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The sometimes lumbering and hobbled Department of Transport, rarely able to win support for even small cost-effective bus service upgrades from its political masters, has just introduced something radical. Or maybe not. They have just scrapped the Rowville Telebus. It its place is an app-based alternative called FlexiRide. It started yesterday, without the usual prior public consultation that happens when bus networks are changed.
Naturally I wanted to write about the new service. However it's been hard as website information has been vague. For example there are no details on waiting times to expect nor the notice one should give to book a trip. The latter is important as existing similar services vary widely - from 10 minutes for Woodend FlexiRide to the evening before for GisBus. The app doesn't even reveal if it's a myki service or the fare payable (unlike other trips it can plan). For the answer you need to check the response to the question posed on the PTV Facebook page. It turned out myki fares do apply. Good. The PTV website article also says this: Passengers with accessibility requirements can request a more tailored service that picks them up from their door or an agreed accessible location. This implies that passengers without such requirements get a less tailored service. Which means they'll need to walk a bit. That's not necessarily a bad thing if it enables the service to be more frequent or direct. But users need to know how much of a walk they are in for. And, no, "just get the app" or "you'll know on the day" are not acceptable answers if you want to promote the service beforehand. The map below shows the zone in which FlexiRide will operate. At roughly 5km across, it's a wide area, including not just Rowville and Lysterfield but also parts of Ferntree Gully and the (unlabelled) Mountain Gate Shopping Centre. (click on map for clearer view).
Existing servicesSee my item about Rowville area bus routes here for background. Rather than having one network, like most suburbs, what's there now is better described as two half networks. These half networks comprise (i) some fixed routes (mostly) operating over limited hours at infrequent intervals (inferior to the hourly minimum service standard) and (ii) three 'Telebus' routes operating on weekdays only with different peak and interpeak service patterns and (again) limited service hours. These half networks have a large overlap, meaning that neither network is as good or well used as it could be.
Away from the area near Stud Park shops (which has SmartBus 900 and 901), Rowville/Lysterfield has three fixed bus routes. The 691 is the best of the lot. This is a sometimes confusing route with some loopy bits. However its timetable operates close to minimum standards except for the early weekend evening finishes. The other two routes form the 681/682 loop. These are very indirect and infrequent routes with limited operating hours and no public holiday service. Telebus can be described as a cross between a fixed route and a fully flexible route. Buses leave and arrive at their termini at fixed times. They are meant to be at several intermediate points at specified times, with a five minute leeway period. That leeway gives an opportunity to deviate, on call, to be nearer passengers' homes. Passengers either turn up and wait at designated stops or phone ahead for the bus to deviate. On the way back they can ask the driver to drop them off nearer home. A surcharge (above the myki fare) applies for passengers wishing to get the bus to deviate. In contrast passengers who don't need the bus to deviate neither need to call ahead nor pay an extra fare. Telebus is less productive than most fixed route buses. But compared to other types of flexible routes buses it has performed well especially on its original routes in the Lilydale/Croydon area. It's not done so well in the Rowville area, likely due to less favourable demographics and/or substantial overlaps with fixed routes which would sap some of its patronage. Rowville, a 1980s/90s subdivision, is not an area that bus planners relish designing services for. It was planned during a lean time for public transport with not even established areas retaining service. Partly due to it never having much of a service, car ownership is very high. Politicians of all stripes promise trains and trams but have never delivered. And even if they did the area would still need a substantial feeder bus network to provide 'last mile' (or two) access. Spaghetti roads make direct fixed routes that provide reasonable coverage difficult. Not so difficult that we can't do better than now, but hard enough to make the Department of Transport give up and opt for flexible routes instead. Politically Rowville is a strong seat for the Liberal Party, held by Kim Wells MP. As a member of the opposition he is free to criticise the government in a manner that government MPs wouldn't. Despite being short-changed with some of Melbourne's lowest bus service levels, pressing for improvements does not appear to be a strong focus, with the member's most recent known advocacy being on school bus services to Wheelers Hill Secondary back in 2016. ComparisonAs much as I've been able to ascertain, given limited information, differences between fixed route, Telebus and FlexiRide are summarised here: (click for a better view)
If you were to have a continuum between fixed bus routes and something completely flexible then Telebus, with some fixed stops and the ability to travel to them without booking, would be near the middle.
