McGill's & Alexander Dennis
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Featured Bus Route – October 2018
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Alexander Dennis & Lothian
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Alexander Dennis at Euro Bus Expo 2018
We've talked a lot about our most productive bus routes in the last few weeks. That is routes that have the highest number of passenger boardings per bus operating hour. The Age covered this a few months back.
Today we'll look at the bottom ten, ask why and consider whether there is anything that should be done about them. I'll use weekday boardings per hour figures from the Department of Transport.
The term productive can be used in a judgemental way. My use here is simply as a technical term, relating to boardings per bus hour. It's important to recognise that governments may choose to subsidise quiet routes because of a social policy will to provide service to everyone, not just those in densely populated areas. However this does not exempt quiet routes from scrutiny, especially if there are ways that these or the wider network can be made more useful to more people.
Here's the countdown to Melbourne's least productive bus route.
#10: Route 511. This is one of Melbourne's newest bus routes. Operating from Craigieburn Station to the now populated Mandalay Estate, it is a token service with one trip in the morning and one in the afternoon. Unless your schedule coincides with it not once but twice a day, and the train feeding it is on time then it won't be very useful. Newness is another reason for it being on this 'bottom 10' list; the 511 started in June 2018 and these numbers are August - October 2018. Hence it hasn't had enough time to really get estabished and it may not be bottom 10 today. Still more trips wouldn't go astray as this rapidly-growing area has patronage potential for a full service.
#9: Route 777. A short route from Karingal Shopping Centre to McClelland Dr. It's an off-peak shopper route with two trips each way to provide coverage to an otherwise isolated park home village. Featured previously here.
#8: TeleBus Area 8. This is a flexible route demand responsive service between Stud Park and Ferntree Gully Station in Melbourne's outer east. On the surface, until you get into the geometry this entails, the idea sounds good. And many smart people have suggested that more of our bus routes become 'demand responsive'. Whatever the merits of flexible routes, high productivity isn't one of them, with all our demand responsive routes having lower than average boardings per hour. This one gets just five per hour with a route so complex even PTV has difficulties (map below).
Is five boardings per hour unusually low for a flexible route bus? No. Gough Lui's account of Syndey experiences with demand responsive buses gives an average of 3.6 boardings per hour. A fixed route service would have to be extremely quiet before it sinks down to these levels of usage.
#7: Route 699. A route that weaves around the hills between Belgrave and Upwey on a very confusing route. With only a handful of trips it's not very useful for many people, being essentially a shopper service. Few buses in Melbourne have express running but the 699 manages to be one of the them.
#5: Route 687. Another peri-urban service from Chum Creen to Healesville. There are few other routes it connects to, with the main one being the infrequent 685 from Healesville. Opposite to the 511 above, the number of trips appears high given the route's rural catchment.
#4: Route 886. This is an occasional service to a stupidly located TAFE college whose founders put cheap land above easy student access. Unlike university routes however its usage is very low, with two boardings per hour. Again it relies on connections to the 788 for travel to other useful places.
#3: Route 384. Until the Black Saturday fires Kinglake had no public transport. It was a hideaway for people who fancied the semi-rural commuter lifestyle driveable to Melbourne in one of their three cars. Then a bus was put on to help people as they rebuilt. It was going to be a temporary thing but service kept running for quite a while after. Later when local buses got reformed the service became the 384 from Whittlesea. This is basically a town service with some trips extending to Kinglake. Unlike any other bottom 10 route it features 7 day service. Not many people use it though, with just two boardings per hour on weekdays.
#2: Route 696. A shopper-type service from Olinda to Monbulk. It commenced service about ten years ago after a community campaign. The areas it serves already had buses but this provided an east-west service. It carries just one passenger per hour, making it our second least productive route.
#1: Route 673. The winner. It's not hard to know why. 673 is a very short route from Lilydale to Lillydale Lake that is almost entirely duplicated by others. It has just one unique stop (by the lake). It has just one boarding per hour, although the route is far shorter than that. This means that average boardings per trip is a fraction of one passenger, ie most trips operate empty. It's discussed in more detail here.
