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Sunday, 10 December 2017

So much data, so little information

There is some information about public transport networks which most us would expect to be freely available. Patronage[1], which is the number of passenger journeys on a network over a period of time, usually monthly and annually, is an example of this type of information.

It’s not just the absolute number that’s important, but also the trend over time. What is the growth in patronage over 10 years? Or is it declining? How does growth on one mode compare with others? Does the growth vary between lines? Is the growth in peak periods or off peak?

You might assume that patronage in New South Wales is nothing more than a count of Opal card tap ons or ticket sales, but this was never the case and it’s not now. As well as Opal tap ons, patronage includes an estimate of non-ticketed journeys, untapped school student travel and integrated ticketing special event travel.

Sydney Ferries’ patronage figures used to be made available by a part of Transport for NSW known as the Bureau of Transport Statistics or BTS. BTS published a lot of information on its website about Sydney Ferries, including monthly patronage by service area (Manly, Inner Harbour and Parramatta River) going back six or seven years. It also released data from a seven day census taken twice a year of passenger boardings and disembarkations by wharf, service and time of day. It even provided the name of the vessel and its capacity, so if you knew what you were doing, you could estimate capacity utilisation by service.

Summaries of the ferry census were produced by the BTS, showing trends in passenger loadings by time of day, individual routes and wharves.

I liked dealing with the BTS. I was never in doubt that they were on the side of transparency, high standards and the pursuit of knowledge. 

The BTS was restructured in 2016 into Transport Performance and Analytics (TPA). The old was swept away with promises that even better information would be released, thanks to the higher quality Opal data now available. And a new website, Open Data, was created to make it easier for advanced users to download Opal and a range of information from other “big data” sources.

So where does that leave us with ferry patronage? There is a data visualisation on the TPA website called “Historical Patronage Counts”, which shows NSW patronage by mode and financial year, back to 2010-11. The 2016-17 count for ferries is 16.009 million, up from 15.410 million in the previous year. The explanatory notes inform that ferry patronage includes Opal journeys, magnetic stripe ticket validations (July 2016 only) and an estimate of non ticketed journeys. No problems there, except that the number for 2016-17 includes Newcastle ferry patronage. This amounts to about 470,000, give or take 50,000, so Sydney Ferries patronage last year was actually somewhere between 15.5 and 15.6 million, or only a little more than 2015-16.

What the heck?

After a series of polite email exchanges with someone at TPA, who describes him or herself only as “TPA Inbox Manager”, I’ve reached the conclusion that the taxpayers of New South Wales will never find out exactly what Sydney Ferries patronage was in 2016-17. It will only be published at the “top line level” - a total for Sydney Ferries and Newcastle Ferries and will remain forever incompatible with the counts for all previous years. Not only don’t we know what the patronage was precisely, but the historical patronage chart compares apples with pears. Or apples with apples plus grapes.

It could be argued that this is all just pedantry on my part. Who cares if Sydney Ferries’ patronage is 15.5 million or 15.6 million, or if Newcastle ferry numbers are lumped in from July 2016. Near enough is good enough. And anyway, TPA does provide monthly counts of Opal trips by line and fare category, which the BTS did not publish.

Even if I am a pedant, there are more serious concerns about information transparency. I naively welcomed the promise of granular level opal trip information. Rather than rely on a seven day census count, twice a year, we could now expect more accurate Opal tap data over 365 days of the year, with origin-destination pairs.

Well, it has yet to happen. The little snippets made available on the Open Data site is subject to strict privacy controls. The counts of tap ons and offs for individual wharves in 15 minute “bins” are only reported if the value is 18 or more. In practice, the vast majority of wharves have very few 15 minute bins which qualify, so the data is of little analytical value. And the latest counts available are from January 2017, almost a year ago.

I asked a planner at Transport for NSW last year if he was worried about the 20% decline in ferry commuter patronage in the AM peaks (that information used to be available from the BTS published ferry census data). “No,” he replied,“the latest Opal data shows a big turnaround. But it’s information that only TfNSW has access to”.

The news that commuter ferry patronage is growing again was of course very reassuring, although it would be good if the information was published. Then everyone can access detailed patronage data to see for themselves how demand for Sydney Ferries’ services is trending.

I miss the BTS.

[1] Americans call it ridership, which is probably a better word, but I’m Australian so I’ll stick with patronage


  1. There has been growth in the ferries but it's very anemic, only a 1.4% increase October 2016 to October 2017.

    You can find this information on BTS' new home, TfNSW Transport Performance and Analytics. You may be particularly interested in this page, have a play around with it if you need to.


  2. I'm familiar with the page. My point is that the TPA and Open Data sites replaced a lot of valuable information which used to be published by the BTS and can no longer be accessed. In doing this, there has been a loss of transparency. Part of this loss is due to privacy restrictions which I consider excessive.

    This doesn't just affect Sydney Ferries. I believe the rail compendium is no longer produced and the journey to work visualisations may not be updated with the 2016 census data.

    With regard to your point about the October ferry opal trips, month on month comparisons for ferries should be treated with caution because of the very significant impact weather and special events have on ferry patronage. As Sundays are easily the busiest days on ferries, months with five Sundays will generally have higher patronage than four Sunday months.