We could have a vastly more usable PT network; PTV has a plan. It just needs funding.

Getting around Melbourne’s inner-suburbs without a car is pretty easy, thanks to a reasonable network of frequent trams. In some areas, such as around Prahran, the trams, trains and buses form a grid, making almost any local trip within that area very easy.

Getting around Melbourne’s middle and outer-suburbs without a car is generally a nightmare. There are some rail lines, but for most trips it’s buses, and they are hopelessly infrequent — generally only hourly on weekends, and only half-hourly on weekdays.

Queueing for the 703 SmartBus at Bentleigh Station

It’s no secret then that areas of good public transport tend to have lower rates of car ownership — the excellent Charting Transport blog explored this in detail a while back.

Of course, there are other factors such as urban planning — are the things you want/need easy to get to without a car, including by walking?

But most of Melbourne currently misses out on frequent services of the type that you can use without looking at a timetable, and without a long wait (particularly if connecting off another service).

A few Smartbus routes have been a step in the right direction, and they’re popular, but still leave huge gaps in the frequent network.

PTV plan: bus service standardsPTV has a plan to fix this problem. As The Age reported on Tuesday:
A network of more than 30 bus routes running every 10 minutes would criss-cross much of Melbourne within less than a decade under ambitious plans produced by Public Transport Victoria.

This kind of upgrade is really important: along with train and tram upgrades proposed, it gives way more suburban areas a much more useable network.

The information has come out in a documentwhich is part of East West Link travel forecasts. It’s a bit vague because the details are in tram and bus plans prepared by PTV but not released — only the train plan has been made public.

But what we do know is this:

  • Most trains running every 10 minutes, 7 days-a-week
  • Most trams running every 10 minutes, 7 days-a-week
  • Some tram route changes to better organise the network (though little in the way of expansion, alas)

The most interesting bit is around buses. Remember that many areas of Melbourne will never have trains and trams, not even under the most ambitious expansion plan imaginable.

A LOT of suburbs will remain beyond walking distance to stations and tram stops, and need frequent bus services.

The plan sorts buses into several categories, and attaches minimum standards to each.

  • Smartbus – at least every 10 minutes – 43 routes by 2021, 49 routes by 2031
  • Direct – at least every 20 minutes on about 70 routes by 2021, at least every 15 minutes on about 75 routes by 2031
  • Coverage – at least hourly – about 180 routes by 2021, about 190 routes by 2031
  • Commuter – a dozen routes by 2021
  • Special – every 4 minutes on two routes – eg the existing 401 and 601 university shuttles
  • InterTown – about 20 routes on the urban fringe
  • Telebus – a handful of routes, but with many variations, on request routes
  • Hybrid – routes which fall into multiple categories, presumably with differing service standards

Yes, by 2031, the proposal is to have over 120 Melbourne bus routes running every 15 minutes.

This is critical for the overall public transport network.

The mass introduction of Smartbus and Direct routes every 10 and every 15 minutes would vastly expand the “turn up and go” anywhere-to-anywhere network across Melbourne, making it possible to use public transport for a lot more trips than at present.

Here’s how my neck of the woods looks at present: 7-day 15 minute services (all modes) — the current situation on the left, and if the PTV plan were implemented on the right.

7 day 15 minute services: 2014 7 day, 15 minute services: proposed by 2031
(Because the detail is vague, I’ve assumed only 822 would change in its upgrade to Smartbus. I’ve also assumed South Road buses 811/812/824 would run frequently on those sections — they’re actually slated as “hybrid”. And it’s quite possible I’ve missed some other proposed routes. Would need to get the full report to get all this cleared-up.)

At present, if your trip isn’t entirely along a tram or train line, you’ve probably got a long wait ahead of you. Going to most areas, it’s hopeless — so most people drive, and will often pack their driveway with one car per adult, putting a big strain on household budgets.

With the PTV plan implemented, a lot more journeys are possible without long waits, because a lot more areas are within walking distance to a frequent service.

This includes being able to easily get to your nearest shopping centre and/or railway station without having to drive.

As Jarrett Walker is fond of saying: “Frequency is freedom.”

A frequent network is the type of thing needed to let households really reduce their car ownership and usage.

It would bring Melbourne more into line with other big cities around the world, particularly in Europe, where the fast frequent backbone (principally heavy rail) is supported by connections to a network of frequent buses and trams across urban areas.

And a lot of it is achievable in the short term by making better use of fleet and infrastructure, in particular by getting the large number of vehicles currently in depots outside peak hours and getting them out into service more of the time.

The only question is when will the politicians take note and fund this?

