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A bus route that carries lots of passengers over its length is not necessarily the same thing as one that's productive. Tack several short routes together and you'll get a single long route that carries more passengers than short routes alone would. This is why, measured on gross patronage, our long orbital SmartBuses (eg 901, 902 and 903) top the chart for the most passengers carried.
But they're not our most productive routes. They're dear to run with hundred of drivers assigned. And if you were to ride end-to-end on them you'll find both busy and quiet patches.
Our most productive routes, defined as those with the most number of boardings per bus operating hour, are shorter. They run directly through continuously populated catchments. People will be waiting at nearly every stop. If you were to board you might find yourself standing during busy times and see consistently high use off-peak. And the timetable might not include much service when (a) there are usually fewer passengers eg late at night or (b) there are lots of passengers but they're mainly people without cars who will pack your weekend buses no matter how infrequent.
If you were a private bus operator operating in the pre-subsidy/pre 1970s years you would want your routes to be like that to survive. However the operator's patronage imperative was lost when government funding came in and the taxpayer assumed the risk of low patronage. While suburban bus operators remain privately owned businesses, their routes operate under a regulated regime without the same sink-or-swim competition and ease of entry as (say) a suburban pizza shop.
Routes and service levels largely determine a system's patronage, fare revenue and operating costs. Even with public subsidies, public transport planning can be business-minded while seeking to efficiently deliver on social goals. Indeed one might regard that as a duty of effective transport planning agencies given their use of taxpayer funds. We saw glimpses of this during the early PTV era when they radically reformed bus networks and had ambitious patronage goals.
The concept of PTV as an independent transit planning agency proved short-lived with its functions soon folded back into a revived Department of Transport. Service optimisation and reform got sidelined with little substantial network reform in the last couple of years. Though you'd think the government, as the steward of public funds and with significant growth pressures, would jump at opportunities to pursue network efficiency and effectiveness.
Bus network reform here has always been in fits and starts. It will no doubt return. The trick is to keep it sustained long enough for all areas to get revamped networks, not just a few.
Our productive bus routes
If you wanted to reform buses the first step is to learn from our existing successful bus routes. Here's our ten most productive bus routes, based on weekday boarding per hour figures supplied by the Department of Transport.
Monash University (Clayton) -
Huntingdale Station (FUS)
La Trobe University - Reservoir Station (FUS)
Point Cook South - Williams Landing Station (RN)*
North Melbourne Station (FUS)
Oakleigh - Box Hill (RU)
Craigieburn Station - Craigieburn North
Werribee Station - Tarneit Station (RN)
Tarneit Station - Hoppers Crossing Station (RN)
Tarneit Station - Williams Landing Station (RN)
Elwood - Monash University (RU)
(*) Disclosure: In a previous professional life I designed Route 495 and had a hand in some others listed.
To give an idea of numbers, the 601 Monash shuttle had a massive 219 boardings per hour (August - October 2018) with 301 and 495 following at over 70. Others were between 58 and 66.
Some high profile routes are missing from this top ten. Again I repeat that this list is the most productive routes, not the most used routes. Still one might think certain well-known routes should be there.
While SmartBus orbitals have some very busy sections (eg 903's Oakleigh South to Doncaster, 902's Springvale South to Nunawading and 901's Ringwood to Frankston) there's enough quieter sections to depress the boardings per hour average. If the orbitals were split into busier and quieter sections then some of the former may feature on the list.
The same is probably true for routes like the 216, 219 and 220 that have busy western sections but quiet eastern sections. Plus the 10 to 30 rankings are filled with routes in established areas (eg 406, 410, 508 and 703) that continue to attract patronage but have been pushed down in ranking by upstarts in growth areas.
Types of productive bus routes
All but one of the top performers can be placed into three categories: frequent university shuttle (FUS), regular route that serves a university (RU) and regular route in an area with a recently reformed network (RN).
