Category: Transport


The Car Culture

The car culture is something I’ve been trying to get my head around ever since I took an interest in transport systems and planning. What I mean by the car culture is the almost immediate belief that the only way to get from A to B is to do so in a car, either by driving, getting a lift, or taking a taxi. I’m genuinely curious as to why so many of us have this belief, and what could be done to promote alternatives to driving.

As anybody who has read this blog probably knows, I’m a strong advocate for and believer in a good public transport system. I believe that developing such a system has the capacity to remove the need to use a car for many trips, and thus can ease road traffic congestion levels. However, it’s just interesting to note people’s attitudes to public transport, and how much of an effect they have on their choice of transport mode.

Take for example this event just from this weekend (I’ll blur the details in parts). I attended (and thoroughly enjoyed) a Christmas party for the store at which I work. The store is located in the middle suburbs of south-eastern Melbourne, with most of its employees living in the general area or the suburbs slightly further out. This Christmas party was being held at the Melbourne Docklands, a fairly central location just west of the CBD, with good access to trains and trams not far away. Despite the fact that this party was guaranteed to become a boozy affair, and few people were likely to be able to drive after it, I was one of the only people who chose to take a train there, with everyone else either designating a driver (who then missed out on being able to drink) or taking a taxi (at the cost of a small fortune, especially for a trip from the suburbs to the city).

I paid $1.47 in total (a Zone 1 2-hour concession fare) to get where I needed to that night, and all it cost me was sharing a train with a few people and a short walk from the station to the venue. Yet many of the others who came were prepared to fork out $10 an hour for parking, or pay $1.62 per kilometre (bear in mind our store is located 20 kilometres from the CBD) to travel by taxi. The same scenario was repeated afterwards, with people opting to again pay for a taxi to continue their night out at St Kilda, when the 96 tram departs regularly from just up the road at Spencer Street, and drops you off right on Fitzroy Street in the heart of St Kilda.

I’m not having a go at my co-workers for choosing their respective transport modes, far from it. I’m just genuinely curious as to why the public transport option was not considered by more of them. I do admit to being a bit nerdy in this department and having a semi-encyclopaedic knowledge of Victorian public transport, but I still would have thought that many would be at least aware of its existence and its ability to get you where you need to go. And if they were not, then I would love to know what our leaders and planners can do to make people aware of these systems, and encourage them to use them.

I guess what I’m trying to address is this: we can build all the fantastic systems we want, but if people aren’t prepared to use them, then there’s little point. I’d just like to gain an understanding of why so many people have this engrained car culture, and what we can do to open their eyes to the alternatives.

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The Victorian Liberal Party launched their 2010 state election campaign last night in Melbourne, and although for the most part it was a policy-free zone (as the Libs have been criticised for being since Jeff Kennett left), Liberal leader Ted Baillieu did have some very significant announcements to make in regard to the area of transport, most specifically public transport in Melbourne and Victoria. For the purposes of convenience, I’ve listed some of the commitments the Liberals have made so far in this campaign:

  • Feasibility study into the Rowville railway line
  • Commitment to planning for a railway line to East Doncaster
  • New railway stations at Southland (a favourite campaign of the PTUA) and Grovedale, in this blogger’s old stomping ground of southern Geelong
  • Commitment to planning for a heavy rail line to Melbourne Airport via Broadmeadows
  • 40 new electric trains for Melbourne’s suburban system
  • $379 million to remove dangerous metropolitan level crossings (ooh, I like this one)
  • Creation of a Public Transport Development Authority to plan, co-ordinate and maintain transport services and infrastructure (which even the eternally pessimistic transport planner Paul Mees is described as being “optimistic” about)
  • Adding security officers to police every metropolitan railway station and major regional railway stations from 6PM to last train every night
  • An extra $100 million to rail maintenance
  • An aspiration to return direct rail links between the regional centres of Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo (wow, talk about a promise from left-field)

That’s a very significant list of promises, no matter which way you look at it from. It certainly makes you think that the Liberals have isolated public transport as a key issue in this state election, and are intent on campaigning strongly on it. I’ve thought for some time that Terry Mulder, the opposition transport spokesman, is a man with at least half a brain in that head of his, which is more than I’ve thought of Labor’s transport ministers in Peter Batchelor, Lynne Kosky and Martin Pakula.

