should be. Especially during times of disruption. 

6. Better value for money with industry partnerships and presumably revised operator contracts or franchises. I wrote about metropolitan bus franchising here

Service categories (Good in theory but poorly articulated)

A lot of the meat in the plan is listed under the first point that defines a hierarchy of bus routes. It is very good that there is one. Routes are divided into four categories with (mostly) two or three subcategories under each. 

However I though that for it to be a genuinely useful planning aid it could have been less muddled and more specific. Read it below and judge for yourself (Click it for a clearer view).  

Category 1 is your top tier. These comprise Bus Rapid Transit services (eg City - Doncaster) and shuttle routes to major trip generators like universities. The BRT routes would offer frequent all-day service, presumably operating over long hours like the trains they are supposed to replicate. Shuttle routes would serve a more select market. They are not explicitly listed as frequent though they really should be if they are to earn top tier status. 

While we're talking about top tier services, it's worth mentioning that the plan has a picture of a SmartBus. This was the top tier in the 2006 plan and was significantly rolled out in the orbital and Doncaster routes. However its roll-out stopped short of certain ex-Met routes, like the 220, that had SmartBus or better service levels.

The plan also doesn't explain how SmartBus fits into its service categories and subcategories. If you were to reappraise SmartBus today most route sections would be in the top two categories. However quieter parts may only justify a local route service level. Any good bus plan will need to tackle the future of the SmartBus orbitals including whether they should be split to better match service provision to usage and harmonise with trains. Area and network rather than purely operator based thinking will be required to prevent a repeat of problems in 2015 when splitting was last attempted.  

Also relevant is the Principal Public Transport Network (PPTN) which is your top tier of the network across all modes (including buses). It's supposed to reflect and guide planning, zoning and personal location decisions. The Bus Plan's category hierarchy does not mention or integrate with the PPTN, indicating a disconnect between land use and service planning within the Victorian government.   

Category 2 is your more important suburban routes that may operate in mixed traffic. The most direct are 'trunk routes' that may have bus lanes. A step down are fairly direct connector routes. Their frequency and operating hours are not specified but it is mentioned that travel time should be good enough for car drivers to consider their use. Finally in Category 2 are Neighbourhood routes. These have a shorter span of hours but are strongly patronised. The two don't necessarily go together so I'm assuming that these are well used routes in densely populated areas or with favourable demographic characteristics. 

Category 3 is Local routes. They provide a minimum level of service (presumably every 60 minutes, as per the MOTC standard). However in their description it is hard to understand how they differ from the 'Neighbourhood routes' in Category 2. Maybe their population catchment is sparser? The bottom tier of this is demand responsive which in all versions tried here has limited operating hours and days. 

Category 4 is school routes, presumably operating one trip each way on school days only. They would run where a trip not provided for by a regular route is required. 

If you were going to create a bus network service hierarchy there are several characteristics you could use to define the groups. For example operating hours, frequency and speed (including whether the bus has its own right of way). 

By poorly defining operating hours or frequency standards the table above does not provide a sound means of classifying service. This is important because without it you don't have service standards and thus can't properly communicate what passengers can expect from buses. That flows back to issues of complexity that the plan correctly said was wrong with existing bus services.

The annotated table below is my attempt at 'reverse engineering' if you were to map service levels to their categories. I've included some example bus routes. But there are still some gaps and the top category frequencies I've guessed could be described as 'aspirational'.  

Even after that I didn't particularly like the classifications. It also leaves some service types out, for example peak only routes or off-peak shopper routes. These are very much minor supplements rather than mainstream in a developed bus network but should still have some place in the classification. And, as mentioned before they don't map very well to either SmartBus or the PPTN. 

An alternative bus service hierarchy that matches trains

If I was to design a service hierarchy I'd explicitly state operating hours and frequency with a minimum standard in each category. I'd have three main categories for (mostly) seven day routes with a fourth category for special purpose routes. 

To match recent Metro rail planning and practice (which call for a 10 minute main line daytime frequency and a 20 minute evening or branch line frequency), I'd do the same for buses with off-peak frequency being the main determinant of categories. 

It's not just me saying this; so was PTV (the DoT's predecessor in transport planning) who said it in their multimodal 'coordination framework' in their Network Development Plan - Metropolitan Rail from 2012. Any excuse in 2021 that better defining these should wait for a later document doesn't hold water since the Department merely needs to use work already done. 

