What to do about fare evasion?

% journeys where fare is evaded (Metlink data)

Metlink released its Metropolitan Fare Evasion Survey on the weekend, which apparently shows 13.5% of trips on public transport in Melbourne in the first half of 2011 weren’t paid for.

The figure for trams, where it’s easier to avoid paying, was much higher – The Age’s headline was One in five evading fares on trams (see exhibit).

Metlink’s disappointed me before with its slipshod approach to customer focus and they’ve done it again this time. The survey was released to the media, but not to public transport users, so we can’t read it (in fact the most recent media release available on Metlink’s web site as of today is 17 August!).

However fortunately The Age has cited some of the findings in this indignant editorial, Fare dodgers owe us all big time. I also stumbled across Metlink’s Network revenue protection plan 2010 which was released under FOI and made available publicly by The Age (I do like it when media use the power of the digital world to supply supporting documentation online).

Metlink’s Network Revenue Protection report provides some interesting findings based on focus group research. I found it surprising only a small proportion of travellers actually always pay the fare  – most people have not paid the fare at some time and some don’t pay frequently. The sorts of explanations offered are “because I didn’t have any change” or “because I could get away with it”.

Worryingly, the report argues that “fare evasion is seen as normative behaviour shared by the majority of the population”. Prevalent public attitudes are:

  • Even people who admit to occasional fare evasion do not see themselves as ‘fare evaders’ i.e.they don’t see what they do as wrong
  • Fare evasion is seen as socially acceptable i.e. it is perceived that everyone does it
  • Opportunistic or inadvertent fare evasion leads to more systematic fare evasion as people learn how to ‘get away with it’
  • Some customers are unwilling to pay for what they perceive as poor service delivery
  • The existing ticketing system is perceived as letting passengers down – it’s too confusing, too hard to use, etc
  • Poor value for money – despite the value provided by ‘bulk’ tickets, Melburnians are more likely than users in other Australian cities to consider public transport expensive
  • Some customers like the idea of  ‘playing the game’ and actively take on the system.

Many comments on The Age’s news report support this conclusion. Not paying fares is variously justified by difficulties with buying or validating tickets, inadequate information about ticketing requirements, poor quality of service, and expensive prices. Some suggest conductors should be restored to trams and some, with imaginative logic, say making public transport free would put paid to the problem of fare evasion (pun not intended).

Trams present a particular difficulty for protecting revenue because they’re relatively “open”. It isn’t practical to have barriers at city stops like there are at loop rail stations. Even with the best of intentions, ticket purchase and validation can be difficult on a crowded tram. Chronic evaders can “hover” near a validation point and only use it if an inspector comes aboard.

Whatever measures are adopted to increase fare compliance, there are limits. There’s always going to be a trade-off between minimising non-compliance, maintaining an attractive experience for bona fide travellers, and keeping costs within sensible bounds – this is public transport, so there’s a political constraint as well. Some lost revenue is inevitable: almost all retail businesses tolerate some degree of freeloading because beyond a certain point the cost relative to the saving in foregone revenue is too high. Read the rest of this entry »


Are our trains going down the toilet?

There’s a theory that women are an “indicator species” of how bike-friendly a city is. According to Deakin University’s Jan Garrard, “if you want to know if an urban environment supports cycling, you can forget about all the detailed ‘bikeability indexes’ — just measure the proportion of cyclists who are female”.

I reckon you can say much the same thing about public toilets and public transport. Good public transport systems have good toilets because good managers focus on the welfare of users. Maybe users who are given a good system take better care of it.

The idea that a major urban node like a rail station doesn’t have toilets for its thousands of daily users is simply appalling. We wouldn’t tolerate their absence in other public places like a school, a stadium or a mall.

What’s more basic than a call of nature? If you’re travelling by train and you’ve got infants that need to be changed, or pre-teens that have difficulty planning ahead, or you’re pregnant, or you’ve been on the turps, or you’ve got an aging bladder, or you or someone in your care is feeling sick, then having access to a toilet is a fundamental human necessity.

Even in Manhattan, one of the world’s great public transport oriented cities, a busy interchange station like Union Square, with tens of thousands of people passing through each day, does not have toilets accessible to the public. Dense nodes of human activity are the very places that should have toilets!

Fortunately we have toilets at major CBD stations in Melbourne, but most suburban stations don’t. According to Greens MP, Greg Barber, two thirds of stations in Melbourne do not have toilets for public use. Even some premium stations don’t open the toilets at all times, even when staffed. Mr Barber says there are 40 stations with more than 5,000 patrons per day that don’t have public toilets.

For example, Box Hill is the tenth busiest rail station in Melbourne with circa 10,400 users per day on average, however according to Wiki:

Despite being a Premium station, there are no public toilets within the station complex. Toilets for station patrons were originally located out in Main Street Mall, however, they have been closed permanently due to vandalism. Station patrons must now use the toilets provided by the adjoining shopping centre, which are only open during trading hours.

Lack of privacy is a disadvantage of public transport relative to the car, so managers should be working hard to minimise passengers’ fear they might be put in an embarrassing position. Passengers shouldn’t have to plan their travel around the risk of needing unscheduled toilet stops.

Why are there so few public toilets at rail stations? The former Minister for Transport in the Brumby Government said toilets at stations weren’t open “for good reasons: first of all for issues of security, and for issues of cleanliness, and the like”. I acknowledge it costs money to clean graffiti and repair vandalised fittings. It probably costs much more to keep toilets clean (and were toilets opened at stations I expect users would demand a high and costly standard of maintenance). But I reckon that’s just one of those base line costs, like safety, that just have to be  accepted – it’s the price of simply being in the business.

The excuse I find really odious is that toilets should be closed to prevent druggies using them. That’s really cutting off your nose to spite your face. There are other strategies for managing this problem – the Government’s promised PSOs should help – but even if toilets are used by junkies, they should nevertheless be kept open and kept in good order so ordinary passengers aren’t punished when in extremis. Travellers will doubtless avoid using toilets frequented by addicts, but they need to know they’re there when nature calls urgently and unexpectedly. Read the rest of this entry »


Are Melbourne’s trains really this bad?