However, this in no way means I’m about to become a blind Liberal Party fanboi. While these policies and promises look great on paper, there are some concerns I have about aspects of all of them. Firstly, the Liberals deciding to adopt a Greens-like government control-type policy in regards to a dedicated Public Transport authority strikes me as odd, given the Liberals pro-market, anti-intervention fundamental base. I think the policy is good, don’t get me wrong, but I expect the Liberals to be the last people to agree with the idea, let alone take it to an election as their policy.

The second, and most pressing of my concerns, is the sheer scope and number of improvements proposed. For a party whose leader has described Labor’s debt as enormous and in need of control and reduction, how does he propose to fund these significant and expensive additions to the transport system while keeping debt under control? I know the Liberals trade on their economic management record, but when Jeff Kennett took power of a state in massive debt in 1992, his solution to manage it was about as far removed from expanding the public transport system as possible. I don’t need to point out how difficult it would be for Ted Baillieu to be Jeff Kennett-like in terms of debt reduction, yet the complete opposite in terms of infrastructure improvements.

The reality is, if the Labor experience of 1999 is to be replayed (which is most likely), then most of these promises will not eventuate if Mr Baillieu becomes premier. In 1999, the Labor Party under Steve Bracks promised the following initiatives for transport in Victoria should the win the election (which they did)

  • Return rail to Mildura, Ararat, Leongatha and Bairnsdale – only two of the four lines are again operational, with the other two not looking like being reopened at all
  • Construct a rail link to Melbourne airport – never built
  • Extend the tram line to Knox SC – extended only as far as Vermont South
  • Feasibility study into the Rowville railway line – never completed, and Labor policy now opposes the construction of the line

So that’s just a few promises, and even most of them were broken. You could read into this that it was the Labor Party, not the Liberal Party, who broke these promises, but I’m not about to get involved in a Labor vs Liberal brawl about who’s more honest. They’re all politicians in my view, and all likely to renege on promises, or change their tune on policy once in office.

Having said that, if even some of these projects do occur, the state will be better for it. A good public transport system is pivotal to a vibrant and liveable city, and can really play a role in addressing road traffic congestion. Investments of this type made now stand to benefit the city for many years to come. Regardless of who wins the state election, it would be good to see these policies adopted and these improvements made to the transport system.

After my initial rant about the lack of sense of night-time timetabling of bus routes to match train services, I inadvertently stumbled upon yet another example of terrible planning today in my travels.

I took the route 703 “SmartBus” again with the intent to commute between Monash University in Clayton and Blackburn Railway Station, which provides services both to the city and to Belgrave and Lilydale. I caught the bus at 2:13 PM, it was on time and all was well with commute. It did its thing, driving up Blackburn Road, running just about perfectly to schedule.

It was one of those buses that took that rather annoying Forest Hill deviation, but considering there were passengers who both boarded and alighted there, I could see the merit in the bus doing so. That did not frustrate me.

What did was just an evidently stupid piece of timetabling that not only saw me miss the chance of catching any train from Blackburn in either direction. See, the bus was scheduled to, and did arrive at Blackburn station, at 2:51 PM. Now at Blackburn, the bus stop is positioned relatively close to the train platform – it arrives just outside the walkway that leads to the platform. A crude estimate would put it at about one minute to 90 seconds for a passenger to alight from the bus, walk up to the platform and validate their ticket.

However, the stupidity is that there are two trains, a city-bound train and a Belgrave-bound train that arrive at Blackburn one minute earlier. Yes, there are two trains that leave the station at 2:50 PM, exactly one minute before the bus that’s supposed to connect to them arrives.

As I alluded to in my previous post, the “SmartBus” service (I quote the term “SmartBus because I find little intelligence involved in the planning and coordination of the bus service itself, and refuse to label it “smart” myself) is supposed to be a service that provides high-frequency cross-town connections to key destinations such as, among other places, railway stations. But hey, don’t take my word for it. This is the description of the “SmartBus” service from Metlink, the government authority charged with coordinating and promoting Melbourne’s public transport system:

SmartBus is a premium bus service that has been designed to complement Melbourne’s radial train network, by providing ‘cross-town’ connections along major arterial roads to train stations, tram lines, schools, universities, hospitals, shopping centres and other activity centres.