FlexiRide features and benefits
FlexiRide has some benefits compared to Telebus. Most notably its evening operating hours are about 90 minutes longer, with an 8pm finish (although there remains no weekend or public holiday service). The latter means that on public holidays just a single bus route (the 691) operates in the area.
FlexiRide offers access to Ferntree Gully Station at all times, not just during the peaks, as was the case with Telebus. The station's half-hourly trains may make using it a gamble though if arrival times vary.
The coverage area is a little bigger than Telebus, including around Mountain Gate Shopping Centre. Coverage area is a trade-off with flexible route buses. The bigger it is the more destinations reachable but the more waiting and deviating required.
The Android version of the app requires 22MB of download space. You will need GPS switched on for the location tracking. If you don't normally do this you'll will notice reduced battery life. Although you can manually enter locations if desired.
A good feature is that the app's planner includes not just FlexiRide but also regular train, tram and bus services. The screenshot below shows a trip planned 24 hours in advance from Stud Park to Mountain Gate Shopping Centre. You can order the trip and compare it with fixed route options. However the fare payable is not mentioned for the FlexiRide option.
The app was tried on Sunday (before services were operating) and again on Monday (when services had started). When checked on Sunday the pick up time nominated was exactly as requested; I'm guessing that few if any would have booked trips yet.
There are some questions we don't yet know the answer to. It would have been interesting for a group of friends to plan widely disparate trips at once. Would they have still got their desired pick up times or would the app have calculated an optimum route for the bus, meaning that some would have a later time?
Stud Park is one of two known FlexiRide fixed stops (the other being Ferntree Gully Station). I then planned a trip from a random residential location within the FlexiRide zone (again 24 hours in advance). This did not recognise FlexiRide at all despite it potentially being a good option (the direct fixed route option being 26 minutes walk away).
The test was repeated on Monday for this address. This time FlexiRide recognised it. Hence you can only plan some trips when the service is running.
Several origins and destinations were tried. The maximum calculated waiting time was 8 minutes, which is good. The real test though is what happens when several passengers summon the service at once for travel in different directions.
Can you see the locations of FlexiRide buses on their app even if you haven't booked a trip? The answer appears to be no. In contrast you could see Telebus locations, such as tried yesterday for this one at Croydon. Not only that but Ventura have this feature for all routes they run.
FlexiRide, in contrast, gets no mention on the Ventura website. Indeed there are still links to non-active Rowville Telebus maps even though these services have ceased operating. Instead one needs to go to the app for information about FlexiRide.
Presumably app users will be able to follow their bus's progress with an expected arrival time given. I couldn't find any 'How to use FlexiRide' instructions in the app. Nor could I find any mention of any main stops, despite their existence being implied by the PTV website blurb mentioned before.
The placement of FlexiRide at one extreme of the table shown before makes it a high risk approach to providing public transport.
Either usage is low, meaning it's not useful to many people, and cost-recovery is poor.
Or many people want to use the bus but the geometry of the flexible route makes travel excruciatingly slow and arrival times highly variable (resulting in missed connections). The point at which the service degrades may involve fewer passengers (possibly less than 10) than on a regular bus (which could fit 60 including standees). The fix for this would either be to add more buses (with higher operating costs) or convert fully to a fixed route network (noting that a poor one already exists in the area).
Maybe the app will have some smarts that bump you off to another bus if the system has limits on how long a single run can go for. That may partly help but could extend waiting times, including what may appear to be a bus no-show for those who have booked by phone.