Three of the four top places are frequent university shuttles. These are express weekday-only shuttles between a major university campus and its nearest railway station. All feature a frequent service - typically every 3 to 6 minutes but never worse than every 10 minutes. They are a major success story of recent bus service planning. Second-placed 301 was the newest to start, commencing in 2016. Because these routes are short a single bus can do multiple trips in an hour.
Universities are a proven patronage-getter with two other university routes, the 733 and 630, also featuring highly. Both are medium length all-stops routes serving Monash University Clayton. Their off-peak frequency is not particularly high, being 30 and 20 minutes respectively on weekdays and down to 40 or 60 minutes on weekends. Peak frequency is in the 12 to 15 min range for both.
Don't have a university nearby? They certainly help but are not a requirement for a bus route to be a top performer. The other major category of productive routes are products of PTV-era 'greenfield' networks. For example the 495 in Point Cook (2013) and Tarneit's 150, 167 and 180 (2015). All those areas got their old indirect network erased, to be replaced with new, often more direct routes running to new stations.
Like the busiest part of the 733, routes like the 150 and 180 run directly along main roads between stations on roughly parallel rail lines. This means that both north and south-bound buses can be carrying peak loads. High usage in both directions is why circumferential rail feeder buses can have higher boardings per hour than tidal radial routes like the freeway expresses from Doncaster, that, though busy in one direction, can be quiet in the counter-peak direction.
Three of the four reformed network routes (150, 167 and 495) only run every 40 minutes off-peak and on weekends. There's little or no after 9pm service. They serve growing housing areas where, since two incomes are often required to get a home loan, may have high workforce participation. This, plus the tendency for schools to be bigger and more widely spaced than they used to be, means high peak usage. In recognition of this Routes 167 and 495 recently gained peak trips. 495 is the outstanding example, with an approximately 10 minute frequency during morning and afternoon peaks. The very direct Route 180 is another good performer with a 20 minute, 7 day frequency provided, thus being more useful for non-peak/non-commuting trips. All these routes have timetables that aim to meet trains with harmonised frequencies and careful coordination (a job made easier because they serve one or at most two stations, unlike the long orbital SmartBuses).
What about 529 to Craigieburn West? It's productive because its catchment is so good as discussed here. In that regard it's like the 167 that, while not straight, has a large unique and densely populated catchment.
City of Wyndham - the star performer
As we saw before proximity to a university is a major predictor of a bus route being busy. But there's only a few big campuses around the metropolitan area. We can't magically create campuses to boost bus usage.
However one municipality with no significant university campus has more productive bus routes than any other. Wyndham has an extraordinary 9 out of Melbourne's 11 most productive routes if you exclude those serving major universities (601, 301, 401, 733, 630, 406, 900, 703, 201). The only routes in the top 20 that serve neither the City of Wyndham nor a university are the aforementioned 529 and the 318 - a city commuter route from Deep Creek with a handful of one-way trips.
Why? There's multiple reasons for Wyndham being successful. Some can't be replicated elsewhere while others can. Here are a few:
* New suburbs with families on small house blocks, leading to high population densities
* Low to middle income skewed labour force, some with pressure on household budgets where other goals like buying a home, financially assisting family overseas or paying for education may be more important than running a second car
* More widely spaced schools than in older suburbs, making buses more viable than walking for some trips
* A heavily migrant-based demographic, which due to our skilled immigration program, favours younger age groups with high workforce and education participation, generating demand for travel (including on buses)
* Local demographics include low income/low car ownership pockets in Werribee and Tarneit (who may use buses more)
* Limited local employment including a lack of suburban hubs with high-skill jobs (No equivalent to the Monash precinct in the eastern suburbs)
* Local demographics include areas (eg Point Cook) where many commute by train to CBD jobs and may catch buses to the station (especially 494 and 495). Other outer suburbs have a lower proportion of workers going to the CBD, making them much more likely to drive.
