Some thoughts on road pricing

(One of those posts which I feel like could do with some more polish, but haven’t had time. I know the comments will help boost its worth.)

At what point will we have road pricing?

Here are some thoughts.

The current situation doesn’t make sense

The current mix of toll roads and free roads in Melbourne doesn’t really make sense.

For instance depending on trip source and destination, outside peak times it can be almost as fast to drive via King Street (free) as the Bolte Bridge ($2.97).

Ditto Kings Way/Queens Road/Dandenong Road (free) compared to the Burnley Tunnel and Citylink to the Monash Freeway (an eye-watering $7.72).

Ideally you want longer-distance/through trips on the motorways, but if the time advantage often isn’t there, there’s no incentive to use the tollways.

What we have now is not a holistic approach; it’s not trying to achieve any particular traffic flow outcome. Instead, the toll fees are based on trying to recoup investment costs on a specific part of the network, from 20 years ago.

The equivalent might be to build a new suburban train line and charge huge fares for that, while neighbouring lines were the regular $4.10 fare. It makes no sense in the context of the overall network.

Fuel taxes might eventually disappear

Fuel taxes now are based on the assumption that cars are powered by fossil fuels. While they don’t pay for the costs of roads, it’s better to have that revenue than not.

If electric cars take over, that revenue stream will disappear.

“Make public transport better first”

Often people will say you can’t impose road pricing or a congestion tax without first improving public transport. Fair point.

But what does Success look like? What criteria do you use?

Some train lines have doubled in frequency in the past 20 years. Some (at some times) have quadrupled in frequency. … Some are much the same.

The CBD has mass transit in all directions, with many (out to Footscray, Clifton Hill, Burnley and as far as Ringwood at times, Dandenong and Frankston) providing trains every 10 minutes, 7 days a week. But people still need to be able to get onto trains; car parks will never be big enough, and outer-suburban connecting buses are mostly inadequate.

It certainly needs to get better, but at some point you’re going to have to say it’s not an excuse anymore.

Perhaps the opening of the metro rail tunnel in 2026 should be accompanied by a big boost in timetables for trains and connecting buses, becoming a catalyst for CBD road pricing?

The London example

The London congestion charge is a reminder that road pricing can be flexible, and is not absolute.

It’s a whopping £11.50 per day (slightly less if you set up “auto pay”), but importantly, it only applies on weekdays, and only from 7am to 6pm.

There are numerous exclusions for local residents, taxis, motorbikes and others.

Much of the money gets spent on public transport and other transport modes. The history of it shows it’s been a big success.

CBD traffic, Lonsdale and William Streets

Could it work here?

Melbourne already has a “Congestion Levy”, applied to long stay/commuter car parking in Melbourne CBD and some inner suburbs. This is a disincentive to car commuters, but doesn’t affect through-traffic.

Partly due to a lack of traffic rule enforcement, CBD traffic is becoming an impediment to pedestrians/public transport users and to cyclists, but overall congestion also badly affects public transport and freight vehicles.

Assuming there wouldn’t be the political will or the technology yet to have a complete road pricing scheme, could you set up eTag readers at strategic points to charge vehicles coming into the CBD? Do enough vehicles already have eTags? Or is simple number plate recognition better?

Where would you put the boundary? You might want to include Docklands. It might make sense to make a zone consistent with Free Tram Zone, but it might also make sense to try and include other very congested inner-city areas. (Consistent with the FTZ might just encourage more people to drive through busy roads to reach the free trams.)

Different prices at different times would be appropriate. Maximum charge at peak commuting times. Minimum or no charge in the middle of the night.

Of course even the most obvious congestion pricing scheme is a political hot potato. So don’t hold your breath.


Going to the Zoo

A couple of weeks ago it was highlighted that, not for the first time, Melbourne Zoo is seeking an additional one thousand public car spaces.

It seems they want to turn Royal Park into Royal Car Park.

For an organisation dedicated to animals, you’d think they’d understand the importance of the natural environment. They seem pretty keen to cover the Park in concrete and asphalt.

Okay, so they’d like to make it easier for more people to get to the Zoo. But bringing them by car, to a prized park in the inner-city, should be the least preferred option.

While the Zoo is served by a train line and two tram lines, they leave a lot to be desired. So rather than pave paradise, there are numerous things that could help people get there without driving.

Zoo parking is some of the cheapest in Melbourne

Car parking at the Zoo is ridiculously cheap. As highlighted in The Age’s article, it’s only $2 for up to five hours, making it some of the cheapest paid parking anywhere in inner Melbourne.

Apparently on no less than 93 days per year the car park reaches capacity.