So Metlink claims that this bus service is intended to provide a connecting bus service to railway stations, yet in this case completely fails to do so. As such, I and the other commuters on this bus, were forced to watch the train we wanted to be on leave as we arrived at the station, then wait the 15 minutes before the next train was due to come.

Now anybody with two brain cells to rub together could tell you that if the bus was timetabled to arrive even a few minutes earlier, I would have made that train, and everybody that takes that bus every weekday would then benefit from having a quality connecting bus service. Better still, make it arrive 5 minutes before, which means that if there’s a delay en route, we passengers still have a chance of making the train.

Additionally, as Blackburn Station is the end of the route, the bus could wait for a few more minutes there before forming the return service back to Middle Brighton, which would mean it could then be there to pick up the people who’d arrived at Blackburn on the train services at 2:50 PM, and take them to their destinations. It would mean the bus sat idle for a maximum of 8 or 9 minutes at Blackburn, yet could be doubly as useful to any commuters trying to use the service. This would mean a better service is provided, which would mean more people would be inclined to use that bus, knowing that it would match the train.

Unfortunately, that kind of common sense is absent from the vast majority of timetables created for our public transport system. Too many of these stupid timetable clashes occur between services that are designed to complement each other, making them if not impossible to use then certainly unattractive to the potential user.

So what’s the consequence? Well, it took me an hour and 15 minutes to get home from Monash today. In that time I could have driven from my home to Geelong, a city that is over 80 kilometres from my place. Yet my journey was a measly 17 kilometres by the route I took. With that kind of time difference, is it any wonder that over 75% of journeys in this city are made by car, causing the traffic congestion we all endure on a daily basis.

It really seems so simple to fix. I just wonder, if a 21-year-old student can see how easily fixed some of these problems are, why can’t those actually in charge of running the system do the same? It defies all logic.

“SmartBus” Route 703

Another rant about public transport, this time my criticism is aimed at one particular route. The so-called “SmartBus” route 703 that runs from Middle Brighton to Blackburn via Monash University. The basic concept of the SmartBus is to fill in the gaps between railway lines, providing frequent links between key destinations, especially along non-radial routes. Despite being a hyped-up service that is promoted as being so incredibly fantastic, it fails in many key components of what a bus route should actually try to achieve.

For instance, a good bus service will be timed to provide useful connections to other modes of transport, yet it seems that every interchange that could be utilised is seldom timed to do so. Take for instance my trips to and from work. To get from uni to work is easy, the 703 runs straight up Blackburn Road at 10-15 minute intervals during the day, dropping me off right out in front of my place of employment. That’s fine.

Getting home is a completely different story. Generally I finish work at 8PM, so I’m out the door a minute or two after the hour. Unfortunately, the closest bus is scheduled to leave at 7:54 PM, making it useless for me. So I have to wait for the next bus, which isn’t scheduled to leave work until 8:19 PM, giving me a lovely 15+ minute wait for the next bus.

The next bus arrives at 8:19 PM, if I’m lucky it’s caught up a few minutes en route and gets there a bit early. Though this benefit is quickly lost as, just a few minutes further along, the bus is forced to wait at the next timing point, at Syndal Station. Syndal is the second last station on the Glen Waverley line, and can get me home if I take a city bound train and catch a connecting tram a few stations on. However, the earlier city bound train left Syndal at 8:13 PM, so there’s no chance to catch that (despite having finished work 13 minutes before it leaves). The next city bound train is at 8:30, which only leaves a 7 or 8 minute wait between the bus arriving and the train leaving, which isn’t horrific, especially considering that to get from the bus stop to the station at Syndal takes a good 2 or 3 minutes at times.

However, more often than not, it’s easier (and slightly quicker) to continue further on and catch a more direct connection further north.

The next major interchange is at the Burwood Highway, where the route 75 tram runs. The city bound route 75 runs to Spencer Street via Camberwell Junction and Bridge Road in Richmond, so it services some key destinations, and could also get me relatively close to home. Unfortunately, due to the bus waiting at the Syndal Station timing point, it’s lost a few key minutes. The bus arrives at 8:28 PM, occasionally a minute or so earlier. However, the 75 tram leaves the Blackburn Road tram stop at 8:27 PM, and the next tram isn’t for another 20 minutes. So, with the bus stop being located about 200 metres away from the highway and the tram in its median strip, more often than not you watch powerlessly as the tram you want to be on runs past in the distance.

