McGill's & Alexander Dennis
South East Transport Changes from 2 December
Featured Bus Route – October 2018
DATE FOR THE DIARY - 25th November - Finchley Bus Running Day
Alexander Dennis & Lothian
Buses on Parade
The non-Inner West bus routes to be privatised
Leeds Considering Hydrogen Powered Buses
New CEO for First Group & Results for Six Months to September 2018
Alexander Dennis at Euro Bus Expo 2018
A quick note to celebrate the 18th anniversary of SmartBus in Melbourne. It represents the largest single upgrade to Melbourne's useful bus network in at least the last 50 years. Instead of people having to take a train towards the city and out again to make cross-suburban trips, they could instead hop on a circumferential SmartBus. Over 200 million people have been carried in the 18 years since, making it Melbourne's biggest 'big bus' initiative. As you can see on the maps, Melbourne's Useful Network would be vastly smaller if SmartBus didn't exist.
It's worth taking ourselves back to what Melbourne's buses were like 18 years ago. They were close to the worst in any Australian capital city. Operating hours were short. Cuts in 1990-91 left few routes with service much after 7pm or on Sunday. The survivors were mostly ex-government bus routes which in some cases replaced some marginal tram routes shut down in the 1950s and 60s.
The old VicTrip website was basically unusable and information at stops was either missing, wrong or out of date. Even outer suburbs of cities like Adelaide or Canberra got better buses than what ran in most of Melbourne. Never was the gap between what our city needed and what the run-down bus system provided greater than in early 2002.
A scheme called SmartBus was conceived. Initially this was infrastructure heavy but service light. Instead of a concerted program to improve operating hours and frequency, passengers would get nicer stops and electronic signs saying that the next bus was hours away. For this reason PTUA initially opposed the SmartBus program saying it did not deliver worthwhile service benefits for passengers despite potential technological smarts including priority at traffic lights.
703 and 888/889 SmartBus trial
SmartBus started as a trial on two route corridors in Melbourne's east on August 5, 2002. These were Springvale Rd, served by 888 and 889, and Blackburn Rd, served by half of the L-shaped 703. They linked key stations and destinations including Nunawading, Glen Waverley, Springvale, Chelsea, Blackburn, Syndal, Monash University and Clayton. Frequencies were improved to every 15 minutes on weekdays with longer hours. Minimum weekend frequencies were improved to roughly every 40-45 minutes and 7 day service commenced where it did not previously operate (888/889). Weekend operating hours were also extended.
Check this link for more background: http://www.oocities.org/buscoachsociety/smartbus.htm The first 703 SmartBus timetable is here. An early 888/889 SmartBus schedule is here.
SmartBus wasn't all smooth sailing. As proved with Metcard, and later with myki, transport IT projects have troubled successive governments. In SmartBuses' case the fancy 'next bus' signs at stops were either out of service or inaccurate. Eventually the hardware was removed and replaced with something that did work (most of the time).
Despite the bad look, the IT hiccups were a sideshow. The substance, which made SmartBus genuinely useful, was the increased service. And passengers flocked to them. On their first anniversary Minister Peter Batchelor said that patronage on the two pilot routes was up 25 per cent.
SmartBus aided the government's political prospects, with the minority Bracks government being returned as a majority government in the November 2002 election landslide. Many eastern suburb seats served by the new SmartBuses recorded double digit swings - higher than the state average. The government knew SmartBus was a winner even earlier with a Route 700 SmartBus upgrade promised during the campaign.
What happened to these trial SmartBus routes? The 888/889 were merged to become part of the 902 orbital in 2010 with full SmartBus service. 703 continued in a sort of limbo-land, neither scrapped nor upgraded to the standards of the other SmartBuses. It remains thus today, though in 2016 it got some weekend upgrades and resumed The Centre Rd portion had limited hours and, for a while, no Sunday trips at the Brighton end. Sunday buses resumed in 2016. It's grown but despite its age, the 703 is not yet an adult, being still grounded at night, especially on weekends.
