Brussels has zebra crossings. Lots and lots of zebra crossings. Could we have more too?

One of the things I found fascinating about Brussels on our recent holiday was – in contrast to Cardiff – how they’ve gone out of their way to make life easy for pedestrians.

Most striking was that there were zebra crossings. Lots and lots of zebra crossings.

Zebra crossings in Brussels

When I first spotted how many there were, I wasn’t totally sure what I was seeing, and actually warned my fellow travellers to watch and observe the locals, just in case the road markings didn’t mean what they mean in Australia. Did vehicles really have to stop for pedestrians at all these locations?

Yes. The stripes mean the same thing (except if there are traffic lights). There are just lots of zebra crossings.

Walking to the Metro in the rain, Brussels

Zebra crossings on main streets, zebra crossings on minor streets, zebra crossings on divided roads with trams in the middle, zebra crossings at intersections and mid-block.

Lots and lots of zebra crossings, and drivers observed them – perhaps because they’re so used to them.

Roundabouts? Not a problem. In Australia, these are virtually the only locations where vehicles in any direction don’t have to give way. Exceptions are rare. The Belgian roundabouts I saw had zebra crossings on all sides:

Brussels street

Two T-junctions so close together that putting zebra crossings on every side would mean three in row? Sure, go ahead. The motorists will survive:

Zebra crossings in Brussels

Generally, motor vehicles had to give way to pedestrians, but pedestrians had to give way to trams.

Zebra and tram crossing in Brussels

How much does having lots of zebra crossings affect traffic? It’s hard to say, but the cars driving around didn’t seem to be unduly held up. When I saw peak hour traffic set in, it was clear that – as anywhere else – the main thing delaying cars was other cars.

Some wider streets had traffic lights with pedestrian crossings. At many of these, you didn’t have to press a “beg” button – there was no button. The green man triggered automatically:

Pedestrian crossing in Brussels

This not only tells pedestrians approaching that they don’t have to press a button to cross. It also indicates the authorities have no intention of changing it (and necessitating having a button) any time soon.

This of course is how it should be. If you’re giving the green to vehicles, why wouldn’t you also give the green to pedestrians? (More about this in another rant post soon.)

Note the signalised crossings have the same on-road markings as zebra crossings. I wonder if that helps with compliance? They’re much more obvious than the Australian dashed line markings.

Pedestrian crossing in Brussels

At a few spots I saw, buttons were necessary to trigger the green man. These seemed to be reasonably responsive, not making you wait too long:

Pedestrian crossing button in Brussels

In some locations, presumably those that get very busy at times, the crossings were very wide.

Pedestrian crossing in Brussels

Along with mostly wide footpaths (at least, wide enough to cope with pedestrian traffic), the design of the crossings left one with the impression that Belgian authorities would prefer you walked than drive.

It’s the sort of thing that some might not even notice, but it left an impression on me. If only Australian authorities were so inspired.

Could we do this in Australia?

Sure. But while some new zebra crossings have popped up over the last few years, they don’t seem to be routinely installed.

This spot outside Gardiner Station clearly should have been a zebra crossing:

This was almost a zebra crossing, but someone messed up. (I shouldn’t have opened my big mouth. It’s now entirely a signalised crossing… which thanks to the beg button, many people ignore):

This is the newish tram stop on Collins Street at William Street. It could have had zebra crossings at the non-intersection end. But someone decided a signalised crossing was a better idea. It’s maddeningly slow to wait for if you’re crossing, and many people just cross whenever there’s a gap in the traffic:

Collins St near William St

I would think there’s also scope to place zebra crossings on side streets at intersections, particularly in suburban shopping centres.

Main road/side street intersection, Bentleigh

The law says a vehicle turning into the street gives way, but convention is often the opposite, with vehicles exiting the street often giving way instead.

And pedestrians sometimes wave stopped motorists on, when the motorist is doing the right thing and giving way. (Do me a favour: if you’re crossing and other people are too, don’t wave the car on. You might not be in any great hurry to get where you’re going, but you don’t speak for everybody else.)

Painting zebra crossings right across the side street would not just encourage walking, it would also help reduce the confusion over who’s meant to give way to whom, in what are typically high traffic (pedestrian and vehicle) areas.

Ditto car park entrances, where motorists entering and exiting are meant to give way to pedestrians.

More zebra crossings are perfectly possible. Here’s what they’ve done in Footscray. It was quiet when I took this photo, but often there are lots of pedestrians around. Somehow, the traffic still gets through:

Zebra crossings in Footscray

Potentially two-lane main roads like Centre Road and McKinnon Road could have zebra crossings too. That would be bringing it up to Belgian standards, and would be in line with the Vicroads Smartroads strategy which says it’s meant to prioritise pedestrians and buses. What would be the effect on traffic? It would be interesting to see it modelled.

