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Thursday, 24 December 2015

Public transport fares: do we need more than economics to make them efficient?

There are some recommendations in this week's draft report on public transport fares from the NSW Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART) which make a lot of good sense.

But then there are the weird bits.

Let's be positive and start with the good recommendations.

The first is the proposal that journeys made with two or more modes should be priced as a single journey based on distance travelled. Most observers were scratching their heads when the Opal card was introduced with penalties for passengers who need to transfer between modes to complete a journey. Good on IPART for recommending a fix to this.

Changes to policy on week-end fares and seniors discounts are also fair and logical. 

By replacing the Sunday cap of $2.50 with a week-end daily cap of $7.20, the perverse incentive to delay a week-end ferry ride until Sunday will be removed. And let's face it, $2.50 for travel anywhere on a Sunday is overly generous and distorts demand with very detrimental effects on service, especially for ferries.

The changes to eligibility for the Gold Opal card, which mean Seniors who are not pensioners will need to pay fares at the regular concession rate, is another dose of common sense.

Recommendations I place in the category of Weird City mostly stem from IPART's understanding of the word "efficiency". The name of IPART's report "More efficient, more integrated Opal fares" is significant. Early on at university, economics students are taught a new meaning of the word "efficiency". "Economics", students are instructed, "is about the efficient allocation of scarce resources". The instruction must be effective, because when graduates find roles in cloistered academia, consulting firms and Government agencies (like IPART), they seem compelled to look for anything that looks remotely like a scarce resource which is in need of efficient allocation, preferably by a price mechanism. 

When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

This is why IPART is so fond of "pay as you go" fare structures, because if a user pays for each individual trip, they will feel inclined to "ration" their use of public transport. It explains their recommendation to lift weekly Opal card weekly caps from $60 to $75 in 2018 and to reduce the number of "free" trips for frequent users. And there is no recommendation to re-introduce a periodical or travelpass style of ticket.

Economics is not of course the only set of ideas relevant to efficiency in business or the business of government. There is another quite different tradition of operations research and systems science, with a lineage going back to the American philosophers CS Peirce and CI Lewis, the statisticians Walter Shewart and Ed Deming and notable advocates like Stafford Beer, Gregory Bateson, C West Churchman, Russell Ackoff and Fred Emery. Their understanding of efficiency is a practical one which sits more comfortably with the average business owner. Efficiency in business (or public transport) is about making process improvements to the system to provide better products and services to customers, at lower cost. 

This tradition is mostly concerned with the way a business (or system) operates as a whole, and less about its component parts, because the whole is not the sum of the parts. 

For a public transport operator, efficiency improvement can be achieved by many practical activities, including minimising the time the fleet is lying idle and maximising the time in their rosters when crews are driving boats (trains/buses). These should also be concerns of government, because efficient use of assets and labour by operators leads ultimately to lower costs to the taxpayer.   This is what real world efficiency is all about. 

An economist's idea of efficiency is more abstract. You need look no further than this week's IPART report to see how abstract and remote from the real world this can be. Here is a quote from page 36:

"In theory, a certain number of journeys on a public transport service will maximise the welfare (or net benefits to individuals and the wider community) generated by the service. In economics, this is known as the socially optimal level of consumption. Fares set to achieve this level of consumption are known as the ‘socially optimal fares’. Socially optimal fares encourage both efficient use of public transport and efficient delivery of public transport – our two ‘efficiency’ criteria.

At the socially optimal number of journeys, the cost of providing the service to the last passenger is equal to the benefit of the service to that passenger and to the wider community. This last passenger is known as the ‘marginal’ passenger, and the costs and benefits associated with serving the marginal passenger are known as the ‘marginal costs’ and ‘marginal benefits’. 

At the socially optimal number of journeys, the costs to society of any additional journeys would outweigh the benefits to society associated with those additional journeys"

Further on page 37: 

"We developed a mathematical optimisation model that we used to estimate the socially optimal fares for single journeys on each mode...

It aims to identify the fares that will balance the following two effects: 
1. Setting fares above the socially optimal level would lead to excessive use of private cars and underutilisation of existing and planned public transport capacity, leading to higher external costs associated with road congestion, emissions and road accidents. 
2. Setting fares below the socially optimal level would lead to excessive crowding on public transport, underutilisation of existing and planned road capacity, and excessive public transport operating losses which must be funded from taxation." 

In short, IPART believes there is an optimal number of public transport trips in Sydney - not too many and not too few - and by pulling the right leavers on fares, this optimal level of trips will be reached.  After all, according to IPART, we really don't want people travelling too much by public transport or else there could be "underutilisation of existing and planned road capacity". 

What the heck?

This is the first time I have heard anyone say that the existing or planned capacity of Sydney roads may be underutilised if too many people use public transport. When did that become a problem? The thrust of the NSW Transport Masterplan (which doesn't rate a single mention in IPART's 106 page report) is to promote a mode shift away from private cars to public transport so Sydney becomes a more vibrant, liveable and better connected city. 