The curse of dead running – enemy of the passenger

One of the issues in public transport is “dead running“. This blog post cites a local example, but it’s a widespread issue.

At various times of day, trams trains and buses move out of service between their runs and their depots or stabling. This is dead running.

This is dead running.

Out of service bus

Sometimes this is taken to extremes. Most route 600/922/923 buses run out of a depot in Sandringham, but apparently because of lack of space, some buses run Out Of Service right across town to/from another depot in Footscray! (At least they did when the route was run by Melbourne Bus Link. It’s recently been taken over by TransDev, who may have changed it.)

My local route the 703 is run out of Ventura Buses’ South Oakleigh depot. The route runs from Brighton to Blackburn. In the 703′s case, Dead Running to and from Brighton is along the most direct road, which also happens to be along the route: Centre Road. I would think this is a pretty common scenario.

Thus we get sights like this: people in the morning peak waiting at Bentleigh station for a bus to Brighton… perhaps their bus is delayed thanks to the long run from Blackburn (troubleprone despite the theoretical traffic priority Smartbuses are meant to have). Often when a bus turns up, it’s going to Brighton all right, but it’s not in service — yes, they do dead running in peak hour.

703 bus stop, Bentleigh

Likewise eastbound in the evenings there’s a big gap in the service between 7:33pm and 8:41pm… there’s a bus in between (at about 7:51) which runs out of service back to the depot.

The most obvious solution is to run more of these buses in service.

Stopping to pick up and drop off passengers would add to the run times of course, so you wouldn’t want to do it across the board — there will be times when it’s necessary to get vehicles to and from their runs as quickly as possible.

But if there are known gaps in the schedule, due to the timetable or regular delays, then it’d help those passengers a lot, even if it meant extending the run time slightly. Big benefit for little cost.

I was told some years ago by a senior bus planner that in regional cities, Myki had reduced the number of cash transactions on buses, and sped up run times — and that was before sales of individual tickets were scrapped. The silver lining in the cloud that is Myki is that we now have vastly reduced numbers of transactions on buses.

Theoretically bus run times should be faster now than in the Metcard days. And making Out Of Service buses run in service may make little difference to running times in many cases, thus almost no extra cost for those extra services.

It’s time those waiting passengers saw some benefit from that.

Your local bus company may have changed

Before you complain to the bus company that your bus is late/cancelled/crowded, you might want to check that they still run the service.

Bus 220 - now operated by Transdev

In August, a whole bunch of routes (including most Smartbus routes) formerly run by Ventura and Melbourne Bus Link were taken over by Transdev.

Other recent changes include Ventura taking over Grenda (which includes Moorabbin Transit), and Easttrans (CDC) taking over Driver.

Seems it’s all go in the bus industry these days.

Transdev, in a reply to a query on Twitter, have noted that the stickers (as seen above) are a temporary measure. Eventually they’ll get the PTV livery.

While I quite like unified designs for the bus fleet, there is a down side: some passengers tell approaching buses apart by not just the numbers, but their operator colours. It’ll be interesting to see how people handle that.

The bus network has huge potential if reformed – and it’s not necessarily terribly expensive

I found myself at a party recently chatting about public transport. Not just late trains and packed trams, but specifically buses.

Who said buses aren’t interesting to anybody?

Buses stuck in Punt Road traffic

It was in the broader context of sustainable transport in the inner-north, but one of the anecdotal snippets was this: one of the people I was chatting to lives in Brunswick and has a friend in the Edgewater estate at Maribyrnong. While she is an avid cyclist (rides every day to work in the university district), when she goes visiting this friend, she inevitably drives (about 15 minutes), because the cycling routes are limited (and not very flat), and it’s not really viable to do the trip by public transport either.

For trips like this by public transport, buses are the only option. Inner-city orbital routes like this aren’t going to have trains any time soon, and while there are three orbital tram routes, more are unlikely.

Buses – the poor cousin

The problem is that, as we all know, buses of are the poor cousin in Melbourne. They are often infrequent, and have shorter operating hours than the other modes. While weekend trains typically run every 10-20 minutes, and trams every 8-15, most buses get nowhere near that.

For Brunswick to Edgewater you’d be looking at the 508 bus, then the 472. The 508 runs half-hourly on Saturdays and every 40 minutes on Sundays. The 472 runs every 20 minutes on Saturdays and every 50 minutes on Sundays. The time spent actually travelling might be okay, but the mismatch in frequencies means the chances of a good connection between the two are almost zilch.