So, with that connection of no use to the bus traveller, the next option is to go through to Blackburn Station on the Belgrave and Lilydale lines. This option will get me home as well, so it’s not inconvenient to do it. Blackburn station is only a couple of kilometres further up Blackburn Road from the Burwood Highway, and there’s a city bound express train that leaves from Blackburn at 8:41 PM. Sounds perfect? Well, no, thanks to yet another piece of poor planning.

All seems to be going smoothly until when the bus approaches Canterbury Road it strangely turns right. This is confusing as Blackburn station is to the west of Blackburn Road, so the bus should have turned left. It’s because the bus makes a rather pointless detour to service the Forest Hill Chase Shopping Centre. I say pointless for a number of reasons: Forest Hill is a ghost town at 8:30 on a weeknight (most shops there aren’t even open then), and the bus adds an extra 5-10 minutes onto the journey by going that way as none of the traffic lights ever favour it, and to top things off there’s another illogical bloody timing point at Forest Hill. So that supposedly direct journey gets to wait until 8:38 PM before it’s allowed to leave Forest Hill, where nobody has boarded the bus, and nobody on the bus (if there was anyone) has got off. Most of the time the driver and passengers that way inclined have sufficient time to stop and have a smoke before needing to leave again.

So, that almost perfect express train is now out of reach for anyone on this bus. The bus leaves Forest Hill, gets held up at the traffic lights again, before creeping its way up Canterbury Road and then on to Blackburn station, arriving at 8:43 PM. Luckily the tease of seeing the express train depart isn’t there at this changeover, as it’s already gone before the bus arrives, but the knowledge that it was there is just as painful. Alas, all is not lost, for at 8:46 PM, another city bound train, this time though an all-stopper, leaves Blackburn. Finally, after all that mucking around on the bus, we’re on a connecting service and finally heading towards where we want to go.

Going that way, I normally arrive home just after 9 PM. It’s taken me over an hour to get from work to home. Now I have two choices: put up with all of that every day I have to work, or take the car, and enjoy a comfortable, safe ride home that leaves when I want it to, and takes only 20 minutes to reach my destination. Now I’m a strong believer and normally a fan of using public transport whenever possible, but when it’s going to take me 3 times as long to complete exactly the same journey by public transport rather than driving, I’d be crazy to choose the bus over the car.

The worst part of the whole scenario is that it doesn’t need to take that long. If the bus didn’t wait at all those timing points, actually timed up to allow connections with other modes of transport, or didn’t take that stupid deviation to Forest Hill, you could shave 15 or more minutes off that journey easily. Yet, stupid timetables, stupid route variations, and even more stupid allowances for delays that never happen at that time cause this relatively basic journey to made long, frustrating and very unattractive. It’s no wonder that every time I get on that bus, there’s barely a handful of people on it, yet there’s hundreds of cars travelling along Blackburn Road at exactly the same time. People have chosen the mode that works for them, and with how incredibly badly our public transport services have been planned, that mode is overwhelmingly the car.

It’s no wonder that we have ridiculous levels of traffic congestion in our cities when the options to driving are so limited, or so bad. SmartBus? Pfft, there’s nothing that seems “smart” about this bus.

PS: The timetables for the 703 bus, 75 tram, Glen Waverley and Belgrave/Lilydale railway lines were all accessed from metlinkmelbourne.com.au. They’re real timetables, just in case you thought I was joking at how badly they’ve been planned.

Railway Level Crossings

Yesterday the RACV released the results from its 2010 “Redspot survey”, which asked members to list the top locations known for traffic congestion issues. I guess it comes as no surprise that four of the top 10 sites identified by road users as being “redspots” centred on railway level crossings.

For those of you who’ve lived under a rock for your entire life, a level crossing as an intersection between a road and a railway line, where road traffic is forced to give way to trains as they pass the intersection. This results in a delay to car, bus and tram travellers of up to several minutes for even one train to pass.

