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Recently I was invited to present to Melbourne University students on the main impediments to bus service reform. Following is an embellished and slightly updated extract. IntroductionBus service reform is incredibly cost-effective, bringing service to the millions the rail projects miss. It’s a massive enabler of social opportunity and the biggest creator of ongoing jobs in public transport. Infrastructure Victoria says we need improved bus services. As does nearly every transport forum you go to. But in the last few years it’s hardly ever happened. There’s a great graph that Graham Currie from Monash did showing service per capita falling for the better part of a decade. We’ve added people but not service by nearly as much.It’s not been for a lack of money swishing around; it is infinitely easier to find billions of dollars for a capital works project than even ten million to improve buses, or in fact service on any mode. Even finding a few hundred thousand one-off capital needed to introduce reformed simpler more direct bus networks with similar running costs to now can elude executive teams whose own annual pay well exceeds that. The starving of service is so stark that even non-transport people are noticing. This is Tim Colebatch writing on last month’s State Budget in “Inside Story”.“On the same page as the commitment to spend $2200 million on the preliminaries of the Suburban Rail Loop, the government has committed to spend just $4 million over the next four years to improve bus services — the form of public transport that residents of the outer suburbs most rely on. “Consider the City of Wyndham. Unlike outdated impressions of outer suburbs, population density in Tarneit and Truganina is high and car ownership is low relative to other growth areas. Buses here are amongst the busiest in Melbourne, even if many drop to every 40 minutes off-peak.Many local jobs are in the Laverton North industrial area. You can’t do those jobs at home. But there are no direct buses between homes and jobs two despite new neighbourhoods in between that could be served. Cycling links are also poor.
Two new bus routes will come to Tarneit soon but neither will connect Laverton North jobs. All because we can’t find the three million dollars annually to build a local job-ready bus network that could also link in better to Sunshine, Altona North and Point Cook.In contrast the wages bill for our 142 executives in the Department of Transport exceeds $30 million. Their job is to advise government on policy. Even if they can articulate what's needed (which can't be assumed) they are not necessarily always heeded. You could blame modern politics, including the rise of politically-driven ministerial flunkies from unions or think tanks as rival sources of advice. Though if our top mandarins can’t sell initiatives like cost-effective service improvements in marginal seats (that should cause even hacks to salivate) then you’d have to query their effectiveness.Success here requires network knowledge, political smarts, internal advocacy and sales skills. However we expect more sales ability from the average teenage casual in JB Hi Fi than a degreed senior bureaucrat on ten times the pay. As Sir Humphrey Appleby once said about his minister, some past transport execs have been very ordinary.As students and observers, don’t you forget that. Make them earn esteem in your mind from their record rather than putting them on a pedestal due to their position.So what are the five impediments to bus network reform and service improvement? Here’s my pick. 1. Record low interest rates make ‘big infrastructure’ attractive If you’ve read the Barefoot Investor you’ll know that car loans are bad for your finances since you’re paying interest on something falling in value. If families didn’t need so many cars to get to the jobs they need to pay their loans then they’d be better off. Which is why buses are such a blessing if service is useful enough for households to manage without an extra car. This is kitchen table family budget stuff that transport bosses on three hundred thousand should be hammering the minister on.Governments can borrow money for way less interest than you or I can. When interest rates are super low then the annual costs of servicing a large debt are tiny. So, especially with a growing population, it can make sense to borrow for well-chosen infrastructure projects with long term benefits. Not to mention the political benefits of building things and creating jobs. But humans (and transport departments) are simple creatures. They can juggle only a few things at a time. We spent the nineties obsessing over franchising (got some imported UK managers) and the noughies on myki ticketing (a bit of plastic). Service got ignored most of that time. Cheap money will always find a home, so today’s obsession has shifted to infrastructure borrowing with service again sidelined. This is why despite gridlock around the big shopping centres in the lead up to Christmas, the vast majority of our buses will be sitting idle in depots. And there are fewer bus driver jobs than there should be. An obsession with infrastructure is crowding out all the good service stuff we could be doing.Your generation will cop the interest bill from today’s mega-projects in higher taxes. The credit rating agencies are getting antsy with Victoria down two notches to AA. It is not only your professional duty but also your self-interest as taxpayers to only support projects that return more benefits than they cost. What seems cheap for oldies could be expensive for you guys. And it’s time to get priorities right, end 30 years of cargo cultism, and make the 2020s the decade of service.