And we wonder why crosstown road routes like Alexandra Parade get congested. Even for short trips (most Alexandra Parade trips aren’t a full east-west journey that would be helped by the proposed tunnel), the parallel PT routes — all buses — are hopeless:

Route — major road Frequency peak hour Off-peak Saturday Sunday Evenings
504 — Brunswick Road 30 30 40 40 30-40
506 — Glenlyon Road/Dawson Street 12 20 20-25 None 40 (weekdays only)
508 — Victoria Street 15 20 30 40 30-60
503 — Albion Street 20 25 25 None None
510 — Moreland Road 20 20 30-35 40 40-50

The 57 tram and 402 bus are also in that area, and aren’t too bad most of the time, but aren’t really crosstown routes; they both originate in or on the edge of the CBD.

While people will gravitate towards the most usable services (just as motorists often gravitate towards arterial roads and freeways), unfortunately it’s not as simple as merging all those infrequent routes from a vast geographical area into one single frequent service and expecting people to use it. Some consolidation can help, but you still need a usable grid of frequent services, within say 400-800 metres of trip sources and destinations.

Better buses work

The patronage growth on more frequent orbital Smartbus services shows there is huge potential for more people to make this kind of trip by public transport if decent services are provided.

In fact, one of the orbital Smartbus routes – the Blue orbital – would have just about served the very trip from Brunswick to Maribyrnong we were discussing. The Blue orbital was proposed by Labor, but they never implemented it. The plan — as with the other Smartbus routes — was it would have combined several existing routes, adding in service upgrades, to provide an option for cross-suburban travel in the inner-suburbs, avoiding having to go into the city and out again.


View Proposed Orbital Smartbus routes in a larger map

My reading of the old maps is that the Blue Orbital would have run from Brighton to Elsternwick (the existing 216/219), then along Punt Road to Clifton Hill (the 246), then west through Brunswick to Moonee Ponds (the 508), then heading to Highpoint and then replacing part of the 223 to Footscray (including just about passing within walking distance of Edgewater) and then replacing the 472 through Yarraville and Newport to Williamstown.

I actually think the Brighton end would not have been that useful — just as the plentiful 216/219/600/922/923 buses are now, it would have been unused. But the section from Elsternwick to Footscray would, I think, have been a great investment in assisting with more cross-suburban trips. (Though I expect it would be a longer-than-necessary trip from Brunswick to Maribyrnong.)

If long orbital routes won’t be provided, then at least the existing shorter routes need to be made more frequent and direct. There’s no real reason, for instance, they couldn’t be as frequent on weekends as they are on weekdays. The buses are available.

Route reform needed

Reform of routes, rationalising and straightening them out to run direct instead of all over the place, would also help run faster more frequent buses — you know, the sorts of services people will actually use.

PTV are actually working on such a plan. While they haven’t yet release a plan for bus routes, word is a bus and tram plan is in preparation. As their demand forecast report flags, bus routes will be re-organised into four categories: Smartbus (up to every 10 minutes), Direct (up to every 15 minutes, running along arterial roads), Coverage (hourly, serving local neighbourhoods, and targeted at people who don’t want to walk a distance to high-frequency services) and Inter-town (hourly, connecting rural-fringe areas to outer-suburban Melbourne).

This is good. The current bus network is a mess — some areas have frequent service simply because they used to have trams, but terminate short of logical traffic generators; some routes that should be primary connections into major centres take ages to get anywhere because they go through backstreets.

They also need traffic priority measures so they don’t get stuck in heavy traffic, as shown in the Punt Road photo above, where one 246 has caught up to another.

Restructuring the network into a grid of more frequent services will help a lot to provide a more usable public transport network overall.

And it’s not necessarily terribly expensive. Buses now crawling through suburban backstreets can run more efficiently if they stick to main roads.

But some extra funds will be needed. Will they get the money they need? The government’s big push on the East-West link has once again highlighted cross-city transport, but if it gets up, swallowing a decade of transport funding, and the only practical option for many of these trips remains driving, then roads will continue to be clogged.

Bay ferry proposals – politically appealing, but not very useful to people

While the East-West tunnel has got a lot of attention, another questionable transport project is lurking in the background.

Every so often someone will take a look at cities with ferries and conclude that Melbourne needs them too, despite the radically different geography to somewhere like, for instance, Sydney or Brisbane.

And they forget that for transport options to be useful, they need to provide not only speed and comfort, but also frequency. Frequency is critical.

Brisbane Citycat ferry

The current proposals getting airplay are from Werribee South (Wyndham Harbour) to either the city or Docklands, with some detail in these recent articles.

The problem with both is that they purport to appeal to commuters, but neither stacks up with existing public transport from the area.

