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A few days ago UITPANZ interviewed Megan Bourke-O'Neil. Ms Bourke-O'Neil is the Deputy Secretary of Policy and Innovation at the Department of Transport. The occupant of that position would have influence or at least be worth taking notice of when getting an idea of the Department's projects and priorities. That's why I think the whole 40 minutes is worth listening to.
Hear it for yourself or, if you're busy, skim though my precis below. I've added comments at the end.
Studied social work at Victoria University. Employed in not for profit sector. Worked in child protection area which gave an understanding of disadvantage.
Considers access important for participation in jobs and life and understands transport angle. Came in to transport in 2009 with an understanding that it is all about improving quality of life for people.
Was CEO of Victorian Taxi Commission 2010 - 2012 and presided over ride share reform. This involved the de-regulation of the taxi market and regulating/admitting Uber so that taxi licenses were no longer expensive tradeable commodities. Considered that a good thing though there were strong protests from taxi owners who saw their asset value plunge.
More in her Linkedin profile
Precis of interview The current 'Policy and Innovation' title is deceptive. Role also involves a long term transport strategy. Overall focus is on "improving and transforming services". The aim is to take a "long term outlook" but also be about "changing things now".
There is a heavy involvement in "developing, testing and trialling new service models".
Commercial strategy is important as we have new infrastructure coming on stream and Melbourne has one of the most privatised systems in the world.
Network integration tasks were said to be important.
Strategy, innovation and data insights is another priority. As was encouraging external engagement and innovation.
Transforming the network and its services to make the most of new infrastructure was a major focus.
An innovation program has already lead to new initiatives on the network. More on that later.
Awareness of new travel patterns particularly post COVID.
Interface with other policy areas. Eg "environmental friendly sustainable transport". Accessible transport. Personal safety. Fares and pricing.
The Policy and Innovation Secretaryship role also includes operational oversight over ports and freight. This includes leading Freight Victoria.
Much of the above can be summarised in the aim of "Simple Safe and Connected Journeys".
Working innovatively meant harnessing outside expertise and agile working. There was also to be no pre-conceived notions about solutions.
Major examples of innovation include real time information for transport users. For example Ride Space which communicated to passengers how much room there was on services so people could travel with confidence. This included a data feed to Google Maps (used by 62% of passengers). This was allied with off-peak fares to try to spread usage over the day.
Real time information could also assist with road traffic flow, especially when associated with faster response to blockages and clearways.
Service models were a matter of interest including for on-demand buses.
Two big challenges for the future included reliable freight movement in the suburbs and first and last mile connections.
"The DoT is still young". It's been fully integrated for less than 2 years.
Sees future for more niche commercial passenger products, eg cites Sheba (women/children taxi service) or green options where people pay more for less pollution. Also a cross-over with on-demand services.
Thinks that Department is getting better with customer understanding. Sees opportunity for many people in departmental roles. Planning described as a "fantastic part of transport to be in".
In a job that makes her heart sing. So she can work hard and be happy but can carry it lightly.
Sees herself as a role model for other women. Representation important. Good that leadership reflects users.
I did not hear much of a transport network vision articulated, especially for the type of high occupancy mass transit that when properly planned and run makes our cities and lives work better. Though to be fair the interviewer did not ask a question like 'How do you see transport in ten years' that would have given a chance. I expect leaders to be able to inspire the best from people. I'm afraid that this interview did not quite hit the spot for me (if I was working for DoT or was a contracted operator).
OK, that might have come across as harsh. When you're heavily involved in making hammers it is tempting to think that every problem can be fixed with one. And there is a risk of being unfairly dismissive of what is possible with other tools like screwdrivers (and even the people who make them). Even though both tools have a legitimate role and no carpenter would be without either.
I have and declare a bias towards what the Americans call 'mass transit' that carried 12.4% of Victorians to work in 2016. Along with active transport, with its 4.4% share. Whereas much of Ms Bourke-O'Neil's experience is in low productivity niche transit like taxis, the sort that in 2016 carried just 0.2% of Victorians to work. The latter is still significant (noting that the census misses non-work trips) but its importance in a growing city depends on whether it is practical, economical or desirable to scale up. Sometimes you need to step back and think about what sort of city you want and the transport mix that best supports this.
