Some of the arguments in favour of the Free Tram Zone seem very simplistic.
Shaun Carney built a whole opinion piece around this in the Herald Sun on Thursday: basically, it doesn’t matter if it’s poorly thought out, sucks away resources, and doesn’t get people out of cars — if it’s cheap or free, it must be good — and hang the consequences.
Things aren’t that simple.
The Free Tram Zone is not without its advantages, of course. Here are some pros and cons to ponder.
Pros of the Free Tram Zone
Given the decision to scrap short term tickets under the Myki system, and the ridiculous situation of no facility to buy or top-up a Myki on-board a tram, it’s helpful for tourists and other occasional users in the CBD and Docklands.
In fact it can probably be sold to prospective tourists as a feature. It’s handy for instance to be able to catch a free tram to the Skybus terminal, rather than waiting for their less-frequent hotel shuttles.
It might help reduce congestion in the CBD, particularly from short distance taxi trips.
It may help relieve the crowding on the City Circle, which has been problematic for years, particularly on Flinders and Latrobe Streets.
Some streets seem to be coping fine with loads. From what I’ve seen, Collins and Elizabeth Streets seem pretty much okay most of the time (thanks to many routes serving them). William Street is managing, despite probably having the CBD’s least frequent service. I haven’t looked closely at the others. This may change over time of course.
It’s difficult to touch-on a Myki on packed trams, so it saves people the trouble.
If people don’t touch on and off, it may help cut tram loading delays at some stops.
It gets more people onto public transport, including some who wouldn’t otherwise use it.
The maps, signage and announcements (at least on trams where they’re automated) are pretty clear about where the Free Tram Zone starts and ends.
Cons of the Free Tram Zone
Crowding seems to be getting worse on some streets. This is particularly a problem on Bourke Street, probably more so than any other street. On Bourke Street there is route 86 (every 7-8 minutes weekdays off-peak) and route 96 (ditto), and on paper at least they’ve spaced them evenly for a tram every 3-4 minutes.
But in practice delays occur resulting in gaps of ten minutes or more, followed by several jam-packed trams in a row. This photo on Friday shows on route 96, there was going to be one tram (the one I shot footage from within, below) then a 15 minute gap, followed by 2 trams within 2 minutes. There was also a short delay on route 86 at that time, resulting in gaps of up to 7 minutes — enough for significant crowds to build up.
This could be countered by running short services just through the CBD. But the most recent change was that Bourke Street actually lost its short route 95 services last year in a route revamp. The simplicity is welcome, but the crowding isn’t.
(Since this post, route 86a short runs have been implemented along Bourke Street.)
Or it could be fixed by resolving delays along the routes, so that more trams got to the CBD on schedule. This is mostly due to lack of traffic light priority, but there seems to be little appetite to fix this, and even if there was, it’s a challenging exercise to eliminate all delays.
Delays compound as more people try to pack in, of course, making the problem worse, and resulting in delays right along each route.
As a paid customer, I’m not very impressed with the change, or at least the resultant crowding, and I don’t seem to be the only one.
Here’s video showing what is becoming more common. The video below is in two parts: Inside the tram was shot on Friday at 2:01pm at the Bourke Street Mall stop, westbound on route 96. Outside the tram (apologies for the horrible mobile phone audio in this second clip) was shot on Thursday at 1:33pm at the same location. Note the doors are open for a full minute before the tram can move off again.
Is there space inside the tram in front of the lady with the stripy shirt? I don’t think there was — I think there were people of diminished height not visible in the video. People were left behind at the stop, and TramTracker said the next tram (86 or 96) was 7 minutes away, by which point the crowd would have built up again.
If you have a pram or a wheelchair, you’re probably wanting a low-floor tram. Finding one with space aboard, especially on Bourke Street, just got a lot harder. (I’m amazed the two in the video above squeezed on; the lady on the left had help from one passenger who appeared to give up his space. The bloke on the right appeared to get a bit narky with the crowd.)
Similarly, if you want a specific route, things are now more difficult. You might want to consider catching whichever tram comes first out to the edge of the Free Tram Zone where the crowding is less worse, and waiting for your route there… if you wait for it at one of the busier stops, there’s a real risk you won’t be able to fit on board.