By comparison at some other zoos around Australia:

  • Sydney Taronga Zoo: $18
  • Adelaide Zoo: Limited metered street parking, or a special $10 per day (weekends only) offer
  • Perth Zoo: From $2.40 per hour, or $5.50 per day
  • National Zoo, Canberra seems to be the only one where parking is free… but then, it does seem to be outside Canberra’s built-up area, so presumably land is plentiful.

Increasing the $2 parking fee is not unreasonable (remembering admission is $32.50). It could reduce demand, make other modes more cost-competitive, help bring down the admission price, or fund improvements.

Royal Park Station

The train line is one the least frequent in Melbourne

The Upfield line only runs about every 20 minutes, including peak hours.

On Sunday mornings before 10am it’s only every 40 minutes. Given the Zoo opens at 9am, this is hopeless, especially given most suburban visitors will be connecting from other lines. Long waits for connections is a great way to ensure the train doesn’t get repeat customers.

How about running the trains more frequently? The single track at the northern end of the line is an issue, but it can be done at least as far out as Coburg. Trains every 10 minutes on this line has been done before – as recently as 2006 for the Commonwealth Games, to help get people to and from venues at… Royal Park.

(A peak-hour upgrade to have trains every 11 minutes as far as Coburg was at one stage planned for 2015. This was postponed, and it’s unclear when it will happen.)


Step off a train at Royal Park platform 2 (from the city), and exit the station. Where’s the Zoo?

Royal Park Station

You can’t actually see it, and the only wayfinding sign present doesn’t point you towards it.

Royal Park Station signage

If you counter-intuitively look at the other side of this sign, then there’s an arrow pointing you in the right direction.

When I was there looking around, I actually saw people off the train looking for the Zoo, and was able to help them.

Surely we can do better than this.

Now get across the road

If you can find the way, from the station to the Zoo entrance is only a short walk. But you have to cross a road.

There’s not much traffic, but I saw families head across without looking. One group realised halfway across that a vehicle was coming, and stopped in the middle of the road to let it pass.

Melbourne Zoo, Royal Park Station

The very least they could do is put a crossing here to make it easier and safer. Ideally a zebra crossing, but that might cause issues due to the boom gates being so close; it might have to be a signalised crossing synchronised with the level crossing. If so, it should have a very quick response time.

While people using the train get no help to cross the road, in contrast there are zebra crossings further along the same road… to help people coming from the car parks. I mean, come on.

Melbourne Zoo car park

The trams

Route 55 passes right by the Zoo. Route 19 passes nearby on Royal Parade, though it’s a bit of a walk from the stop — about 600 metres.

Just like in the hospital precinct, both tram services lack accessibility, important for those with mobility aids/wheelchairs, but also prams.

Route 19 has low-floor trams, but no platform stops nearby.

Route 55 has platform stops adjacent to the Zoo, but runs all high-floor trams. The plan to merge routes 8 and 55 should fix this by providing at least some low-floor trams onto route 55, though there are as-yet no platform stops along that route within the CBD.

The bus

Local bus route 505 runs via the Zoo, between Moonee Ponds and Melbourne University. But it’s very infrequent; only every 40-60 minutes on weekdays; every 60 minutes on weekends, so it’s not very useful.

The stops aren’t ideally-placed; the one closest to the Zoo entrance is by the railway station (so suffers similar access issues to the station), the other stop which is actually called “Melbourne Zoo” is poorly placed for both Zoo entrances.


Given you might be trying to attract occasional users travelling in family groups, it might also pay to have some kind of joint ticketing deal, or group travel offer, with public transport users able to pay for Zoo entry at their local station and bypass the admission queues. This type of arrangement helps attract people heading to the Royal Show, for instance.

Melbourne Zoo - Royal Park station

Real-time information

The only real-time information in the vicinity is in the railway station. At the exit to platform one there’s a display telling you… how long until the next tram.

This is part of a program to assist connections between trains and trams. In principle it’s a great idea, though in this case, I wonder if the potential for connections from inbound trains to trams is a bit limited.

Anyway, putting Passenger Information Displays in the station for train departures would be an obvious upgrade (and one that has been done at many stations around the network recently).

Given the technology now exists to provide real-time information for all public transport modes, can they rig up a screen near the exit telling you how much time until the next trains, trams or buses? If it’s a long wait, you could choose to wander around for a bit longer. (Disclaimer: it’s been a while since I’ve been inside the Zoo. They might already have it… But somehow I doubt it. Also, despite PTV claiming all metropolitan buses are included, it appears bus 505 doesn’t have it yet.)