Identified as the biggest “redspot” is the level crossing adjacent to Murrumbeena railway station, a station on the Pakenham and Cranbourne railway lines, which is one of the busiest rail corridors in Melbourne. In peak hour, some 20 trains pass through that level crossing, and the boom gates at the crossing are down and blocking traffic for approximately 38 minutes of 60 between 8AM and 9AM every weekday morning.

Level crossings are not only notorious for traffic congestion, but are also notoriously unsafe. Accidents between trains and cars stuck on tracks at level crossings are sadly quite common, and often result in driver injury or death, as well us damage and delays to both road and rail traffic. Horrific events such as the Kerang Rail Disaster and others have occurred when high-speed express trains (which also use the railway line through Murrumbeena) collide with vehicles not clear of the level crossing.

The Victorian Government has adopted a “no new level crossings” policy in recent years in regards to newly built railway lines, but unfortunately in Melbourne and country Victoria there are a significant number of level crossings still in operation on the many pre-existing railway lines in the Victorian railway network. Even with safety features such as boom gates, lights, bells, train horns and road markings, which many of the metropolitan railway crossings and some key country railway crossings have, accidents still continue to occur and lives are lost every year at level crossings.

The complexity of some railway crossings is also quite perplexing. Take, for example, this level crossing near Gardiner railway station in Glen Iris, in Melbourne’s inner east. It has such a vast range of conflicting road and rail traffic movements occurring within a relatively close space that its mere existence is a monumental feat in itself. For those of you who can’t work it out from the picture, within approximately 300 metres of Burke Road, there is a full diamond freeway junction, two east-bound side streets, one west-bound side street, a railway line perpendicular to Burke Road with an at-grade level crossing, a tram line down the centre of Burke Road which crosses that railway line, a tram stop, a railway station, and a major intersection with Malvern Road, which the tram is required to turn right in to to continue its journey. Tired after reading that? Try driving down Burke Road through it, when you’re required to negotiate 5 sets of traffic lights, cross a tram line and a set of boom gates at the train line in order to successfully clear the whole freeway/level crossing intersection. Not surprisingly, this intersection was ranked at number four on the RACV “redspot” survey.

So, why am I spelling this out? The answer is simple. We must look to start eliminating railway level crossings around Melbourne and Victoria. The government needs to consider creating a fund where x number of dollars are allocated each year to funding the grade separation, that is the bridging over or tunnelling under of railways currently passing through level crossings, with the target of removing a set number of crossings (let’s say five) per year. The NSW government in Sydney undertook a similar process in the 1960s, and the result is that barely a dozen level crossings remain in greater Sydney.

You’d start by first identifying and renovating the most dangerous and/or most congested level crossings, like what was done earlier this year at the previously notorious Springvale Road crossing in Nunawading (check out the Street View which hasn’t yet been updated, and the photos added showing what it now looks like). Over a period of a few years, the level crossings could be eliminated, which would reduce road traffic congestion (and tram delays where tram crossings are involved), would improve reliability on the rail network, and most importantly would improve the safety of all users of the transport system (aka, just about everyone).

Myki

So, Victoria’s new $1.3 billion dollar smartcard ticketing system myki has been operational on all of Melbourne’s public transport system for a few weeks now. As one of those people who drools over the prospect of being an early adopter of new technology, I’ve been using mine on my regular commute (which involves all three modes of travel), and have so far had a mixed experience.

Let’s be a pessimist and start with the negatives. And believe me, they’re not exactly rare.

  • Myki readers not working , particularly on trams and buses

Barely a day has gone by without me encountering at least one faulty myki reader. So far, the buses have been the worst culprits for this. Some readers just show ‘Out of service’ on the screen, while others look to be working, only to simply fail to scan your card at all. Talking to a bus driver about this, he says that many of the buses he drives have this issue, and all readers in the bus seem to fail at the same time.

  • Myki top up machines out of order

The top up machines at railway stations and certain bus interchanges seem to be out of action more often than not. So you can have your fancy new ticket, but not be able to cash it up. I’ve seen people encounter this, and simply revert back to their trusty old Metcards. Luckily not an issue for me, as I use the auto-top up feature, as I will discuss later.

