What is a “family-friendly” house?

When you’re house-hunting, there’s a continuum of numerous factors weighed against each other, including indoor space, outdoor space, location, walkability, and plenty more, including of course price.

By walkability, I mean the walking distance to amenity such as parks, good public transport, shops. (Walkscore attempts to measure this.)

From some points of view, perhaps the traditional position is that growing families will prioritise indoor and outdoor space over other factors. Big house, big garden.

I didn’t prioritise those when I bought my house; within my budget, I prioritised location and walkability over space. This had both pros and cons of course.

I wanted to flag one of the big advantages.

When I moved, my sons were 7 and 10. Now they’re 19 and 22. Location and walking access to shops and trains (under 10 minutes away) has been absolutely crucial to them gaining a sense of independence through their high school and university years and beyond.

Public transport problems notwithstanding, they’ve been able to get themselves around relatively easily, and enjoy it too, without a long walk or a long wait for a bus to get home — either of which would push them quickly towards driving.

Just for now, my sons are holding off learning to drive, but will do it eventually. With my concerned parent hat on, the risks of personal safety issues while out walking and using public transport are far less than the risks of driving. (The equation might be different if they weren’t both boys.)

Philip Street, Bentleigh (near Patterson Road)

I hadn’t really thought about how this had played out until my sister mentioned pondering moving her family from Moorabbin (under 15 minutes walk from a station) out to “where you can get more house for your money”.

It made me think that teenagers’ mobility is an important issue. You don’t want them being driven everywhere, and neither will they. You do want them to have access to friends, jobs, events and education independent of their parents.

Lack of space has obvious disadvantages. My front and back gardens are pretty, but not big enough for playing footy or cricket or other such activities. More private open space would be great.

But we have a park down the road, and being on a quiet street, we’ve been able to use that space for outdoor activities.

More indoor space would be possible by renovating, expanding upwards, but the budget hasn’t really allowed for that.

When it comes down to it, we sacrificed private space for the ability to get around without driving — for both my sons, and also for me.

Beyond their independence, being able to leave the car at home most of the time is also good for the health and finances of all of us.

It also means they have access to opportunities without the cost burden of owning their own cars.

I’m not alone in going down this path. With pressures on real estate prices, others are raising families in smaller houses or flats / apartments.

Whether it be buying or renting, we all make our choices. Hopefully those choices take everything into account — including things that may not be immediately obvious.

I’m not trying to tell anybody what’s better for their family, but if I had my time again, I don’t think I’d change a thing.

Melbourne’s tram fleet: accessibility and air-conditioning

Two seemingly unrelated things are occurring this week:

Today, Saturday, is expected to be the hottest day of Melbourne’s summer so far this season, with a forecast high of 42 degrees.

And… the 60th E-class tram just came into service.

In fact these two points are related, because only Melbourne’s newer (post-1987) trams are air-conditioned. Another new tram in service means an old one out, and the proportion of air-conditioned trams goes up.

And of course new trams means more low-floors: they now constitute over a third of the fleet — though for those with mobility issues, this isn’t very useful unless accompanied by tram stops providing level boarding.

Accessible tram

Using the VicSig tram fleet page, and making some adjustments for the newest E-class trams in service, I’ve tried to graph where things go from here.

Given W-class trams are no longer used in service except on the tourist-oriented City Circle, I’ve excluded them for the purposes of this discussion. (Apparently there are 38 of them.)

Precise information is a little hard to come by. There are no official fleet figures made public. VicSig figures seem to include some trams that are fit for use, but kept in storage.

So these figures may not be quite right, but I think they’re pretty close. (I’ll make modifications if I find corrections.)

Class First introduced Low floor Air-conditioned Load standard 2018 fleet size
Z3 1979 N N 70 108
A1 1983 N N 65 27
A2 1985 N N 65 42
B2 1987 N Y 120 130
C1 2001 Y Y 110 36
D1 2002 Y Y 90 38
D2 2004 Y Y 130 21
C2 2008 Y Y 150 5
E 2013 Y Y 180 50
E2 2017 Y Y 180 10

So, excluding the W-class trams, and noting again that this is my estimate:

  • A total of 467 trams
  • 34% are low-floor
  • 62% air-conditioned
  • Based on the load standard, which is not really the capacity, the total fleet can carry about 49,000 people (noting that there are always some trams out of service for maintenance etc)

Given the deadline of 2032 for accessibility compliance (DDA/DSAPT), how do things need to progress from 2019 (when the current order of E-class trams comes to an end, and 80 will be in service) to make the entire fleet low-floor?

