Sydney buses moving in the right direction

Posted: April 23, 2014 in Transport
Tags: , ,

Bus services in Sydney are operating well and are set to improve when compared to a survey of US bus operators showing what changes had been effective in improving travel times. However, the lack of traffic light priority, no plans for all door boarding for buses, and inability to design new motorways for express buses means these improvements will not be as effective as they otherwise could be.

The survey, included as part of a report called Commonsense Approaches for Improving Transit Bus Speeds, found 11 improvements used to increase bus speeds. Streetsblog USA has included a good summary of the report, parts of which have been quoted below. These are, from the improvements most widely implemented to least:

Consolidate stops

More than half of agencies have thinned bus stops, some by focusing on pilot corridors, and others by gradually phasing in policy changes. Many agencies moved stops to far side of intersections at stoplights, and 13 agencies adopted physical changes like longer bus stops or bulb-outs, which help passengers board faster and more conveniently.

Bus stops in Sydney are generally not found clumped together with 100m or 200m between them. However, the current plan is to ensure that bus stops are placed every 400m for most bus services, with “Rapid Bus” corridors having bus stops every 800m to 1km (Source: Transport for NSW, Sydney’s Bus Future, p. 6). Bus bays are also quite common.

Verdict: Currently often good, but being improved.

Streamline routes

Straightening out routes, trimming deviations, eliminating duplication, and shortening routes didn’t just simplify service, it also sped up service for two-thirds of the agencies that tried this approach.

The current CBD bus network is complex, inefficient, and leads to unnecessary congestion. The current proposal would consolidate buses into 3 main North/South corridors and 1 East/West corridor. Click to enlarge. (Source: Sydney's Light Rail Future, p. 17)

The current CBD bus network is complex, inefficient, and leads to unnecessary congestion. The current proposal would consolidate buses into 3 main North/South corridors and 1 East/West corridor. Click to enlarge. (Source: Transport for NSW, Sydney’s Light Rail Future, p. 17)

Much of Sydney’s inner suburban bus network is a continuation of its old tram network, parts of which have been around for 100 years or more. The result is a tangled web of bus routes that are hard to interpret, include many deviations, and are often duplicated. Current plans involve simplifying the bus network to make “routes more direct, reduces duplication and increases the number of locations which customers can travel between by bus” (Source: Transport for NSW, Sydney’s Bus Future, p. 5), though details have been light beyond proposals for changes to the bus network following the opening of the CBD and South East Light Rail (CSELR) at the end of the decade (see image above). Proposed changes to the suburban bus network with the CSELR have more details, but as with the CBD changes these are 5-6 years away and are far from guaranteed.

Verdict: Currently not being achieved, the goal is in the right direction but plans are still sketchy.

Transit signal priority

The 22 agencies with signal priority can change stoplights for approaching buses. They mostly report a minor to moderate increase in bus speeds as a result. In fact, agencies singled out traffic engineering approaches like TSP as the closest to a “silver bullet,” one-step solution.

Traffic light priority for buses is theoretically possible in Sydney, but has been opposed by the RMS (and the RTA before that). Plans to introduce traffic light priority for the Parramatta to Rouse Hill T-Way were scrapped when it opened in 2007 because of RTA opposition. This remains the single improvement that could potentially provide the biggest improvement that has yet to be even partially implemented.

Verdict: This has been a missed opportunity.

UPDATE (30 April 2014): A Transport for NSW spokesperson has sought to clarify this issue by stating that “Bus prioritisation started at Sydney traffic intersections in 2006 when the first public services under the State Transit Authority began. The Public Transport Information Prioritisation System (PTIPS) tracks about 5,000 buses in real time across the Sydney, Wollongong and the Newcastle regions and allows the buses to be prioritised through some 1,000 intersections to provide reliable and on time bus services for customers.”

Fare policy

Several agencies changed fare structures or payment methods. The one agency that collects fares before passengers board, and lets them board at both bus doors, decreased bus running times by 9 percent.

Prepayment of bus fares was first trialed in Sydney in 2004, and has since been expanded to a number of bus routes and bus stops in high patronage areas of Sydney (Source: Sydney Buses, Prepay). The rollout of Opal readers to all buses during 2014 will further expand prepayment. However, there have been no announcements or plans to allow all door boarding of buses once Opal is fully rolled out.

