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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. 

Thursday, 22 January 2015

A Swiss Perspective on Regular Interval Timetables

Source: Tzieropoulos, Emery and Buri (2010) Regular-interval timetables: theoretical foundations and policy implications
If anyone wants to read a good overview of the Swiss approach to timetabling, a paper presented at the World Conference on Transport Research in 2010 "Regular-interval timetables: theoretical foundations and policy implications" is a good place to start.
Co-authored by Panos Tzieropoulos, Daniel Emery and Jean-Daniel Buri, it describes what a regular interval timetable is and how passengers benefit, operations are simplified and safety is improved.

The paper also highlights some important differences between traditional approaches to transport planning and the Swiss way:
  • rather than attempting to tailor transport supply to demand at an individual service level, the Swiss approach is to offer a consistent and balanced supply across the day. This conveys a message to passengers that "public transport is there and available at any time, much like the private car".
  • Swiss transport planning starts with service planning, from which infrastructure and rolling stock (or vehicle/ vessel) needs are determined.
The level of detail in service planning would surprise an Australian audience. Detailed timetables are developed 20 years in advance. Service planning takes place first because the timetable is viewed as being centrally important to the customer. And as there is little flexibility around the rules for creating regular interval timetables, it is easier to make the infrastructure fit the timetable than the other way round.   

Thursday, 15 January 2015

The Inexact Science of Fair Fare Determinations

Sydney's public transport has long resisted world trends by maintaining a fare structure which differentiates between modes.

Ferry travellers, for example, pay more per kilometre travelled than either bus or train passengers. In some cases the differences are staggering. The 1.2 km ferry ride from Balmain East to Darling Harbour attracts a full adult Opal fare of $5.74. As a comparison, the Opal adult off peak train fare from Newcastle (Hamilton) to Sydney (Central), a distance of 165 km, is $5.81. 

Even on peak services, the fare per km travelled to Newcastle by train is about one hundredth of the fare paid by Balmain East ferry commuters.      

The introduction of the Opal card has extended the modal differentiation:
  • Opal users who transfer between services on the same mode do not pay extra, but if the transfer is made between modes, a separate fare is charged.
  • since August 2014, "go anywhere" monthly, quarterly and annual travel passes are no longer available.
  • the remaining weekly MyMulti ticket zone rules are applied differently across modes. Someone travelling from Manly to Sydney can use the cheaper MyMulti 1 ticket on a bus but must use a MyMulti 3 if taking the ferry.    
A common justification for fare "modism" is that it is fairer. Why should bus travellers, for example, pay the same fare as passengers on a more costly ferry trip?

So what is the difference in operating cost per passenger journey of ferries, trains and buses? According to the NSW Auditor General, rail services were the most expensive at $13.28 in 2014, followed by ferries ($9.27) and buses, which were the cheapest ($7.46).

But a more meaningful way of looking at this is to compare cost per passenger km. The average distance travelled varies between modes, so this tells a slightly different story.

(1) Source: NSW Auditor General's Report Financial Audit Volume 7 2014 (p.17)
(2) Train and bus average distance sourced from BTS Household Travel Survey 2012-13. Ferry average distance estimated from data supplied by BTS from November 2013 Ferry Census.
(3) The Auditor General's Report does not provide details of what costs are included in its analysis. The assumption made here is that the comparisons are like with like.
As the average train journey is more than twice the length of average bus trips, train operating costs are more favourable, 31 cents per km less than buses.

Average ferry trips are also longer than the bus average, which means buses are just eight cents cheaper to run per passenger km than ferries.

There are also modal differences in the directness of journeys. Trains offer the most direct point to point journeys, but ferries are also far more direct than buses. The 1.2 km ferry ride from Balmain East to Darling Harbour, for example, compares favourably with the alternative, tortuous 6.5 km bus journey. 

No comprehensive data is available to compare bus and ferry journey distances as the crow flies, but it is not unreasonable to conclude that, if this was done, the operating cost of ferries per passenger km is actually less than buses if journey distance is measured directly, point to point.

The agency responsible for reviewing transport fares in NSW is the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART). In making its fare determinations, IPART acknowledges that fare subsidies can be justified because public transport has external benefits enjoyed by non users. These include reduced road congestion and less air pollution. From time to time, IPART attempts to measure these external benefits by mode, which later feed into its fare determinations.

To put the best possible spin on this, a careful reading of IPART reports reveals that measurement of external benefits must be an inexact science, if it is a science at all.

In August 2014, IPART published an issues paper "Estimating the External Benefits of Public Transport Used in Setting Maximum Fares for Rail, Bus and Ferry Services". Based on IPART's current model, the paper estimates the external benefits of ferries are tiny compared to other modes:

Source: IPART Issues Paper Estimating the External Benefits of Public Transport (table 3.1), August 2014
The limited external benefits of ferries were due to a combination of reasons, including higher air pollution and IPART's belief that passengers have the option in most cases of using a lower cost bus service as an alternative to ferry travel.  

Later in 2014, IPART released another report, revising its methodology and assumptions about what to include as external benefits.  One change was to "focus on estimating the external benefits associated with an extra passenger using an existing service". The previous method assumed services (and therefore costs) increase in proportion to patronage growth.

Another change was to widen the external benefits measured, including reduced road accidents and improved health outcomes.

The revised method made surprising changes to the estimate of external benefits by mode:

Source: IPART Report: Review of External Benefits of Public Transport, Table 1.1 p.8 (December 2014)
The new report provides the estimates as a range of possible values. In the case of ferries the range is very large: between one and 21 cents per passenger journey. As students of statistics will know, when there is a range of possible values like this, the mean is not more likely to be the true value than any other value in the range. So the external benefit per passenger km for ferries, according to IPART, could be one cent or 21 cents, or anywhere in between.

These figures suggest that the external benefits of ferries could be twice as high as buses and trains or they could be as little as one twentieth. IPART is not sure.

To further complicate matters, the range of possible external benefits used by IPART in its models, continue to be very limited. Suggestions by stakeholders for including other things, such as improved mobility and social inclusion, are dismissed in the report, partly because they are too difficult to measure.

This points to ontological flaws in IPART's analysis, a weakness not uncommon in other economic studies. Something that cannot be measured is no less real than something else that can. 

Read together, the Auditor General's Report and the latest IPART report point to the following conclusions about ferry fares:
  • the operating cost per passenger km of buses and ferries are similar. Ferry costs would be less than bus costs if journey distances were measured direct, point to point.
  • the measurement of external benefits of public transport travel is highly subjective and the estimated ranges provided by IPART are so wide that it is not possible to determine whether ferries offer a higher or lower benefit than buses or trains.
The solution lies in learning from European countries where public transport fares do not distinguish between modes. These countries build highly legible, integrated public transport systems with heavily discounted periodical multi modal tickets. This leads to high rates of public transport use, highly mobile and liveable city environments and high cost recovery, in most cases more than double the rate achieved in NSW.  

A fresh approach to fare structures in Sydney is long overdue.