A tidier set of service categories (which is critical to budgeting, work planning and priority setting - ie the whole success of the plan) could look something like this: 

Tier 1 would generally be every 10 minutes or better with long operating hours. This would match the Principal Public Transport Network and the portions of the SmartBus network that you would keep (I've advocated splitting SmartBus orbitals and reducing service on low density poorly used portions). Subcategories would cover BRT services, busy road services and frequent shuttles (that might have shorter hours). Only a few routes are currently in this category though the number increases if you count co-scheduled multi-route corridors (eg 200/207, 250/251, 905/906/907 etc). 

Tier 2 would generally be every 20 minutes or better with medium to long operating hours. This would be the Useful Network as often discussed here as the minimum service on all main roads and between substantial trip generators. Routes such as the 170 and 180 between Tarneit and Werribee already operate at close to the service levels defined here.  Also in this tier are what I've called 'Dense Local'. This is a category of routes in areas that have density or demographics particularly favourable for buses. Existing routes that run through them have above average patronage and deserve an upgrade. Example areas might include Craigieburn, Tarneit, Sunshine, St Albans, Glen Waverley, Springvale, Noble Park and Dandenong. Tier 2 routes might also be created by simplifying straightening or amalgamating lower frequency Tier 3 services as would be the 'bread and butter' of many local area network reforms. 

Ideally most people will be within 10 minutes walk of a Tier 1 or Tier 2 route. Improved passenger information at stations and interchanges would stress routes in this hierarchy (eg thicker lines on maps, more multimodal information, etc). 

Tier 3 is your neighbourhood suburban coverage routes every 30 to 60 minutes. They would meet minimum standards (ie at least hourly until 9pm) though there would be significant flexibility where needed. For example peak service could be higher in areas with a lot of school children and peak commuters. Many routes still fall below this tier because they don't run 7 days or are short hours only. Adding service hours to bring the busier of these (eg 536) up to the minimum standard would be the other high priority. 

Tier 4 are special purpose routes. For example they might be for school, commuter peak only, shopper or exurban routes where minimum services are not justified. Any demand responsive services (which would be a last resort for special needs not covered by Tier 1-3 routes) would be Tier 4. 

The table below shows these tiers. Advantages include better clarity than the table shown in the plan, better integration with trains and better compatibility with the PPTN and a reformed SmartBus. 

Key to hours: Long = 5am - midnight, Medium = 6am - 9pm, Short = 7am - 7pm.  

Service hierarchy as a tool for reform

How might one use a service hierarchy to weigh up priorities, inform budget submissions and plan bus reform work sequences?  

As a 'first cut', routes could be assigned a category that reflects their current service level. 

Then thought should be given to the category they should have. 

Deservingness could be determined with data like growth prospects, boardings per service kilometre and maps showing social disadvantage or car ownership along a route's catchment. 

Routes that score highly would get a promoted classification and a positive outlook for service. More frequent but quiet routes serving low social needs catchments in low growth areas could get a negative outlook. 

Notes (with symbols like crosses and question marks) could advise where a route is so useless or confusing that it should be deleted or reformed. This does not substitute for a full network review but is still worth doing for all metropolitan routes. The table below shows the concept for a few routes.  

This 'first cut' analysis could provide 'existing conditions' background information for detailed implementation plans and area reviews. These will capture instances where you'd only upgrade or demote routes if associated with reforms to other nearby services. This approach makes it easier to win public acceptance of new networks based on 'swings and roundabouts' reforms than instances where it is all cuts. This is too detailed to be in a plan like that released on Sunday but would instead form the substance of the Bus Reform Implementation Plan and/or area reviews. 

Detailed plans are essential. However they should not be used as a reason for deferring useful and beneficial upgrades. Especially where early implementation would not prejudice future likely network reform and where improvements jump out for action now.  

High priority examples include: 

* Popular routes where there are conspicuous service shortfalls. For instance three or four times as many trips on weekdays than Sundays despite high weekend usage. In other cases just a few extra trips can bring its frequency or hours up to the next tier (or even just the hourly to 9pm minimum standard). Examples include routes where service collapses on weekends to major shopping centres (eg 279, 406, 408, 703 and 800) or popular peri-urban destinations (like 685 and 788 - both included in recent budgets). 

* Crowded routes whose low to medium frequency but favourable catchments mean they are too productive for their own good with a mismatch between usage and service. The plan identifies this as a real issue that is holding back the usefulness of buses. Examples include routes like 150, 160, 495, 529, 533 and others listed before on some days of the week. Boosting these types of services is key to making buses useful in areas where people will appreciate and use them.  