The report doesn't state explicitly what IPART thinks the socially optimal number of public transport trips should be in Sydney, but it appears to be not too different from what it is now - about 120 per resident per year. By comparison with most European cities, this is woefully low.  It's about 400 in Zurich and 500 in Vienna. 

IPART needs to forget the idea that public transport can be made more efficient by rationing trips via the price mechanism. What actually needs to happen is the opposite of this. Sydney needs to have a fare structure which discourages rationing of public transport travel. This is achieved by offering heavily discounted periodical fares (weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual travel passes). If you already have a periodical ticket, you are more likely to use public transport for non work commuting travel - like going shopping or meeting friends. 

Travel for purposes other than commuting to work make up more than 80% of all trips by Sydney residents! Public transport must be made a more attractive option for these types of trips if a substantial mode shift is to be achieved. Unfortunately, IPART disparagingly refers to them as "discretionary" travel (as if we would all be better off staying behind closed doors at home when not at work).

What really matters is increasing patronage and lowering taxpayer subsidies. Most European cities achieve far higher levels of real world efficiency in their public transport systems because their utilisation of assets is higher.  This can be done by drawing on the fine practical traditions of operations research and systems science, not the abstract, "mind experiment" concepts of efficiency so loved by economists. 

Fares are not everything. If average public transport trips per resident were to lift to a modest 250 trips per year, then capacity would have to increase and networks designed better to provide for multi-destinational travel, not just commuting to work in the CBD. 

But fare structures are part of the overall public transport jigsaw puzzle that we need to get right in Sydney. Unfortunately IPART is leading us down the wrong path.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Why are ferry work commuter numbers declining?

Every six months, a week long census is conducted by Harbour City Ferries to count passengers boarding and disembarking by individual wharf and route. The data has a high level of granularity as it includes details such as time of boarding and disembarkation.

Thanks to the good work of the Bureau of Transport Statistics, the information is publicly available on its website .

Caution should be exercised in using the data - the census covers just seven days and there may be special circumstances affecting the count in a particular week. For example, services might have been cancelled due to fog or industrial action or a wharf may have been closed for upgrade. The May 2013 count was particularly affected by fog cancellations.

Notwithstanding these cautionary notes, the data does enable the ferry enthusiast to delve a little more deeply into customer demand trends. While total ferry patronage has grown since 2010, one trend that is clear is a shift in ferry patronage away from work commuters to so called off peak periods, especially week-ends.

A proxy measure of work commuters is the count of passengers disembarking at Circular Quay, Darling Harbour, McMahons Point and Milsons Point between 7.00 am and 9.00 am on week-days. This has dropped from a high of 6,600 in November 2010 to just 5,249 in the May 2015 survey. Disembarkations at these times and at these locations include very few leisure travellers. The vast majority are people travelling by ferry to work.

Derived from BTS data set, Ferry Load Census Data May 2010 - May 2015

The decline in commuter numbers has happened despite an increase in numbers of daily AM peak services of around 12 per cent since May 2010.

So what is behind the drop?

There are probably many contributing reasons, but some stand out as leading candidates:

  • Competition from the Manly Fast Ferry. Frequency of the Manly Fast Ferry has increased to six per hour in the AM peak and fares are now very competitive with the Opal Card. Disembarkations at Circular Quay between 7:00 am and 9:00 am from the iconic, regular Manly Ferry services has declined from a high of 1,765 in November 2010 to 1,230 in May 2015.
  • Changes in fare structures. If you are commuting to work by ferry, you may need to catch a bus to your local wharf, or take a train from Circular Quay to reach your office. Changes in fares structures have made these intermodal transfers less attractive. My Multi ticket rules (the periodical travel pass ticket product) changed in September 2013 by moving Manly Ferry passengers from the cheapest MyZone 1 category to the most expensive MyZone 3. Inner Harbour passengers were moved to MyZone 2. Monthly, Quarterly and Annual My Multi tickets ceased to be available from August 2014.
More importantly, Opal card users, now the majority of passengers, are required to pay an extra fare if they need to transfer to a different mode as part of their journey.      

Let's hope the current IPART review into public transport fares will start a process to remove disincentives for intermodal transfers. Without such changes, the role of ferries in Sydney commuter travel will continue to decline.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

The myth that ferries don't compete on cost with other public transport modes

There is a common assumption that urban transit ferries cost more to operate per passenger journey - and attract greater taxpayer subsidies - than other modes of public transport. 

Often this is true, but it is not always the case. 

A previous post on this blog debunks the myth that Sydney Ferries attract much higher subsidies than buses or trains. 

But the misunderstanding persists and often leads to  
rhetorical questions like "why should battlers in the western suburbs subsidise rich ferry riders from the north shore or eastern suburbs?" I have even heard it raised at IPART hearings. 

So it's time to restate the facts.

The NSW Auditor-General's Financial Audit Report - Volume Seven 2014 - provides a helpful table showing the operating costs and revenue per passenger of three modes of public transport in NSW (trains, buses and ferries) in the 12 months ending June 2014. A graphical version is shown below:
Source: NSW Auditor-General's Financial Audit Report Volume 7 2014, p. 17
Net cost per passenger journey, after deducting farebox revenue, is $10.61 for rail, $6.24 for ferries and $5.88 for buses. This means the subsidy per passenger for rail is more than $4 higher than ferries. The difference between buses and ferries is almost negligible. 

