Thursday, 27 February 2014

Managing congestion with the Oyster (aka Opal) Card

Bus routes from Victoria Road
Previous posts have dealt with how, for more than one hundred years, tram and bus services from the Eastern Suburbs and, in particular, the South Eastern Suburbs have been designed to minimize the number of buses that travel through the "pinch points" in Elizabeth Street northbound. Similar measures have been utilised to minimize congestion in George Street north of Market Street for buses from Victoria Street and the City West Link roads.

There are two basic routes for buses from Victoria as you can see above. One uses Druitt and George Streets to terminate at Alfred Street or north of Grosvenor Street; the other travels along Harris Street and gives direct access to the Parramatta and City Road bus services and Central Station as well as the southern half of the CBD. Buses terminate on this route by discharging the last of their passengers in front of the Town Hall, with hazard lights flashing, and doing a loop-the-loop round Druitt, Clarence, Market and York Streets. This requires an against-the-flow bus lane in Market Street:
This is not ideal, as the buses are competing for space to turn right in Druitt Street with North Shore buses terminating at the QVB, and there is no space to lay over. In the evenings the two routes are combined. I waited in vain at the stop in Druitt Street for a bus to Lilyfield in 1987, so these routes have been in operation for some time.

It has been the bus services from Parramatta Road and City Road that cause congestion in the bus lanes in George Street north of Market Street. Passengers transferring to trains at Central Station leave the bus at the last stop on Broadway and traipse through the Devonshire Street Tunnel to the platforms. Passengers disembark here also to catch the 378 service along Oxford Street. The buses discharge further passengers at Town Hall to transfer to New South Head Road services and are running on empty by the time they reach the terminus at Bridge Street - the only place in the CBD where they can physically turn around. The congestion in George Street is obviously not caused by hordes of passengers trying to get to Circular Quay by bus.

In the past it has not been possible to dissuade passengers from catching a bus to Circular Quay and getting off at Railway Square, so all bus routes along Broadway have gone on to the terminuses at Circular Quay. I pointed out in my letter to the Minister in April, and reiterated this in my submission to the EIS, that all this changed with the development of the Oyster (aka Opal) Card.
George Street at Town Hall
Here's how it works: there are services from City Road and Parramatta Road that terminate at Circular Quay as at present; services that turn right into Park Street from the Bus-Only lane in front of the Town Hall and terminate at the forecourt at the Domain car park; and services that pass along Pitt Street and Eddy Avenue to terminate at Randle Street. All these terminuses allow lay overs so buses can maintain schedules. Randle Street was successfully used as a terminus for the Olympics in 2000 and is used for events at the SCG.

Passengers can use the Opal Card to switch destinations at any stop in Parramatta Road or City Road regardless of the destination on the front of the bus when they boarded it on their local roads, and then continue their trip. Eastern Suburbs commuters have been doing this for generations. If passengers are still on a bus service beyond a certain point, say the bus stop on Broadway just to the east of the City Road, they pay to go to the terminus on the front of the bus regardless of where they get off. Only buses with passengers needing to go to destinations in the northern half of the CBD pass through the "pinch points" in George Street north of Market Street - problem solved. City Road services would not have a terminus at Randle Street as transfers to rail can be made at Newtown Station.

The tech guy at the "information session" commented about the system I have described: "The power of pricing". There is more going for it than that though. Services terminated at the Domain car park would give round-the-corner transfers to Eastern Suburbs bus services from a stop in Park Street at Hyde Park and services terminated at Randle Street would give access to Elizabeth Street bus services.

Running seven-segment trams along George Street obliterates not only all the places in the northern CBD where buses can physically turn around - terminuses north of Grosvenor Street and at Argyle Street as well as Alfred Street - but also at Randle Street. George Street bus services are simply displaced to Elizabeth Street. It will never ever be possible to resolve bus congestion in the CBD.
The reclusive Chris Lock
At the Randwick breakfast in April the Deputy Director General TfNSW, Chris Lock, bemoaned the queue of buses in York Street, trying to reach the Wynyard Park bus terminus, that he claimed could stretch to the other side of the Bridge at the morning peak. His only solution was to divert some buses across the Cahill Expressway. The Opal Card can minimise bus congestion here as well.

There would be three, at least, terminuses: Wynyard, York Street at the Queen Victoria Building, and Lee Street. You know the rest. The point at which a transfer to a bus with the proper destination would have had to have been made would presumably be the last stop in Military Road or Falcon Street. George Street in front of the Town Hall can never be "pedestrianised", but then, George Street has been the main traffic artery to western Sydney from the time of the first fleet.
Melbourne bus console
So how much would it cost to resolve bus congestion in the CBD? A hell of a lot less than spending, we are told, $1.6 billion on a tramway and making bus congestion intractable. In fact it would not cost a brass razoo more than has already been committed by the state government to roll out the Opal Card - more than a billion dollars.

In the old days, buses had rollers with destinations at the front and the drivers manually set the destination at a terminus. Now buses have LED signs that are set from the drivers console. The bus' route is clearly fed into the software for the Opal Card so dastardly commuters who switch from a different route can be differentiated from commuters who get back on a bus of the same route after stopping for coffee.

Passengers who fail to tap off with their Opal Card are charged for the whole route to the terminus, so charging passengers for trips based on the sections as published on route maps, as with the existing Mybus paper tickets, is already built into the software. It will be ridiculously easy for a future, competent state government to restore sanity to public transport.

The Oyster (aka Opal) Card system described above is the antithesis of the bizarre pricing system being rolled out by the O'Farrell government. It does not penalise commuters who change routes when making a journey in one direction.

Incredibly, the Opal Card being rolled out will penalise commuters who transfer from buses to the, we are told, $1.6 billion dollar South Eastern Suburbs light rail. This is a mode change and is regarded as a separate trip. The state government refuses to say what the pricing structure on the trams will be. This will evidently be decided by the PPP.

The extra costs for commuters who are forced or volunteer to transfer at the Randwick or Kingsford terminuses will pale to insignificance compared to those for commuters terminated at Rawson Place. No matter how bad off you are there is always someone worse off.

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