Ultimately, if we prefer people walk where possible, more needs to be done to encourage it.

PTV’s web site timetables are broken

A few weeks ago I looked at problems with Metro’s paper timetables.

Now, can we talk about how hopeless the PTV web site timetables are?

Most of the rest of the web site works quite well, but the timetables, a key part, really are horribly unusable.

If you’ve got the patience, see how many steps it takes to view the Hurstbridge line timetable for Sunday. Or you may prefer to read on.


(No audio, not even the sound of me banging my head on the desk in frustration)

Step by step

So we want to look at the Hurstbridge line timetable, to the city.

Go to the PTV web site, click Timetables, and on the dropdown, choose the Hurstbridge line, To City.

This displays the timetable for today.

There’s bus replacements this week due to level crossing works this week, between Macleod and Clifton Hill. Here’s how it looks at about midday today:

Hurstbridge line timetable during bus replacements

The times are all jumbled up. It shows a few train times, then a few bus times, in semi-random order. How are you meant to read this?

If you were actually wanting to travel at midday from Hurstbridge to the City, your trip might look like this:

Hurstbridge line timetable during bus replacements

Note: don’t hop on the first bus at Macleod, because it takes longer than the express bus 8 minutes later. Hopefully on-the-ground there are staff to tell you this.

H means replacement bus, by the way. Not that you’d necessarily realise what H means, because for most lines, the timetable will fills your display, so you won’t spot the annotations unless you scroll down. I actually had to mash two screen dumps together to get the above image.

Why H? Because it’s so slow in the traffic you’d rather be in a Helicopter.

I dunno. It’s probably steeped in railway folklore, similar to codes like WOLO (which means a heat-related speed restriction, and comes from — believe it or not — an old telegraph code).

(When I first looked at this, on Monday, according to the timetable, trains inbound ran to Macleod, but the buses only commenced at Heidelberg, 3 kilometres away! They’ve since fixed this problem.)

Now let’s say we want to see the times for Sunday. You have to choose a date, but it doesn’t tell you which date is which day, so you’ll have to guess, or look it up on a separate calendar.

PTV timetable - choosing day

Okay, Sunday is the 15th, so I’ll ask for 14 October to 15 October. The Day dropdown only has Mon-Fri for now, so I’ll just click Go. Wait for the entire page to refresh and load all the times, and…

PTV timetable - choosing day

Okay, I’m not even sure which day it’s showing. So I’ll choose Sunday off the Day dropdown and click and wait again…

Finally it shows the Sunday timetable. But why on earth does it have separate Date and Day dropdowns?

Now let’s look at next Monday. That’s the 16th October, so I’ll choose that. Click and wait.

Despite there being individual days you have to choose for this week, next week is a range of days: “16 to 19 Oct”. But peppered throughout the timetable are variations for specific days, with annotations.

PTV timetable - choosing day

Hurstbridge line annotations

And the footnotes are worded in some kind of broken English:

  • Mo = Operates on Monday only
  • T10 = Operates not on Monday

“T10”? “Operates not on Monday”? Seriously?

It could be worse. Here’s the annotations for the Frankston line this week.

Frankston line timetable during bus replacements

Frankston line timetable - annotations

“_n300” and “up300H”. Yes, not only have they munged codes together, they’re using codes with underscores in them.

Other issues with the online train timetables:

  • Some lines are so long that you can’t view them properly on smaller (eg laptop) screens — one workaround is to change your web browser setting to a microscopic font size
  • The indicator for Wheelchair accessible services is missing for most trams and some buses
  • Even if you have a big screen, it’s restricted to showing 14 columns at a time — though too many would hinder readability

Other cities do so much better at this, especially in terms of date selection and navigation around the timetable.

The silver lining? Tram and bus timetables are a lot simpler, thanks in part to simpler stopping patterns (though Mon-Thu vs Fri variations still abound) and also thanks to the wise design decision to hide minor stops by default, making the display more manageable.

And in many cases, you can use a journey planning tool — PTV’s has some quirks, though Google Maps is very good. (Some others such as Offi have been forced offline because of the withdrawal of PTV’s “EFA” API, which provided 3rd party software with access to PTV’s journey planning algorithms. Software which can calculate their own journeys with the timetable data still work fine.)

But if you need to use the PTV web timetables, overall there are basic usability issues that should have been resolved years ago.

Perhaps, given the data is open, someone should conjure up a more usable timetable display web site?

There was a Metlink/PTV beta web site being tested at one stage – perhaps parts of it made it into production, but the timetables have been like this for about 10 years, and are well overdue for improvement.