700 Box Hill - Mordialloc
2003 and 2004 proved lean years for bus improvements after 2002's pre-election goodies. The drought was broken on 14 June 2005 with the upgraded 700 SmartBus starting service. Even before the upgrade the busy 700 was the closest thing eastern Melbourne had to a SmartBus, with it surviving the 1990 cuts with its long operating hours close to intact. This was just as well given major destinations including Box Hill, Holmesglen, Chadstone, Oakleigh, Mentone and Mordialloc via Warrigal Rd. Key improvements were a boost from 20 to 15 min on weekdays, 60 to 30 minutes on Sundays and improved evening service.
This time the PTUA was supportive and advocated higher frequencies than proposed. Again the upgraded 700 SmartBus was a success. BCSV's write-up on the 700 is here. The 700 eventually became the 903 with its occasional Mordialloc - Chelsea shopper extension becoming the 706.
900 Caulfield - Stud Park
The pace of bus upgrades was quickening again with an election looming in late 2006. Meeting Our Transport Challenges came out in May. Local routes got longer hours and Sunday service. The prize for SmartBus was the new Route 900 from Caulfield to Rowville via Chadstone, Oakleigh and Monash University. Despite 900's alignment overlapping other routes, it was politically necessary given the expectations raised with regard to a Monash University/Rowville rail line. The bus would have to do for now.
The 900 had some firsts. For instance it was a new route rather than an upgraded old one. Secondly it had new 'SmartBus standard' operating hours and frequencies. That is Monday to Saturday service until midnight (Sundays was a 9pm finish) and a 30 minute maximum wait on evenings and weekends (other SmartBuses had 40 or even 60 min gaps). Weekdays enjoyed a 15 minute service until 9pm. Thirdly there was the use of the 900-series route numbers, something that would distinguish future SmartBuses from the rest of the network. Fourthly it's limited stop, speeding travel times. My write-up on the timetable here.
The 900 been extremely successful, no doubt to it serving major hubs including Caulfield, Chadstone, Oakleigh and Monash University. It got a peak upgrade (from every 15 to 10 minutes) a few years back. However its 30 minute weekend service groans under heavy shopper loadings around Chadstone. With over 80 boardings per service hour on both Saturday and Sunday, the 900 is by far Melbourne's most productive route on weekends. To put this into context, the next busiest SmartBuses, the 903 and 907 register a still high 40 - 50 weekend boardings per bus service hour. More on why very high productivity can be bad for a bus route here.
901 Yellow Orbital
The next SmartBus development came in March 2008 with the commencement of the 901 between Frankston and Ringwood via Dandenong. This replaced the 830/831 between Frankston and Dandenong and the 665 between Dandenong and Ringwood. Other key destinations on the route were Stud Park and Knox City. Service levels were similar to the 900, that is every 15 minutes until approximately 9pm and every 30 minutes at night and on weekends.
Although some of the catchment it open fields or industrial, the route proved a good patronage performer due to the size of the centres linked, the importance of the rail lines connected and a significant low income catchment.
The 901 (or yellow orbital) was extended to Melbourne Airport in late 2010, providing a connection to Broadmeadows station and places north and east. The 901 was the first serious public transport route to serve Melbourne Airport; before passengers either had long waits for occasional services to Airport West or Broadmeadows (478, 479, 500) or pay expensive Skybus fares. With its long operating hours the 901 opened a new option for budget travellers, though waits at Broadmeadows still vary due to mismatched SmartBus and train frequencies, especially on weekends.
In the north the 901 provides a worthwhile connection across from Broadmeadows to South Morang via Epping. It's a useful connector of jobs and people (often on modest incomes).
Further east, between South Morang, Greensborough and The Pines 901 usage is low due to a combination of semi-rural catchment, low residential densities, it duplicating other routes and unfavourable demographics for buses. Also, despite significant duplication, no SmartBus directly connects the north-east's two biggest centres, namely Greensborough and Doncaster Shoppingtown.
Unlike most other SmartBus segments, 901's north-east quadrant cannot be considered a success relative to the service resources expended. Its quietness here depresses 901's weekend productivity to a below-average 15 to 17 passenger boardings per bus service hour. At some point the beauty and simplicity of the orbitals must be weighed against the need to distribute service where it is more needed. I discuss some cost effective opportunities here and here.