Now there will be arguments about what the Audit Office includes as a cost. And the average rail journey is longer than either ferry or bus journeys (this raises another question - why aren't train fares commensurately higher for longer trips?). 

All of this does muddy the water, but the difference in operating costs are really not that great.  

When other issues come into play, such as the impact on CBD congestion caused by conga lines of buses entering and leaving the city, the argument for ferries becomes more compelling. Ferries certainly have a competitive advantage over buses in near city suburbs with good waterway connections. 

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Putting the horse before the cart in ferry infrastructure

Not since the opening of the Harbour Bridge in 1932 has Sydney seen more major projects planned to support its ferry network. The recent announcement of a major upgrade to Circular Quay is one of many major ferry infrastructure investments, including a new hub to be built at Barangaroo South and the acquisition of six new inner harbour ferries.

The thought of shiny new terminals with glamourous retail areas affording sparkling views of Sydney Harbour can bring a rush of excitement. But let’s not forget the main purpose of a ferry terminal is to provide for the safe and efficient berthing of vessels and the safe and efficient exchange of passengers. And before we can say with confidence that the new terminals will perform these functions adequately, a more fundamental question needs to be answered: what should the ferry network of the future look like? Only then can the operational specifications of the new terminals and vessels be settled.

Why does the network matter?

One obvious example is the level of connectivity that passengers should expect. If Sydney was to adopt world’s best practice in network design, all lines hubbing at Circular Quay would operate to a pulse timetable, as practised by the Swiss and in other parts of continental Europe.  All ferry services would arrive at Circular Quay shortly before the hour and half hour and depart shortly after the hour and half hour. This would enable lines intersecting at Circular Quay (or at Barangaroo for that matter) to connect conveniently with just a short transfer wait time.

It would also make Sydney Cove safer to navigate, as arriving vessels would no longer interfere with those that are departing.

Opting for quality in network design has consequences.  A well connected network must be punctual or planned connections will fail. This requires more advanced gangway technology at wharves and on vessels, so services are not delayed by slow passenger loading.  And if timed connections become the norm, pontoon ramps and the passenger concourse at Circular Quay and Barangaroo must allow free movement of passengers transferring between vessels.

One of the biggest questions is how to make better use of Barangaroo in the network. The current King Street Darling Harbour terminal is a poor relation to Circular Quay, but this is now changing with developments on the western side of the CBD. By the time King Street wharf is replaced by a four berth terminal at Barangaroo in late 2016, ferry passengers coming from the west of the city will find this to be easily the most convenient point of entry to Sydney’s CBD. This is thanks in part to the Wynyard Walk project, which will provide easy pedestrian access to Wynyard Station and George Street.
The best option would be for all ferry lines west of the harbour bridge to hub at Barangaroo, including a new line to the White Bay Power Station in anticipation of the Bays Precinct development. There is no reason why the Darling Harbour, White Bay and Parramatta lines should not all pulse at Barangaroo, adding significantly to the utility and liveliness of this terminal.

The building of a new transport interchange does not of itself improve the connectivity of a network. Only timetables make connections, but they need well designed infrastructure to support them. It is time for Sydney to stop putting the cart before the horse. Let’s design our networks first before building the supporting infrastructure.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Pyrmont Bay Terminal Review

The new ferry wharf at Pyrmont Bay opened on Tuesday 8 September. It is one of the many new terminals built by Roads and Maritime services over the last five years, starting with Milsons Point (completed December 2010).

At the outset, it must be questioned whether Pyrmont Bay has a long term future as a ferry terminal. As the crow flies, it sits 200 metres from King Street wharf, a distance perfectly suited to a pedestrian/cycle bridge. That would be a much more convenient way for people to move between Pyrmont Bay and King Street or Barangaroo South.

A ferry terminal on Darling Island, situated on almost a direct line from Barangaroo South to the Rozelle Power Station in the Bays Precinct, would make a lot more sense than Pyrmont Bay, especially if the current cruise terminal at Balmain is developed into a major residential precinct. A new line from Barangaroo with stops at Darling Island, Balmain South, Glebe Island and Rozelle Power Station is a far better option.

But aside from whether or not it was necessary to build a new terminal at Pyrmont Bay, how does the wharf perform?

Well, it is better than the old stepped wharf, but not much better.

A previous post pointed out some serious design problems, which have unfortunately not been addressed. The small pontoon and single ramp are not adequate for crowds likely during major events, especially the Vivid Festival. Disembarking passengers will be met by a wall of people trying to board. That's not safe and will cause delays. 

The other curious feature is that although the pontoon is perpendicular to the shoreline, there is only one berthing face. This is a wharf used by other ferry operators and party boats, so two berth faces would seem an obvious requirement.