Hurstbridge line, yesterday

The amazing thing about this footage is that it was filmed only yesterday at Montmorency on the Hurstbridge rail line. The truly shocking thing is apparently this section of track was upgraded to concrete sleepers last year.

It was uploaded to Youtube by Rocketboy 1950, who says:

I shot this footage on the Hurstbridge line at Montmorency. It is testament to how safe trains are and how they will handle extraordinarily bad track without going arse over head. This is of course not to say that some of the passengers will be going to see a chiropractor or orthopedic surgeon to have their backs put right after riding the trains through here.

Expertly placed on a curve.

Update: Channel 7 now on to this and ran this story on Friday evening news.


A literary map of Melbourne’s railways?!

Amimation: London rail network - pulse of the city (not 'literary' but interesting nevertheless)

The English cricket writer, Neville Cardus, is famous for bringing a literary sensibility to the hitherto prosaic task of reporting on the game. International cricketer John Arlott said, “before him, cricket was reported … with him it was for the first time appreciated, felt, and imaginatively described”.

British novelist David Mitchell may be the Neville Cardus of the railways (not the very talented comedian of Mitchell & Webb fame – this is the David Mitchell who wrote the incomparable Cloud Atlas). I recently read his first novel, Ghostwritten, and was struck by the richness of the way one of the characters in the novel describes the London Tube:

As the fine denizens of London Town know, each tube line has a distinct personality and range of mood swings. The Victoria Line for example, breezy and reliable. The Jubilee line, the young disappointment of the family, branching out to the suburbs, eternally having extensions planned, twisting around to Greenwich, and back under the river out east somewhere. The District and Circle Line, well, even Death would rather fork out for a taxi if he’s in a hurry……

Docklands Light Railway, the nouveau riche neighbour, with its Prince Regent, West India Quay and its Gallions Reach and its Royal Albert. Stentorian Piccadilly wouldn’t approve of such artyfartyness, and nor would his twin uncle, Bakerloo. Central, the middle-aged cousin, matter-of-fact, direct, no forking off or going the long way round…….

Then you have the Oddball lines, like Shakespeare’s Oddball plays. Pericles, Hammersmith and City, East Verona Line, Titus of Waterloo……

London is a language. I guess all places are.

There’s lots more. The Northern Line “is the psycho of the family”. Kennington Tube Station is the sort of place “where best-forgotten films starring British rock stars as working class anti-heroes are set”.

Makes me wonder how, given some literary license, the essence of Melbourne’s public transport system might be captured. I know if my local station were a country, it would be cold war Russia; if it were a language it would be Pidgin English; and if it were a mental state it would be deeply depressed.

I’m already imagining a “literary map” of Melbourne’s rail network where every station is a novel – I’ll start by renaming Dandenong to Brighton Rock; Collingwood to Power without glory; Northcote to The slap; Parliament to Wolf Hall; Ringwood to The satanic verses; Toorak to Bonfire of the vanities; Eaglemont to Middlemarch;……. Read the rest of this entry »


Should replacing level crossings be given higher priority?

Hot wheels metropolis (1200 cars, but no trains)

The Committee for Melbourne has called for a $17.2 billion program to remove all Melbourne’s level crossings over the next 20 years.

The Committee says just two separations of road and rail were constructed by the Kennett government and two by the Bracks/Brumby government. While Melbourne has 172 level crossings, Sydney tackled the issue years ago and now has only eight.

However the Baillieu government has given an undertaking to grade-separate ten crossings at an estimated cost, on average, of around $100 million each. The Committee reckons the private sector could pay a big chunk of the $17.2 billion cost in return for the commercial rights to each site, although the Herald-Sun warns such a move would very likely “be fiercely opposed by anti-development groups”.

There’s a lot to be said for giving a higher priority in the transport capital works program to eliminating level crossings, as they present a number of problems. One is they slow traffic, including buses and trucks. According to the RACV’s public policy manager, Brian Negus, crossings along the Dandenong line are closed for 30-40 minutes an hour during the peak, exacerbating traffic congestion. This is likely to become a bigger problem as the share of public transport trips carried by buses increases. The interaction between crossings and nearby signalled junctions is a major barrier to the efficient performance of the transport network.

Level crossings also impose a limit on the frequency of train services. There are only so many trains that can realistically be sent down a line given each service entails stopping traffic in both directions for well in excess of one minute (in Newcastle, crossings are closed on average for passenger and freight trains for between three and seven minutes!). Some crossings are forecast to carry nearly 40 trains per hour in the peak by 2021.  Another issue is traffic queuing across rail lines — as well as the occasional car/train incident — limits the efficiency of the network. Further, level crossings are a safety hazard for pedestrians and give parents a reason to discourage children from walking to school.

While I’ve not seen an analysis for Melbourne, there’s little doubt the benefit-cost ratio of level crossing elimination would be very high. I expect it would be well ahead of some other much larger transport projects, such as the Avalon, Doncaster or Rowville rail proposals.

There are nevertheless a number of issues raised by this proposal. One is the need to prioritise works – some crossings are relatively minor and simply don’t warrant expenditure in the forseeable future. Probably 80% of the benefits will come from grade separating 20% of crossings. Back in 2009, the Public Transport Users Association argued these ten crossing should be given the highest priority, given their impact on road-based public transport:

  • Bell Street and Munro Street, Coburg (one project) (Smartbus 903)
  • Springvale Road, Springvale (Smartbus 888/889)
  • Bell Street, Cramer Street and Murray Road, Preston (one project) (Smartbus 903)
  • Glen Huntly Road and Neerim Road, Glenhuntly (one project) (Tram 67, and trains subject to speed restrictions)
  • Balcombe Road, Mentone (Smartbus 903)
  • Buckley Street, Essendon (Smartbus 903)
  • Clayton Road, Clayton (Smartbus 703)
  • Burke Road, Gardiner (Tram 72, and trains subject to speed restrictions)
  • Camp Road, Campbellfield (crossing elimination and new station) (proposed Smartbus 902)
  • Glenferrie Road, Kooyong (Tram 16, and trains subject to speed restrictions)

That’s a particular perspective, yet it matches some of the RACV’s priorities. Last year the RACV said the four worst crossings in Melbourne are in High Street near Reservoir station, on Burke Road near Gardiner station in Glen Iris, on Clayton Road next to Clayton station, and Murrumbeena Road near the station. The Dandenong rail corridor also figures high in the RACV’s priorities.

