In praise of the Metrobus

When we discuss public transport and public transport planning in the public arena we tend to either fall into whinging or into desires (or yearning) for big sexy projects. This is extremely so in Sydney. The NSW malaise has allowed it to be conventional wisdom that the public transport system is an unmitigated disaster – although it moves a greater proportion of the population than any other in the country [fn1]. Debt phobia and burnt political fingers (or active sabotage) that have prevented major projects over the past 80 years have also led to a deep yearning and dreaming for these prospective heavy rail lines, or the ghosts of trams goneby, or other panacaeas.

But not everyone is doing this.

The past two years have seen the advent of the Metrobus.  These are high-frequency, limited stop bus routes that address many of the problems with existing bus travel whilst retaining the benefits. The routes are do not meander like other routes and tickets are not sold on board, so they become much faster. But they are also simple to deploy. Existing infrastructure (roads) are used, and no specialist machinery is required, so there is no tortuous process of resumption, development and tendering. They can also slip nicely into suburbs whose development were shaped by the now absent trams. I guess that’s what they are – unromantic and inexpensive trams.

Moreover, they go a certain way to overcoming some of the original sins of Sydney transport. By avoiding routes that terminate in the city or at interchange points by instead passing through they combine two routes into one and cut down congestion by idle buses where it is least needed. Furthermore, the routes slated to come in next year finally begin to address the flaws of a radial transport system and the dream of a city with multiple centres, so commuters can far more easily travel between these centres without changing in the city. The need for this has been apparent for ages and filled with broken dreams like the Parramatta-Chatswood rail link, or the Hurstville Strathfield link. This may be a real attempt on the ground.

Are the metrobuses sexy? No. Are they a panacaea? No. But are they pragmatic and a good policy under very large constraints? Yes.

So to the anonymous planners in State Transit who developed these [fn2] and pushed them through despite a disfunctional government and  public debate that can see only pessimism and pies in the sky, but never pragmatism.

We need technocrats like you.

[fn1] I liked reading this quote from Solow, where he describes the tendency for lower relative growth in Britain to cause an outbreak of amateur sociology.  Similar outbreaks occured in regard to America between the oil shock/Watergate and the dot com boom, and in Japan post bubble. When a society that once considered itself foremost in the world is hit by one issue (macroeconomic strife, or political disfunction) all else that was positive or benign in the “good times” becomes typical of all that was bad, even if nothing has objectively changed apart from the first issue which colours the rest.

[fn2] Presumably too the minsters, the departed John Watkins and the terribly unfortunate David Campbell.

About Richard Tsukamasa Green

Richard Tsukamasa Green is an economist. Public employment means he can't post on policy much anymore. Also found at @RHTGreen on twitter.
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derrida derider
derrida derider
11 years ago

Absolutely extraordinary – that map leaves literally half of Sydney out! Well over half the population is either west of Parramatta or south of Liverpool. It is precisely those areas that:
a) have only private, unsubsidised and patchy bus services; and
b) huge gaps in rail coverage.

This plan would not only not address the problem, it would exacerbate them by diverting more public transport subsidies while those subsidies are already sucking funds from where they’re needed. Inner Sydney simply does not need a huge amount of infrastructure investment except to allow people from outer suburbs to get to work in it or travel through it. It’s outer Sydney that is so car dependent.

A Sharma
A Sharma
11 years ago

I have recently finished reading Transport for Suburbia Beyond the Automobile Age by Paul Mees. I would commend it to anyone with more than a passing interest in public transport.

Unlike almost all discussion around public transport, Mees delves into actual experiences of cities all over the world, debunking a few myths along the way.

Alan
Alan
11 years ago

The map does leave out large slabs of Sydney, but I’m not sure Metrobus is designed to address those areas. See comments above about wanting panaceas when more modest proposals can actually be implemented. Moreover inner Sydney congestion (which Metrobus can improve) drastically effects travel times from outer Sydney where cars can cruise calmly down the freeways and then drop into traffic hell at Strathfield.

Tel
Tel
11 years ago

The link on the map to the PDF has moved BTW, but let’s suppose someone finds the actual map. You would think that a bus called “M91” goes from Granville Station, southwards down Blaxcell Street, but what the map ignores is that more than half those routes don’t actually exist yet. Or actually they do exist, but not as Metrobus, they are merely normal bus routes waiting to be rebranded in the latest NSW Government campaign of image beats substance.

If you visit the Sydney Bus website you get spruiker-talk:

Sydney’s Metrobus network has recently been expanded from five routes to 13 routes, providing high-frequency, high-capacity links between key employment and growth centres across Sydney.

