Walking in suburbia

On Monday I had an errands at Pinewood.

Pinewood? Yes, the minor shopping centre somewhere on Blackburn Road between Clayton and Mount Waverley.

I caught the bus up there — the 703 runs from near home in Bentleigh, via Monash Uni, then up Blackburn Road. Unsurprisingly perhaps, we had to wait at the Clayton level crossing for a train… thankfully only one train; it’s common for long delays here, though this was after peak hour.
Bus stuck at Clayton crossing

After my errand, I decided to walk back part of the way. It was only about 3km to Monash Uni, and the weather was cool and dry — perfect for walking. Good to try and get to my daily 12,000 step goal.

As with my travels during holidays and short breaks, I snapped a few photos, and tweeted a bit as I went. Always an opportunity to observe and learn. Later on I was asked if I’d be blogging it, so here goes.

There was a PTV outage of realtime bus info that day. It seemed to affect the apps, the Next Stop announcements and displays inside the bus, as well as real-time Smartbus signage. Apparently it took until sometime on Tuesday to get it resolved.
Smartbus sign partially working

For a short time in the 90s I recall working in this office block. My view is it’s not a beautiful location, surrounded by car parks. The problem with suburban office blocks is not just that the PT is often woeful (or certainly inferior) but there’s few options within walking distance to eat lunch or go shopping at lunchtime. No doubt some people like that it’s a drive-able commute, but I definitely prefer working in the CBD.
Office park

Slip lane for vehicles exiting the Monash Freeway turning northbound onto Blackburn Road. Most of slip lanes have zebra crossings. Not this one. It’s actually the law that vehicles must give way to pedestrians here, but as a pedestrian, I’d never assume that motorists actually know this.
Slip lane, Blackburn Road and Monash Freeway

Pedestrian signal button at the same location. Too bad if you’re mobility-impaired and can’t navigate off the path to press it — or if there’s a huge muddy puddle in the way.
Traffic light

Blackburn and Ferntree Gully Road intersection. Lots and lots of traffic lanes. You get a zebra crossing to get over the service road, and another to get across the slip lane. Then you have to wait for the other six lanes of traffic.
Blackburn and Ferntree Gully Roads

Ferntree Gully Road outside the Monash waste transfer station. Not a friendly pedestrian environment. You’re expected to veer left then right to cross… the visible desire line looks like many people don’t.
Pedestrian crossing on Ferntree Gully Road

I’ve often wondered what the point of these narrow bus bays is. It’s awkward for the bus to pull in, and it still blocks the traffic lane. Why bother?
Bus stop, Ferntree Gully Road

Howleys Road. There are often complaints that bus shelters don’t provide proper weather protection. Not these! Only one problem — no bus route serves this road. Obviously it did once, but now the shelters sit idle. Too much to ask for them to be relocated? (The bus stop signs have been removed, but there are still designated 24/7 bus zones.)
Bus shelters, Howley Road

The northern entrance into Monash Uni Clayton campus isn’t beautiful, and the giant roundabout is difficult to navigate as a pedestrian. It’s called “Scenic Boulevard”… perhaps that only applies if you’re in a car. To be fair, it’s probably got little potential as a principal route for pedestrians.
Monash Uni, pedestrian entrance from the north

As you go further through campus, the pedestrian environment improves, particularly the paths from the student accommodation to the main part of campus. This is a curious design though. The busiest path to the right misses the zebra crossing by a few metres.
Monash University

Happily, the main part of campus has mostly very wide pedestrian spaces. Being off-semester, it wasn’t too busy, but I bet it gets very busy when all the students are around. (See also: Monash University master plan)
Pathways at Monash University

The new Monash University bus interchange is under construction. Hopefully it will provide better cover. So much for the bus loop we all know and love.
New bus interchange under construction, Monash University

Waiting for the 601 shuttle to Huntingdale station. The bus is so frequent that it made me wonder if anybody reads these timetables. It might be more useful to just have a frequency guide. Locals say it doesn’t really stick to time anyway — after all, for a service like this, maintaining frequency is more important than specific times.
601 timetable

Being outside semester, those times didn’t even apply. A reduced service runs: every 12 minutes… to meet a train running most of the day every 10 minutes. Yeah.

I was taking a phone call at the time (ironically from a public transport bureaucrat) so I didn’t get a photo, but the bus was pretty busy, with most seats filled. On campus I’d run into a contact and his colleagues, and one of them told me the 601 bus suffers greatly from overcrowding in first semester, when all the students come back. Monash campus numbers are increasing… sounds like the bus needs a boost too.

Rain the previous day had put parts of Huntingdale station car park under water, but it didn’t seem to bother some people.
Huntingdale station car park under water

Wouldn’t you think that at a busy train/bus interchange like Huntingdale, the platforms would have real-time information? Nope. (There is a Smartbus/train Passenger Information Display on the street, but it wasn’t working. Unclear if this was temporary due to the outage that day, or long-term like the Bentleigh PIDs.)
Huntingdale station

After all that walking (and more later), I didn’t quite reach my 12,000 step goal that day — only 11,171 according to my phone. Oh well, not for lack of trying.