I’m not sure there is as much value in development rights as the Committee for Melbourne imagines. Many level crossings, perhaps most, may not have enough suitable land available for development after meeting grade separation and operational needs. The most promising opportunities are probably where the rail line rather than the road has been lowered, but this can be expensive. Many of those that do have land available may be in locations considered unsuitable for development by planners. And let’s be clear that development in air space over railway lines is a fantasy – it’s simply too expensive in all but an extremely small number of cases. For practical purposes, development in air space is not an option. Read the rest of this entry »


Are young adults really dominating public transport use?

Actual use - age profile of public transport users in Melbourne (boardings) from VISTA

The world would be a much better place if transport operators would stop spinning patronage numbers to the media and public and start giving us the salient facts instead.

The Financial Review reported on Thursday that travellers in Melbourne aged 20-29 years comprise 38% of all public transport users in the city. This figure is in line with the claim of the WA Public Transport Authority that 18-25 year olds comprise 35% of all train users in Perth and 40% of all bus users.

As I’ve indicated before, I find these sorts of figures very hard to believe, given these two cohort’s each comprise around 15% of the population. In fact they’re extraordinary. It’s true young adults have always been over-represented on public transport because many are on relatively low incomes, but it’s the sheer scale of these figures I find too good to be true.

The reality is they’re not true, at least for Melbourne. The real situation is shown in the first exhibit. According to the Victorian Department of Transport’s VISTA database, travellers in the 20-29 age group account for only 22.3% of public transport users on an average day. If confined solely to the average weekday, the figure is a little lower, 21.9%. If instead we look at public transport boardings – to allow for the possibility that young adults make more multi-modal trips than others – the proportion in the 20-29 age group using public transport is a little higher, but still only 22.9%.

That’s a long, long way short of 38%. One explanation for this evident discrepancy could be that public transport operaters are measuring something else. VISTA is a snapshot of travel on a typical day, but it could be operators are counting the number of people who have ever used public transport – even if only once or twice – in some preceding period e.g. in the previous week, month or year. This will invariably give a much higher total patronage figure than VISTA or the Census because it picks up everybody who’s used train, tram, bus or ferry at least once during the (longer) period.

If this explanation is right, it would account for why claimed patronage levels for public transport are sometimes breathtakingly high compared to the customary, more rigorous ways of measuring travel. I’ve commented before on Metlink’s use of these sorts of inflated, self-serving numbers in its marketing material, but perhaps it’s a common practise in other states too. But by itself this explanation doesn’t fully account for why the young adult cohort’s share is apparently so high relative to others (see second exhibit). Read the rest of this entry »


Could we pay travellers not to use over-crowded trains?

The John West technique: maximising carrying capacity on peak hour trains, Japan

If you think crowding of trains in Australia’s capital cities is bad, have a look at this extraordinary video of how they cram passengers onto trains in Japan! John West could learn a thing or two! Peak crowding is uncomfortable for passengers and increases operating costs – more capacity is needed to handle the peak, but much of it is unused in the off-peak period. That extra capacity might take many forms, such as more carriages, more trains, more staff, etc.

There could potentially be big savings if some of this peak demand were shifted to earlier or later periods. This applies to trains, buses and roads and indeed to many activities that experience peaking e.g. cinemas, concerts. Apart from the disincentive of being treated like a sardine, the standard approach is to charge a higher price in peak periods relative to the off-peak. However political constraints mean public transport operators in Australia tend to conceive of differential pricing as an off-peak concession rather than as an active way of managing peak demand.

Here’s another way of approaching this problem. The Economist reports Singapore is planning a pilot scheme offering public transport passengers a greater chance of winning a prize if they choose to go off-peak. All travellers are entered into a pool with a chance to win cash in weekly lotteries, but those who travel off-peak will effectively get three times as many ‘tickets’. The principle is that small rewards will pay for themselves in lower capital and operating costs.

The Economist quotes Stanford University academic, Balaji Prabhakar, who says lotteries rely on the behavioural-economics insight that the average person is risk-seeking when stakes are small:

Offer individuals 20p to leave the house an hour earlier, and most will say no. But a 1-in-50 chance of winning £10 may seem more enticing. The risk-seeking effect is amplified in small networks: regularly hearing about other winners leads individuals to overestimate their own chances of success.

The idea of carrots rather than sticks is not new. For example, long-standing readers might recall this proposal to reward drivers who don’t speed with a cash reward. Fines from speeders are paid into a pot and redistributed randomly as prizes to motorists who are ‘caught’ by speed cameras driving within the designated limit. The Capital Bikeshare scheme in Washington DC offers prizes to riders who travel against the dominant flow, thus reducing the cost of rebalancing the (geographical) distribution of bikes. This study of the effectiveness of a lottery in reducing car travel found it had a positive effect, although it disappeared when the lottery was stopped (note very small sample size). Read the rest of this entry »


Are these curves moving for the same reasons?

Annual per capita passenger kilometres by mode, Melbourne (data from BITRE)

Back in May I compared the historic level of passenger travel by car in Australia since 1970 against rail and bus, showing the significant flattening in car use from circa 2004-05 and the upturn in travel by public transport. This sort of long term perspective is useful for understanding the relative importance of the changes in each mode — something which isn’t as evident if only the last five or six years is examined.

The accompanying exhibit shows the change in passenger travel by mode just within Melbourne, using data from the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics (BITRE). Importantly, it also allows for the increase in population and hence shows the change in per capita passenger travel. The period is the 33 years between 1976/77 and 2008/09.