These eight extra Metrobus routes will be on the streets by mid-2011, providing 400,000 additional bus passenger spaces a week.

Note the first sentence in past tense, quickly followed by a contradictory second sentence in future tense.

But let’s suppose the M91 did exist, you might want to catch it, so you would need to buy a ticket. To buy a ticket you need to know which kind of ticket to buy, and you can’t ask the driver because the driver doesn’t sell tickets, and the Sydney Bus website won’t tell you anything about tickets either, you need to look in a new and different place which is the MyZone website. I have to buy a ticket called MyBus… really my very own bus, that’s a great idea, send my bus round the extra few blocks if you don’t mind and pick me up at the front gate. Oh, I see, it’s not really my bus, despite something that looks a bit like a contract telling me that it is. Oh I see, that’s just what some lame marketing focus group thought might appeal to the “me” generation, whoever that might be. The MyZone website only tells you which ticket matches how many “sections” but you still need to know where the sections are, for that it’s back to the other website to find a timetable, which doesn’t exist but might do someday.

By gum, don’t these MyZone tickets look a lot like some other sort of tickets? That would be, because they are just rebranded versions of the tickets we already had. This reminds me of the Tcard disaster, as explained by the SMH (wrongly):

http://www.smh.com.au/business/nsw-ticketing-fiasco-a-winner-for-lawyers-20100223-p0ou.html

Unlike many cities around the world, Sydney has no single, cashless card for trains, buses and ferries, with cheaper trips for those who switch from one mode to another, shorter queues at ticket offices and greater efficiencies for transport operators.

Now let me see, all those coloured TravelPass tickets, must have been available for a decade or more, now rebranded as the MyMulti which does *big drum roll* exactly the same thing! If you don’t like carrying cash, hey the train stations now have EFTPOS. Imagine that, using a cashless payment system that was already developed, and backed by all the major banks, and used by nearly every merchant in Australia. After pissing away millions on Tcard, and soon to be pissing away millions more arguing about why Tcard failed and who to blame, it still hasn’t occurred to anyone that we never needed it in the first place, so right before an election they create a hoax of a new ticketing system, believing that the population must be dumber than dog droppings.

Speaking of rebranding, let’s get back to the M91 service (the one that doesn’t exist yet). If you search a few blogs you find that it does exist, under a different name.

http://www.railpage.com.au/f-p1418356.htm

M90 is the 900 route and will start 6th December, M91 is the 910 to Bankstown and then a 948 to hurstville they are both going to be combined and will start in late January 2011, The M92 is a new route to come into affect April 2011 and may be extended to Cronulla in the summer peak. These routes will be run by Veolia Transport and they have 60 new buses on order and a new depot to be built in Sth Granville and need to employee 100 new drivers. The buses will be in the red and white metrobus branding.

So now the Lebanese grandma on Blaxcell Street who speaks little English but has been taught by her nephew to look out for the white bus marked 910 is gonna keep seeing red bus after red bus marked M91 and she’s not going to catch it she never caught a red bus before and who knows where it might take her. If she does get on she’s gonna be told that although she always used to be able to buy a ticket with coin, now she can’t do that anymore. Better efficiency don’t you know.

How much more efficient? Being able to pre-buy your ticket for Sydney transport is not a new thing either. Most people on the bus already pre-buy tickets. The small handful who don’t (perhaps 10% or so) are generally occasional travelers who really don’t know what to buy or how much their trip will cost, people who are lost and asking for directions, and the elderly who can’t figure out how the system works and like to talk directly to the driver. Why bother clobbering such people in the name of efficiency? The small gains you get are more than offset by the foobar.

Don’t even get me started on bus lanes where the bus turns right from the left-hand lane and the cars turn left from the right-hand lane (I’m not stoned, it is real), then there’s the idea that cyclists are supposed to share the bus lane with taxis (to keep everybody safe of course). The random speed humps that are tossed at random for no reason… Granville is the only place in the world that has a special speed-hump pedestrian crossing (known officially as a “wombat crossing”) placed at an intersection (wait for it) with an iron fence on all sides to prevent pedestrians ever crossing there and the whole lot was built 20 years AFTER the existing pedestrian BRIDGE that goes over the same intersection (I am honestly not stoned, I can send photos).