And when did Opal readers stop being located close to the pontoon? At both Pyrmont Bay and the recently opened Balmain East wharf, the only Opal card readers are on the landside, a sizeable walk from the pontoon. Woe betide the poor passenger who only remembers to tap on just as the gangway is planked. The sprint back to the Opal card reader may cause them to miss the ferry.  

It is time for a re-think about the Sydney Ferry network and some fastidious planning to make sure wharf infrastructure investments better match operational and customer requirements. 

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Why the inconvenience of carrying whitegoods on a train is not very important

As restful as it may be to leave our prejudices quietly undisturbed, there are times when habits of thought need to be shaken up by a dose of empirical evidence. The great American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce called it the irritation of doubt.

And where better to start this unsettling journey than a visit to the NSW Bureau of Transport Statistics website?

We can be lulled by the belief that the "main game" in Sydney's transport is moving people into and out of the central business district. That's probably why Sydney's transport network is a radial pattern, funnelling passengers on trains, ferries and conga lines of buses into the small area bounded by Circular Quay to the north and Central Station to the south.  

There can also be a lingering assumption that most trips are journeys to and from work.

None of these beliefs are true.

According to the BTS Household Travel Survey, Sydney's residents make an average of 16.7 million trips each week-day. Even if the Central Business District is broadly defined as the Sydney LGA (covering the area from Alexandria (south) to Circular Quay (north) and from Glebe (west) to Moore Park (east)), then this is the destination of just 10% of those trips. 

Some may pretend that travel that is not work related is unimportant, or "discretionary" (perhaps an "indulgence"), but we are human beings and as humans we meet friends, shop, watch movies and go on picnics. The data shows that commuting to work is not the main purpose of our travel. There are more shopping trips each day than journeys to work!    

The BTS Journey to Work data provides a more detailed picture of commuter travel.  This shows that only 12 per cent of jobs in Sydney are located in the central business district.

If travelling to work in the CBD is such a small component of all our travel needs, why is Sydney's public transport network so focussed on the CBD?       

This dose of reality goes some way to explain why the private motor car is still king and public transport makes up only 12% of the trips we make each week-day. It is not taking us where we need to go. This is a more fundamental cause of low mode share in this city than, say, the inconvenience of carrying whitegoods on a train. 

We need only look to continental Europe to see what needs to be done to achieve the mode shift necessary to make Sydney a more liveable, less congested city - designing public transport so residents can get from wherever they are to wherever they need to go, at a time that suits them. This, in combination with a little demand management of private car use, can lead to some habit changing about when to ride a bus or catch a train.  

There must also be a rethink about fare structures to encourage greater use of public transport, not ration it, which is what the "pay as you go" Opal card does. And let's not penalise transfers between modes nor differentiate prices based on mode. 

None of this is about extravagant infrastructure projects. The city's mobility problems will not be solved by a new cable car to Barangaroo or a big new rail project. We just need a change in thinking, as uncomfortable as that may be.                                                       

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Bays Precinct Ferries Revisted

Action to transform the Bays Precinct - the 80 hectares of land surrounding waterways on the western edge of Sydney's central business district - is ramping up. An international summit about the project in November 2014 has been followed by a community open day and a "Sydneysiders Summit" on 16 and 17 May.

Work on developing the Bays Market District (currently Sydney Fish Markets), the White Bay Power Station and area around the White Bay Cruise terminal will start over the period from 2015-2019. All indications are that the beautiful old Power Station site and Market District will be major destinations and areas of residential development. Residential development is also likely around the Cruise Terminal, which may eventually be relocated. 

There is wide recognition that new public transport infrastructure is critical to the success of the whole project. But what mode and where?

From a ferry network perspective, the elephant in the room has always been the Superyacht Marina in Rozelle Bay. As long as it remains, this corner of the bays is condemned to 4 knot speed limits, hardly an appropriate speed for world class public transport. Not sure that superyachts add much to Sydney's rich fabric, but obviously they must or the marina would be moved elsewhere.

Realistically, the superyachts will probably stay and developments around Rozelle Bay will need to be serviced by other modes of transport. This means the suggestion in a previous post that Sydney Ferries establish a new line to Glebe Point is probably not a goer.

So is there a place for ferries in the Bays Precinct?

The logical option is a new line running from Barangaroo to White Bay, with possible intermediate stops at Darling Island, somewhere near the Cruise terminal and the wharf located at the temporary convention centre site at Glebe Island. 

Even with a speed limit of 8 knots, this would make a competitive journey time of 10-12 minutes from the Power Station to Barangaroo.  It offers a direct connection to the western side of the CBD, not just for the new residential developments, but also for existing residents on the eastern edge of Rozelle and south-east Balmain.

As with any ferry line, it must be viewed in the context of the whole ferry network. If the integrated regular-interval timetable advocated in early posts is adopted, then timed transfers could be made at Barangaroo for services to the Parramatta River, Circular Quay and north Sydney.  
 Another line could also be contemplated to the Market District with one stop at the densely populated Jacksons Landing.

Quality public transport is critical to the Bays Precinct development. Transport planning must happen in tandem with urban planning, recognising that one is not the tail of the other.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Is a new ferry terminal at Rhodes really a good idea?