The answer is about 22 new trams every year until 2032 — which is almost double the current rate of delivery of about one per month.

This assumes:

  • That they’ll continue the broad pattern of each new tram replacing an old one — which is not quite right — the Rolling Stock Strategy from 2015 says: As new larger trams will replace smaller old trams the total number of vehicles will drop in the short term, although passenger capacity will continue to increase.
  • That the new trams will continue to be E-class trams — they might look for a new design sometime next decade, or at least incremental improvements.
  • It also assumes all of the post-2000 low-floor trams remain in service — some of these will be getting pretty old as well by 2032.
  • And it assumes they’d wait as long as they could before reaching compliance!

Assuming all that, on this theoretical trajectory:

  • Z-class trams would disappear in 2023.
  • The last of the non-air-conditioned trams (A-class) would disappear in 2026.
  • The one-for-one replacement of older, initially smaller trams with larger ones, has a side effect: total capacity will increase from about 49,000 people now, to about 77,000 people in 2032.
  • Larger trams replacing smaller ones is also why it’s a huge project in terms of depot space, and additional power substations being built.

Will the fleet meet the 2032 deadline? It depends on the State Government continuing to order more new trams.

Their own rolling stock strategy from 2015 says: Two hundred and forty new trams will be needed over the next decade.

There are rumours of another order coming, but nothing firm yet — something to watch for in the State Budget in May.

Three good reasons for accessible tram services: luggage, mobility issues, prams

Even more intimidating than the fleet is the infrastructure. DDA/DSAPT includes a number of requirements (for instance, signage and announcements), but accessible stops are a key requirment. There are around 400 accessible tram stops out of a total of about 1700 (eg 25%). And many of those done so far have been the easy ones, along segregated track.

The benefits of a more accessible tram system are obvious — both to those with mobility difficulties, and also parents with prams, and anybody with luggage.

Reaching the target of full accessibility by 2032 is going to be tricky. It needs to be a key focus for government in the years ahead.

* * *

Notes:

No Night Buses running for NYE

Night Buses are not running on New Year’s Eve tonight.

Most trams and trains are running all night — and it’s more trains than last year; half-hourly after about 2am, rather than hourly as last year. There are also some regional trains and coaches after midnight.

Night Bus routes are designed to fill the gaps between the trams and trains — especially the latter in the outer suburbs.

Not running them means many suburbs will have no public transport at all between about 10pm tonight and 7am tomorrow morning — including Mornington (and the rest of the Peninsula, population 155,000 people), Point Cook, Rowville, Mernda and others. Doncaster will have Smartbus routes extended until 2am, but nothing after that.

The Age ran a story on Friday: No way home for hundreds of revellers after Night Buses cut for New Year’s Eve

The story included this truly ludicrous response from the State Government:

A spokeswoman for Public Transport Minister Jacinta Allan has argued that the Night Bus services would not run this year because New Year’s Eve falls on Sunday, and the late night services run on Friday and Saturday nights. … “As New Year’s Eve falls on a Sunday, Night Network services do not operate”

Um, what? Trains and trams don’t run all night on Sundays either, but they do for New Year’s Eve.

Why would you run the Night Buses every weekend, but not on the biggest night of the year?

After they’d had some time to think about their response, PTV changed their tune to something a little more plausible: they claimed to journalists that only 50 people used Night Buses last NYE… but they also claimed that normal weekend Night Buses are “very popular”.

Let’s assume the 50 people quoted excluded the Doncaster Night Buses. If that service was used by hardly any people, then this year they wouldn’t be running four Smartbus routes to Doncaster every 15 minutes until 2am.

Doncaster aside, if Night Bus passenger numbers are low on NYE, logic would imply they’re even lower on most weekends.

PTV Night Bus Network 2016

Does Night Bus need a re-design?

Most of the time, official patronage figures for Night Bus are very hard to come by.

But this claimed low patronage on NYE casts into doubt the entire Night Bus network design.

If Night Bus patronage is not reaching expectations, then authorities should review the network, which currently is completely different to daytime bus routes, and partly duplicates rail services.

There are some broader Night Network considerations, including:

  • more frequent trains — which would only incrementally increase costs, given so much investment in station staff and PSOs and other support staff to just keep the network running all night, and the current hourly timetable has some excessively long layovers
  • using buses instead of trains on the outer-ends and/or quieter sections of the rail network

On Night Buses specifically, one option would be running major routes (eg Smartbuses, or at least the busiest sections, and a few other bus routes targeted at gaps in the rest of the network) as 24 hour services on weekends and New Year’s Eve. Time them where possible to meet trains from the City.