* A radial rail network with two local lines and direct roads between them, allowing efficient bus routes carrying high numbers in both directions
* Widely spaced train stations with just seven serving over 200 000 people; even if you are on a line you probably will be beyond walking distance of a station
* Parking pressures at stations, with buses being the easiest (or least worst) way to get to one
* A grid street layout that facilitates fast, direct and efficient bus routes along main roads to stations
* Transformative bus networks in 2013 (Point Cook) and 2015 (Werribee, Wyndham Vale, Tarneit, Hoppers Crossing, Truganina) that improved coverage, directness, frequency and coordination while lessening inefficient overlaps (with some further service extensions and upgrades since)
* Network coverage lagging development (notwithstanding recent extensions) with some new routes having large catchments (including some who need to walk over 1km to their nearest stop)
* Underservicing. Current service levels maximise productivity but not service quality (in plain language, overcrowding). More on that later.
The above goes roughly from wider non-transport factors to bus-specific factors. The latter are easiest to change and are frequently discussed here.
Opportunities for other suburbs
How are other outer suburbs, demographically similar to Wyndham, doing? I'll go through some of them quickly.
Craigieburn: Demographics are similar to Tarneit. Two of its bus routes are very productive despite the limitation of only one local train line. Newer areas around Craigieburn West have high population densities for an outer suburb. The main route through it (529) already ranks in the top 10 with the nearby route 533 not far behind. Some local bus routes are not harmonised with train frequencies and opportunities exist for a local network revamp along the lines described here. Scope also exists for coverage improvements and connections to neighbouring lines (eg Mernda line at Epping). However the productivity of such connections won't necessarily be high until there is continuous develoment along the intervening route (as there is with Wyndham's 160, 170 and 180 but not parts of our SmartBus orbitals).
Melton: Suffers from having one infrequent V/Line train line. Its station, unlike Werribee and Sunbury, is remote from the main town centre. The basic structure of the local bus network hasn't changed for years, with the awkward positioning of the old town centre, Woodgrove Shopping Centre and the station making route planning difficult. Poor road layouts and a lack of rail crossings make efficient routing impossible in some areas while in others a plague of roundabouts impede pedestrian access across roads one might run direct buses along. However opportunities exist for Wyndham-style improvements as soon as trains go to an even every 20 minutes, including direct, more frequent routes along main roads and new routes to improve fringe area coverage.
Narre Warren/Berwick/Pakenham: Another growth area. Again only has one rail corridor but it's electrified with the basic frequency improved from every 30 to every 20 minutes most times. Bus routes have gradually accreted over years but there has been no thorough-going review since the rail upgrades created opportunities for more frequent 20 minute bus corridors on main roads neatly meeting trains. Some new areas lack service and there are opportunities for routes to connect the Pakenham and Cranbourne lines via new housing areas like Clyde North.
Cranbourne: This had a major network revamp in 2016. However its routes aren't yet as productive as Wyndham's. Some service levels are quite generous, even on less direct routes. Opportunities exist to further integrate its local network with routes on adjoining rail lines such as Pakenham and Frankston.
Inner and middle suburbs: Different demographics to Wyndham but they contain some productive key routes that haven't had real network or timetable reviews for years (often decades). Opportunities exist due to their low car ownership, grid streets and/or major centres (especially shopping centres and universities) that generate patronage. Many are discussed in the Useful Network series.
Limitations and conclusion
Boardings per hour is just one measure of a bus route's performance. It has its limitations and biases. While it's good for cost-effectiveness (since bus hours fairly reflects operating costs), it treats all trips equally, whether it is 1km or 100km. A regional coach on a 200km route might be moderately loaded but its usage on a boardings per hour basis might seem poor. Yet passengers might have an average trip length of 100km so in this regard the route is doing a lot of work. Passenger kilometres could be an alternative measure if this distinction is important. On the other hand routes with very short trips (eg university shuttles) rate very highly with measures like boardings per hour (or boardings per km). Bear this in mind to avoid jumping to some misleading conclusions.
Another thing, even more important, is that while very high boardings per hour numbers may appear good it may indicate that buses are crowded and uncomfortable and that both service and patronage could and should be better.
Yes, very high productivity can be bad for a bus route!
More on this next week.
This item was written by Peter Parker http://www.melbourneontransit.blogspot.com
This article first appeared on melbourneontransit.blogspot.com
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