* Well used but underserviced local routes in areas with high social needs. The case for upgrade may be strong where services don't meet minimum standards, eg short operating hours or no Sunday service. Examples might include 404, 414, 506, 536, 804, 814 and 844.

Implementation sequence

The above are three cases where you might improve service as soon as you can. Where the case is compelling the decision to proceed on selected routes might be made even if the implementation plan wasn't finished or there was no intention to review other routes in the area for a while. 

There was a hint of such early work in the minister's release which mentioned adjustments to the timetables for 19 routes from September 2021.  Changes like these might be the low-cost 'low hanging fruit' that could be cheaply done by reallocating service resources within a route or bus operator. 

Later the reviews could start by seeking opportunities to simplify Tier 3 routes to get their services to a Tier 2 level for relatively low additional cost. This is more complex where it involves route reform and potentially several different operators in an area. But in some cases reform may still be relatively economical, with a lot achieved from funding more driver hours rather than large-scale new bus purchases. 

While these were being implemented bus infrastructure could then be planned. These could support bus priority measures and busways including bus wormholes through slow spots with many buses serving major destinations. When these come on stream more Tier 1 services, typically every 10 minutes or better and likely requiring large scale (zero-emission) bus purchases, could be added.  

Six actions

Getting back to the plan, its six actions are as follows: 

1. Develop the Bus Reform Implementation Plan

2. Work with industry towards a zero emission fleet. 

3. Transform the bus network to better meet user needs. 

4. Systems and technology for better data and passenger information. 

5. Measures to improve customer experience.

6. Enhance on-road priority for buses.  

Of these the most detail appears to be in the Bus Reform Implementation Plan. This will be developed with input from industry and other stakeholder. It's not know exactly what form this plan will take, eg whether it will be a single document or several, possibly arranged by topic or area. 

Early initiatives announced on Sunday are as follows:

We don't know much about the 19 routes that are involved in the timetable changes. However we know that 223 and 293 (both run by Transdev) were mentioned in a Herald Sun report. Network reforms will be on the Mornington Peninsula, Yarra Valley and Fishermans Bend. The proposal for a shuttle between Melbourne University and Victoria Park Station is still alive. The local network in Doncaster will have some big changes once the proposed busway comes in to operation. More on these changes here as timetables come to hand. 

Numbers, measures and funding

Where could the plan have been stronger? Compared to Meeting our Transport Challenges, this plan is quite short on numbers. There are no broad goals, such as the number of people and jobs that would be better connected. Maps are absent. Even the 19 routes getting new timetables in September 2021 did not get listed in the media release or supporting information.     

The plan diagnoses the problems well but there's no targets for network operating hours or frequency even at a 'minimum standards' level such as contained in MOTC. Even if specific routes were not listed  against them, having a clear service hierarchy with specific operating hours and frequencies would have added substance to the plan. After all, as the plan acknowledges, these are key drivers of satisfaction.

Good plans are measurable. High level measures that might have been useful here include those related to coverage and service level. For example the proportion of people within 400 metres of a bus operating every hour for basic coverage. Or, for more widely useful services, the proportion of people and jobs within 800 metres of transport every 20 minutes or better. The roll-out of buses in growth areas could improve scoring on the first while the extent and quality of bus network simplification and reform could improve the latter measure. As could land use if denser housing and jobs are clustered along main routes. This could happen if the PPTN had a higher profile in planning and funded bus plans respected it.   

Also notable was the absence of a mode share or patronage target. That doesn't mean there was never one; at one point the Department hoped for 200 million annual bus passengers by 2030 but wiped the goal off its website and left it out of the plan. Possibly this was due to uncertainty over COVID which has hit patronage. But to put this target in context, 200 million trips is less than that which (until recently) was carried by our trams with a much smaller network coverage. 

It looks like we'll need to wait for the Bus Reform Implementation Plan for details that some would have liked to have been presented earlier. This makes this document more a 'plan for a plan' strategy than something with targets, dollars, time-lines and well developed network concepts like MOTC had for SmartBus and minimum service standards. Also critical are state budgets for the next seven or eight years. The allocations these make for buses will determine to a large extent the plan's success or otherwise. 


Victoria's Bus Plan is the most important bus policy from the state government in fifteen years. Its writers deserve credit for accurately diagnosing the problems with buses and their proposed way forward that, if funded, should result in significant improvements. 