At first blush, the State Government’s plan to build a new ferry terminal at the currently wharfless Rhodes sounds like a great plan. The population density is high and growing, the area is an employment hub for over 10,000, and it’s a major destination for shoppers. And it would be just one extra stop on the existing F3 line between Meadowbank and Sydney Olympic Park. 

What could go wrong?
Quite a bit actually, especially if the impact on other passengers using the F3 line is taken into account. 

Rhodes is a peninsular suburb, sandwiched between Homebush Bay to the west and Bray’s Bay to the east. The current plan is to locate the wharf at Mill Park on the northern tip. This is a fair hike from the Rhodes train station (840 metres) and 1.2 km from the entry to the retail centre, Rhodes Waterside.

So why not build the wharf at Bray’s Bay, or on the Homebush Bay side of the peninsular? There could be good connectivity with the train and better access to the commercial area. Unfortunately, neither of these sites are realistic because the water is too shallow. Dredging is not an option because of the cost and toxic waste still remaining from the area’s industrial past.
Even if it was possible to locate a wharf closer to Rhodes station, the need for vessels to divert into the maritime equivalent of a cul de sac would add significantly to transit times for passengers travelling from Sydney Olympic Park, Rydalmere or Parramatta.  
This means a new wharf must be located in the main channel of the Parramatta River.
Okay, why not go with the RMS plan then and position the wharf at Mill Park? The resident population of this Travel Zone will be nearly 6,000 by 2021.  Currently 34% of the working population work in the Sydney CBD, so the commuter peak demand case seems convincing.
Regrettably, there are two significant problems with Mill Park:
  • Mill Park is almost directly opposite the existing Meadowbank wharf. Meadowbank is on the north side of the river, just east of the railway bridge.  Mill Park is just west of the bridge on the south side. The line of approach for vessels between the two points will be very awkward, with consequent safety issues. There will again be the problem of a much extended transit time for passengers up river.
  • Even at Mill Park the river is shallow, so a long ramp is required to position the wharf pontoon on a navigable channel. It could be nearly a third of the width of the river at this point. This will adversely affect rowers and other users of the southern side of the river, who will find the pontoon and its ramp a difficult barrier to navigate around.
The only way Rhodes will become a workable new terminal is if Meadowbank Wharf is relocated further east at Anderson Park to provide a straight line of approach for vessels traversing to and from Mill Park. The Travel Zone surrounding Anderson Park has a rapidly growing population (forecast to reach 5,700 by 2041 or nearly three times the population residing near the current Meadowbank wharf) and access to other public transport is poor.
But this of course doesn’t solve the navigation problems for rowers.
Perhaps there are good reasons why we haven’t had a public ferry wharf at Rhodes before now. It seems those reasons are still valid today. They mean the Sydney Ferry network will probably be better off if Rhodes remains wharfless and the interests of passengers travelling from Sydney Olympic Park and other locations up river are better protected.

Friday, 17 April 2015

The Public City: Essays in honour of Paul Mees

A regular theme of this blog is the need for urban ferry planning to be approached from the perspective of transit planning theory. Mariners who take on the task of network planning without a proper understanding of public transport network theory do themselves a great disservice.
(Equally, public transport planners who tinker with waterway networks, without first developing a deep understanding of the peculiar constraints of maritime environments, do so at great peril).

An excellent recent contribution to public transport policy is "The Public City: Essays in Honour of Paul Mees", edited  by Brendan Gleeson and Beau Beza and published by Melbourne University Press. The essay by Tim Petersen, Public transport beyond the fringe,  provides a beautifully clear explanation of how low density populations can be effectively served by public transport.

The essay has relevance to urban transit ferry systems where demand levels may not justify high frequency services.

Low frequency services are normally equated with low quality, but Peterson shows that quality, and high usage, is still possible with 30 or 60 minute headways  

Petersen uses the small town of Trullikon (population 600) in the Canton of Zurich as an example of how public transport can achieve a high mode share without high population density.

Trullikon is not on a railway line, but it has a bus service which connects with the train and operates at 30 minute intervals from 6 am to 8 pm, Monday to Friday and hourly between 8 pm and midnight. A modified span of service operates on week-ends. 

Despite its low density and small population, 19% of journeys to work from Trullikon are by public transport. No city in Australia, apart from Sydney, achieves this level of public transport use for the journey to work.

According to Petersen, Switzerland's pulse timetabling and high punctuality are critical ingredients to success.

He states further:

"Overarching bodies like Zurich's ZVV (the co-ordinating government transport agency) or Graub√ľnden's AEV are essential for the planning and governance of a Swiss-style network. Standardised system headways and operating hours are basic requirements of an effective pulse system, and there will inevitably be some lines that have weaker patronage levels and must be subsidised by stronger services. A multi-modal fare system that allows transfers without penalties is needed and a large pool of long-term travel pass holders is also an advantage".

We have in Sydney the co-ordinating agency (Transport for NSW), but unfortunately pulse timetabling and the right fare structure do not appear to be on the agenda.      