I know, I know, if only people would stop whining and get pragmatic. The most genuinely pragmatic thing I can think of is wiping the slate clean and finding someone else to run this state. We can’t sack everybody because anyone with management skill has already moved to Melbourne but at least we can start at the top. As a voter my first preference for new leaders would have to go to Japan, then Germany, but if they aren’t available it would be anyone different from what we have now.

Ian Whitchurch
Ian Whitchurch
11 years ago

Tel,

Or our hypothetical grandson can do what I do.

Walk out my door, turn left, go a block to the Chinese newsagent and ask for a bus ticket, and then give it to Grandma.

Finally, frankly, a Lebanese grandmother will flag down any bus going down her street.

Alan
Alan
11 years ago

I know, I know, if only people would stop whining and get pragmatic. The most genuinely pragmatic thing I can think of is wiping the slate clean and finding someone else to run this state. We can’t sack everybody because anyone with management skill has already moved to Melbourne but at least we can start at the top. As a voter my first preference for new leaders would have to go to Japan, then Germany, but if they aren’t available it would be anyone different from what we have now.

That is a really, really long way from whether Metrobus could work a modest improvement in public transport. Australia is really bad at infrastructure decisions. One reason may be that any infrastructure issue defaults to opposing or supporting the party that suggests them.

derrida derider
derrida derider
11 years ago

You’re quite wrong – I’m not for letting the best be the enemy of the good. Modest improvements are still improvements, and should be pursued when possible.

But my point is simply that extending subsidised public bus services to the outer suburbs would do far, far more to improve more peoples’ lives than creating new subsidies in the inner suburbs. And NSW politics in general, and Sydney transport policy in particular, has long had far too much focus on the suburbs where the chattering classes reside, very much at the expense of where the actual voters reside.

Alan
Alan
11 years ago

I am not completely persuaded that (1) the chattering classes really cluster all that thickly in Auburn, Glanville, or Cabramatta all areas you designate as part of Chatter City (2) general denunciations of the chattering classes are a sophisticated and useful contribution to the adumbration of better public policy (3) the evil members of the chattering classes can or should be excluded from the set of ‘actual voters’ as you seem to advocate; or (4) that Sydney can be easily split into a well-fed, prosperous and indulged zone east of Parramatta and north of Liverpool and a marginalised zone everywhere outside the magic circle. There are clearly areas of transport deprivation in Chatter City as you define it. Please note that references to latté is fast becoming a caffeinated equivalent of Godwin’s Law.

Tel
Tel
11 years ago

That is a really, really long way from whether Metrobus could work a modest improvement in public transport.

The incremental changes at work here are:

[A] selected routes are getting extra bus frequency, paid by tax money.
[B] said routes are getting renamed to different routes
[C] you can’t pay in cash anymore
[D] the names and colours of the tickets have changed, and the website has moved.
[E] the “Metrobus” brand has been created and advertised (e,g, the map above) in a way that confuses operational routes with future plans.

Out of five incremental changes, [A] is the only one useful to the public, and it is a tradeoff when you consider the money could be spent elsewhere. Possibly the extra frequency will attract more customers, thus getting over the “critical mass” hump and boosting revenue, I’m very happy if this turns out to be the case. In the interests of taxpayers being able to understand where their money goes I’d be excited to see government releasing full statistics on bus passenger numbers per route and the degree of subsidy vs revenue.

Australia is really bad at infrastructure decisions.

I happen to disagree. The problem is infrastructure implementation, I fully support more government spend on public transport in general, it’s just that in NSW we have an approach that the way to make public transport better is by making private transport worse; and then we find ways to make public transport worse too. Often in completely pointless ways that would actually have been cheaper if no one had ever thought of them.

It’s wonderful to see little things done right, I despair to see so many little things done wrong on a regular basis.

One reason may be that any infrastructure issue defaults to opposing or supporting the party that suggests them.

If I’m not judging a party by the outcomes they deliver, what should I be considering?

If my judgement is impaired by ever-shifting brand names, expensive advertising campaigns, the constant deliberate illusion of “big sexy projects”, lack of any genuine statistics being released, and a general air of “can’t trust anything they say” then how do I fix this other than keep voting contrary wise until someone comes along willing to talk straight?

Tel
Tel
11 years ago

But my point is simply that extending subsidised public bus services to the outer suburbs would do far, far more to improve more peoples’ lives than creating new subsidies in the inner suburbs.

I will point out that a bus does actually generate revenue if it runs medium-full so the only time you have subsidised transport is when you have near empty bus routes operating. A route that runs frequently is intrinsically more useful to passengers than a route that runs rarely, thus the frequent route will attract more revenue, thus reducing the subsidy and also making it worthwhile running the route more frequently. This is positive feedback at work (the thing that economists claim does not exist).

