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Wednesday, 20 April 2016

How would Steve Wozniak design an urban transit ferry network?

I had the good fortune to hear Steve Wozniak speak at this week's NSW Future Transport Summit.

He didn't say much about public transport. When asked for insights on its future, he candidly replied that he didn't actually know much about the subject. He liked the wind blowing through his hair on the Manly Ferry. And he remembered queuing for buses when he was a college student. 

But most of us know Steve's philosophy on technology, which is to make it simple and human. I may be presumptuous, but I think he would agree that a ferry network should be simple and human too.

But what does a simple and human ferry network look like? It can be reduced to three things - legibility, speed and reliability. These can be applied to any mode of transit, but with awareness of what is peculiar to water transport.


If a customer, even an infrequent user, can easily create a mental picture of what the network looks like, and how to navigate through it, then it probably is a good one. 

If a customer looks at a network map and thinks they can see a pathway to get to where they want to go, then don't disappoint them. Ideally this means every line sticks to the same stopping pattern all day. If the customer's origin point is a stop on the "red line", say, and their destination is also a stop on the "red line", then they will expect the ferry to stop to pick them up and stop again at where they need to get off. 

This sounds so obvious, but you may be surprised how often this doesn't happen.  

If a route has an an express or limited stop service, as well as an all stop service, then delineate them to the customer by describing them as different lines.

Connections should also be intuitive. Regardless of frequency, if two lines intersect at one terminal, or many lines meet at a hub, it is a reasonable expectation of the customer that they can transfer with only a short wait - no more than about 10 minutes. 

Departure times are clockface, regular intervals. If there are two sailings each hour, then they are exactly 30 minutes apart and the departure times are the same in every hour. If more services are needed in the peaks, these supplement the off peak timetable - they don't disturb the underlying pattern. The schedule below shows what this might look like:

Note that no attempt has been made to round up the sailing time to a multiple of five minutes, as many timetables do. Let the minute fall where it falls.

What's good about Happy Bay is you don't have to look at a timetable or check an app. A ferry always departs at 17 and 47 minutes past the hour in the direction of Downtown between 0647 and 2047, and at 47 past the hour after then. You also know that when you reach a hub, you can transfer to another ferry or another mode with a wait of just 5-10 minutes.

That's what legibility looks like.


Speed is not just about the speed of the vessel across open water. It is everything that affects how long the customer takes to get to where they need to go. 

A fast ferry route is as close as possible to a straight line. It is best if a bay terminal is at the end of a route, not an intermediate stop, because bays can be like a cul de sac for a bus - an annoying diversion for passengers who boarded earlier. Mosman and Neutral Bay routes in the Sydney Ferry network are perfect examples of this principle. In each case the terminus is at the top of a bay and intermediate stops are at points along the way, keeping the journey direct.

And there is a myriad of other issues affecting speed which need to be managed. Are berthing conflicts built into the timetable, forcing vessels to be held off? Does the location of the wharf or the angle of the berthing face give the ferry skipper an efficient line of approach? Does the line of approach generate too much wash, so it takes a long time for the vessel to be secured? Are wharves and vessels designed for fast passenger exchange? How far does a transferring passenger need to walk to reach their connecting ferry/bus/train/tram? How long do they have to wait for their connection? 

I could go on. But getting them right speeds up the customer's journey and creates a more convenient experience.


Ferries are usually very reliable and punctual when they're not carrying many passengers. Many ferry networks lose punctuality when at capacity because the loading speed is too slow. 

Should you add more time in the schedule for the dwell in case of heavy loadings? 

No! Use engineering solutions to eliminate the slow loading problem, so the variation in loading time between a big crowd and a handful is minimised. 

The solutions are many and include physical barriers at heavy loading terminals to separate disembarking passengers from passengers waiting to board; using multiple wide gangways (or even better, none!); and clear thoroughfares on board the vessel so passengers can move quickly to their seats without impeding those coming behind them.

So there you have a simple and human ferry network - easy to use, takes you quickly to where you need to go and it is reliable.