Thursday, 26 March 2015

A better approach to public transport commitments

In State election campaigns, we have come to expect political parties to make commitments to individual transport projects - a new rail line, bus route or ferry wharf.

But the quantity of projects, or their dollar value, are not synonymous with community benefit. 

A better approach would be to articulate principles and present a well thought out long term strategy.

New infrastructure is needed, but what are the principles that guide the selection and specification of individual projects? Without those principles, NSW will not get value for money, and is unlikely to achieve a discernible mode shift from car to public transport.

Here is a list of four things that need to be included in a public transport strategy for Sydney:
  1. A long term commitment to building a multi-destinational network. Only a small percentage of travel in Sydney is the trip from home to work - and a small fraction of these are trips to Sydney CBD. A substantial increase in public transport travel (and a drop in car trips) will only happen when PT can be used to travel to wherever you need to go, at a time that suits you. This is not as unrealistic or costly as might be assumed, but it does require intelligent network planning and integration. And it does mean Sydney PT users must get used to more journeys which include a transfer.
  2. Speed, frequency and simplicity are key elements of a successful network plan, plus measures to increase reliability. Practical strategies include fewer, straighter routes, greater distance between stops and more bus priority lanes.     
  3. Priorities for infrastructure projects will be determined by the network plan. Developments which have the biggest impact on achieving the long term network plan should proceed first.
  4. A modified fare structure to remove disincentives to public transport travel. This means removing penalties for transferring between modes, adopting the same fares for all modes and offering heavily discounted monthly, quarterly and annual travel passes. We don't want people to ration their use of public transport, as happens in the current pay as you go system. We want them to treat it as though it is free!   

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Thoughts on expanded NYC ferry services

The history of ferries in New York City and Sydney have plenty in common.

Both cities relied heavily on ferries for urban transit in the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century, before bridge building, metropolitan rail systems and private motor vehicles shrunk the market.

A double ended screw propelled ferry, the Wallaby, first operated in Sydney in 1879, designed by innovative colonial naval architect Norman Selfe. Double ended screw ferries started in New York nine years later with the launch of the Bergen in 1888 by the Hoboken Ferry Company. 

Both cities embraced this style of vessel because of their suitability for short haul transport. As double enders, they saved lost time on reversing manoeuvres and screw propulsion was more efficient than the traditional paddlewheel.

Sydney naval architect Walter Reeks, who perfected the double ended screw ferry in the Lady Class boats from 1891, commented on the "wonderful similarity" between the solutions independently developed by the New York and Sydney ferry operators.

Launch of Walter Reeks designed doubled ended screw ferry the Lady Mary at Lavender Bay in 1891. Source: Australian National Maritime Museum (William Hall photo collection)   
While New York's ferry operations declined more rapidly than Sydney's, a rejuvenation is happening in both cities in the twenty-first century.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in February an expansion of the NYC ferry network from 2017 to reach all five boroughs. This will complement the existing East River Ferry which started in 2011.      

Source: www.gothamist.com

It has to be said that ferry ridership around New York is not huge. The free Staten Island ferry carries 22 million passengers each year, but the NY Waterway ferry ridership was a more modest 8.5 million in 2014. That compares with 1.7 billion passenger journeys on the New York subway.

Where geography dictates that water transport offers a more convenient alternative to other modes, it sometimes surprises that ferry ridership is not higher. This can lead to some scepticism about service expansion, especially where taxpayer subsidies are involved.

Without pretending to be an expert on New York City transit, here are three suggestions (unsolicited) for making urban transit ferry expansion more successful:

  1. Think network and multiple destinations - don't focus on single origin-destination paths. Discussions about transit often assume that travel to work downtown is its only purpose. Wrong! Most journeys are for reasons other than work and most work destinations are not downtown. Think instead about how ferries integrate with the overall transit system, catering for the widest possible range of travel purposes and destinations.
  2. Make transfers easy. As a rule, passengers don't enjoy transfers, but if you work at making them as convenient as possible, they can multiply the number of possible origin-destination pair connections. Convenience includes timeliness of the connections (ferry to ferry and with other modes), no fare penalty for transfers and ease of movement between modes.  
  3. Legibility. If the ferry timetable is clockface, the connections always work, the span of service is sufficient and the ticketing is straightforward, you have the basics of a legible, easy to use service. But if passengers have to consult a timetable, check that the connection will work and pay separately for different parts of the trip, they will will probably drive their car instead.               


Thursday, 5 March 2015

About Speed

Almost everyone likes to travel quickly to where they need to go. Speed is a fundamental need of transit users, but it is a mistake to think speed in urban transit ferry systems is the same as vessel speed.

There are many reasons why fast ferries, with operating speeds of more than 20 knots, are not suitable for urban transit networks in narrow waters, covering relatively short distances. There is a substantial increase in wash at higher speeds and safety risks are also greater.

From a commercial perspective, fuel efficiency declines rapidly at higher speeds and minimum crewing levels, determined by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA), are also affected. Speed is one of the risks considered by AMSA in setting minimum crew levels, so labour costs can be much higher on fast ferries.

For all of these reasons, a focus on achieving speed purely by acquiring faster boats is not necessarily a good idea.