Below are some comments on topics raised, mostly comparing what was said with known departmental activities and achievements.
Long term transport strategy: There's apparently work behind the scenes on this but no public signs have appeared with nothing recent here. Though to be fair, if there was a strategy would anything really be different? Big infrastructure decisions are often heavily political and are hived off to a stand-alone authority to build. DoT may not necessarily be as important under this government as it has been under others. Apart from the project bodies, there is also Infrastructure Victoria which is well advanced with its own 30 year plan encompassing transport. The nearest to a strategy I've seen from the department is their strategic plan from 2019 which I then said lacked detail.
"Improving and transforming service": The pace of reform to the easiest and quickest public transport mode to improve, ie buses, is much slower than 6 - 7 years ago. There is no publicly known tactical plan for services or annual network reform work program that could sit below any long term transport strategy.
OK this is a different portfolio in a different tier of government, but the Australian Communications & Media Authority shows how a government body can have a five year outlook and annual work program with public engagement to help shape it. And within transport we enviously look at Sydney for the thousands of recent and upcoming service additions that seem routine business there. Yes, NSW has an active pro-service state government while ours is almost entirely 'big infrastructure' minded. However DoT leadership must accept some responsibility for its inability to successfully internally advocate the case for improved service to political leaders.
"Developing testing and trialling new service models": The emphasis here is on flexible route services. On a hierarchy of public transport productivity, with Metro mass transit at the top, these sit at the bottom, below even local fixed scheduled bus routes (based on industry accepted metrics like boardings per service kilometre or hour). Given the pressing need for local bus network reform, which would benefit a lot more people, I'm not sure that concentrating on our least productive service styles because someone likes the word 'flexible' is necessarily the best use of executive time or portfolio resources.
Commercial strategy: Our next rail refranchising is not for a while. The UK used COVID to ditch rail franchising (which was already struggling pre pandemic). Their fares are higher and more commercial than ours. Hence the COVID patronage slump made them more vulnerable than our private operators. Our train and tram franchising has withstood this (with a bit of government help). And to our credit we almost entirely maintained service delivery through the pandemic (unlike other cities which cut service).
On our buses, after a not-so-glowing period with Transdev, we are reforming our bus franchising to be nearer to a conventional fee for service arrangement with government clearly taking back planning. V/Line is the only major non-private part of the network but that's had its own dramas with the last two CEOs departing under dark clouds. IBAC's Operation Esperance investigations are continuing.
Network integration: It's hard knowing precisely what this means. Buses have certainly been recoordinated when train timetables change. However such efforts have ignored reform to the the large number of bus timetables whose frequencies remain unharmonised with and thus cannot reliably connect with trains. Hence with few exceptions the recoordination exercises have been about maintaining the status quo rather than extending integration between modes.
Another angle one can look at is active transport. To their credit there have been improvements (eg new cycling paths) under projects like the level crossing removals (managed by the LXRP). In this sense the level crossing removals have been integrated projects. However such integration has not extended to matters entirely under DoT's purview such as local bus network reviews timed to take advantage of grade separations or rebuilt stations/interchanges. This is significant as past decisions, like confining bus routes to one side of a railway, can endure after the rationale (eg delays due to level crossings) has disappeared.
Innovation, data insights and external engagement: There's a few things to discuss here.
While innovation is sometimes understood as doing different things, its less glamorous but no less vital side might involve doing routine things right. Equally important is that we need to be doing the right things.
For example a contracted bus operator might be highly efficient with spotless buses always on time. For that the contract designer and manager should give themselves a pat on the back. But if the routes are indirect, have timetables that miss trains or wastefully overlap other services then the overall result may neither be good nor efficient (in a broader sense). In this case the operation is fine but the planning has been bad. In this case we should keep the operator, keep the contract manager but fix the planning. Then you'll get a truly effective service.