Ripponlea heritage: Brinsmead’s Pharmacy

I’m not sure if it’s new, but I noticed the other day that the old Brinsmead’s Pharmacy in Ripponlea now has a plaque marking its significance.

Plaque for Brinsmead's Pharmacy, Ripponlea

When I was a kid, this was still a chemist. Its survival as a chemist for so long, over sixty years, probably helped the original features stay intact.

Former Brinsmead's Pharmacy, Ripponlea

Nowadays it’s a florist, but still gorgeous inside.

Former Brinsmead's Pharmacy, Ripponlea

Apart from the period features of the shop itself, the sign painted on the eastern wall (facing a laneway) is also notable.

Ripponlea, sign for Kodak film on the side of old chemist

Plain concrete to be replaced by art

This coming Saturday the new Bentleigh, McKinnon and Ormond stations are hosting a “family fun day” featuring a steam train. Should be… well, fun.

Edit: Here’s the steam train timetable:
LXRA notice: steam train timetable for 12/11/2016

(Hopefully they’ve checked if steam trains are okay climbing the higher-than-usual 2.5% (ish) gradient heading north out of Ormond station! I’d assume so, given the 2% standard is a relatively new requirement.)

Ormond station: North side entrance

At Ormond the entrance on the northern side of the road has recently opened. This is really helpful given North Road is a big arterial road, with some six lanes of traffic at 60 kmh.

That’s not so important at Bentleigh and McKinnon; only two lanes of traffic (at 40 or 50 kmh), and we’re getting pedestrian lights instead… which hopefully will be programmed to be very responsive to pedestrians.

Bentleigh station/Centre Road

But one of the things you notice is the non-station side of the bridge is a plain concrete wall, with a metal barrier on the top. You can see through the metal, but only just, and the whole thing is not beautiful — and I suspect could be a magnet for taggers. (See at right of photo, above.)

The Level Crossing Removal Authority is calling for artists to decorate the concrete walls.

This is a good idea. Turns out they’ve done much the same thing in Footscray on the Hopkins Street bridge, and as a strategy for keeping away tagging, it’s worked very well:

Footscray: Hopkins Street bridge

As with nearby Patterson station mural, hopefully this will help beautify the grey concrete, and prevent it being covered in graffiti. Or advertising, for that matter.

Small wins: 703 bus to be improved

Apologies for this very much locally focused (and possibly over-long) blog post:

The main bus route through Bentleigh (both the suburb and the highly marginal state seat), the east-west 703 along Centre Road, is getting a slight upgrade.

It doesn’t seem to have been announced yet, but eagle-eyed timetable watcher Craig Halsall spotted it: on Sundays it will finally run the entire route to Brighton.

Route 703: Melbourne’s fourth busiest bus route

The 703 runs from Brighton to Blackburn, and was one of the first two routes upgraded to run as a Smartbus — every 15 minutes on weekdays, with realtime information at major stops. Patronage on all the Smartbus routes grew strongly following the upgrades. (703 passenger numbers growth was the slowest of all the Smartbuses, but patronage still rose by 49% from 2002 to 2010).

PTV data says the 703 was the 4th busiest bus route in Melbourne in 2014-15, with 2.2 million journeys.

Counting weekdays only, it’s also ranked 4th, though on weekends it’s lower: 6th on Saturdays, 8th on Sundays. This perhaps reflects that its major destination is Monash University, which sees most of its traffic on weekdays. But that’s still pretty good for a route that doesn’t serve any very large shopping centres.

Recently the 703 has benefited from the removal of the Bentleigh level crossing. Anecdotally it seems this has helped punctuality, though the real boost will come when the notorious Clayton crossing is grade separated in 2018.

What’s being fixed?

One of the problems with the 703 is that since the 1990s, the Bentleigh to Brighton section hasn’t run on Sundays.

It’s finally being fixed. From December, buses will run the full length of the route every day.

This is good news — it helps improve the network by providing 7-day connectivity between the Frankston and Sandringham lines, and also makes the service easier to understand.

Access for residents of Clayton and Bentleigh to the beach and shops at Brighton will become easier, as well as Sunday trips from Brighton and the western end of Bentleigh to the Bentleigh shops, Glen Eira Swimming and Aquatic Centre (GESAC) and Clayton and Monash Uni.

What’s not being fixed?

Alas, other than Sunday running the full route, only tweaks seem to have been made to the new timetable.

They don’t seem to have taken the opportunity to fix some of the other problems along the route. The main issue is that it’s the only Smartbus route that doesn’t meet Smartbus standards, nor even the service span of most local routes:

  • Services terminate earlier than any other Smartbus routes, with last buses as early as 8:04pm on weekdays (compared to midnight for other Smartbuses, and 9pm for most local routes)
  • Evening frequencies are also poor, with gaps of over an hour in some cases — particularly annoying is the gap eastbound from Brighton (between the 7:34pm and 8:38pm buses), given there’s an out of service depot run that could fix this.
  • In fact, the 15 minute frequency drops off after about 6:45pm on weekdays. In contrast, many Smartbus routes run every 15 minutes until about 9pm.
  • Sunday services will still be every 40-45 minutes, not half-hourly as on the other Smartbuses

No doubt this reflects that the only funding supplied by the government was to run the full route on Sundays.