It can be seen that private – or individual – travel (i.e. car, van, motor cycle) has fallen sharply since 2004/05, by 1,236 km. Conversely, public – or shared – transport travel (i.e. train, tram, bus) increased by 301 km. While the curves are still a long way apart, it’s notable that the gap is closing primarily because Melburnians are driving less.

I haven’t seen anything which shows confidently and unambiguously where the fall-off in driving is happening. For example, is it outer or inner urban driving? Is it certain trip purposes only? Is it fewer trips? Is it shorter trips? Is it confined to particular demographics? Or is it something else entirely? As with most things, the outcome we see most likely results from the interplay of a number of factors, rather than from a single dominant force.

The usual suspects called on to explain these trends include increases in the price of petrol, in traffic congestion, in parking costs, and in the level and quality of public transport. Other explanations include the theory that baby boomers are getting older (and hence driving less) and the conjecture that the long distance drive is increasingly being replaced by cheap air fares (although this relates more to non-urban travel).

Then there’s Gen Y’s declining interest in driving, the impact of new communication technologies and growing interest in health & fitness and environmental issues. There’s also the theory we’ve hit saturation level with driving – we can drive to enough opportunities already, we don’t need more. Perhaps another reason is the increase in women’s workforce participation leaves them with less time and need for driving. Read the rest of this entry »


Is the iPhone why Gen Y love public transport?

Most commonly used iPhone passwords

The “mystery factor” driving faster patronage growth on public transport may be Gen Y’s enthusiasm for staying connected through smartphones. Speaking to a reporter from The West Australian last week, Professor Peter Newman argued that previous generations found freedom and flexibility through the car, but generation Ys find freedom and flexibility by staying connected to friends, family and workplaces through information devices like laptops or iPhones (H/T Human Transit).

He went on to say: “They can stay connected on a bus or a train. They can bring the office with them. They can bring their study with them. They can’t if they’re driving”. The same news report also quotes a spokesperson from WA’s Public Transport Authority who says commuters aged between 18 and 25 years now make up 35% of all train users and 40% of all bus users, up from 30% and 38% respectively last year. As this same age group constitutes just 13% of all Australians aged over 17 years, that’s a phenomenal set of numbers.

Frankly, I’m a little sceptical about the claim that the patronage share of trains in Perth has risen five percentage points in just one year, but since I can’t find any other relevant information on the age profile of public transport users, I’ll (conditionally) go with it. However I’m in no way sceptical of the proposition that new technologies make public transport more attractive than it used to be. Like reading before it, the mobile phone was a big step forward in the 90s and now 3G means travellers can do even more things on the train or bus. Bring on free wi-fi – I hear even some stations on Sydney’s otherwise sad and sorry rail system have this facility.

I’m not convinced, though, that access to communication and entertainment technologies is the potent driver of young adult patronage that Professor Newman takes it to be. A much more likely driver, I think, is Gen Y’s falling interest in cars. It seems eminently plausible that if young adults aren’t driving as much as previous generations then they’re likely to be using public transport more. This is a topic I’ve discussed before in more detail, but in summary there is a range of reasons why members of Gen Y (born between 1982 and 2001) are driving less than previous generations. The key ones are: Read the rest of this entry »


Does concern for the environment drive public transport patronage growth?

Factors affecting public transport patronage growth, 2002-07, Melbourne (DoT)

According to a recent paper, research by the Victorian Department of Transport (DoT) suggests concern for the environment and a healthy lifestyle is a key driver of the recent surge in public transport patronage in Melbourne.

DoT initially concluded that the primary drivers of growth over the period 2002-07 were population growth, higher petrol prices and growth in CBD jobs (see exhibit). Neither traffic congestion nor public transport service quality appeared to play a significant role.

However a large proportion of the patronage increase on trains – equivalent to about 40,000 extra daily passengers – was not explained by the variables and/or the elasticities that DoT assumed in its modelling. This unexplained increase is labelled “Other factors” on the exhibit.

Some research undertaken by Dot and Metlink suggested it might possibly relate to attitudinal factors. Of the top eight reasons given by respondents for reducing their vehicle use, environmental concerns and health & fitness ranked equal second behind petrol prices, but ahead of parking costs.

DoT subsequently undertook a telephone survey of 1500 Melburnians aged over 16 years, asking them about their attitudes to travel options and their existing travel patterns. Using cluster analysis, the researchers identified six main “attitudinal segments”:

Public transport lifestylers (19%) – “Using public transport as much as possible is just the right thing to do. Apart from being a part of my basic day to day life, it has the advantage of being better for the environment when compared to other transport modes”

Public transport works for me (17%) – “I value the time I spend on public transport. I get things out of using public transport that I wouldn’t with other modes”

Public transport rejecters (18%) – “I wouldn’t use public transport even if it was free”

Car works for me (16%) – “Car is the most convenient and useful way for me to get around. It’s not that I have a big problem with public transport; it’s just that it doesn’t suit me as much”

Agnostics (15%) – “I’m just not all that interested in the matter of how I get around. Some people are car people and some like public transport, but I’m not overly fussed either way. If you changed the public transport system, I probably wouldn’t even notice”

Convertibles (15%) – “I use my car mainly but am actually pretty open to using public transport more….but it will need to improve before I do”

Thus according to this research, nearly a fifth of Melburnians are now Public transport lifestylers who “align themselves with public transport due to a strong belief in environmental and sustainability issues, as well as a desire to live a healthy lifestyle”. What’s surprising is that all six segments have almost no (significant) relationship with age, gender, income, education or distance from the CBD e.g. the large Lifestylers segment is not just made up of inner city Greens voters.

While respondents in this segment don’t necessarily all use public transport, the paper concludes that “the results strongly point to attitudinal change having played a significant role in recent patronage growth”.