A few other routes just missed out from being in the ten above. The most notable is the loop formed by routes 280 and 282 around Doncaster/Templestowe known as the "Manningham Mover" (6 boardings/hour). It stands out due to the length of the route, the number of buses required and the fact that it has 7 day service. These factors make it very expensive to run.
The Manningham Mover was installed to solve a political problem in 2008. That is the government's perceived (and real!) inaction on improving transport in the train-less City of Manningham. It was a 'quick fix' kludge that made it look like they were doing something.
Unfortunately it was not withdrawn or modified when, two years later, large and genuinely useful transport upgrades came in the form of seven SmartBus routes (four DART and three orbitals). Without the defence of sparse population density to explain its low productivity and given that parts duplicate other routes, it's desirable for the service to be reformed to make it more useful for residents. Read all about it here.
Should such reform include making the Manningham Mover a 'demand responsive' flexible route bus like Infrastructure Victoria regard as a sort of panacea for unproductive bus routes? Probably not. In this long post about Sydney's experiences with flexible route buses is a productivity figure. Just 3.6 boardings/hour. Only half as productive as the already-poor Manningham Mover. Be careful what you ask for as the solution offered may be worse!
What are the common factors of our less productive bus routes? Many are in peri-urban areas. All but one are in Melbourne's south and east. The hilly treed east was historically developed before the western plains, at least at residential densities. Hence the lopsided pattern of Melbourne's development.
This prior urbanisation meant more rail lines. And (with some exceptions eg outer east trains) better service provision. For example all the 15 (and more recently 10) minute frequency rail lines run east and south of the city. Whereas those in the north and west all run at 20 minute frequencies. The same lopsided pattern happened with shopping centres, universities and hospitals. 50 years later it became logical to link them with SmartBuses which are overwhelmingly also in the east (none run west of Altona and the one west of Essendon does not follow a very useful route).
The same applies for regular bus routes as well. Productive routes that don't serve universities are overwhelmingly in the west. Whereas our less productive routes are concentrated in the outer east and outer south. The Department of Transport has been more successful in reviewing local bus networks in the west and the north than in the south and the east. Although change in the latter may be harder; it is in these areas where the marginal seats are and government is won or lost.
Bus network reviews without proper engagement can be politically risky and it may be 'safer' to do nothing to an existing network even when new routes are inefficiently layered over it. Hence the current legacy of an underperforming bus network that carries fewer passengers that trams do despite it serving over three times the tram network's catchment population.
What about other factors?
Route alignment could be one. The 699 in particular is a difficult to understand route as it tries to do too many things. It might be possible to simplify it by operating parts of it with some Belgrave routes extended west as part of a broader network review. Also complicated is the Telebus in Area 8 (Rowville). These routes have just evolved over 30 or 40 years with no recent local network reviews done to simplify services.
Service levels on low productivity routes are often low. Rarely do they run on evenings and weekends or frequently at any time. Even though they don't attract much use, low productivity off-peak shopper-type routes can actually be fairly cheap to run and in outer areas have the virtue of providing a very basic social service. So deleting them might not save a lot of money overall. If you wanted to free significant funds for bus improvements you'd be better off targeting routes like the Manningham Mover which are expensive due to their length and unnecessary in areas where they duplicate other services.
Another cause of low productivity could be excessive service levels. The Chum Creek bus might be an example given its sparsely populated catchment. Otherwise though excessive service is rare for the bottom 10 list. However you might find it on a few of the routes in the least productive 10 to 50 range.
The final reason is duplication. If a route duplicates another route then productivity on both will be reduced where the catchment does not justify a higher combined frequency. Such is clearly the case with the 673, causing it to be our least productive route. Same applies for Telebus Area 8 as some parts of its catchment have fixed route buses.
The big picture with bus service provision is that service kilometre growth is trailing population growth. This means declining service per capita. However it's also important to understand our less productive routes so that bus resources we do have can be put to efficient use. Given the lack of recent reform there are significant opportunities to review routes and networks to maximise public benefits.
This item was written by Peter Parker http://www.melbourneontransit.blogspot.com
This article first appeared on melbourneontransit.blogspot.com
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