Verdict: Good progress on prepayment of fares and introducing Opal, but could be better with all door boarding.

Bus Rapid Transit

Ten agencies combined multiple approaches on specific routes and launched BRT service. Of those that measured the impact, almost all reported a significant increase in speed, typically around 10 to 15 percent.

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) was first introduced to Sydney in 2004 with the Parramatta to Liverpool T-Way, then added to in 2007 with the Parramatta to Rouse Hill T-Way (Source: Roads and Maritime Authority, Sydney’s T-Ways). There were originally plans for additional T-Ways connecting Strathfield to Parramatta and then onto Blacktown as well as between St Marys and Penrith as well as others (Source: Transport Sydney, New Transport Plan for Sydney). Today, other corridors are under consideration for BRT or light rail, including Parramatta Road, Victoria Road, Anzac Parade, and the Northern Beaches (Source: Transport for NSW, Sydney’s Bus Future, p. 6).

Verdict: Positive achievements in the past, with a promising future of further expansion.

Vehicle changes

More than half of agencies have moved to low-floor buses, which reduce loading times by one second per passenger. Smaller buses might be more maneuverable in traffic, and ramps can speed loading for wheelchairs and bicycles.

Since the passage of the Disability Discrimination Act (1992) by the Commonwealth Government, accessible public transport has been made a legislative requirement. Though a long lead in time has been allowed for existing vehicles, noticeable improvements have been made. For example, the proportion of low floor buses in service has increased from 38% in 2007 to 73% in 2012 (Source: Transport for NSW, Disability Action Plan, p. 17). Government operated STA buses are more likely to be low floor, 75% of publicly operated buses are low floor compared to 70% for private operators, but the gap between public and private has narrowed. Transport for NSW has set itself the aim of having entirely accessible services by 2022.

Verdict: Good progress in the past, with the achievable goal of 100% accessibility by 2022.

Limited stop service

Although new limited-stop services offered only minor to moderately faster speeds, it’s a simple step and 18 agencies reported launching new limited routes.

Limited stop services currently exist, and these are being expanded and standardised with plans to introduce “Rapid Bus” services with stop spacings of 800m to 1km (Source: Transport for NSW, Sydney’s Bus Future, p. 6).

Verdict: Good usage in the past and into the future.

Bus lanes

Dedicated lanes are used by 13 agencies, and one reported that “most routes are on a bus lane somewhere.” When implemented on wide arterial streets, this moderately improves speeds.

Bus lanes were first introduced into Sydney in 1992 and today there are 90km of bus lanes on Sydney streets (Source: Roads and Maritime Service, Bus lanes). Additional bus lanes are regularly considered and added as needed and appropriate.

Verdict: Good usage in the past and into the future.

Adjust schedules

Almost all of the surveyed agencies have adjusted running time, recovery times (the time spent turning the bus), or moved to more flexible ”headway schedules.” All of these actions improve on-time performance reliability for customers, and reduce the need for buses to sit if they’re running early.

Some tight schedules currently mean that buses sometimes do not begin their route on time, negatively affecting reliability. Infrequent services make this worse, with “bunching” of buses forcing passengers to wait long periods between bus services. More frequent bus services, which rely on short headways for “turn up and go” services rather than reliance on a timetable, would improve this. This was partly achieved with metrobuses, introduced in 2008 to run at 10 minute frequencies in the peak and 15 minutes in the off-peak, but these are limited in coverage. It will be further improved with rapid and suburban bus services as they are introduced over time (Source: Transport for NSW, Sydney’s Bus Future, p. 6).

A Metrobus on George St in the Sydney CBD. Click to enlarge. (Source: Author)

A Metrobus on George St in the Sydney CBD. Click to enlarge. (Source: Author)

Verdict: Room for improvement, with plans promising but lacking in detail.

Signal timing

Synchronized stoplights along transit routes can make sure that buses face more green lights than red, but only have a mild impact on operating speeds.

As with traffic light priority, this is theoretically possible but has not been implemented.

Verdict: This has been a missed opportunity.

Express service on freeways

This strategy had the largest impact on speeding up buses for the three agencies that tried it.