It also signals renewed political and administrative interest in bus service reform after a long period where transport infrastructure projects took precedence. This is also welcome. 

It is however a high level plan. There are few measurable targets and only a vague service hierarchy that does not take advantage of work already done around intermodal integration. Its success will thus depend on the availability of funding and the rigour of the Bus Reform Implementation Plan process that will need to contain detail not in the high level plan. 

If you prefer listening to reading this video is my take on the plan. And there's responses to questions and comments from viewers. And don't forget to subscribe to MelbourneOnTransit on YouTube!

What do you think about the plan? Was more detail needed or does it represent a good start? Your comments are invited and can be left below. 

See other Building Melbourne's Useful Network items here

PS: For a multimode plan that never was, see this Daniel Bowen blog post. It was developed as part of modelling for the East-West Link. Page 18 contains ambitious SmartBus networks much bigger than now. Download it from here


Heihachi_73 said...

SmartBus as a brand is dead and buried. Transdev run SmartBus-liveried buses on local routes while the buses on 900-series routes are in the regular PTV livery, looking identical to any other non-SmartBus vehicle save for the electronic signs and automated announcements. On a side note, the LED next stop signs (aka PIDs) used to work on non-SmartBus routes like the 271, but these days they have been dumbed down to simply telling passengers to validate their myki.

The only bus improvement I can wish for before I turn 50 is the government actually enforcing their minimum service standards across the entirety of Melbourne (note that Greater Melbourne also encompasses the Mornington Peninsula and Healesville among other "country" areas, much to the dismay of people living and working in these areas who were forcibly shut down during the COVID-19 lockdowns despite being over fifty kilometres from the closest exposure site and the 5km travel limit also applying), and hopefully expanding the absolute minimum standards until midnight to match the train and tram services. Even an hourly service after 9PM is better than having no service at all after getting off a train and having to walk the extra 3 kilometres back home (e.g. Croydon North or Montrose) or waste $20 on a taxi. This is not really an issue for people living close to the city like Malvern, Northcote or Hawthorn where they have short distances between stations on several train lines, as well as multiple tram routes not far from each other.

Even the buses which do theoretically run to minimum standards are finished up to an hour earlier than the standard allows e.g. finishing at 8PM when travelling away from the depot prior to the final 9PM run back, which is just ridiculous when trains are still running to shoulder-peak timetables and running express services at 8PM.

Heihachi_73 said...

I would categorise buses as the following: (Note that this will be heavily biased towards the eastern suburbs routes I have used)

Category 1 falls under SmartBuses, the ex-MetBus/MBL routes that run frequently until midnight (e.g. 220, 246) and shuttles like the 401.

Category 2 trunk routes are the "decent" bus routes, but fall short of the SmartBus standard e.g. 302, 364, 664, 670, and the SmartBus-by-name-only 703 (unless it's since been upgraded to a proper SmartBus standards, then it's category 1).

Category 2 connector routes usually have a major purpose but are let down by their mediocre frequency and/or non-standard operation (e.g. deviations and short running) e.g. 679, 737, 742 (a lot of the "better" ex-National routes would probably be here too like the 380, where they run later than 9PM but are hourly after dusk - coinciding with when the old services originally ended - and with below-standard operating hours on weekends but nonetheless still have a Sunday timetable).

Category 2 neighbourhood routes are those which are worse than the above but still have a significant purpose covering suburbs with no better alternative e.g. 680, 688, 689, 690 (and again, a lot of ex-National routes also fall under this, notably those of which missed the 2006 MOTC upgrades) - most of these types of routes don't run on Sundays, or even Saturdays in some cases.

Category 3 routes would be the "useless" ones like the 370, 671, 672, 673(!), 675, 705, 740, 745 (hahahahaha!) and the TeleBuses/FlexiRide services. Most of which don't provide anything beneficial aside from basic minimalistic coverage in areas which are otherwise devoid of any public transport whatsoever. Literally a last resort and most people would be stuck walking or paying for a taxi anyway due to the lack of actual services. Obviously, school and peak-only routes fall under the same category. Note that I have included the 705 here despite not being an eastern suburbs route, I was bitten by this one several years ago after getting off a late Frankston train at Mordialloc, missing the bus by about five minutes (I got there shortly after 9AM) only to find that there were no 705s from Mordialloc until the mid afternoon.