In order for the pro-public transport positive feedback to kick in, a minimum population density is required, and a minimum density of people without cars is required. Neither of these make high frequency services a good fit for outlying areas.

Exactly which areas do make a good choice is tricky. Parramatta is mostly a car culture, so is Liverpool. There are quite dense regions of apartment blocks but these are generally built along the rail line already. Positive feedback has been pushing the car in these areas because car is the only thing you can depend on, so everyone has a car, so all the facilities are designed with the expectation that everyone has a car, so car is the only thing you can depend on. Infrastructure spending mostly goes into roads and carparks. People catch the train to the city for work, then come home and use the car for everything else.

BruceT
BruceT
11 years ago

I agree that it’s very good to get incremental service increases such as this, rather than waiting for big-ticket “solutions” like the Metro system. However, I don’t think many of the claimed Metrobus improvements are really improvements.

They call 20 minutes during off-peak hours “high frequency”, but that is an *average* wait time. If three buses come simultaneously once an hour, that meets their average. And because there are no timetables, there are no longer any late buses. The thing that matters for people who rely on buses is the *maximum* wait time. I have tried to catch the M10 from Kingsford a couple of times, just out of curiosity, however in each case I gave up waiting and got on one of the “normal” services, which are actually higher frequency.

I also agree with others that the new branding is confusing and pointless, except as political bragging about new services. How does a Metrobus differ from a the ticketless, bendy 333 from Bondi? As far as I know, the only difference is that the 333 attempts to run on a schedule, while the Metrobus doesn’t try!

I can’t disagree more with those complaining about ticketless travel. This is an enormous and simple win for everyone. I’m sorry if your Nanna doesn’t like it, but we don’t want to wait for you to pick through your coin purse! Yes, it’s inconvenient for disorganised people, but just get off your butt and buy a TravelTen (and you’ll save quite a bit of money in the process!)

Tel
Tel
11 years ago

I can’t disagree more with those complaining about ticketless travel. This is an enormous and simple win for everyone. I’m sorry if your Nanna doesn’t like it, but we don’t want to wait for you to pick through your coin purse! Yes, it’s inconvenient for disorganised people, but just get off your butt and buy a TravelTen (and you’ll save quite a bit of money in the process!)

What you have just said is that a certain group of people should be excluded from the bus system — mostly occasional travelers and people who just want to give it a try. So these people will find some other form of transport, probably they will go by car. So now rather than waiting a minute or two for someone to fumble for coins, you are waiting a good fifteen minutes in traffic. Naturally you can demand bus lanes, but many streets have now been reduced to only having one lane in order to facilitate outdoor coffee shops where people are allowed to smoke, anyhow cars that are turning need to move into the bus lane.

What’s more, any business knows that turning away an occasional customer who is giving it a try is just going to discourage anyone from becoming a regular customer. Get ready to wait in traffic every single day because the people who found the bus system a PITA once, are going to be all the more determined to hang onto their cars. Worse still, there is no single website that provides a simple and encompassing explanation of which of the three different TravelTen tickets you should buy, and the map showing you where to go an actually buy a ticket doesn’t work on most PDA’s because it needs a reasonably advanced browser to support the google map overlays and such. More small shops would offer to sell the tickets… except that the price-controlled margin is very small and they need to commit money to buying a minimum stock which effectively costs them about 7% interest rate on the dead money while they sell only occasionally.

It’s like a business selling a product, but you can’t ask for a quote, you just have to know how to calculate the price for yourself.

You can go to the 131500 website and it calculates the timetable and the options you have for modes of transport, and even the time taken, but what ticket do you need? No that’s a secret, mustn’t let people know that. And or course, none of the other government transport websites will even tell you that the 131500 trip calculator even exists…

Why make a service hostile to new users? Name one private business that has been successful by making it difficult for anyone to buy their service.

By the way, if it wasn’t arbitrarily complex enough, city buses now reject cash payments at some times of day, but accept cash at other times of day, but this is only on certain streets so walking a few blocks AWAY from your destination may allow you to catch a bus using cash payment if it takes you out of the magic boundary (but the boundary moves from time to time, so don’t expect the same results next month).