  • Overcharging for fares

Certainly not as frequent an issue as the earlier two, but arguably a more problematic one. I know for a fact that the Geelong buses overcharge at times – I can buy a concession paper ticket for $1 but myki charges me about 50 cents more. Additionally, the trams and buses that travel between Zones 1 and 2 cause it problems. I’ve had issues with the route 75 tram when travelling only in Zone 2, and I know people using the Huntingdale bus from Monash Uni have had problems with myki wanting them to pay for a Zone 1 & 2 ticket, when they are only travelling in Zone 1. Hopefully this kind of issue can be addressed with the additional data provided (and the additional complaints received) with more people now using myki.

  • Poor sensitivity of readers/slow reading time

For a ticket that we should only have to “touch”, most of the time I end up having to massage the reader quite thoroughly to get it to read my myki. The gates at the stations like Flinders Street seem to be the worst, they really don’t seem to like myki in the same way that they happily eat your Metcard and spit it out. Again, that very suspect looking rubbing action is required on those awkwardly low myki “pads” to get it to let you through.

And for the record, don’t even think about bothering with myki through your wallet. I know that, at its best, the reader might do it, if you’ve got enough time and no other cards within close proximity to your myki in the wallet. However, it seems to suffer from an incredibly consistent case of “stage fright” – it will probably work when you’ve got time at a quiet station and you’re playing with the reader while waiting for a delayed train, but it will always refuse to work when your exiting a crowded gate, and it’ll make you hold up a line of already frustrated commuters while you fiddle around trying to get our your stupid ticket. You have been warned.

  • Have to touch off

This is more inconvenient than it sounds. Instead of the old system where you validate to get on board only (especially the case with trams or buses), you’ve got to remember to have your ticket out before you get off so you can touch off. Forget and you cop the lovely default fare, which is to my knowledge a Zone 1 & 2 ticket. I’m sure in time it will become habit of the myki user to touch off much like it’s habit of the Metcard user to validate before travelling, but it will take some getting used to.

  • Not available on V/Line, yet

Not an issue for many, but for someone who takes the train to Geelong from time to time, it’s a real pain. I can use my myki to get to Southern Cross on the Metro train, and when I get off I can use my myki when I get off at Geelong on the bus to my parents’ house, but I can’t use it for the train to get between the two.

So now that I’ve sufficiently scared you from ever wanting to use the system, here are some benefits from being an early adopter:

  • Never have to buy a ticket

A really great thing. You’ve got your myki with you, and you just pull it out when you need to travel. I use the online auto top-up, so my balance never falls below $10, and I’ve always got the ability to take public transport at a moment’s notice. For someone who is eternally late, being able to arrive at the station as the train is arriving and board it without delving into the depths of illegality as a fare evader is a godsend.

  • Pay the cheapest fare, no matter where you go

We’ve all been there, you buy a daily ticket knowing you’ve got to get home, but then get a lift home and waste the ticket. Or you think you need a Zone 1 ticket only, but then have to go into Zone 2 and buy another ticket. All wasted money. Providing myki is doing what it should, this should never happen again. If you get a lift home, you only pay for the travel you use (aka a two-hour ticket) instead of pre-purchasing a daily ticket for no reason. Basically, providing you’ve got enough money on your myki, you can get anywhere and not have to worry about having the right ticket, and providing you’ve touched on, those pesky ticket inspectors will never hassle you again.

Additionally, myki charges at the discounted rate as a 10×2 hour or 5xdaily ticket, so you actually pay less using a myki than you would if you bought a single 2-hour or daily each time you travel.

  • Auto top-up

Did I mention auto top-up? Seriously, this would have to be the best feature of the whole thing. There’s always money on your card, and when your balance is low, it automatically deducts money from your credit card to top it up. I set this up online when I first bought my myki, and have never had to worry about paying for a fare since. Sure, the initial set up on the horrible myki website is about as simple as reverse parallel parking a semi-trailer, but once that is done everything is easy.

So as a whole, the myki system offers some rather welcome benefits to the public transport user, and if its problems are mere teething issues as the government and TTA would have you believe, then we will all grow to love myki in the future, as one ill-fated public transport minister once said. However, if these issues which aren’t exactly rare continue to persist for the time we have myki, there will be some politicians who’ll have a very tough time defending the spending of billions of taxpayers’ dollars on a ticket system that’s a dud.

I guess only time will tell how it goes…