Especially in a big city where you want to chase the benefits of the network effect, there is the matter of scale. It's no good doing one or two demonstration projects that would be horrendously uneconomical if extended beyond their pilot suburb. As an example, if you think (like Infrastructure Victoria does) that bus routes need 20 passenger boardings per hour to be considered efficient, then you would get more efficiency gains if you reform networks with routes currently attracting 15 boardings/hour instead of experimenting with 'innovations' that are lucky to attract (say) only 5 boardings per hour. Individual anecdotes of a service's benefit warm the heart but should only sway decisions if we can show that they are economically replicable in the thousands across numerous suburbs.
Innovations should thus be chosen wisely, with a great many proposals rejected. And doing the right thing even if somewhat inefficiently is more effective than doing the wrong thing more efficiently.
As for data insights a key issue (which would also assist external engagement) is sharing it. Progress has been made with real time data feeds (eg for train crowding) with user benefits. But the system produces a lot of other data (eg patronage) that should also go out as a matter of course. This would assist the research and analysis aspect of external engagement. As an example Track Record publishes performance statistics for trains and trams but not buses, which have long been the neglected mode. And this page should have direct links to a lot more data than is provided.
Transforming the network and its services to make the most of new infrastructure was a major focus: It's a good idea but for most benefit we should consider all infrastructure, not just new infrastructure. Failure to do so is is a major weakness holding the network and services back.
No doubt DoT leaders go on site visits where they see the shining stations of flagship projects like the level crossing removals. Then there's the unloved dumps that are Albion, Hoppers Crossing, Jacana and even Dandenong (1990s but poorly kept). We build fancy but don't maintain fancy, let alone upgrade what's there to a decent modern standard. If you boarded at Ormond and alighted at Patterson you would hardly think you were on the same system. Too often we have initiatives that were rolled out on a section of the network (eg the 'rainbow boards' on the Frankston line) but not carried through elsewhere. This affects the passenger experience as available facilities vary between stations (without necessarily much relationship between patronage and amenities provided).
It's the same with service levels. Weekend parking pressures exist at regional shopping centres while half our buses sit idle in depots instead of being in productive revenue service. And even within the envelope of current service kilometres per year some network reforms are possible as sometimes discussed here.
Yes, making the most of new infrastructure is important. But making the most of existing infrastructure and vehicles is even more important as there's more of it. A leader with a mass transit mindset would have that as a priority. But because the interview guest has more a niche transit background, I'm not sure patronage and productivity figures quite as prominently in her thinking.
Interface with other policy areas. Eg "environmental friendly sustainable transport". Accessible transport. Personal safety. Fares and pricing: Regarding sustainability, low emissions vehicles are on everyone's lips but another key determinant is high occupancy to reduce emissions per capita.
Fortunately this has a happy meeting with efficiency and good economics. High occupancy requires mass not micro transit, even if the 'mass transit' is sometimes a conventional route bus. Another great thing about high occupancy is the improved farebox recovery ratio that (should) set off a virtuous circle including more service, enhanced priority and even dedicated lanes (which further enhances service relative to driving). Unlike a real commercial business, which would be very interested in sales volumes, the Department of Transport is more like a lumbering bureaucracy without a patronage growth mindset or strong targets for same.
Progress has been made on fares, for instance the recently reduced off-peak fares for some trips as part of our COVID response. It is important though to avoid some of the garden paths that the likes of Infrastructure Victoria seem intent on laying for the Department. Also, as an integrated transport agency the Department should retain its carriage over fares (IV want a Sydney style IPART body, which has been an obstacle to fare integration there).
Much can be summarised in the aim of "Simple Safe and Connected Journeys": This remains as distant a dream as ever with not a finger being lifted to sort out convoluted but fixable bus routes like 513, 556, 558, 566, 624 or 736. And active transport advocates would have similar tales about suddenly stopping paths or horror roundabouts in their area.
Service models were a matter of interest including for on-demand buses: Mentioned before. If there's limited resources and staff I'm not sure why the least productive and least used mode is given so much attention. Doing something that works and replictating it 100 times (like can be done with bus network reform) delivers greater community benefits than supposedly innovating with something less scaleable that has a poor record of success where tried. If the emphasis given is anything to go by, there seems to be an overestimation of the merits of low productivity 'flexible transport solutions' despite these likely to only ever be small niches.