2017 passenger load surveys

PTV released their passenger load surveys for trams and suburban trains, with results from May 2017. They used to do these twice annually, now it’s only once a year.

These surveys are used to measure crowding on Melbourne’s trains and trams in peak hour.

As usual, cancellations and major delays are excluded. Why? Because the surveys are not measuring crowding for the sake of measuring crowding. They are specifically measuring whether the timetabled services are adequate.

It’s not to work out whether cancellations and delays need to be reduced (of course they do). It’s to work out which lines need extra services added.

Crowded train, Dandenong line

Trains

The main thing to note is that, as expected, the benchmark standard for trains has been modified from 798 to 900, following the removal of some seats in 2016.

Despite the ongoing confusion over Capacity vs Load Standard, they insist on using the C word in the report. The actual capacity of a 6-car train is actually somewhere north of 1300.

As you’d expect when you move the goal posts like this, there are far fewer breaches of the load standard:

  • AM peak: down from 51 in 2016 to 17
  • PM peak: down from 22 to 7

The worst for crowding this time around are the South Morang and Craigieburn lines, both serving growth corridors to the north. South Morang is being extended to Mernda, so clearly that line will need more services when the extension opens.

Was removing the seats reasonable? Depends on your point of view… everyone’s got a different perspective, which probably relates to how long your usual trip is, and whether your priority is getting a seat, or you’re more concerned about just squeezing onto the train.

I think in this case, they found a good balance (which broadly matches the new train fleet). The overall reduction in seats was about 17%.

But this kind of change is a once-off. There would be political ramifications from having a train fleet with barely any seats (I’d be protesting, for a start – trips on our train system are often 45+ minutes). There may also be technical limits due to the capacity of the motors and brakes to handle greater passenger loads.

Trams

Meanwhile on the trams, they’ve gone way too far with seat removals. The latest revision of the B-class tram (the “Apollo” model) has only 40 seats. The original layout had 76 — so it’s reduction of 47%!

And the annoying thing is that the leaning points/bum racks are set up in such a way that they barely save any space at all. They’re big and bulky, and have a substantial gap between them and the wall/window.

B-class (Apollo) tram "bum rack" resting pads

Perhaps it’s no surprise that the tram survey shows that the Apollo variant (with 12 fewer seats) makes no difference to the capacity of the current B-class trams fleet.

Tram capacity (load benchmarks), from PTV load standard survey 2017
(Note: once again, these figures are not strict, absolute capacities. If they were they wouldn’t be different for CBD and non-CBD locations! They are benchmark standards.)

As for the rest of the survey… overall, tram load breaches are down in PM peak, but have been steady in AM peak since 2015.

It looks to me like the tram routes with the most load standard breaches are those that generally use the smallest trams, especially route 48 (almost always A-class trams) and also to an extent routes 1 and 6 (a mix of big and small trams).

Some sections of the network have had a lot of patronage growth, such as the southern section of route 58 (measured where it passes the Casino) up 27.8% in a year, following a rise the previous year as well. The northern section of route 58 had a drop in patronage, but I wonder if the route was in flux at the time, as it was just after routes 55 and 8 merged to form the 58, and operations were a mess.

Tram 109 on Collins Street

On page 15 there’s an interesting note about automated counting by 2018 for tram, train and bus. That’s pretty soon… I wonder if it will actually happen.

Because the measurements for crowding are all done at the edge of the CBD (the “cordon”), this survey is not directly measuring crowding from the Free Tram Zone, though I gather that’s measured separately – it’s probably why the plan to divert route 12 to Latrobe Street (and fix poor frequency there) has not happened.

The survey has a number of non-CBD measuring points, which can capture hotspots around the network.

The new bigger E-class trams are being brought into service, which sees the older large trams (particularly B and D class) cascade through the network.

So the big question is: will tram fleet changes will keep pace with population growth from inner-suburban consolidation and re-development?

Crowded 903 bus, Sunday

Buses

There’s no bus capacity survey, despite ongoing crowding on some routes. Move along, nothing to see here.

Trains through Glenhuntly are barely faster than walking pace

The other week I noted the current state of level crossing removals across Melbourne, and that Glen Huntly Road / Glenhuntly Station [1] isn’t on the list.

This used to be my home station, and with about a million boardings per year [2], it’s the busiest on the Frankston line south of Caulfield, apart from Frankston itself.

The locals know the trains (express or stopping services) crawl slowly across the tram square.

How slowly? The marked speed limit is 20 km/h, but I was wondering how that compares to walking pace:

The train is slow enough that when I walked from the back of the train, right along the platform, I still had to wait to cross the tracks at the other end of the station.