Like the 24 hour trains and trams, 24 hour buses would be more understandable for users, and more likely to get good patronage. The current Night Bus network of different routes to daytime means someone heading out before midnight but coming back after midnight has double the work to figure out how to use the system.

(The way they are programmed into Journey Planners also seems to cause issues. Night Buses are limited pick-up, but will drop you off at any stop. This seems to be beyond the understanding of the JP algorithms.)

Indeed, if Night Bus patronage is generally poor, and Night Train/Tram usage is more healthy, then we’ve got the ironic situation that the train/tram routes designed by the ALP in opposition are performing better than the bus routes designed by the professional transport planners at PTV.

Keeping it simple is the key. After-midnight services should be (some of) the same routes that run in daytime, rather than a completely different network.

Chadstone’s Boxing Day bus debacle

Chadstone’s new bus interchange opened in late-2015. Today I got to sample how well Chadstone’s buses run on what is perhaps the busiest shopping day of the year: Boxing Day.

(I wasn’t there to shop. I was there to watch Doctor Who — Hoyts at Chadstone had $12 tickets, and more of them available, than Village at Southland which was $20 and sold out.)

Chadstone is the biggest shopping centre in Australia, and was expecting 170,000 visitors on Boxing Day.

The first signs of trouble: the bus to Chadstone was running late. And more people than you’d normally see were waiting at the bus stop.

The last seats filled as we boarded, and from there, it quickly got packed. Like most suburban bus routes, this service runs only once an hour on Boxing Day, and all public holidays as well as weekends — half the weekday frequency.

626 bus to Chadstone, Boxing Day

Our bus driver, at the stop before Chadstone, wisely suggested we get out and walk to avoid a long delay in the traffic… which was chaotic.

There were long queues of cars waiting to get into the centre, delaying buses as well, and numerous private vehicles parked in bus stops.

You can see from these aerial shots that the car parks were packed full. Note how much space (about 40%) is used simply for moving the cars into and out of car spaces — this underscores just how inefficient this mode is for moving large numbers of people. Multi-storey parking like this is also incredibly expensive to build.

Chadstone car park, Boxing Day (Channel 7)
Chadstone car park, Boxing Day (Channel 7)

Exiting the centre a couple of hours later, the bus interchange was a sight to behold. Many people queuing at the various bays.

There seemed to be long delays on most routes.

623 bus boarding at Chadstone, Boxing Day

Rather than wait for a specific bus, we caught the first one going broadly in our direction; a 623 to St Kilda. The queue to board looked hopelessly long; then a 624 to Kew also showed up, sharing some of the load — they both go to Carnegie. (The 623 departed at 2:25pm; 20 minutes late. The 624 would have been a minute or two behind that, so appears to have been about 40 minutes late.)

Here’s a quick video showing the scene as we departed:

Just to twist the knife, for much of the afternoon, buses on one of the busiest routes through Chadstone, route 903, actually bypassed the Chadstone and Essendon DFO shopping centres completely! Ridiculous.

The text of the PTV travel alert, and the fact that Essendon DFO also had issues, appears to point to problems for bus routes right across Melbourne, at all the major shopping centres dominated by car parks and car access.

Chadstone official centre map. Where's the bus interchange?

So where to from here?

Some things for authorities to think about:

First an easy one: get the bus interchange put onto the official centre maps. I mean for heaven’s sake, who designed this?

More significantly: a centralised bus interchange is a good idea, but if it doesn’t include bus priority lanes to ensure buses don’t get caught in centre traffic, it’s a failure. Today the access roads filled with cars queuing for non-existent parking spaces.

Even if they couldn’t get bus lanes in place temporarily for these peak times, they should have deployed more buses. If trains or trams suffer major disruptions, they call in buses. Why couldn’t they have called in more buses to support the regular services?

Equally, why not extra services? When special events are on, extra trams and trains run. Why isn’t it done for Boxing Day shopping? The government could easily organise with the bus companies to run the higher weekday frequencies on all weekends and public holidays during December, on routes to Chadstone and other major shopping centres, to cope with demand from shoppers.

In fact, Chadstone and other centres put a lot of event planning into Christmas and Boxing Day sales. Are these considered special events under the state legislation related to events? Given the impacts, they should be.

If you are organising an event which is likely to have an impact on public transport services, then you are required under Victorian legislation to notify Public Transport Victoria (PTV). — PTV

In fact, for commercial events (and they don’t get more commercial than the Boxing Day sales) it appears the cost of additional services would be borne by the event organiser: the shopping centre. Perhaps if this was enacted, it would help them focus on the need to get buses through the traffic more quickly.