The lunchtime peak seems to be getting longer. Of course CBD trams have always been packed at lunchtime, but my impression is the period of the worst crowding is lasting longer into the afternoon. This photo was taken moments before the video from inside the tram, above, at 2pm:
The cost is a problem. Fare changes this year are estimated to be costing about $100 million per year, though I’d suspect most of that is the zone 2 change. But that may go up if they have to put more resources into easing crowding. Revenue reductions mean less funding available for service upgrades.
Those who primarily benefit are tourists (who can probably afford tram fares), CBD residents (who can probably afford tram fares), international students (as long as they primarily live, study and travel within the CBD), and motorists (who don’t need encouragement to drive to the CBD, and can probably afford tram fares).
In fact almost nobody who catches public transport into the CBD and out again benefits (with the exception of Earlybird passengers). You have CBD travel already included in your fares, including if you’re using V/Line. (It’s unlikely many Earlybird passengers benefit on the way to work, as apart from Docklands, no spot in the Free Tram Zone is more than two stops from a railway station.)
The Free Tram Zone falls short of some major tourist destinations — it ends one stop before the Casino (on both route 55 and routes 12/96/109), the Museum (86/96) and the National Gallery of Victoria (Swanston Street routes). Of course the zone has to end somewhere. But if you’re going to have it (and I don’t think you should), then if it’s going to stretch to the Victoria Market and cover all of Docklands, shouldn’t it also stretch to these major attractions?
Despite good signage, at stops and shelters, on platforms, on trams, there seems to be some confusion about where the zone applies. Authorised Officers have been spotted just outside the zone boundaries. Hardly surprising though, is it? (That 3AW story also quoted a lady claiming there is no information online. Not so — it’s very prominent on the Yarra Trams, PTV, and City of Melbourne web sites.)
It will get more people onto public transport, but may do little to encourage mode shift from cars. Many people may be switching from walking instead, and it may encourage motorists to drive into the CBD and Docklands, knowing they can catch free trams (though fortunately the CBD parking levy zone is larger than the Free Tram Zone).
It may not be good health policy. I don’t suppose there’s any firm information yet, but one friend who works in this area suggested to me that it is likely to cut the amount of incidental exercise some people get. As an example, I saw one lady on Friday, in fine weather, board a tram at Queen Street for a ride of less than a block, to William Street. She didn’t appear to be a lost tourist.
If don’t they put more trams onto the CBD routes, crowding will probably get worse. If they do, they’re effectively diverting resources for no revenue gain, while people in the suburbs who are crying out for better services (many with currently only one bus per hour) and who are willing to pay a fare, miss out.
I don’t know if there are commandments for economics, but if there are, surely there must be one that says you don’t give away a product people are willing to pay for. It seems madness that there was heavy demand for CBD trams when fares applied, and they just made them free. It’s a curious thing to decide to increase subsidies for.
Note that the Coalition had a plan to expand the E-class tram order by another 50. This would eventually have added to tram capacity. No word from Labor on this.
If you do touch-on within the Free Tram Zone, you’ll get charged. If you touch-off within the FTZ, and want to bother, you can probably get a reimbursement. Should they have properly programmed the FTZ into Myki? Perhaps — there used to be a “Zone 0” for the City Saver Zone… but it’s unclear if it could have handled a zone being free, and it would mess with Tram Zone 1 Default Fares… and Myki GPS is hopeless, so who knows if it would have worked.
(Remember, if you were using public transport to get into and out of the CBD anyway, and you were going to pay a daily fare anyway, it doesn’t matter if you get charged for a CBD tram trip.)
The Myki message has changed over the years from the simple consistent “Top-up, Touch-on, Touch-off”, to having a raft of exceptions. On trams it’s now touch-on… unless you’re travelling entirely in the Free Tram Zone. Touch-off… only for trips entirely in Zone 2. Confused yet?
Meanwhile, more and more people are returning to work throughout January. It’ll be interesting to see just how crowded it gets.
So, there are pros and cons
So there is good and bad from the Free Tram Zone. It’s not all bad, and it’s not all good — it’s more complex than that.
The problem with free things is, someone has to pay for them.
I still think the bad outweighs the good, but I suppose we’re stuck with it for now.
And if you’re trying to get east-west across the city and want to avoid the crowds, you might want to consider the Lonsdale Street buses. Not free, but not swarming with people either most of the time.
- Shaun Carney’s piece seems to have been directly inspired by this article in The Age: Free Melbourne tram ride may lead to overcrowding warns transport group
- From last August: the big picture — Giving with one hand, taking with the other: 2014-15 Myki fare reform