I’m a reasonably fast walker, but trains should be faster.

This low speed affects every train on the Frankston line, as well as delaying trams and pedestrians.

As I’ve noted before, it’s even worse when freight trains rumble through, and/or during peak hour when large numbers of people have to queue to exit the station.

Glenhuntly station: passengers waiting for passing freight train

Because of the tram tracks, about every ten years the crossing requires expensive renewal works to maintain even this low speed.

Thankfully this is one of only three remaining tram/train crossings in Melbourne. The others are at Kooyong (Glen Waverley line) and Riversdale (the relatively quiet Alamein line). The fourth, at Gardiner (Glen Waverley line) was removed during 2015-16.

The level crossing removal program seems to be popular. I look forward to the next tranche of crossings being added to the list for removal next decade. I hope this will be on it.

  • [1] The road is Glen Huntly Road, named for a ship that arrived in the bay in 1840. From 1882 to 1937 the station name matched, but was modified to Glenhuntly in 1937.
  • [2] The PTV train station patronage stats look doubtful, which is why I haven’t used them much. For instance they indicate that patronage at Frankston station dropped by about half between 2009 and 2013. This seems highly unlikely to me. I wonder if there has been a methodology change, or if there’s some other explanation.

Some brief transport stuff from this week

A post in an occasional series wrapping up a few brief transporty things from the last week or two.

The new train design

This might be the least crowded train I’ve ever caught. That’s because it’s a pretend train, a mock-up of a carriage and a half, somewhere in a warehouse in outer-suburban Melbourne. I got to see it last week on behalf of PTUA — we’ve been included in stakeholder consultations this year on the design.

New train mock-up

It looks pretty good, and has more places standees can hold on than the current Siemens and Comeng fleet, but could do with more still.

There’s photos of the mock-up over on the PTUA web site — take a look (and please consider joining if you’re not already a member — the PTUA’s work is only possible thanks to member subscriptions).

Busway knocked back

A few weeks ago The Age reported on Transdev’s plan for a busway from Doncaster to CBD.

  • Dedicated bus lanes along middle of Eastern Freeway (in the median originally designed for rail), with stations at interchanges, including pedestrian access from overpasses
  • Busway would continue along Hoddle Street, Victoria Parade and Lonsdale Street, to a new terminus underneath Southern Cross Station
  • Double-articulated buses with doors on both sides to allow centre platform stops along Hoddle Street in a centre median
  • Every 3 minutes in peak, every 5-6 minutes off-peak
  • $500 million build cost
  • Transdev wanted it to run as a PPP for 30 years, effectively locking them in as the operator for that time
  • Off-board payment with Myki readers on platform stops, to speed up dwell times

It would have been cheaper/more achievable than Doncaster rail, remembering that a lot of benefits of Doncaster rail would be gained by first doing the cheap easy bit: rail to Bulleen, and feeding all the buses into there.

The plan has officially been knocked back.

The question is: can the problems of greater capacity (to cope with crowding) and speed (to encourage more people out of cars) be resolved another way?

Better traffic priority along Hoddle Street, Victoria Parade and Lonsdale Street is the key: both bus lanes where missing, and traffic light priority.

More articulated buses would help with capacity. There seem to have a handful now, but not many.

Skyrail under construction near Murrumbeena station

Can Skyrail carry freight?

I’ve been asked about this twice this week alone, once online, once in the barber shop this morning.

Can the Skyrail (under construction from Caulfield to Dandenong) handle freight and V/Line trains? The rumour that it can’t persists.

It’s not an entirely silly question. Freight trains in particular can be heavier than passenger trains, and the diesel locomotives used for freight and long distance V/Line services to Bairnsdale are heavy beasts.

The answer is an emphatic yes, they will run on the Skyrail — just as they run on the 1970s era viaduct between Flinders Street and Spencer Street stations.

Here’s the official answer from the Level Crossing Removal Authority:

WILL YOU CONTINUE TO RUN DIESEL TRAINS ON THE OLD TRACKS UNDERNEATH THE NEW RAIL LINE?

The new elevated structure will be designed to safely carry both Metro passenger trains and diesel freight trains. Just as passenger and freight trains share tracks currently, they would continue to share tracks in the elevated design. The tracks underneath the elevated structure will be removed to create new community spaces.

It’s fascinating that this rumour continues to do the rounds.

And it’s certainly not helped that this completely discredited Railpage article from five months ago has never been corrected.

By the way, now that construction is in full swing, the photo above, and the one below show just how close the elevated rail will be to some people’s homes/gardens. It’s not hard to see why some residents aren’t too happy about it.