903 Red Orbital
903, sometimes known as the red orbital, replaced the 700 SmartBus in April 2009 but was much longer. It extended beyond its Box Hill terminus to Heidelberg via Doncaster (replacing the 291), Northland, Preston, Coburg, Essendon and Sunshine to finish at Altona.
The combined route is Melbourne's busiest on a raw patronage basis. It is also very popular on a boardings per kilometre basis on all seven days between about Oakleigh South and Doncaster. It hits major destinations with few overlaps between Mentone and Northland. The large number of railway lines in the east and tram routes in the north it intersects is an advantage.
While there are still key destinations west of Northland, the 903 (at every 15 minutes) is challenged by large sections of other routes (eg 527, 465, 232 and 411) operating every 20 minutes most of the way. Its industrial catchment in the west also isn't conducive to high evening and weekend usage. Nevertheless 903's extreme strength in the east and to some extent the north keeps its patronage productivity at a consistent 30 plus on weekdays and 40 plus on weekends passenger boardings per hour. The higher weekend productivity illustrates 903's importance as a connector to shopping centres (which are often busiest on weekends) combined with its reduced frequency on those days. If you didn't see it before my notes on why high productivity can be bad for bus routes may be useful.
Despite its good productivity, one could query whether 903's current alignment is the best possible.
While it links the big shopping centres in the east and north, it veers away from Highpoint. This is possibly because Highpoint was to be served by a Blue Orbital that never happened. With the Blue Orbital off the table it might be time to consider whether 903 should run via Highpoint such as discussed here.
La Trobe University currently has no SmartBus service. 903 runs to Heidelberg but veers west instead of north. There may be a case to route 903 to La Trobe to replicate the proposed Suburban Rail Loop as discussed here. This would require splitting the 903. Something would need to be done to retain a SmartBus on the 903's alignment west of Heidelberg (which has high patronage potential). It might be possible to cheaply pick up the 903 west from Heidelberg with another SmartBus route, potentially upgraded from every 15 to every 10 minutes thanks to consolidation with another route.
Finally one might question the efficiency of running a SmartBus until midnight through the Brooklyn industrial area with limited demand or residential catchment. More on cost-effective alternatives that could run SmartBuses along more popular desire lines and bring SmartBus service to Kingsville/West Footscray/Footscray here.
902 Green Orbital
The 902 replaced the 888/889 on Springvale Rd but, again like the 903, was much more. The 902 'green orbital', extended in April 2010, finished at Airport West after going via Doncaster, Eltham, Greenborough and Broadmeadows. The new route 858 in the Chelsea area provided local coverage while allowing the SmartBus to be made more direct. There were also local network changes at Nunawading.
The intention was to extend the 902 to Werribee via Watergardens and Deer Park, but this never happened. While there is locally high demand for buses in the Werribee area there would likely be a large low density area where usage would be low. The Deer Park to Watergardens section was later picked up by the new Route 420 from Sunshine introduced as part of the 2014 Brimbank network.
902 is massively successful between about Springvale South and Nunawading. There is also worthwhile usage at a lower level between Chelsea and Doncaster. The Springvale/Glen Waverley area has excellent demographics for buses, including high numbers of students and low income earners. Existing local routes may only run hourly and not on Sundays. Like parts of the 903 this section of the 902 probably justifies roughly double its existing frequency.
902 overlaps 907 along Doncaster Rd. However this is a good corridor for buses. 902 usage weakens north of Shoppingtown due partially to its overlap with other routes (including for a while the 901) and its indirect Doncaster - Greensborough connection via Eltham. However it gets steady usage along its straight, partly industrial, partly residential alignment to Broadmeadows and then Airport West. There may be scope to strengthen 902 by swapping it with 901 between Templestowe and Greensborough so it provides the most direct possible connection between the biggest centres (ie Greensborough and Doncaster Shoppingtown). One could also argue the merits of a 901/902 swap at the Broadmeadows end as it would improve directness for travel to areas east of the airport.
905, 906, 907, 908 DART
This is a series of four freeway express routes (905, 906, 907, 908) between the CBD and Doncaster. They form the closest that Melbourne has to a Bus Rapid Transit system and carry very high peak loads. Route 907, in particular, along Doncaster Rd, also has high all-day/all-week usage, with 905 and 906 a little above average.