Make it easier

So let’s summarise: if the Zoo wants to make it easier for people to get there, there are things they can work with appropriate authorities to improve the non-car modes, rather than spend tens of thousands of dollars per space to cover more of the park in asphalt.

First, the easy stuff:

  • Change the car park pricing to reflect demand
  • Put signage at the station so bewildered visitors can easily find the Zoo entrance
  • Install a crossing to make it easier and safer to get from the station to the Zoo
  • Real-time information screens at the station and at the Zoo exit

Other changes are more tricky, but there’s a huge pay-off if the system is easier to use. (And again, remember: even if you don’t value parkland, building a thousand car spots could easily cost tens of millions of dollars.)

  • Lobby the state government to improve train services. An upgrade of Sunday morning services to at least every 20 minutes is a must, but so too is improving the peak and all-day service to every 10 minutes. (The roll-out plan for this has stalled, but when achieved would mean it is super-easy to get from most places on the train network to the Zoo with a minimum of waiting.)
  • Likewise, lobby the government to improve tram services and provide accessible stops and trams, especially on route 55 but also on route 19.
  • More buses on route 505 won’t really help people coming from the CBD and elsewhere on the PT network (the route doesn’t actually connect with any trains except at Royal Park, but could improve connectivity from some local suburbs, and changes could be considered as part of bus route reform in the area.

Maybe the Zoo is already lobbying for these changes, but it’s not obvious. Every time information about their efforts comes out, it’s all to do with roads and cars.

Admittedly I haven’t looked at cycling options.

What other changes would improve things for Zoo visitors and staff so they don’t have to drive?

The new map has arrived

As flagged earlier in the month, the long-awaited new rail map, in the works since at least 2014, has finally been officially launched.

It’ll show up around the network in 2017.

(Click to zoom)

There seem to be at least two versions: the plain one above, and a version with a grid and station index.

It’s over two years since we saw the drafts — in fact this was a process started under the previous government. What took them so long to get it out? I really don’t know.

But it’s great to see it launched at last.

Thanks to Tim H for the tip-off: it is “in the wild” on the concourse at North Melbourne.

New rail map at North Melbourne station

At one stage there were also plans to start using the colours on major interchange station platforms and concourses, to help people navigate more easily to their platform. It remains to be seen whether this will still eventuate — in some cases operations are still too inconsistent for it.

The colours are intended to match the rainbow status boards and the PTV Live Updates web site. (At the time of writing, V/Line is still appearing there in grey… hopefully it will go purple soon.)

PTV information screen, Bentleigh station

Some comments I’ve seen around the place:

Skybus shouldn’t be on the map. It isn’t a train!

True… but I look at it this way: it’s going to be a constant reminder that Melbourne should have a train to the airport.

You can’t actually walk from Belgrave to Bairnsdale!

Well of course you can’t. It’s not to scale. Melbourne/Victorian rail maps haven’t been to scale for decades.

Where’s the line to (proposed destination) ?

There have been so many fantasy rail maps over the years that it’s important to remember this is a new map for the current network, though it includes stations about to open (Caroline Springs) and opening in the next 12 months (Southland).

Of course it doesn’t show rail to Doncaster or Rowville, or even the Metro rail tunnel or Mernda. That’d just be confusing for people trying to navigate their way somewhere. The map can be updated when (and if!) these are built.

London Tube map 2016

What happened to the zones?

Zones aren’t as important as they used to be. Firstly, for trips covered by Myki (which is the majority of them), the smartcard automatically calculates the fare. (There are sometimes problems with this on buses and trams, thanks to on-vehicle readers and poor GPS and other factors, but train calculations have never had major issues.)

Secondly, changes to Melbourne fares in 2015 mean we basically have a flat-fare system. A trip in zone 1 costs the same as a trip across zones 1 and 2. (There is an exception: trips entirely and only in Zone 2 are charged at a cheaper rate.)

You could add zones to the map, perhaps in the style of some of the London Tube maps (above), but it’s messy, so I can understand why they left them off.

It would be especially difficult to show it for the V/Line area in a way that didn’t make the map unreadable — once you leave zone 2, practically each station is in its own zone.

Note they have indicated where you can use Myki and where you need a V/Line paper ticket.

What happened to the bus/tram interchange icons?

It’s true, they’ve gone. But in many ways they weren’t very useful. Most stations have bus and/or tram connections, but the icons alone didn’t tell you anything about where those routes go, or how often.

For instance, the old map showed tram and bus connections at Hawthorn. The tram is route 75, with almost 100 services each weekday (slightly fewer on weekends)… the bus is route 609, which serves the station just once per weekday.