To some extent this degradation is self-correcting as people unhappy about the service will stop using it, leading to more direct and reliable service for existing users (in which case we're back to mostly empty buses and poor cost recovery). Also it's not a customer friendly way to run a network. Especially if you see public transport as being a useful service for many that delivers on wider economic, social and environmental objectives.
Another risk with FlexiRide are the barriers to usage which are significant. Already a problem with regular route buses which are a kind of 'secret society' that most Melburnians do not bother with, barriers are doubly higher with flexible route buses.
Information fragmentation is one reason. Instead of everything you need to know being on the PTV website or app, demand responsive services are notorious for having their own offshoot sites or apps. Both GisBus (Gisborne flexible route service) with its seperate website and now Rowville FlexiRide (with its app) are examples.
Although even here PTV is inconsistent. For example Woodend FlexiRide appears on the timetable section of the PTV website whereas Rowville FlexiRide is not listed. The PTV website journey planner also omits FlexiRide as does (currently) Ventura's website.
While the FlexiRide app includes a journey planner for regular routes you can't look up their timetable. Thus people in Rowville may need to juggle between the FlexiRide app and the PTV website or app for information depending on which type of service they are using.
Then there is the barrier erected due to the need to book. It's true that there is a phone as well as an app option to book trips. However with a fixed route bus no booking is needed. Neither does Telebus need it for its fixed stops.
This is only anecdotal, but I have seen a courtesy, deferential or self-sufficient mindset amongst some proudly independent older people who will do everything they can to not unnecessarily 'bother' others (even though it's their perfect right to do so). That includes phone booking a bus. Whereas if the service was there at a known time and didn't need booking (like with a fixed route) then they may use it more.
Is FlexiRide incorporated in the PTV app? Of course not! It needs a separate app. When your phone's full that's another barrier to using. Some of us like keeping our digital lives simple, avoiding as many passwords and apps as possible. But if you're curious you can download it here:
Google Play: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.ventura.venturaApple: https://apps.apple.com/au/app/flexiride/id1540992459
Another issue may face lower income and/or less digitally organised people who may lack data credits on both their mobile phone (if they own one) and myki. The latter is a particular issue since on-board myki top-ups were scrapped under the cover of COVID-19 a few months ago, with those remote from stations hardest hit. Yes, there are efficiency arguments but it might also be an example of elite projection amongst policy-makers and a case where the system is unconsciously anti-poor.
Remember the game that kids played where they'd knock on someone's door then run away, making mischief for the unfortunate old people behind? What if teenage pranksters were to summon a FlexiRide bus to deviate it somewhere but either not board, make rude gestures or deliberately forget their Myki card? Maybe that's stretching things but there may still be an issue with 'no shows' that deviate buses and passengers for no reason. Or there may be genuine reasons for not being there, such as being seen on the street and getting a lift from a friend. The bus company may wish to ban nuisances from using the service but, with transport being a basic service, this is the sort of thing that human rights advocates might legally challenge.
FlexiRide is a trial. Passengers have not been told how long the trial runs for or what constitutes success. Hence there is no accountability with the Department of Transport (whose senior staff are unlikely to be personally affected) drafting the plan in secret. It seems that locals didn't get a look-in, eg being asked whether they would prefer alternatives achievable for similar cost, for instance a boost to their long-neglected fixed route services. ConclusionThe above may paint an unfairly unfavourable picture of FlexiRide. And, yes, I've stressed the risks more than the upsides. However PTV hasn't well explained the benefits compared to Telebus and I'd only be making stuff up if I tried doing their job for them. The real evidence though is in the eating. All we can do is to watch how the experiment goes. If usage remains low then it may well succeed for a niche ridership. On the other hand such services tried elsewhere do not tend to scale well for higher ridership. If you've tried FlexiRide or a similar service let me know how it went, especially in comparison with Telebus. I'd appreciate hearing how many others used it as it's easy for such services to work with a few passengers but much harder with higher numbers. PS: An index to all Timetable Tuesday items 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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