  Ferry proposal 1 Ferry proposal 2 Current train
From Wyndham Harbour Wyndham Harbour Werribee station
To Docklands Station Pier Southern Cross/Flinders St
Also stops (peak) Point Cook, Williamstown None All stations to Laverton, then Newport, Footscray, North Melbourne
Travel time (peak) “under an hour” 40 minutes 35 minutes
Full trip to city Travel to wharf plus above; about an hour? Travel to wharf plus 40 minutes plus 15+ minutes on tram = about an hour? Travel to station plus 35 minutes = about 50 minutes?
Frequency of service Unknown, perhaps once an hour if using two boats? Two boats; every 40 minutes Every 10-12 minutes
Fare (return) Unknown $22
Plus $7 tram fare = $29
$11
Capacity of vehicles “hundreds” 226 800-1000, easily

Some might think: Ah! All public transport is good public transport, right?

Wrong. The cost and benefits need to be weighed up, just as with any project.

Commuters?

The key points, as far as I can see from available information:

The travel time is broadly comparable, presuming provided the bay isn’t too choppy (but hey, trains have delays too).

Wharf: How do you get to Wyndham Harbour? Some might be lucky enough to walk, but for many they’d have to get in the car to reach it. Is car parking included? It’s not clear. (Werribee station has 582 spaces, and numerous connecting bus services, though these really need to be improved.)

The cost (of the proposal that’s revealed it) if you include the requisite tram/bus fare to get anywhere useful at the city end, is almost three times that of the train (plus bus and tram) fare.

But what really kills it for commuters is the frequency. Every 40-60 minutes is not at all useful to people, particularly if coming from a connecting service.

When leaving home in the morning you might be able to time the trip, but it wouldn’t work in the evening. Can you imagine the stress of trying to time your tram trip out of the CBD to catch the ferry, knowing a 40 minute wait to the next one if you miss it?

This would be an utter failure for commuters.

Tourists

It might possibly work for tourists, who are less fussy about departure times and waiting around, but it’d need a lot of promotion to get people down to Docklands or Station Pier — apart from cruise ship arrivals at the pier, there wouldn’t normally be many tourists down there.

And it’d need a bus connection to Werribee Park Zoo, as I’m assuming Wyndham Harbour itself isn’t much of a tourist attraction.

The cost?

The real concern with these ferry proposals, if they get up, is the cost to get them running. The second one is said to be without government subsidy (which probably explains the $22 fare), but it’s not clear if the first one might go ahead with some sort of subsidy. The cost of ferries, even a small fleet, could be huge.

For both proposals, how much government money will go into Wyndham Harbour and other wharves to make them suitable for public ferries?

In total, how much money is likely to be spent, and will it provide a service people will actually use? What is the cost per person likely to be? With infrequent departures, I can’t see many people using it for work travel.

If millions gets spent upgrading wharf facilities, how many trains and buses (which could move another 800-1000 people) would that money have paid for?

The alternative

If we are serious about mass movement of people from the Werribee South and Point Cook areas into the city, without them being in their cars, shouldn’t we be giving them less flashy but more useful fast, frequent public transport?

How about buses every few minutes to the station, along dedicated bus lanes (with traffic light priority) so they don’t get caught in traffic (which will build as the population grows), timed to properly meet the trains.

And the trains of course should run more frequently (when RRL opens, capacity will be freed up for this) so the wait is never long and the journey’s not over-crowded.

It’s really not that hard, but it does mean government should avoid getting distracted by expensive but flashy gimmicks we don’t need, such as cross-bay ferries.

Update 12/4/2014

An Age article today has some more detail:

Initially a single ferry, capacity 350 (a bit less than half a moderate train load), from Werribee South to Docklands, taking 45 minutes (if they can get the river speed limit lifted) or 65 minutes (if not).

Two departures each peak, presumably at least 90 to 130 minutes apart, depending on speed. To start next summer, and cost will be $25 return (so about 3.5 times the train fare when Melbourne two-zone fares are abolished from January).

No mention of car parking or bus connections at the Werribee South end. And although it mentions the recent Wyndham to the City race, it doesn’t point out that the speedboat actually took marginally longer than most of the other participants from Point Cook: 1 hour and 13 minutes.

#Myki topups coming soon to buses (but will they avoid the issues of slow transactions and security?)

Leader Newspapers is reporting that Myki topups will be allowed on buses from next month. A maximum of $20 will apply.

Well, that’s about time. This is good news for passengers.

On a bus

Firstly, it means the Myki consoles will be activated, with Metcard equipment removed. The coexistence of the two systems has caused a lot of glitches, particularly crashed readers unable to be easily restarted, and incorrect zone detection.

