Welcome news from the State Government this week with changes to buses around Deakin Burwood – a combination of mostly minor route changes and some extra services.
The press release also mentions extra route 903 services on Saturdays – they haven’t fixed the weird 15/15/30 frequencies on that part of the route – they’ve extended them to start earlier!
Fisherman’s Bend is also getting more services, partly thanks to a sensible decision not to run empty buses in heavy traffic all the way to Victoria Market.
Progress like this is welcome, particularly for buses.
A key challenge in Melbourne is for public transport services to better match travel demand.
Recently I found this fascinating graph is from the Victorian Integrated Survey of Travel and Activity (VISTA for short), showing how many people are travelling around Melbourne across the day, weekday and weekend.
In the selection, I’ve excluded Geelong, so this is greater Melbourne we’re looking at. I’ve also used 2018 rather than 2020 (which was obviously affected by COVID lockdowns). 2023 no doubt is different, but is probably closer to 2018 than 2020.
Morning peak travel is as one might expect. A high peak, as large numbers of workers and students head to their destinations.
The evening peak is less peaky, because many students head home earlier than 9-5 workers.
What really surprises me is that weekend travel, particularly between 10am and 1pm, is similar in volume to weekday afternoon peak.
The data says on weekends there’s a peak at 11am of 637,501 people are travelling; the peak on weekday afternoon is 653,196, a difference of just 2.4%.
Given since COVID, peak hour travel (particularly into the CBD) has reduced, but off-peak travel is as strong as ever, there’s a good chance weekend lunchtime travel now exceeds weekday afternoon peaks.
Travel demand vs PT provision
The problem is that overall travel demand is completely at odds with public transport provision in Melbourne.
During morning and evening peak, most of Melbourne’s trains and trams and a few bus routes provide an intensive frequent service. Providing this frequent service drives much of the investment in infrastructure and fleet.
Weekends in many cases get a bare bones service, particularly buses.
To try and compare, I got the GTFS data, and wrestled with it for ages to try and work out systemwide departures by hour and day. It was very complicated, and I can’t guarantee it’s exactly right, but I think it’s close enough to try and measure it against travel demand.
I took networkwide departures per half-hour, weighted them against mode (to estimate capacity), and scaled the numbers on the charts so weekday afternoon peak travel demand is shown as comparable to PT provision.
This is not to say that PT provision is adequate in afternoon peak, but just to use this as a baseline to compare with other times of the week.
Remembering that this data is pre-COVID, here’s weekdays:
Morning peak travel demand is traditionally more intense than afternoon (probably due to students travelling at the same time as office workers heading to an 8-9am start). But many PT routes have about the same frequency in morning and afternoon peak, and are consequently can get stretched in the mornings.
At other times on weekdays (inter-peak and evenings), PT broadly scales up and down more-or-less in proportion with demand.
There’s a huge caveat, where this type of comparison falls down. This is only really a measure of capacity. If you reduce service at quieter times, cutting capacity also usually cuts frequency – so it can lead to an infrequent network that most people won’t want to use. (See: most of Melbourne’s buses)
Now let’s compare travel demand vs PT on weekends, with the same vertical scale as weekdays:
What’s really noticeable is that using weekday peak as the baseline, weekend PT service is nowhere near proportionate to weekend travel demand.
With so many people travelling, the service should be much better than it is.
This varies widely by route. Some services, particularly trams and trains, run similar frequencies on weekends as they do on weekdays off-peak.
But many buses run much less frequently on weekends. Prime examples are most Smartbuses, and many local buses – the service is often half as frequent on weekends. (Some newer bus routes run a flatter timetable, which is good – except that the frequencies are still usually poor.)
Adapting to modern travel demand
In decades gone past, the public transport network provided for a peak around lunchtime on Saturday, because until 1948 it was common for many workers to work Monday to Friday plus 4 hours on Saturday mornings.
This photo recently posted by the PTUA shows a lunchtime crowd at Flinders Street Station. The clocks show 1:25pm – I suspect it was a Saturday afternoon.
Even bearing in mind the limitations of the comparisons I’ve presented above, it’s clear that nowadays, public transport services are out of step with travel demand. There are long waits and even crowding now commonplace outside peak.
Melbourne’s PT network hasn’t adapted to changing travel patterns, resulting in a failure to capture market share, particularly on weekends.
Another graph back on the VISTA page shows slightly different numbers – Trips In Progress – but also with mode share (active, public, private transport).
I mean to crunch those numbers another time, but unsurprisingly, PT does best in weekday peaks, when the services are best and the traffic is worst.
PT does far worse on weekends, despite traffic often being bad (eg plenty of travel demand), because PT services are less frequent.
The few services running decent frequencies on weekends generally get plenty of patronage, sometimes to the point of being overcrowded.
Poor frequencies are common right across Melbourne, particularly on bus routes, including for routes serving very busy destinations like shopping centres.
The data shows weekend travel demand is comparable to weekday peak. To meet that demand, public transport service provision should also be comparable.
You wouldn’t run any other kind of business like this, ignoring clear demand from customers. No wonder cars dominate for weekend travel.