Is the Smartbus branding dead? Why not make every bus a Smartbus?

Smartbus was devised in the dying days of the Kennett government originally as a mostly hardware-based upgrade: traffic priority, real-time information at stops, distinctive bus stop signs and buses.

Originally it didn’t include service upgrades (which sparked derision from the PTUA at the time), but this was changed early on during the Bracks government, with a trial on routes 703 and 888/889 (now 902).

It was a success, with patronage growing strongly. In 2006 the Bracks government announced more Smartbus routes, including four orbital routes (of which two and three-quarters were eventually built) and four Doncaster area “rapid transit” routes under the sub-brand “DART”.

Most of these replaced existing routes, but they’re now some of the busiest bus services in Melbourne.

This old data (which was the most recent published by PTV, and has now disappeared off their web site) shows that Smartbus (90x and 703) make up 5 of the top 7 routes — in part due to their length, no doubt.

Melbourne annual bus patronage 2011-12

(Monash Uni shuttle route 601 is probably ranked at about 7th, but the figures are so old, it’s not included, as it only started in late 2011.)

Silver and orange

Part of the appeal, apart from a better quality of service, was a distinctive silver livery, to set Smartbus routes apart from others.

Transdev, which operates most of the Smartbus routes, seems to be doing their best to kill it off.

Regular orange buses are turning up regularly on Smartbus routes.

Smartbus-liveried buses are turning up regularly on non-Smartbus routes.

Smartbus livery on non-Smartbus route

Transdev of course have well-publicised problems with their fleet, which has led to a shortage of buses. But you also see these issues on weekends, when there should be plenty of spare vehicles. (The above photo is from a Saturday. That day, at least two Smartbus liveried-buses were observed running on route 223.)

Ventura has also been spotted occasionally running regular orange buses on Smartbus route 900, and they also run route 703, one of the original trial Smartbuses, which has never been upgraded to reach the supposed Smartbus service standard, and always runs orange buses (albeit with internal passenger information displays, which are only seen on Smartbus routes).

Is it time to ditch the special livery?

There might be some benefit to having a distinctive Smartbus livery in terms of attracting new users, but I don’t think it’s ever been quantified.

There is, self-evidently, a cost to bus operators of having a specific fleet of buses that can only be run on certain routes. This is the same reason they are reluctant to run mini-buses at quiet times – as this video from Florida notes, it would involve having an entire separate fleet for particular runs.

Should all buses be Smartbuses?

Smartbus routes are not actually the most frequent on the network, so the current distinction is somewhat arbitrary.

What if we gave all bus routes the benefit of Smartbus technology?

One benefit of Smartbus is real-time information at stops, but data feeds for this are now available for almost every Melbourne bus route (via the PTV app and others).

Maybe where regular and Smartbus routes share stops, they should be displaying all routes on the Smartbus kerbside signs?

Perhaps they’re already trialling this. A couple of weeks ago I spotted this displayed on a Smartbus sign at Caulfield Station – it was alternating between non-Smartbus route 624, and Smartbus route 900. (Yes, refer to printed timetable isn’t very useful. In fact, that default message should probably now be “refer to printed timetable or PTV app”.)

Route 624 on a Smartbus display

Smartbus 703 internal display

Another Smartbus amenity not currently seen on other routes is passenger information displays inside the buses, alongside automated announcements for each stop.

During my UK trip last year I found similar displays in every single London bus that I rode. I found it helped a lot when navigating an unfamiliar route.

London bus internal passenger information

This is also increasingly standard on Melbourne trams.

The obvious question is: why not here on every bus? This would also assist ensuring those with hearing or vision difficulties are informed about their location.

As for the liveries themselves… arguably it is useful to distinguish between bus routes by more than just the number. But equally there’s value in a uniform fleet, to emphasise there’s a network.

Perhaps the answer is to make more route number displays standard on all new buses — not just the front, but also the side and rear too. Make them super prominent.

And perhaps some innovative new way of providing individual route markings/colours (within the standard orange design) could be found, such as a coloured stripe or other design along the side that can be displayed clearly, yet easily changed when the bus gets switched to another route.

All options worth exploring.

Non-liveried Smartbus arrives

Of course, putting more automated information at stops and on buses won’t solve issues of poor scheduling, infrequent services, spaghetti-like route structure, on-road delays (and a lack of traffic priority), cleanliness, and reliability…

But starting a rollout of Smartbus features onto every bus route — including regional town buses — would be a step forward to providing an easier to use bus network.