A far smarter strategy is to look at the other things that affect how quickly a passenger moves from origin to destination. Here are five ways to speeding up the end to end journey:

1. Gangways: single gangways only allow about 50 passengers to load per minute. Wider gangways and/or deployment of two gangways speeds up passenger loading and reduces variation in transit time.

2. Passenger ingress and egress: better designed terminals which separate disembarking passengers from boarding passengers and better design of vessels to allow free movement of boarding passengers to stops bottlenecks. 

3. Vessel manoeuvrability: incorporate steerable propulsion and manoeuvring systems in new vessels to speed up vessel berthing. 

4. Align pontoons with vessel line of approach: it might seem obvious, but it is a common error to construct new terminals where vessels must make slow complicated manoeuvres to berth or, even worse, reverse on departure. Where ever possible, pontoons used for intermediate wharves should minimise a vessel's deviation from its path.

5. Integrated regular interval timetables: timetables which ensure timed connections at interchange nodes minimise the wait for passengers who need to include a transfer in their journey. The periodicity of a regular interval timetable can also eliminate berthing conflicts in the timetable.             

Thursday, 26 February 2015

A well designed transit network is a safe network

Sydney Ferries has an excellent safety record. In the last eight years, with over 110 million passenger journeys, there have been no fatalities related to Sydney Ferry operations.

It would be wrong, though, to be complacent. Congestion on Sydney Harbour and the risks posed by passenger crowding on poorly designed wharves mean that a tragedy may not be far away.

An often neglected cause of safety risk is poor network design and timetabling. Timetables which are not periodic - where there is inconsistency in stopping patterns or departure times through the day - make it difficult for crews to develop safe muscle memory. As a vessel leaves Circular Quay for Mosman, for example, the movements of other vessels around them may be different depending on the time of day, so potential risks may not always be anticipated.

On its return to Circular Quay, the Mosman ferry may berth at Wharf 4 (east or west) or maybe somewhere else if the crew are about to take a crib break. This inconsistency simply adds to complexity at our main ferry hub.      

A ferry system is not a closed system. Other vessels using Sydney Harbour are impacted by ferry operations and they also are put at greater risk by the lack of a regular pattern in ferry movements.

A recently introduced "solution" to the problem at Circular Quay is a decision by Roads and Maritime Services (RMS) to fine ferry masters $500 for breaches of the code of conduct for navigation in Sydney Cove. A breach may include proceeding south of the knuckle at the northern edge of the Passenger Terminal before a berth has become available at Circular Quay. The problem with this solution is that, in some instances, the timetable does not schedule a sufficient buffer between departing and arriving vessels. This means passengers are inconvenienced by being forced to sit in motionless vessels at the Sydney Cove waiting line.

A more sensible approach would be to implement integrated regular interval timetables. In my proposal:
  • all western lines, including Cockatoo Island/Woolwich, will hub at Barangaroo to free up berths at Circular Quay.
  • all ferries on eastern lines, plus the Darling Harbour line, arrive at Circular Quay between 2-7 minutes before the hour and half hour; all depart Circular Quay 2-7 minutes after the hour and half hour.     
This means there is a minimum separation of four minutes between arriving and departing vessels from the Quay.

It also creates two 15 minute windows every hour when there are no ferry movements at Circular Quay, enabling other vessels, including cruise ships, to operate without interfering (or being interfered by) ferry movements.

This 30 minute periodic timetable would operate all day, but could be supplemented in peak periods on some lines if justified by demand (eg an extra Rose Bay service could run to create 15 minute headways in the peaks only) without disturbances to the underlying structure.

In a timetable designed this way, vessel movements become very predictable. What happens in one period also happens in all periods. The mitigation of a systemic risk in one period will also mitigate that risk in all periods.

Not only that, RMS would not have to fine ferry masters $500 for observing the timetable.      




Friday, 6 February 2015

The upgraded Cremorne Point wharf reviewed

I haven't always been a massive fan of the Roads and Maritime Services' wharf upgrade program.

The first upgrade was Milsons Point in December 2010. As new transport infrastructure goes, this wharf was a great disappointment. The pontoon is tiny, passenger ramps are confusing and it lacks the vital ingredient of a ferry terminal at this particular location - a second berthing face so two ferries can load passengers at the same time.

These shortcomings did not stop the Milsons Point wharf winning an architecture prize. The architect's description suggests functional considerations were not front of mind:

"The design responds to the varied and sinuous nature of the harbour's edge and its remnant forests by developing forms, material and colour selections that provide a sophisticated and complimentary group of elements."

Whatever happened to form follows function?

But RMS should not cop all the blame. The upgrade program would have been strengthened by earlier, more detailed planning for the network and fleet replacement. Sydney would then have wharf infrastructure that properly matched the fleet and network.

But let's turn now to the immediate.

The upgraded Cremorne Point wharf reopened yesterday. 
It is certainly impressive. And that's not just because of the crystal clear waters of Sydney Harbour lapping on the pontoon, the dappled shade cast by the fig trees on the shore or the views of the Opera House.