Interchange information is better conveyed via the Journey Planner (or Google Maps) in such a way that includes the information travelling passengers actually need to make that connection.

What about the interstate trains?

There’s probably an argument for including them, though the XPT to Sydney follows the line to Albury, so effectively its route already on there.

The Overland follows quite a different route (via North Shore, Ararat, Stawell, Horsham, Dimboola, Nhill). But it only runs twice a week (every other train service on the map runs multiple times per day), and its long-term future is far from certain. That said, you can book a V/Line ticket on it for trips within Victoria, and it is shown on the V/Line timetable.

Some staffed stations don’t have the (i) info icon

All the interchange stations are staffed fulltime. There are some exceptions on the V/Line network; here they have the interchange bubble and the part-time info icon.

But I’m inclined to agree; it would have been clearer, and more consistent, to give the fully-staffed interchange stations an info icon.

I’m not sure why Essendon is marked one way, and Berwick is marked differently. Both get a handful of V/Line services stopping there each day.

Oh yeah, I’m not fond of the term “Customer service hub”, especially as there are numerous over-the-counter services available at Metro full-time staffed stations and V/Line part-time staffed stations which are not available at Metro part-time staffed stations.

So, what are the benefits of the new map?

Maps have to be replaced from time to time anyway, as new stations open.

This design is a huge improvement on the old one — and it’s about time we had a map that shows where the trains actually run, not just where there are tracks.

In other words, it’s going to be far more useful for passengers.

Public transport is like a computer. It needs both hardware and software

Here’s a thought, via a possibly dodgy analogy: public transport is like a computer. It needs both hardware and software to function properly.

Hardware — right of way (tracks/roadspace), signalling, stops and platforms, vehicles, stabling.

Software — how do you operate it? Timetables, routes (particularly for buses, which can be easily changed), traffic light priority, staff.

People often forget that infrastructure alone won’t do it. A train line is of limited use unless the trains come frequently.

It’s amazing for example when reading in Wikipedia about a city’s rail system, that it often talks in detail about the lines and stations and fleet, but often doesn’t mention anything to do with operating hours or service frequencies, which are absolutely fundamental to how and whether people can use the system to get around efficiently.

Roads aren’t really like that. They can tweak the road rules and the traffic lights, but fundamentally the authorities supply the hardware. The users bring some of their own hardware (their vehicle) and software (decide when they travel, and which route).

But public transport needs both hardware and software working well to be really useful.

Of course just like in the world of computers, the hardware/infrastructure may impose a limit on the software/service that can be provided. Which means when buying or building the infrastructure, you need to plan what service will be provided on it, from day one and into the foreseeable future.

Looking towards Melbourne, from Caulfield station platform 1


Hardware tends to be a once-off cost, aka Capital Expenditure (CapEx). Splash out for infrastructure, then in theory it lasts forever… It doesn’t really — maintenance is important. One rule of thumb I’ve heard is that for road infrastructure, 1% per year of the initial cost is needed for maintenance.

Software (in a transport context) is a recurring cost, aka Operating Expenditure (OpEx). The cost of running the train needs to be paid each time you run it: power, vehicle maintenance, and often the biggest component: staff. This is a bit different from the world of computers, though many software vendors now offer per month or per year licencing options, with free upgrades included, and in the world of the cloud, Software As A Service is getting very popular.

To stretch the analogy perhaps too far, public transport software (timetables) needs regular upgrades! Hardware too, but less often.

Southland station under construction November 2016

Who’s better at what?

I’d be cautious about generalising, but if you had to, you might say that each of our two major political parties are better at one or the other.

Labor seems to be better at hardware. Since about 2005 they’ve funded numerous upgrades to stations, got started on removing lots of level crossings, upgraded trains (ever notice how the Comeng fleet rarely breaks down in the heat nowadays?), expanded train and tram fleets, extended lines, even initiated an entirely new line (Regional Rail Link).

But Labor have been very cautious on upgrading timetables in recent years, perhaps because it often means changes that benefit many may also (slightly) disadvantage specific groups of users — to the extent that some of the new trains are sitting doing nothing waiting for the next change — while the fleet expands, it’s now been more than two years since the last major train timetable change.

Even minor tram route changes have been postponed, though the Metro rail tunnel is likely to force their hand.

The Coalition seems better at software. The 10 minute train services on the Frankston, Dandenong, Ringwood (the latter weekends only) and Newport (weekdays only) started on their watch (though the timetable change process may have started under Labor).

The Coalition also initiated PTV and their role in co-ordinating train and bus timetables, something which has since rolled out across many areas of Melbourne. Back in 2009 this was a memorable blind spot for Labor, though by 2010 they were acknowledging the problem.