… the focus of the legislation is only on those events that are likely to have an impact on regular public transport services.

Commercial events – run primarily for profit. These events are generally feepaying activities organised by business or commercial entities. In these cases cost recovery may be made a condition of approval of the Public Transport Plan. — PTV Information Kit for Event Organisers

Longer term, better bus services, tram (routes 3 or 67?) connections, or even heavy rail (one idea is extending the Alamein line under Chadstone to Oakleigh) need to be looked at. Continued car domination of huge centres like this isn’t scalable, and isn’t sustainable.

767 bus boarding at Chadstone, Boxing Day

Fundamentally, Boxing Day also underscores that the current hourly services (on most routes) or half-hourly (on the Smartbus routes) simply isn’t good enough for a huge centre like Chadstone on weekends and public holidays. It defies belief that compared to weekdays, services are halved on the busiest shopping days.

While billions is to be spent on tollways that will inevitably cause more traffic, the few people that dared to use buses instead of adding to traffic were treated like second-class citizens.

Boxing Day sales happen every year. It’s been traffic chaos every year for well over a decade, and it’s getting worse as the centre continues to grow.

This is both a challenge: managing delays, and an opportunity: encourage more people to use public transport. Do it well, and you win new customers.

The rest of the week most likely won’t be quite so bad. Shopper demand will reduce a bit, and weekday services will kick-in on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

Just watch though. Bet you the same mess happens again next Boxing Day.

Some thoughts on CBD street design and safety

Thursday’s awful incident brings back memories of January’s attack, and authorities are rightly saying that it will be investigated from all angles.

One issue is road infrastructure that allows a vehicle to reach high speed in a constrained, pedestrian-dense area like Flinders Street.

The speed limit is 40. But apart from the placement of tram superstops (one of which finally stopped the vehicle) there’s been little change to this section of road in decades. It’s wide and straight, with no form of traffic calming; no speed humps or other treatments that you might see in a suburban school zone, for instance.

Not that the road was clear. The traffic was apparently congested, but the driver apparently veered out onto the tram tracks to speed towards the intersection.

The Prime Minister commented:

“[Melbourne] has big wide streets, wide footpaths and of course, it has trams, and the tramways enable a [car] driver, as this driver did to pull out of stopped traffic, get into the tramway and then make an attack. This is an issue for protecting, for example, the Bourke Street Mall.”

In Flinders Street, it shouldn’t be too difficult to make it harder for motor vehicles to get onto the tracks. A small separation, preferably with the tracks raised slightly, would do it — such as this design I spotted in Brussels in July:

Separated tram track on Avenue Fonsny, Brussels

The beauty of this design is that it helps stop all sorts of unauthorised vehicles getting onto the tracks, or turning across them. This would improve tram safety and cut delays to trams.

It does come at the cost of convenience for some motorists (frankly, not a priority in the city centre) and making it trickier for emergency services to use the tram tracks, as well as limiting where people with wheelchairs or other mobility aids can cross. These issues would need consideration.

Apparently none of this is impossible to resolve, because you can already find this design in central Melbourne — in Spencer Street:

Separated tram track in Spencer Street, Melbourne

Depending on the precise design, it doesn’t make it completely impossible for a vehicle to get onto the tracks, but it could make it a lot more difficult.

The PM is right to note the Bourke Street Mall presents some challenges. But it would be wrong to assume it can’t be solved.

Permanent bollards have recently been placed either side of the tramway, at both ends.

Bollards in Bourke Street, Melbourne

But the tramway itself remains open — to trams, obviously, but also to other vehicles, including unauthorised and/or clueless motorists.

What do other cities do? Some of them use retractable bollards, to let through only authorised vehicles.

Here’s a quick video of them operating in Cardiff. This is the main bus route between the city centre and Cardiff Bay.

This has potential, though in this case, you can see it’s a little problematic:

It’s far too slow to respond. I assume it’s controlled remotely from an operator somewhere watching on CCTV. To cut delays, the bollards should retract as the bus approaches, not wait for it to stop and wait.

If bollards like this were placed at either end of Bourke Street Mall, hopefully engineers could come up with a system that sees them retract automatically as trams approached or waited in the tram stop.

Another issue might be the risks of putting them in areas of heavy pedestrian traffic. Careful placement (between tram stop platforms, or away from the footpath, on the edge of the intersecting roadway) might resolve this.

Trams on Bourke Street

Getting this right brings numerous benefits, not just for safety from vehicle attacks, but also keeping pedestrian areas free of unauthorised vehicles, and also preventing them disrupting trams.

Authorities shouldn’t give up. Other cities have solved similar problems. I’m sure we can too.