While it has the same look and feel of all the wharves in the upgrade program, it is the subtle changes which make a difference. RMS, and probably those who were consulted in the design process, have obviously learnt from earlier mistakes.

For a start, the pontoon is a generous size with the seating area located at the eastern end. As the seats are off to one side, they do not interfere with passenger ingress and egress as they do at Rose Bay, Neutral Bay and Thames Street Balmain. 

Fenders are widely spaced and the deckhands seem to have little difficulty tying lines or planking the gangway. The pontoon sits a little high in the water for a First Fleeter, but this can't be helped because of the unfortunate variation in freeboard in the Sydney Ferry fleet. 

I haven't seen the Lady Herron berth at the new wharf yet so don't know whether the hydraulic gangways on this vessel pose any problems.

The pontoon should be big and stable enough to withstand the gales that Cremorne Point is famous for.

The one nagging concern is whether the pontoon should be just that little longer to accommodate dual berthing at a future point in time. It works fine now with a five minute separation in departures for inbound and outbound vessels, but if we are to have a big pontoon, why not make it that little bit longer so two First Fleeters can berth bow on bow? It might come in handy with future timetable changes.  

But this is nit picking. Well done Roads and Maritime Services!

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Connecting Buses and Ferries

Achieving reliable bus and ferry connections can be a challenge, but it pays off handsomely when they work well.

There are examples in the Sydney Ferry network of both good and bad connections.

Cremorne Point on the Mosman line generally works well. The off peak frequency of both the ferry and connecting 225 bus line is 30 minutes. The 225 bus terminates at  Cremorne Point with a 13 minute layover. It arrives five minutes before the inbound ferry to Circular Quay departs at :05 and :35 past the hour. It leaves three minutes after the outbound ferry is due to arrive from Circular Quay at :10 and :40 past the hour. This allows one bus to connect with both the inbound and outbound ferry.  

Because the 225 bus line is generally reliable, with just a short section of its route on a congested main road, the bus is well patronised with transfers from the ferry.

It is also a highly legible transfer, because every bus you catch in the direction of the wharf connects with the ferry. And every ferry arriving at Cremorne Point connects with the bus. 

Simplicity and reliability make effective connections.

A connection point that does not work well is Balmain East. On first blush, you might expect it would. On week-days, the ferry operates at 30 minute intervals all day. The ferry outbound from Circular Quay departs Balmain East just two minutes before the inbound ferry. This means one bus should be able to can connect with both ferries.

But the connections are neither reliable nor legible.

To appreciate the problem, some understanding is needed of the Balmain peninsula. By Sydney standards, it is densely populated with two main transport corridors:
  • Darling Street, which runs from the ferry wharf at the eastern end to Victoria Road at the western end.
  • A second corridor runs from Birchgrove in the northern corner to the intersection of Robert Street and Victoria Road in the south.
The two corridors cross at the Balmain shops, adjacent to the Post Office.

Four main bus lines operate on these corridors (there are actually more but I won't complicate the story more than I have to), all at 20 minute intervals on week-days off-peak:
  • 445 bus runs the length of Darling Street from Balmain East, continues across Victoria Road and terminates eventually at Campsie in Sydney's south west.
  • 442 bus also starts at the ferry wharf, but turns south at the Post Office towards Mullens Street before crossing the ANZAC Bridge and terminating in the Sydney CBD.
  • 441 bus starts at Birchgrove and runs south, also following Mullens Street down to the ANZAC Bridge and terminates in the CBD.  
  • 433 bus starts part way along Darling Street at Gladstone Park. It follows Darling Street to Victoria Road, where it turns south, then west along the A4 before turning off to Glebe and finally the CBD.
In addition to these four lines, numerous buses operate at high frequency on Victoria Road.

The line structure is complex. It's complex because it suffers from what could be described as the "Australian disease" - an habitual preference for avoiding transfers in the bus network, especially for CBD commuters.
Despite the number of buses operating, the connections to the ferry do not work well:
  • all the bus lines can be subject to traffic delays, so reliability is poor. 
  • a 20 minute bus interval does not mesh well with a 30 minute ferry interval. If a transferring ferry passenger wants to travel to Rozelle in the western end of the peninsula, only every second service connects with the appropriate bus (445).
There is a simple way to fix this problem, without increasing capacity. There should only be two bus lines on the Balmain peninsula - the 441 and 445 - but operating at a minimum of 10 minute intervals all day. That's twice the current off peak frequency.

Passengers on the 445 line east of Balmain shops who need to go to the CBD can transfer to the 441 bus where the lines intersect adjacent to Balmain Post Office. Those who need to go to Glebe can take the 445 and transfer at Lilyfield for a Glebe bus.

As both lines have minimum headways of 10 minutes (and could be five minutes in the peaks), waiting time at the transfer point at Balmain shops is short.

And passengers who disembark from the ferry have only a short wait for the connecting bus, with consistent access to anywhere on the Balmain peninsula.
The good news is that fixing the ferry/ bus connections can also lead to a high frequency/ more legible timetable for all bus users, not just those transferring from a ferry.