2. Treasuries hate recurrent expenditure Those spending capital make a one-off payment and the item is theirs without future commitments*. Unless they got a loan, in which case they have a debt. However, the benefits of having infrastructure now may be worth the interest payments. Especially given low government borrowing costs. And if you had qualms about debt appearing on the government books, there are creative finance options like public private partnerships to explore.No matter their merit, financing train, bus and tram services is harder. Governments that boost services are committing themselves to indefinite ongoing spending. That requires spending cuts elsewhere, tax rises to fund or acceptance of a bigger budget deficit. None appear attractive. So, unless we're NSW, (which has a Coalition state government that understands transport service) we see little added. This is not helped by some of the funny doctrines around public finance floating around. They might make some sense. But when taken too far can result in poor value projects getting funded and good things missing out.For example, borrowing tens of billions for one-off capital spending is considered more sound than annually borrowing smaller amounts (say $100 - $200 million) for recurrent spending such as on greatly improved train and bus frequencies. If we were to turn off the tap tomorrow we'd still have the railway, road or bridge to show for our past borrowing. Whereas if we pulled the plug on service funding we'd have massive timetable cutbacks (like happened under premier Joan Kirner). A bridge is tangible for all to see but when we invest in services we are 'just' supporting an idea. Although it is a very good idea. And one that should be celebrated as a human achievement. That is the idea that more than four million Melburnians can, after a short walk from home, access a frequent service that takes them almost anywhere for an affordable fare. The opportunities a useful network gives for people to better their lives, as well as the money families save on not needing extra cars, are high but aren't as valued as they should be.
While we should be valuing service more, we should recognise that not all that gets built represents value for money. Indeed, some infrastructure has such a poor benefit / cost ratio that we’d have been better off not to build it. Yet low interest rates make it cheap to fund. But cheapness does not necessarily equal value. It's like watching some
https://www.youtube.com/user/ashens, walking into a two dollar shop and coming out with a bagful of tat. "It's useless!" your partner might say. "But it was cheap!" you may reply. Meanwhile, good service policies like adding shoulder and off-peak services on key routes work the existing fleet (ie capital) harder, contribute to increased fare revenue, relieve parking pressures and improve the road system’s efficiency. What's not to like about any of that? We don’t have to think about transport finances and their benefits the way we do, but we do. The result, especially with low interest rates is pampered infrastructure and starved service. Even in strictly economic terms that can be inefficient due to poor capital utilisation.You should ask one simple question when evaluating any transport proposal. “Who benefits?”. Given that better services can benefit catchments of millions including many left behind by big projects, you'd have to say that investing in service is one of the most cost-effective things you can do to make the network more useful. (*) We'll ignore maintenance and any implied commitment to replace at end of life. 3. Perceived political risk No one opposes the simple act of putting on extra buses. But if we want buses as useful, fast and efficient as they should be then we need to reform networks. That can upset some existing passengers. And you can bet they will complain if you take something away or require them to change buses.A proposed bus network might benefit ten thousand people but be disliked by a hundred. Yet it is those hundred who will complain. They will lobby MPs and organise petitions. The opposition will try to score points.There seems to be a view that politically it’s better to avoid upsetting 100 people than deliver improvements for ten thousand. Governments may get nervous and abandon a network reform. Or, they can, as has become common, avoid proposing it in the first place. The result is an underused bus system, like Melbourne’s today, stuck in the 1970s that is useful to only half the number of people it should be.You can minimise risk while preserving the integrity of network reforms. For example planners should understand the community, know the demographics and consult widely. They could analyse complaints about the existing network to build the case for reform. And they should involve stakeholders like local councils who can help build support. A two tier network containing a mix of direct main road routes and neighbourhood coverage routes (like in Wyndham) can be easier to sell to those who still need a bus nearby. And although it might be possible to reform a network within existing budgets in practice it’s smoother if you have funding for tweaks to address the main criticisms.Adelaide is a recent case-study where a whole city’s proposed reformed bus network was scrapped. The premier intervened and the minister was replaced. And just yesterday we heard he will quit politics. In contrast Perth and Sydney have been much more successful in reforming their bus networks. My blog, Melbourne on Transit, has detailed articles on how we can learn from these experiences (Adelaide's failure here, Perth successes here, here and here). 