I’d like to, but I don’t buy the implication that this attitude is a major independent driver of patronage growth. My interpretation is that there’s a cluster of people who have green attitudes and not surprisingly also have a positive attitude to public transport. But I don’t think they’d use public transport in significantly greater numbers if it took longer or was more expensive than the alternatives. They’d use public transport for the same reasons most people do – because for some trips it’s cheaper and/or faster than the alternatives. Read the rest of this entry »


How many travellers use the trains?

Weekday boardings, Hurstbridge & Epping lines

The President of the Public Transport Users Association, Daniel Bowen, posted some “unofficial” stats last week on boardings at Melbourne’s railway stations in 2008-09. I’ve used these numbers to put together the accompanying exhibit showing the number of weekday boardings on the Epping and Hurstbridge lines. These two lines join into one at Clifton Hill so I’ve shown the section from there to Jolimont separately (too much effort to do any other lines!).

Daniel emphasises these numbers come with no warranty as to their accuracy but they did come from a “good source” in the Department of Transport. He reckons inflating the numbers by 11.4% will give a fair estimate of 2010-11 boardings.

I want to make a number of essentially speculative observations prompted by these numbers (for the purposes of this discussion I’ll leave the numbers as they are).

First, there seems to be no statistically significant relationship between the number of boardings and distance from the city centre i.e. from Jolimont to both Epping and Hurstbridge (admittedly my measure of “distance” is rank order of stations not kilometres, but I don’t think that matters). So while the proportion of the population resident around each station that uses the train generally declines with distance from the centre, the absolute number of boardings isn’t correlated with distance.

This may seem surprising because stations close to the centre are more proximate to the CBD’s many and various attractions and might be thought to enjoy higher dwelling densities than more distant stations. However it appears that other variables, such as the accessibility of a station to the surrounding population, are a more important determinant of the number of boardings.

Second, location on a junction of the rail network is not a guarantee of a large volume of boardings and nor does the absence of a junction mean a station will only ever have a minor role. Clifton Hill is the only station on this line that’s on a junction and has a reasonably large number of boardings, but not as many as Ivanhoe, Heidelberg or Reservoir.

Clifton Hill only ranks 36th in patronage of all stations (excluding the five loop stations) but that’s better than two other “junction” stations, Burnley (48th) and North Melbourne (90th). Eight of the 20 largest (non-loop) stations happen to be on junctions but twelve aren’t — my interpretation is being on a junction was a distinct advantage in the early days of rail and gave those eight a head start. Nowadays however the broader characteristics of centres appear to be more important drivers of boardings. For example, Ivanhoe is not a large activity centre in terms of jobs, but its station serves two large private schools and is an important pick-up point for buses serving schools in Kew. Heidelberg also has a school but more importantly has a large number of jobs in and around the Austin Hospital and has the local courthouse. Clifton Hill is disconnected from the nearby retail strip, has little nearby space for commercial or more intensive housing development, and is “in competition” with the No. 86 tram. Read the rest of this entry »


Is this a real tram ‘network’?

Yarra Trams proposed new routes (unchanged routes not shown)

The Age reported on Yarra Tram’s new plans for Melbourne’s trams during the week. My perpetual beef with The Age is they don’t provide links to background material and in this case they didn’t even provide a diagram. Not good enough in the digital age! So, here’s a presentation by Yarra Tram’s Clement Michel, as well as the accompanying map of the company’s planned new routes.

The presentation highlights the problems with current tram operations that prompted the proposed changes. For example, the No. 96 took 20 minutes to journey from East Brunswick to Spencer St in the morning peak in 1950 but now takes 28 minutes. It spends 50% of the time moving and 17% boarding — but 33% stationary. That compares poorly with tram and light rail systems elsewhere.

The new routes are intended to complement other initiatives, such as greater priority at traffic lights and segregation from traffic. A key purpose is to relieve pressure on Swanston St-St Kilda Rd, which is clogged with a tram every minute and has the friction of 31 traffic lights between Melbourne University and the Domain. Part of the proposal is to route some services via the western end of the CBD.  Some Swanston St passengers would have to change trams e.g at Domain Interchange.

It is also proposed to effectively “halve” some long routes and introduce cross town or feeder services (similar to the existing Footscray to Moonee Ponds service) so that loads can be better balanced. Long routes can be inefficient because the number of trams is constant along the route but the loads vary. The changes would mean higher frequencies can be targeted better to busy areas.

An example of the proposed changes is the existing West Preston to St Kilda service. The proposal is to split it into two services — a St Kilda to East Melbourne route operating via Spencer and La Trobe Sts, and a West Preston to Docklands service. Read the rest of this entry »


What can we do with Hoddle St?

Daily traffic across Punt Rd bridge (click)

In Elliot Perlman’s Melbourne-based novel, Three dollars, Eddie thinks the only advice he could offer his daughter is the solution of differential equations and an insight into which trains go via the city loop and why. He imagines that on his deathbed and with his last breath he would say: “Abby, my darling daughter, remember this: no matter where you are or what time of day it is – avoid Punt Road”.

Eddie’s fatherly advice is borne out by the numbers in VicRoad’s Hoddle Street Study: existing conditions summary report. It shows that 10,000 vehicles per hour travel on Hoddle Street in the middle of the day, only a little more than the 9,700 per hour that use it in the morning peak. And as the accompanying graphic of traffic volumes across the Punt Rd bridge shows, traffic on Saturday and Sunday is higher than on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday.

So if you think the Hoddle St corridor is always busy you’re right. The two-way traffic volume on Hoddle St in the section between the Eastern Freeway and Victoria Pde is 85,000-90,000 vehicles per day. There are also a further 27,000 bus passengers on a weekday, so the number of people travelling along Hoddle St is large. This is a conservative estimate – it doesn’t count passengers in cars.

What to do about Hoddle St is a difficult question and I’d like to hear some suggestions. The Baillieu Government is reported (here and here) to have shelved work on VicRoad’s study of options for the corridor. The remaining money has instead been transferred to the study of the proposed Doncaster rail line. This makes sense politically if the Government feels it is obliged to deliver on the railway line. It could argue that the train will reduce traffic congestion, and thereby make the significant cost of upgrading Hoddle St unnecessary.