But when the Coalition has been in power in recently (2010-2014), they haven’t done as much as Labor in terms of hardware. During that term, they ordered some new trains, but I’d struggle to think of other major public transport infrastructure they initiated. They successfully managed projects like South Morang rail and Regional Rail Link, but they’d been started by Labor. Southland station went nowhere. Their 2010 pledges for rail to Doncaster and Rowville resulted in studies that virtually ruled them out. Avalon airport rail link never happened. They made promises in 2014 for a rail tunnel and Melbourne Airport rail, but were voted out.

One could perhaps theorise that a deep-seated traditional conservative principle is coming into play: making the most of the assets you already have.

You don’t have to look too hard to see these generalisations fall down. Labor presided over the extension of trains and trams to 1am on weekends back in 2006, and this year have introduced Night Network, both of which make use of existing infrastructure to extend service hours — they also did numerous train timetable changes last decade, including moving weekday Werribee trains out of the Loop to make better use of the infrastructure, and did a massive review of bus routes in 2010, though most recommendations were never implemented.

The Coalition in their 2010-2014 term kicked off the Ringwood station upgrade, and funded some level crossing removals, giving us brand new stations at Mitcham and Springvale.

Bus 609 timetable outside Vicroads HQ

Without services, PT is nothing

Ultimately you need both the infrastructure and the services to be up to scratch for public transport to be useful.

Hopefully both sides of politics are getting better at both. Investment in better hardware is important, but so is tweaking the software to make the most of the available hardware.

Service quality varies widely across the network. Sometimes for good reasons related to demand, but sometimes just due to accidents of history.

Miss a bus on route 601, you’ll wait 4 minutes for the next one. On route 609, it might be 24 hours.

Miss a tram on route 86 in the middle of a weekday, you’ll wait 8 minutes for the next. On route 82, it’ll be 20 minutes.

Waiting at Melton station on a weekend? It’s 60 minutes between trains. At Mordialloc? 10 minutes.

A line on a map, or infrastructure on the ground means nothing unless the timetable is up to scratch.

And those of us who advocate for more public transport need to remember — services are just as important as infrastructure.

New stations: months later, bike cages still not open

The rebuilt Ormond, McKinnon and Bentleigh stations opened in August.

Following this, the car parks all opened in November.

But what about the bike cages? The answer is that they’re still not open.

“Parkiteer” Bike cages around the rail network have proved very popular. Some stations have multiple cages. It was a smart move to decide to include them in all the stations rebuilt as part of grade separation.

But despite the cage structures having been built as part of the station buildings that opened back in August, at none of these three are open.

At Ormond, a wheelbarrow and other work equipment was in the cage. According to Bicycle Network, it will become available until mid-December… so any day now? But that’s three and a half months after the station opened.
Ormond station Parkiteer bike cage under construction

Clearly some people are cycling to Ormond, as the bike hoops outside the station entrance were full last night.
Bicycles parked at Ormond station

At McKinnon last night there was a bike in there, but the door looked like it was secured shut with a piece of string. Perhaps someone just thought they could secure their bike inside it. Apparently this one officially opens in January, about five months after the station opened.
McKinnon station Parkiteer bike cage
McKinnon station Parkiteer bike cage

At Bentleigh, a structure that looks like the cages at Ormond and McKinnon is in fact a waiting room. The bike cage is around the corner… and still not completed. In fact it’s got a section of fence working as a makeshift door. This one will also open in January, about four months after the station opened.
Bentleigh station Parkiteer bicycle cage under construction

The car parks, which are much larger in area, have all opened, and although not entirely completed, all seem to be in use.
Bentleigh station new car park

The closure of the car parks during the construction period was a great opportunity to encourage train passengers to try the connecting bus (the 630 and the 703 in particular have reasonable peak hour service), or try walking or cycling to the station.

But for anybody who switched to their bicycle who thought they might be encouraged to stick with it… well, think again.

It’s a similar story at the recently rebuilt and opened St Albans and Ginifer… cages there will open… eventually, at a date yet to be announced. Bayswater (where the station opened just yesterday) is a little better — their cage will open in January.

But back at McKinnon, why is it taking up to five months after the stations re-open to get a bike cage ready for use? Clearly a missed opportunity.

Update: Metro has responded. Perhaps this specific design wasn’t such a good idea:

Update 20/12/2016:

Update 22/12/2016: The Bicycle Network web site now says all three will open in January 2017, along with Bayswater (also just rebuilt), Woodend and Kangaroo Flat.