Like the 900 the four DART routes are the government's answer to proposals for train and tram extensions to the City of Manningham. Compared with trains DART has lower capital costs and permits one-seat rides from more areas into the CBD, including as far east as Warrandyte. Its main weakness is bus bunching due to its corridor not being isolated from other traffic. DART service started in October 2010, just before that year's state election.
DART was part of the franchised bundle of routes won by Transdev in 2013. Shortly afterwards 908 got pruned to run only from Doncaster Park and Ride to The Pines most times to reduce overlap with the 907. Weekday DART service is of a similar span of hours and frequency to trains while weekend service is a little less, with less frequency and shorter operating hours (especially the 9pm Sunday finish). The routes have generally enjoyed high patronage with peak services added a few years ago to match demand.
904 Blue Orbital
This was the orbital that never was, and possibly never should be, although some parts of it would have improved things. It was an inner orbital operating from Sandringham to Williamstown. Both extremities paralleled (rather than fed) rail lines, didn't serve trip generators of metropolitan importance and had unfavourable demographics for buses. A sketch is here. Parts of the orbital, like the 246 on Punt Rd, already had service at or better than SmartBus standard. A major route across the north might have done well, though it could have been more direct to Fooscray (eg via the Route 404 alignment), with Highpoint served by a rerouted Red Orbital instead.
Also on this day
SmartBus upgrades weren't the only bus improvements to happen on 5 August, 2002. Some bus routes, especially in outer suburbs, gained much-needed Sunday service. This was either for the first time ever or the first time after the 1990 cuts. It was a precursor to the more comprehensive minimum standards changes that were to benefit over 100 bus routes after 2006 with 7 day service every hour or better until 9pm under Meeting Our Transport Challenges.
SmartBus grew rapidly in its first eight years. It has been a success and it would be difficult to conceive of Melbourne public transport without SmartBus. Some routes went on to be upgraded. Examples include 907 and 908 getting an improvement to every 20 minutes on weekends. 900 got a peak upgrade while 703 has had weekend improvements (to every 30 minutes) and Sunday service added to the entire route.
While a big step forward at the time, we have seen some limitations with SmartBus as our city has grown and traffic increased. Every 15 minutes is not quite turn-up-and-go, and the 30 minute weekend frequency isn't something a big city should aspire to. It is also out of kilter with Rail Network Development Plan concepts of a tiered network based on 10 and 20 minute frequencies across all modes. SmartBus should generally move towards a 10/20 minute pattern to suit. However not along all parts; even 30 minute frequencies are generous on quieter sections of some orbitals.
It's worth rethinking whether the orbital concept is best. Shorter routes would assist in adjusting frequencies to better meet demand and harmonise with trains, cutting waits. There risk some objections from the minority who make long trips on the orbitals but overall there should be a greater frequency and connectivity gain. More on splitting the orbitals here.
SmartBus routes can be quite slow for medium distance trips. The need to transfer, wait and board a bus stuck in traffic remains a reason why driving can still be twice as fast as public transport, especially for non-CBD trips. Frequency and coordination, as discussed before, are big influencers of overall travel time. Following that is in-bus travel time. Measures to improve this range from spacing stops wider and bus priority all the way up to massive rail projects like the Suburban Rail Loop. Even where the former applies (eg Route 900) the design of our shopping centres and interchanges often slow bus access, with needless backtracking and turning.
While Melbourne adding a million or more people in the last 10 years we've added no new SmartBus routes. On the other hand opportunities exist to cheaply add about ten more. These sometimes involve little more than a few extra trips to the timetable. Top 10 picks here.
You might enjoy these well-regarded books on transport topics
Steven Higashide The Public City: Essays in honour of Paul Mees
Jarrett WalkerTransport for Suburbia: Beyond the Automobile Age Paul Mees
(Sales links: I get a small commission if you buy via the above - no extra cost to you)
This item was written by Peter Parker http://www.melbourneontransit.blogspot.com
This article first appeared on melbourneontransit.blogspot.com
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