While it might fly politically, it’s hard to see that a Doncaster rail line would make much difference to conditions on Hoddle St. The space vacated by any drivers transferring to rail would in due course be filled by others, so it would have no lasting impact on traffic congestion. Not that it’s likely many car commuters would even elect to use the Doncaster train instead of Hoddle St.

As I pointed out here, analysis of journey to work data from the 2006 Census undertaken for the Eddington Report shows the number of workers living in the municipality of Manningham who commuted to the City of Melbourne at the 2006 Census was small – just 8,500 (i.e. 17,000 two-way trips). And the number is declining – this was 700 fewer than in 2001. Nor is this group likely to get much bigger due to growth, as the population of the municipality of Manningham is projected to increase by a paltry 0.7% p.a. out to 2031.

Of these 8,500 commuters, 5,100 drove to work and 3,150 already took public transport. The latter group mostly used buses but a third used the Hurstbridge and Belgrave-Lilydale rail lines in neighbouring municipalities (this was before the new Doncaster Area Rapid Transit services started late last year). If a new Doncaster rail line were to achieve the same mode share as in nearby municipalities like Whitehorse, Banyule and Maroondah that already have rail, around 1,600 Manningham commuters could be expected to stop driving to work and change to public transport. That does not seem a very large number in the context of the likely cost of a Doncaster rail line. Even assuming those 1,600 all currently use Hoddle St to get to the City of Melbourne, that’s only a reduction of 3,200 trips. Read the rest of this entry »


Is commuting killing us?

Assembly kit for Manhattan street grid

Long commutes cause obesity, neck pain, loneliness, divorce, stress, and insomnia. Your commute is in fact killing you, according to this story published in Slate last week. And it’s bad for others too – in his Melbourne address last month, Robert Putnam argued that a ten minute increase in commute time reduces social capital by 10%. Richard Florida says it’s time to put commuting right beside smoking and obesity on the list of priorities for improving the health and well-being of Americans.

I’m always bemused by these sorts of claims. Apart from the fact that the majority of commutes are relatively short, they neglect the salient fact that people spend time commuting because it’s worth it – that’s how they earn their living. And in general, the further they go, the better the job and/or the better the house. Commuting is a bit like having children – it costs a squillion, but for most people it’s worth it!

The reality is that most people prefer to commute some distance. This study of US commuters by Redmond and Mokhtarian found that 42% of their sample are happy with their current commute i.e. their actual travel time and their ‘ideal’ commute time coincide. People seem to like some space between work and home. They found that 7% actually say their commute isn’t long enough!

Nevertheless, the study also found that just over half feel their commute time is too long compared to their ‘ideal’ commute time. That finding, however, doesn’t really say much. The trouble is people don’t make unconstrained judgements like this in real life. If asked, rational people will of course say they would like less of the boring things in life and more of the interesting and exciting things. If they’re not forced explicitly to consider the cost, people will naturally acquiesce when they’re posed questions of this sort. It’s a difficult concept to measure, so a much better guide to commuting time preferences is what people actually choose to do in the face of real-world constraints.

It turns out workers don’t tend to spend inordinate amounts of time commuting. This analysis of US Census data shows that 45% of one-way commutes in US metropolitan areas take less than 20 minutes and only 8% take more than 60 minutes. This US survey found that 81% of commuters spend less than half an hour getting to work. In Melbourne, more than half of all trips to work (54%) take less than 30 minutes. Only 12% of commutes take longer than an hour and only 3% more than 90 minutes.

Having said that, whether or not an hour a day spent commuting to and from work is ‘inordinate’, depends on what it yields. The question can’t be addressed sensibly without considering the benefits as well as the costs. We spend time on a host of activities like sleeping, cooking and taking the kids to sport because we feel they are necessary to derive the associated benefits. Likewise, commuting provides something that’s extremely valuable – income. That’s a basic, a necessity. But work also provides a host of associated benefits like status and social interaction. The bottom line is we commute because it’s worth it – we’ll minimise commute time subject to other constraints but we don’t expect it to cost nothing. Read the rest of this entry »


Have trains gotten faster?

Heidelberg to Flinders St train services, weekday 5 AM to 10 AM, 1939 vs 2011 (express services shaded)

Passengers on Melbourne’s beleaguered rail system may suffer overcrowding, unreliable services and even threats to personal security. But at least improvements in technology mean commuter trains are much faster today than they used to be. Aren’t they?

Actually, no. We take technological improvements for granted in almost everything, but the speed of rail in Melbourne seems to be an exception. If my local rail line is representative of the rest of the system, then travel times today aren’t significantly faster than they were three generations ago!

I compared the 1939 train timetable for the trip from Heidelberg Station to Flinders St Station on the Hurstbridge line with today’s timetable. I started with the first train to leave Heidelberg on a weekday morning in both years and finished with the last departure prior to 10 am (see exhibit).

The number of stations is the same (although back then Flinders St was called Princes Bridge) so I was astonished to see the trip is only slightly faster now than it was 72 years ago. The only substantial savings in trip time have been achieved at the cost of by-passing some stations i.e. by increasing the number of express services.

The average duration of the 17 all-stop services offered in 1939 was 25 minutes, just one minute slower than the average for the 12 all-stoppers available today. The slowest trip time in 1939 was 27 minutes and the fastest, which by-passed some stations, was 20 minutes. In 2011, the slowest time is 26 minutes and the fastest – which by-passes more stations than the 1939 expresses – is 19 minutes. So after 72 years of progress, the trip from Heidelberg to Flinders St is one minute faster!

Modern commuters are nevertheless better off than their predecessors in two key ways, both of which are essentially a consequence of suburbanisation. First, whereas in 1939 there were 19 services from Heidelberg to the city up until 10 am, today there are 27. Second, today’s commuters have a greater choice of express services than the mere two that were available to pre-war residents (the shading in the exhibit indicates express services).

