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Longer term changes in patronage
Long-term public transport patronage, at least on key routes with reasonable population density, is normally supply led with pricing (including that relative to alternatives) also having some effect.
That is when you make the service better you get more patronage. Especially when it's better than other transport choices people have for more of their trips.
For example if you spend $5b on public transport rolling stock and infrastructure, $500m pa on improved train, tram and bus frequencies, $5b on local road, transit priority, cycling and pedestrian works, price or restrict parking and clamp down on salary packaging for cars you'd get a huge surge in public patronage and, for some trips, a drop in driving.
The above would have delivered a step change in the quality of available choices. Turn-up-and-go public transport would be widespread, there'd be faster, more direct buses and active transport would be better. 'Free' parking would be harder to find but demand-based paid parking would reduce the time drivers spend circling the block for a free space.
The customer is almost always right. Most will use what works out best for them. Since the above changes the relative convenience of different transport modes it would have an effect on travel demand and mode choices.
There's a similar response to land use planning. Locate a company headquarters in the CBD and most people will take public transport to work. Put it in an outlying office park and almost no one will. You'll get an intermediate result in a suburban hub. In this Sydney (eg Parramatta) does better than us (eg Box Hill) as they have more fast and frequent corridors in more directions thanks to their less centralised rail network. And Box Hill is precisely the type of area where key bus routes are underserviced. As for housing, developments with permeable grid streets are cheaper to serve with efficient bus routes than those with indirect streets.
A different spending and policy mix would give different results. For example what if you spent $10b on public transport infrastructure, $10b on roads (mainly freeways) but did nothing about service levels, bicycles, pedestrians, parking policies, minimum parking requirements? You will deliver improvements for some with new roads and railways. Public transport usage and driving might grow in line with population, with the capital works for rail and roads approximately balancing each other out with regards to modal share. Certain trips will change modes as trains or driving become more convenient but overall it will be pretty close to business as usual.
This latter capital intensive approach is politically safe as its narrative is "keep doing what you're doing and our works will make it all better". And it capitalises on the popularity of big projects as signifiers of an active government creating jobs and building the future. Recent state governments have taken something like this approach. The thinking behind this are explained by government MPs in this Legislative Assembly debate (from p592).
Shorter term changes in patronage
What about shorter changes in patronage? These can be caused by fuel price changes, employment growth or decline, industrial action, or, like now, the arrival of COVID-19. We've seen dramatic effects overseas with slumping patronage and, in some cities, service cuts.
Even before COVID-19, Melbourne public transport was in a flat spot with service levels falling per capita, stagnant patronage on many bus routes and train - bus substitutions due to construction works. Punctuality has also declined with operators, especially tram operators, having to pay compensation. There is however a longer term promise of improvement with new higher capacity trains, grade separations and the Metro Tunnel on their way. And even Airport Rail seemed to be inching towards an announcement.
But what a difference a week makes. One issue has overshadowed everything else. COVID-19. Urgent measures are now being taken to contain its spread. It started with the toilet paper panic with supermarket shelves stripped bare. Then, after some uncertainty, this weekend's F1 Grand Prix, so often used by leaders to define Melbourne as the 'events capital', were cancelled due to the public health consequences of grouping too many people together. Many patrons of major near-CBD based events get there by public transport so cancelling them will hit patronage. And the huge casual workforces that these events depend on will go without work and pay, leading to likely recession and unemployment. Shortages at supermarkets now include pasta, frozen vegetables and tinned food.
A national ban on gatherings of more than 500 people starts on Monday. Many community groups holding smaller events started cancelling them from this weekend. People are being asked to work from home and do their learning online. And public transport, where close to 1000 people can share a single 6-car train, is not considered a good thing to catch. 2020's 'word of the year' will no doubt be 'social distance'. We are advised to wash hands regularly, minimise touching and practice 'self-isolation' to 'flatten the curve' to retard spread and reduce stress on health services.
What are public transport operators telling people? Here's a quick whip around the various states and systems.
Typical content includes hygiene tips for passengers and mention of what operators are doing (eg more frequent cleaning of vehicles). Most states are currently developing plans or working with health authorities. No word yet on service changes arising.
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This item was written by Peter Parker http://www.melbourneontransit.blogspot.com
This article first appeared on melbourneontransit.blogspot.com
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