But for the ferry planner, simple isn't the easy option. As Steve Jobs said, "Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple".

Friday, 15 April 2016

IPART needs more than time to improve its Opal fare report

The NSW Government has done us all a favour by giving the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal more time to complete its final report on Opal public transport fares.

Let’s face it, the draft report needs work.

To be fair to IPART, their objectives are generally sound. Among other things, the Tribunal says it wants to encourage greater use of public transport and increase cost recovery.

Sydney currently scores poorly against both these objectives.  The draft report estimates that just 21% of the costs of public transport in NSW will be recovered from fares in 2015-16. That means the contribution by taxpayers to public transport this year is nearly $4.4 billion. As very little of the Government’s expenditure on public transport is made outside Sydney, the level of cost recovery in the metropolitan area is not much higher – about 22%.

The report omits the other side of the equation, which is how much we use public transport. Bureau of Transport Statistics data show that only 12% of all journeys made in Sydney are by public transport and 69% are by car. By international standards, we are low users of public transport. Over the entire Canton of Zurich, Switzerland, including rural areas, 32% of journeys are made by public transport, nearly three times the rate in Sydney. And the high use of trains, trams and buses in Zurich comes at a lower cost to taxpayers, with 65% of public transport costs recovered from fares.

There are some who dismiss these comparisons by saying that sprawling Sydney cannot be compared with Europe where city population density is much higher. They may be surprised to learn that Sydney’s population density (not including the Illawarra, Hunter, Central Coast or the Blue Mountains) is not much different from the Canton of Zurich. So if low density is used as an excuse for poor public transport, then it’s a pretty feeble one.

If we accept that Sydney’s public transport does not perform well in either cost recovery from fares or patronage, then what can be done about it? Does the draft IPART report offer a solution?

Unfortunately, IPART’s approach was to do what mainstream economists do when unencumbered with expertise in public transport operations. They reached into their kitbag of economic theories and selected the one that seemed most relevant to the problem at hand. In this case it was the theory of socially optimal consumption. As applied to public transport, this means setting fares which are neither too high (or we will use private cars too much and cause congestion, high emissions and road accidents) nor too low (or we will underutilise road capacity and unnecessarily increase the burden on taxpayers).

Underpinning all of this is the notion that public transport is a scarce resource, which needs to be rationed efficiently using the price mechanism. Setting fares appropriately for each mode, says IPART, will lead to a more efficient use of public transport because users will make rational choices about which mode to select based on price.

Only econometricians would understand how IPART arrived at these “socially optimal” fare levels and even they would find the underpinning assumptions absent or dubious. It is obvious to users of public transport, whether they are economists or not, that IPART’s implicit assumption that we have choices about which mode to use is unrealistic. For the vast majority of Sydneysiders, we only have one mode available and it’s probably a bus. 

Most concerning is IPART’s belief that frequent users of public transport don’t pay enough in fares compared to infrequent users. Perhaps they think infrequent users are careful rationers. The Tribunal recommends increasing in the weekly cap to $75 in July 2018, a 25% jump on the current rate. By comparison, the average single journey will rise by just 8%.

More than this, the wastrels who travel frequently will need to deal with a complicated credit scheme in order to redeem fares paid in excess of the weekly cap.

If we are serious about increasing the mode share of public transport in Sydney, frequent users should not be punished. Instead of rationing public transport, the fare structure should encourage us to travel as much as possible by public transport. This is done in continental Europe by offering heavily discounted zone based periodical tickets (monthly, quarterly and annual travel passes) and having a simple fare structure which does not differentiate between modes. Even Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth manage to do this.

But fare structures alone do not increase patronage or efficiency.  High quality network design along the lines of the Swiss taktfahrplan model shows that multi-destinational public transport is achievable at low cost to the taxpayer, in combination with a sensible fare structure. And a small dose of demand management for car use also helps.

IPART’s objectives for NSW public transport may be well intended, but arcane economic modelling won’t get us there.