And the increased number of expresses doesn’t come at the expense of by-passed stations. For example, Alphington is by-passed by some services, but still gets 23 in-bound services in the morning. Most of the gains from expresses come from by-passing Victoria Park, Collingwood, North Richmond and West Richmond stations – who still do OK because they are also served by the Epping line (not that these stations generate much patronage).

These welcome and important improvements derive from operational decisions rather than from technological improvements. I’m puzzled why, given advances in technology, modern trains on this line aren’t appreciably faster than they were in earlier years. The speed of cars, planes and communications has gone up enormously since 1939 so why haven’t trains, which have the advantage of operating in a dedicated alignment, similarly gotten dramatically quicker?

This got me thinking about whether technological advances have made urban train travel significantly better in any other respects over the period. I’d guess that labour costs are lower today and energy efficiency is higher. There’ve been some design changes like wider doors and more standing room to increase performance. But my real interest is in how technology has changed things for the better from the customer’s perspective. Read the rest of this entry »


– Can social media make cities better?

Bus lane blockers! - photo by @bustration

When government agencies first started to put up web sites in the 1990s, management tended to treat them as little more than electronic brochures. Typically, no one in authority bothered to respond to e-mails. I hope that agencies today aren’t making the same mistakes with social media.

Social media is a rich source of ‘intelligence’ for consumers, business and, not least, policy-makers and implementers. There’s an extraordinarily valuable and growing pile of information out there in the ether. Public agencies and private providers should be mining it like robber barons!

I follow the tweets of bus driver, @bustration, who records the tribulations – and the occasional delights – of life on the road. She drives in Melbourne, but what she sees is bound to be true of most places. Here are some of her tweets from the driver’s seat for three days this week (16th – 18th) on the topic of cars in priority lanes:

XPZ372 THP041 SGM740 WHV378 blocking bus lanes George St

YBL657 WGT124 blocking clearway Clow St Dandy

Tow away job http://twitpic.com/4ychje

2 more bus lane parkers Dandenong http://twitpic.com/4ychw4

Catch 22 tow truck blocks clearway Clow http://twitpic.com/4ycqr4

Blocking Clow st http://twitpic.com/4yr9ea

Blocking Walker st http://twitpic.com/4yr9y2

CUD954 OCS367 WHB316 XHY707 RLY829 first 5 Blockers of dozens

Dandy BL Blockers http://twitpic.com/4z5p3t

Tow em Danno! http://twitpic.com/4z5pis

Hmmm, is @bustration simply unlucky? Perhaps she’s just a glass half-full sort of a person? Or are her observations highly suggestive evidence that there’s a very serious problem with enforcing the rules on priority lanes? It’s odd how as a society we’ll spend billions in capital but then skint on making sure it can deliver to specification.

@bustration’s frustrations are an example of how smartphones and Twitter have lowered the costs of monitoring and information collection. Perhaps right now someone is building a ‘name and shame’ web site where disgruntled travellers can share pics of priority lane parkers. Or maybe somewhere in government there’re Twitter Analysts who’re already on to it!

Here is a selection of more @bustration’s tweets from earlier in May (I’ve selected from those that relate to public transport – there’re other tweets on less gloomy topics): Read the rest of this entry »


– Do governments spend too much on roads?

Total passenger travel by mode in Australia (billion passenger kilometres) Souce: BITRE

The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) got a lot of press recently with its claim that “governments across Australia are spending at least four times more on building roads and bridges than on public transport infrastructure“.

The claim is in a new ACF report, Australia’s public transport: investment for a clean transport future, which argues for a rebalancing of the transport capital works budget, recommending that “two thirds should be spent on public and active transport measures and one third should be spent on roads”.

I agree with the ACF that more needs to be spent on public transport, but I don’t think the “roads vs public transport“ logic does justice to the complexity of the situation. There are a number of reasons why more public funds are spent constructing roads than rails.

One is that people drive much more than they use public transport. According to the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics (BITRE), Australians travel almost eight times as many kilometres by car as they do by bus and rail-based public transport. The money is going where the demand is. If you accept the ACF’s numbers, public transport is actually getting a disproportionate share of public construction expenditure. Roads are needed even if travel is confined to foot and horse-drawn vehicles. The Hoddle grid in Melbourne and the avenues and streets of Manhattan were designed before cars were invented – land has limited value if it can’t be accessed.

Construction expenditure doesn’t in any event tell the whole story. Most funding for public transport comes via operating subsidies. Although getting comparable numbers is hard, Sydney University transport academic, Professor John Stanley, estimates that in states like NSW and Victoria, total public funding for public transport and roads is probably pretty nearly equal. In his 2008 report, Public transport’s role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Victoria’s Commissioner for Sustainability noted a significant shift in funding priority from roads to public transport at the State level.

Another reason roads are important is for the distribution of freight within the metropolitan area. According to BITRE, the number of tonne kilometres of urban freight transported by road within Australia’s eight capital cities in 2007/08 was more than five times higher than it was in 1971-72. There is simply no practical alternative to road for tasks like restocking those hundreds of supermarkets that supply suburban households with food and household goods.

But most importantly, roads are also extremely important for public transport. For example, in Melbourne, the Doncaster Area Rapid Transit (DART) system, the Airport-CBD Skybus service, and the city’s three new orbital Smartbus transit services, all use buses. Because they use the existing road network, these systems do not require significant new land acquisition and construction. Some trunk lines might in time justify conversion to light rail services as patronage increases, but they too can use existing roads rather than require a dedicated right of way.  Read the rest of this entry »


How can trams be made better?