Secondly, it resolves issues for middle and outer-suburban users with topups. Bus drivers do carry preloaded Myki cards for sale, but with no short-term tickets, and many suburbs having few retail outlets, and online topups being quite slow at times (because transaction has to be loaded onto bus readers for collection with the card), this is an important option for many, particularly those who don’t use trains, and those who don’t want to use Auto Topup (which does avoid these issues).

Possible issues

There are two issues that have been highlighted with topups on buses.

First: that it’ll slow down buses. That one is easy to solve: don’t give change. This will cut the time taken for each transaction, but it’ll also encourage users to load up more than a trip and/or day’s worth of Myki Money in each transaction.

After all, we’re stuck with no single tickets for now — we might as well make the most of it to speed up bus services, which unlike the other modes have suffered greatly in the past from delays caused by on-board sales.

What should be permitted though is to split the topup across multiple cards, so that for instance a family boarding can give the driver a $20 note and have $10 of that loaded onto the parent’s card, and $5 onto each of the two kids’ cards.

Secondly, some bus drivers have grumbled about possible security issues from carrying large amounts of cash.

I would think it wouldn’t be a larger amount of cash than previously under Metcard, but it is likely to be higher denominations — people will topup less often than they bought tickets, but are likely to chuck $20 at a time onto their card.

The security risk is easily solved by using the method that has been used by many North American bus systems for decades: give no change; all cash goes into a locked box which can only be opened at the depot.

So, I think both issues are easily solved — but it’s not yet clear if they have been addressed by PTV for the April rollout.

Trams?

It’s not clear when trams will have their Metcard equipment removed and headless mode will be fixed… I don’t think I’ve seen a single tram which doesn’t still have a Metcard machine fitted.

When it eventually happens, it won’t mean topups are available, but at least other issues should be resolved.

Having the bus pull out just as the crowd off the train approaches is not good customer service

For the second time in a week, I’ve watched as tonight’s 6:31pm route 703 bus pulls out just as the train (due at 6:30pm) departs Bentleigh station and a crowd of people off the train approaches the stop.

Now, I accept that buses should run to time. And the operator contract probably penalises late-running (bearing in mind only around 5% of bus services actually get monitored).

But I think most people would take the view that the bus could wait another — perhaps — 30-45 seconds to allow the approaching (and very visible, even in a mirror) crowd of people to board.

Given most (if not all) those people already having a valid ticket, I’d be surprised if the schedule couldn’t be made up on the way to the next timepoint.

Not that it matters a great deal, given this specific bus service is timetabled to terminate at South Oakleigh depot at 6:44pm and go out of service.

Me? I didn’t want that bus. I am lucky enough that I can walk home from the station. But it’s common to see a dozen or more boarding each bus from the station in peak hour, and each person on the bus means one less car clogging up the station carpark and local streets.

Yes, it’s true the next bus was only 15 minutes away. But that’s 15 minutes needless waiting for those people, and just the type of bad customer service that leaves people wondering if perhaps they should abandon PT and head back to their cars instead.

Ventura, you can do better.

  • For bonus “grade-separation is needed” points, check the ambulance — again — delayed by the boom gates.
  • Correction: the train wasn’t the 6:30pm; it was an earlier one running late. This isn’t significant — the bus driver should still not leave when he’s not late, and a big crowd of people is approaching the stop.

Update Thursday: Feedback from Ventura Buslines (via Twitter):

“Daniel the company policy is to look around for any passengers that are wanting to board the bus.”
“The driver has been spoken to & the time for waiting has been changed to 1835 to ensure passengers can get to the bus.”

Why do some stopped buses use indicators, and some use hazard lights?

It’s long been a bugbear of mine that a vehicle that has correctly stopped in a legal parking/stopping position should not use its hazard lights.

Some buses do this, despite being stopped in proper bus zones. Melbourne Bus Link appears to be one company whose buses mostly do this. Most buses from other operators seem to just use their left indicator.

I reckon use of hazard lights at bus stops is not only pointless, it actually causes problems when the bus driver wants to pull out.

Motorists are obliged by law to give way as a bus pulls out from the kerb, but the change from “hazard lights on” to “indicating right” is pretty much indistinguishable, because the motorist would have to be checking the bus’s left indicator and notice it stop flashing.

It also can cause problems if the bus driver forgets to turn off the hazard lights, and the bus continues down the road with them flashing.

Yes, the bus in the video above isn’t entirely within its lane — it looks like the lane simply isn’t wide enough. But the use of hazards happens everywhere with some bus companies. I don’t think it makes much sense in most cases.