The other issue worth noting is weekday peak hour crowding, though this is exacerbated by delays caused at the Clayton station level crossing. Fixing this, unlike evening and weekend services, would require fleet expansion, not just extra driver shifts. Hopefully the problem will largely go away when the crossing is removed.

Crowding also occurs on weekends in the Clayton area. (The photo below is from a university open day, but similar crowding happens every weekend.)

There’s also a wide range of bus infrastructure, particularly in relation to on-road priority, which could improve the route.

Monash Open Day 2012: A long wait (40 mins) then a packed 703 bus

The 703 is a political issue

The 703 was the subject of a 2010 election pledge, and was raised multiple times in parliament just last week.

Bentleigh MP Nick Staikos on 11th October:

The action I seek is that the minister implements a change to the 703 timetable that will see it run all the way to Middle Brighton on Sundays. The 703 is the most popular bus route in my electorate. Millions of trips are taken on the 703 each year — it is indeed a SmartBus. It is a bus route that connects our community with various railway stations and also Monash University. Currently on Sundays the service terminates at Bentleigh station. It does not go all the way to Middle Brighton. It is something that the Brumby government sought to address at the 2010 state election. It was not implemented in the subsequent term, but it is nonetheless a change that is needed and wanted by the community.

Note that the Brumby 2010 election pledge was to completely upgrade the route to Smartbus standards — not just the Sunday change now being implemented. Brumby of course lost that election.

Turns out Mr Staikos was not the only MP to specifically mention this route last week — so did the Opposition’s Michael Gidley, representing users at the northern end of the route:

The action I seek is for the minister to stop stalling on implementing the work done by the previous Liberal-Nationals state government and turn Labor’s shoddy, short-changed, shortcut SmartBus route 703 into an actual SmartBus route and to stop dudding the good residents of my district.

If you have a look at the SmartBus project on the Public Transport Victoria website and also the former Department of Transport site, it is very clear what that bus service should be. It should run as a high-frequency bus service every 15 minutes between 6.30 a.m. and 9.00 p.m. Its frequency should average every 30 minutes between 5.00 a.m. and 6.30 a.m., and it should run on average every 30 minutes between 9.00 p.m. and midnight on weekdays. It should also run between 6.00 a.m. and midnight on Saturdays and public holidays at 30-minute intervals, and run on average at a 30-minute frequency between 7.00 a.m. and 9.00 p.m. on Sundays, Good Friday and Christmas Day.

He raises some good points (see the full speech for more), though it’s a little cheeky to demand Labor fix the route in 2016, when his side had government from 2010 to 2014 and did absolutely nothing about it.

Towards the end of his speech he specifically mentions the Sunday/Middle Brighton problem. Little did he know a fix was in the works.

703 bus stop, Bentleigh

What next? When will we see more widespread bus upgrades?

There is huge potential for a bus route like this. It already helps relieve car parks by feeding thousands of people each day into the railway stations and strip shopping centres it serves, as well as Monash University. Improving evening frequencies in particular could help cement this by ensuring people don’t have a long wait on the way home, and would use the existing bus fleet, so should not be expensive.

Bringing the 703 up to full Smartbus standards would provide a lot of benefits to local bus and train users in the area. And of course many other areas around Melbourne also need similar frequent bus routes.

In coming years there are a couple of good opportunities to reform buses in the southeastern suburbs:

Level crossing removals along the Dandenong line will provide a big boost to bus service reliability for many of the bus routes in the area. Connections at stations are likely to improve, and it may be a chance to straighten-out some routes.

And during the project, given construction traffic delays and station car park closures, more should be done to encourage people to catch buses to the station instead of driving.

The Southland station opening in 2017 is also a chance to review local buses, given some bus users heading to Southland Shopping Centre are likely to switch to trains. This applies equally to people in areas like East Brighton and South Oakleigh who want to go to Southland — the most convenient way might be by bus to Bentleigh then by train — provided the connecting bus is good enough.

Let’s hope the government makes the most of these opportunities to fund more bus upgrades that will provide more options to leave the car at home.

Bentleigh Uniting Church takes a stand

Many around Australia would know of the Gosford Anglican Church, thanks to Father Rod Bower and his famous signs.

A couple of weeks ago this sign appeared at the Bentleigh Uniting Church. It now seems to have disappeared in favour their more usual list of events.

It pleases me to see messages like this.

Immigration, and the mandatory detention of refugees, is a difficult issue. I’m not going to pretend that I know of a simple answer that both treats people humanely and deters and prevents drownings at sea, but the current position of taking desperate people, locking them up off-shore at arms length from Australian law and responsibility, often ignoring concerns, and particularly the secrecy involved, is something that troubles me greatly.

Right now we as a nation are trying to put past crimes, such as church sexual abuse, in the spotlight. I wonder if in decades to come we’ll be regretting and investigating our current treatment of asylum seekers in a similar way.

I hope the sign got a few people thinking more about this issue, and possible solutions.