"The Department of Transport is still young. It's been fully integrated for less than 2 years.": People in the Department should (and do) have expertise going back much longer than that. Including a knowledge of what's worked and what hasn't. Excuses based on it being only a short time since the last restructure are wearing thin and should not be made. The basic principles of connected public transport are timeless. It's better to provide the environment for good people (which exist in the Department) to achieve good things than to obsess over precise structures. Having said that, if results are anything to go by, the current structure has been less conducive to service reform ('innovation' if you like!) than that which existed in the early years of PTV.
Sees herself as a role model for other women. Representation important. Good that leadership reflects users. The Department of Transport has stressed female participation and at one point achieved 100% representation in its highest ranks. However its representativeness amongst other groups including those of non-English speaking heritage, the undegreed and the outer suburban continues to lag. Impressions are that DoT's workforce has a whiter and more inner-urban skew compared to those driving our buses, securing our stations or even planning at Vicroads.
Under-representation may be exacerbated by organisational structures. For example contracting out, external credentialing and outsourcing has killed off vertically integrated organisations and lessened opportunities for floor to technical specialist career mobility within them (although it might have benefited outsiders from the international 'managerial class'). I discussed the classism of current public transport service offerings here and the failure to deliver job ready networks useful for low income earners here. It is possible that departmental staff backgrounds may cause or at least reinforce some of these biases (eg over-dependence on smartphones for information, scrapping cash fares or not running early buses when blue collar people need transport).
All people are shaped by their experiences. Ms Bourke-O'Neil's background is personalised, high fare, bespoke, niche transport like taxis and ride share. These modes have their place but are used by most people for special trips only. For example they might take a taxi to the airport (partly due to other options being expensive or unsatisfactory) but never for a daily work commute (census says 0.2%).
Niche modes provide premium (ie door to door) service but have a low number of passenger kilometres per driver hour. They are not scaleable to more than a fraction of our total travel, at least not without major consequences for our cities, our environment and social opportunities. Plus the economics are poor. To work at scale they need some combination of high user charges with a market willing to pay, high public subsidies or low (Manila-style) driver wages.
None of the three are especially attractive. High fares makes Uber/taxis impractical for work type commutes (especially for people working minimum wage jobs). High public subsidies force taxpayers to pick up the tab for unproductive transport that would be cheaper, more direct and better used if we asked people to walk to a generally acceptable fixed route nearby. And lower driver pay would exacerbate social inequalities, delivering the sort of low wage society and economy most of us do not want.
Active and mass public transit lack these limitations. They scale up well and indeed thrive with high usage. One train line can move as many people as a multi-lane freeway. Trams can bring many more customers to inner suburban shopping strips than would be possible if they all drove. And buses can relieve parking pressures near stations, shopping centres and universities while expanding access to suburban jobs. Plus, because all are high productivity modes, they benefit more people, require fewer staff per passenger trip and can recover a fair chunk of fares charged.
Productive mass transport means that for a given budget you can improve access for 100 000 voters rather than 10 000. 20 buses an hour carrying 50 people each may justify investment in priority lanes and passenger facilities that you'd never build for a swarm of rideshares going different ways. If transit corridors become enough of a fixture this encourages transit-oriented land use, housing, business and jobs. That further increases usage and justifies further service improvements. Also, for transit's workforce, higher productivity means more job security and better pay.
Notwithstanding these benefits, I remain unsure whether Ms Bourke-O'Neil 'gets' efficient mass, as opposed to niche, transit. For example there was no mention of any network-wide service standard aims (like announced in 2006 for buses but only partly completed) or patronage targets (like mentioned quietly here). That's big picture stuff you'd expect an executive to cover if it was serious policy. Though maybe a longer interview would have provided more time for these matters to be teased out?
In any event, a strong understanding of mass transit is important as trains, trams and buses amount for the lion's share of the portfolio's spending on public transport and there is substantial yet relatively untapped scope for increased patronage through network and service reform. Yes the minister should listen to her and her department. But I'd also encourage Mr Carroll to consult broadly and draw insights from his own reading on transport (which I'm encouraged he does do).
If you heard the interview and have an opinion then please leave it in the comments below.
Building Melbourne's Useful Network items are hereThis item was written by Peter Parker http://www.melbourneontransit.blogspot.com
This article first appeared on melbourneontransit.blogspot.com
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