Luke Elford
Luke Elford
11 years ago

derrida derider wrote that

Well over half the population is either west of Parramatta or south of Liverpool

Er, no. According to the 2006 census, the combined population of Holroyd, Blacktown, Penrith, Hawkesbury, the Blue Mountains, Campbelltown, Camden and Wollondilly local government areasthe areas west of Parramatta and south of Liverpoolwas 0.90 million, out of Sydney’s 4.12 million people, or 21.9%. I’m too lazy to look up the latest population estimates, but they’re not going to drastically change things. Your view of Sydney’s population distribution is way off.

The main point of the Metrobus network is to provide line haul services in corridors not covered by rail. This means i) cross-town routes connecting major centres and ii) radial routes not serviced by rail, which means the east, as well as the north-west. Most development west of Parramatta and south of Liverpool is strung along radial rail corridors. And since these corridors aren’t very wide, there is no cross-town line-haul role to be filled. To me, the most glaring omission is the absence of a route past Mosman through to the northern beaches. But that doesn’t really accord with your “too much focus on the suburbs where the chattering classes reside” argument.

If you think that people living west of Parramatta and south of Liverpool won’t benefit from increased public transport provision in the rest of Sydney, you’ve clearly never bothered to look at data on Sydney’s commuting patterns. The many people who commute from these areas to the rest of Sydney will have better access to employment centres that don’t happen to lie along their rail route.

Luke Elford
Luke Elford
11 years ago

derrida derider also wrote

But my point is simply that extending subsidised public bus services to the outer suburbs would do far, far more to improve more peoples’ lives than creating new subsidies in the inner suburbs.

The problem is that it is far from clear that this is true. You can’t just ignore the difficulties of providing public transport in places like the far western and south-western parts of Sydney, and demand that these areas get the same services as the inner city despite a lack of potential patronage.

You can’t just ignore the economics of public transport. Public transport is subject to economies of density. In order to provide good services that have a chance of enticing people away from their cars, you need frequent services and a reasonably dense route structure. Even for a fairly low-capacity mode like buses, that requires a fairly high level of patronage. Infrastructure such as railways, busways and even bus laneswhich enable a faster, higher quality service than a standard bus routeare large fixed costs, and again sufficiently high potential patronage is required to justify the investment.

High potential patronage means sufficient population density, as well as street networks that actually enable residents to access bus stops on major roads, major road that are spaced closely enough so that bus routes are within walking distance of most homes, major roads that are not inhospitable to pedestrians, trips ends (employment, retail, other services) concentrated in walkable nodes strung along public transport routes, and so on. The reality is that much of far western and south-western Sydney doesn’t meet these criteria, and it’s hard to justify the provision of good public transport. And marginal improvements to poor services are unlikely to achieve much: these services will still be lightly used because they fail to offer a real alternative to travel by car.

It’s perfectly plausibleI’d say highly likelythat the more effective use of public transport funding is to concentrate resources in areas which have the potential to support good quality public transport that can effectively compete with the car; to ramp up services in moderately well-serviced areas. I’m not suggesting that transit planners place far western and south-western Sydney in the too hard basket, but they do need to be realistic about where the greatest social returns from public transport spending can be found.

Certainly, the fact that it’s difficult to cost-effectively provide parts of the city with good public transport is not a reason to deny provision to areas that are better placed to take advantage of improved services.

And on equity grounds, much of the middle suburbsareas such as St George, Canterbury, Bankstown, Auburn, Strathfield and Parramattaare about as poor as the far west and south-west, and have much greater potential to support high quality public transport.

Inner Sydney simply does not need a huge amount of infrastructure investment except to allow people from outer suburbs to get to work in it or travel through it.

First of all, the Metrobus network is not “a huge amount of infrastructure investment”. Secondly, on the usual definition of inner Sydney, much if not most of the Metrobus network lies outside inner Sydney. Thirdly, why on earth would you think that inner Sydney doesn’t need public transport infrastructure investment except to service the needs of commuters from the outer suburbs? Don’t inner city residents travel? Isn’t the population of the inner city growing? Should, say, people moving to areas such as Green Square not get improved public transport services despite inhabiting a part of the city that will, as redevelopment occurs, be of sufficient density and hence potential patronage to economically justify much higher levels of service than the current bus routes because they’re too trendy?

It’s outer Sydney that is so car dependent.

The reality is that virtually all of Sydney is highly car dependent. The difference is that inner Sydney–and parts of the middle suburbs–have greater potential for increased public transport use to address issues such as increasing congestion, climate change and higher oil prices, whereas things in the rest of Sydney are a lot trickier.

Paul
Paul
11 years ago

The link on this page to the route map is wrong. It should be:

http://www.sydneybuses.info/sydney/metrobus/Metrobus_map_20100720.pdf