Bus lanes along the M2 motorway in Sydney’s North West, along with bus stations in the median and routing most of these buses through the Lane Cove Tunnel through to the Sydney CBD, has easily achieved this goal. However, other motorways have not been designed with bus services in mind, particularly the M7 which provides a North-South connection in Western Sydney. This is the one area where Sydney has taken a step backwards.

Verdict: Excellent achievement with the M2, but few accomplishments since then.


2014-04-21 Bus traffic light scorecard

Overall, Sydney is doing well in improving its bus services. They are accessible, contain bus lanes as well as BRT, often feature prepayment of fares, and have limited stop services with fewer stops to improve speed. For the most part, Sydney has also been moving in the right direction. But in order to improve services further, serious consideration needs to be given to traffic light priority and signal timing, allowing all door boarding once Opal is rolled out, and designing new motorways with bus services in mind.

A Sydney CBD shuttle bus. Click to enlarge. (Source: Author)

A Sydney CBD shuttle bus. Click to enlarge. (Source: Author)

  1. Tony Bailey says:

    Bus lanes were introduced to Sydney with the opening of the Moore park Bus Roadway, converted from a tram reservation.

  2. Simon says:

    Jarrett Walker has also blogged on this.

    Tony, that may be, but it was the Harbour Bridge bus lane which was the game changer.

  3. Kevin says:

    Under stop consolidation, I think the comment about moving more bus stops to the far side of intersections would be really beneficial in Sydney. There are so many times that someone paying cash or asking a question has resulted in the bus missing the light. There will always be some locations where a near side stop is necessary, but there are a lot of near side stops that could be moved for relatively little cost, giving permanent speed and reliability improvements.

  4. JC says:

    However, there is an implied bias in the title of the report – the metric should not be improved “bus transit speeds” but improved journey times. It is necessary to factor in the extra (average) walking time to the straightened out route and/or less frequent stop if a fair comparison is to be made.

    Havig said that, I don’t doubt that all of these suggetstions would improve bus services. Noting (for example) the three (yes 3!) intermediate stops on the 1 km leg between Newtown and St Peters stations on the 422 (average spacing 250m) and similar trips on Anzac Pde south of MJ, it is obvious that there is room for inprvement – including for those passengers who lose “THEIR” stop. (Cue nimbys and beecroft-cheltenham lot) – who also benefot from a quicket trip even if they have to walk a little further.

  5. Sam says:

    Stop consolidation is going to require a significant amount of effort to happen. Stops are generally 120m-350m apart in most of inner Sydney, which suits those travelling at ‘odd hours’ but not for peak hour journeys. They aren’t always in the best location although changing them will be difficult due to their historic nature – especially if there is a shop at the current location. Council’s maintain most of the bus stops, so unless they are supportive, TfNSW will have some difficulty in consolidating.

  6. iam says:

    The CBD bus network changes will have to come in later this year or in 2015, because George St will be closed once light rail construction commences, not at the completition.

    Sydney could benefit from a lot of additional bus lanes. I disagree they are considered regularly. RMS is still car dominated and reluctant to give up any existing lanes for bus priority. Bus lanes are included in the Blacktown Rd upgrade, but not Memorial Ave or Showground Rd upgrades. Nor have they been implemented on congested corridors such as King St, Windsor Rd, Parramatta Rd (west), Harbour Bridge northbound, Pacific Hwy etc.

    We shouldn’t give points for “considered” or “planned”, but for implemented solutions. Most considerations never eventuate.

    Also, infrequent services don’t bunch. Either they are frequent, and therefore bunch, or they are infrequent, and run late, but with some level of gap between them.

  7. MrV says:

    The issue of implementing rear-door boarding and moving bus stops that are either too close to traffic signals or too close to another by stop shows that even the simple stuff can’t get done in a reasonable time period.

  8. michblogs says:

    I am not convinced that all-door boarding is a panacea. If people want to get in the back door, it just conflicts with people trying to get off. There are not many places where large numbers of people are trying to get on the bus at once.

    Too many people obsess over bus stop spacing also. Bus stops need to be where people approach the route that the buses run on, which in most places, means the intersecting side streets. The spacing of these varies a lot.

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