Why Swanston St is the No. 1 priority for action (tram network city centre, 2011)

As a follow-up to yesterday’s discussion on cars (and trams) in the city centre, I thought it would be useful to look at the Melbourne City Council’s draft Transport Strategy Update 2011-2030, which apparently will be considered by Council tonight. This is a big report so for the moment I’ll only look at the section on trams (you can download the report here, but it’s a big download). The report says the key issues with trams in the city centre are:

  • Slow average running speeds – caused by sharing tramways with other traffic, limited priority at signalised intersections, insufficient distance between stops, and slow boarding and disembarking (excessive dwell time)
  • Network imbalances and gaps – in particular, the network is overly dependent on Swanston Street (see graphic). Even small disturbances can have a major knock-on effect across the network
  • Poorly designed interchanges e.g. at Federation Square and Southern Cross Station

These issues result in poor reliability and overcrowding. The report provides this example:

Tram route 96 is already one of the most successful, and the third most patronised, tram routes in Melbourne. However, current running times between Spencer Street and East Brunswick are 40 per cent slower than in 1950 (28 minutes today compared with 20 minutes in 1950). Route 96 trams spend 33 per cent of their journey time stationary. This is in addition to the 17 per cent of the journey spent loading passengers. This is a poor use of public investment in the tram system.

Council is impressed by the gains in speed made in Munich by a ten year program that separated trams from traffic, gave them priority at signalised intersections and optimised stop spacing. The report says these changes improved average tram speeds from about 16 km/hr to 21 km/hr, leading to greater reliability and punctuality and increased patronage. Read the rest of this entry »


Do we want cars in the city centre?

Possible road pricing cordon boundary, inner Melbourne - Clarke and Hawkins, 2006

I’ve noted before that only 30% of commuters who work within the Hoddle Grid – i.e. the area bounded by Spring, Flinders, Spencer and La Trobe streets – drive to work. However only a block or two beyond the city rail loop, the share of work trips taken by car increases steeply to 50-60%, and above.

Peter Parker at Melbourne on Transit offers an explanation. Using Metlink, he found a journey from Laverton station to Melbourne Town Hall in the morning peak takes 33 minutes. However if the Laverton traveller is bound for nearby Docklands (Waterfront City), the trip takes an extraordinary 54 minutes. Anyone travelling from Greensborough station to the same two destinations would have to allow an additional 29 minutes to get to Docklands and if travelling from Cheltenham station an extra 30 minutes.

In other words, once a traveller gets off the rail system in the CBD, further travel to near-CBD destinations is very slow. This is in part because the rail loop was not designed primarily to move people around the CBD and in part because trams are slow. Peter explains:

We have trams but unlike some compact European cities we don’t have a dense metro in the job-dense 2-5km core that allows for fast local travel. Instead for the ‘last mile’ we rely on slow surface modes, notably trams and buses, often without their own right of way.

Public transport’s mode share in the vicinity of Waterfront City is just 22%. This is despite the area having a frequent tram service. Given the huge investment in public transport in the city centre, any mode share below 50% is very disappointing, but the figure for Waterfront City is appalling.

I suspect there are two key reasons for the low mode share of near-CBD areas. The first is simply that the cost of driving and parking in these areas is still reasonably low – so workers drive because they can. Perhaps there’s a high proportion of workers in the CBD fringe whose status attracts a “company car”. Perhaps also there are more institutions like hospitals with shift workers who drive off-peak. The second reason is that movement within the city centre by public transport is too slow. That’s partly because the rail loop is not configured well for intra CBD trips and partly because trams are slowed by cars, particularly at intersections.

The CBD is one of those places where I think it’s very hard to justify commuting by car, given the enormous investment in public transport infrastructure and the extremely high accessibility it provides to the rest of the metropolitan area. It’s such a vital asset to the city as a whole and to the State that its amenity should not be despoiled by the noise, fumes and danger of too many cars.

The Melbourne City Council has proposed some worthwhile improvements, such as a maximum speed limit of 40 km/hr in the CBD (although I’d prefer 30 km/hr) and a plan to eliminate cars, taxis and vans from Swanston Street (although I fear the potential for pedestrian/cyclist conflict has not been fully resolved). Read the rest of this entry »


Is transit patronage really growing this fast?

'The Beauty of Maps' - BBC TV series

I’ve noted before that public transport patronage in Australian cities is increasing, but I didn’t realise just how dramatically it has escalated in Melbourne until I had cause to leaf through the Annual Review 2010 published by Metlink, the marketing organisation for Melbourne’s train, tram and bus operators.

This claim really caught my attention: “Metlink research shows that 74% of Melburnians use public transport to get to work, school or leisure activities”. Three quarters of Melburnians?! That’s not merely astonishing, it’s mind-boggling. It comes as quite a surprise to me, as the Department of Transport’s VISTA database says that only around 11% of all weekday travel in Melbourne is by public transport and even in the case of education, only 25% of trips to primary, secondary and tertiary education are made by public transport.

That quote can’t be dismissed as a one-off case of excessive zeal. This recent press release by Metlink also seems to strain credibility. It says Metlink has done a survey which found that “19% of Melburnians decreased their car use” in the past twelve months. It goes on to say that “62% of Melburnians (say) they will rely more on public transport than their cars” in the future. And this media statement released the same day says: “The study found that 94 per cent of Melburnians want governments to spend more on public transport……while only 68 per cent wanted taxpayer money spent on roads”.

If some of that sounds improbable, that might be because it is. One clue is in this story in The Age. The reporter, when noting the claim that 19% of Melburnians decreased their car use, also mentions that another 19% increased their car use i.e. Metlink’s survey found net car use was actually static. The reporter also asked Dr Paul Mees of RMIT for comment on another finding  – that the number of people walking more often in the past 12 months increased by 15%:

Dr Mees said he was sceptical about the dramatic jump in the number of people who claimed to be walking more, because if the 15 per cent rise were true, it would be unprecedented. ”I do feel that many people must be responding with the answer that they think the person asking the question wants to hear – it makes them feel good to answer that they are walking more,” Dr Mees said.

Intrigued by the apparent ease with which Metlink can conjure paradigm-changing numbers, I did a bit of digging around and came up with Metlink’s media kit for the survey. As is often the case with chook food, this is mainly Powerpoint slides rather than  comprehensive details about the methodology. Even with that caveat, the material suggests a few possible explanations for Metlink’s somewhat optimistic findings.  Read the rest of this entry »