Smartbus signs – wouldn’t it be good if you could see them from the bus stop?

Having spent all that money on GPS in the buses, transmitters and receivers to get the bus locations onto electronic signs, wouldn’t you think they’d think carefully about where those signs were located?

Exhibit 1: Lonsdale Street, near Hardware Lane
Smartbus sign, Lonsdale Street

Exhibit 2: Dandenong Station (I’ve circled it in case it’s not obvious)
Smartbus sign, Dandenong Station

To be fair, most of those I’ve spotted are quite well located, so they are visible from the bus stops they serve.

But are there others like these ones?

Passengers do like having realtime information, and along with the increased frequencies and (limited, some would argue) traffic priority measures, it’s led to strong patronage growth on Smartbuses… but they can do better.

By the way, this is not a problem confined to buses

When you’re headed down the Elizabeth Street subway at Flinders Street Station, do you ever look up above the platform entrances? If you did, you’d spot automated signs that virtually nobody ever sees. Fortunately they never seem to say anything actually informative — only ever “Welcome to Flinders Street Station.”
Automated sign, Flinders Street Station, Elizabeth Street subway

Meanwhile on the new X’Trapolis trains, the signs inside the carriage are neatly obscured by the cross-bars in the doorways, which are designed to be at a good height to hold onto, without people banging their heads on them.
Automated sign, X'Trapolis train

Why aren’t there more Smartbuses?

Why aren’t there more Smartbuses? Smartbuses work.

Smartbus is a fancy marketing name for buses that run more frequently than most other routes, have some bus priority and realtime electronic signs at major stops. The figures in this government press release show the upgrades of routes to Smartbus result in strong patronage growth.

Smartbus patronage growth

I’ve excluded the older 703 and 888/889 services from the graph. They were part of the initial Smartbus trial, upgraded in 2002, and growth was initially strong, but has flattened out. These routes don’t actually conform to the Smartbus standards, so run less frequently than the newer routes listed above. 888/889 is getting a boost on Monday when it becomes the 902, with a new timetable, and an extension to Airport West. There’s no word on whether the 703 will be fixed.

The figures above show that if you make bus services more frequent, and run them for longer hours, then more people will use them. The jury’s probably out on all the electronic gizmos; many of the signs are periodically unreliable, though admittedly they do work much of the time.

The aims of clever electronics to give buses traffic light priority has never seemed to work as well as promised, and has given way to lower-tech old-fashioned priority bus lanes and jump-start lanes at intersections (where the bus gets a B signal before the rest of the cars, so it can jump to the start of the traffic queue.)

Weekend (and evening) services are a bit poor, with typical waiting times of 30 minutes being totally uncompetitive with car travel, and a long way from parity with inner-suburban tram services running every 12-15 minutes.

And there’s some uncertainty over whether stringing together shorter routes into mega-long services has been a good idea. The expanded 902 from Chelsea to Airport West will be 76 kilometres long, which must play havoc with timekeeping. And few people would catch it from end-to-end, given there are faster, more direct services.

I tend to think of it as not one big long mega-route, but a whole bunch of smaller feeder routes strung together. A lot of people use them just to reach the local station or shopping centre.

Queueing for the 703 at Bentleigh Station

But faults aside, it’s undeniable that they are a success story. So why aren’t there more of them?

They’re not particularly expensive to implement. The next extension, the “Yellow” route 901 from Ringwood to Melbourne Airport (about 70 kilometres), will cost $37.9 million in capital funding, and about $19 million per year in running costs. [Source: Budget papers] This is tiny compared to the amounts being spent freeway expansion — Peninsula Link is costing $759 million for 27 kilometres.

Apart from that and the “DART” Smartbus-style services proposed for Doncaster (luckily not planned for Frankston), there aren’t any more on the drawing board. In fact one proposed route, the “blue” orbital, was cancelled, and part of the 902, from Werribee via Deer Park to Airport West, has been indefinitely deferred.

Surely if the government were serious about offering decent PT to the whole city, they’d have more Smartbuses planned. Give every suburb either a train, tram or Smartbus service, boost the services to run frequently seven-days-a-week, and give every suburb a public transport that is actually in some way competitive to car travel.