4. Low profile of existing bus services due to poor information and marketing Melbourne is hopeless at marketing buses. We spend millions on new stations like Frankston but PTV won’t put up a bus network map such as like you could print for $20 at Officeworks. Bus stops used to have timetables and network maps but the latter were removed several years ago. It’s true that many buses are unmarketable due to their short operating hours and low frequencies. But we have routes or corridors every ten minutes – forming a frequent network – that we don’t tell people about. For example times may be scattered over multiple timetable lists at stops rather than combined. Unlike other cities, PTV does not publish frequent network maps. This keeps bus patronage lower than it should be. And it means that fewer people have experience of what buses can do. Thus the impetus for reform to make them better isn’t as strong. 5. Elite projection I might have to be careful here since I’m addressing a Melbourne Uni crowd. Anyway if you don’t already read it, I recommend Jarrett Walker’s ‘Human Transit’ blog. Especially an article called ‘The dangers of Elite projection’.Basically it says that policy makers and the people they interact with live in a kind of bubble that distorts priorities with regards to transport. As opposed to the service that is both affordable and useful to large numbers of people.Take airport rail. The op-edders in papers have blabbered for 30 years about how much it is an embarrassment that Melbourne doesn’t have airport rail. Even though the average person would fly only two or three times a year, few airport area workers would benefit (even if they could afford the likely high fares) and there is already super-frequent SkyBus, airport rail is somehow considered critical. In contrast despite Melton being declared a satellite city in the ‘70s it still doesn’t have frequent electrified rail that many would use daily. The elite tend to fly a lot. But I doubt too many live in Melton. They also tend to get their pet projects up while people in Melton must wait. Fast rail is another vanity project talked up by elites with frequent media coverage. Yet we don’t read as much about the suburbs built 30 years ago, like Rowville/Lysterfield that still have 90 minute gaps between buses. We can fix the latter for not that much money but for some reason it keeps being put off. The nearest we get to Rowville area bus reform is when, without public consultation, the department swaps one underused variable route bus system for another while neglecting the fixed routes it heavily overlaps. I doubt Rowville has too many elites either, or if it does they don't ride buses! A few years ago a part of the Department of Transport plotted where its people lived. It was opt-in so can't be considered scientific. But it was horrendously skewed. Most lived in the inner suburbs, including places like Carlton, Yarraville, Brunswick and Northcote. Unless they go out of their way their lifestyle, outlook and experiences are very different from those who they’re making policy for in Croydon or Craigieburn. They might not think themselves such, but people with a degree and a public service job are an elite when compared to the general population. The least they can do is to understand their position and seek to compensate where it distorts how they see things.Whatever your personal circumstances you need to see ‘elite projection’ in others and most importantly yourself. Failure to do so can make you part of the problem and give you an irrational bias against cost-effective and widely beneficial projects like bus reform.That means you need to jump on a bus to Craigieburn West or Tarneit and note the high patronage, dense housing and low service. Check out the scene at Frankston interchange on the weekend. While you’re down there catch the 788 every 80 minutes and note the clientele around Rosebud. Look at the pedestrian facilities at Laverton North and access to the 417 bus every 45 minutes. I can’t guarantee it but I wouldn’t be surprised if you get extra marks for the broader outlook this will enable.ConclusionBuses, and public transport services generally, has massive untapped potential. More examples are elswhere on this blog. Comments on this item are appreciated and can be left below.
PS: An index to all Useful Networks is here.
This item was written by Peter Parker http://www.melbourneontransit.blogspot.com
This article first appeared on melbourneontransit.blogspot.com
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