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Postcard from Brisbane

As some of you will know, my first forays into blogging here on the ATB came by way of several “postcards” from afar, in which I ranted about my travels in Amsterdam, Norway, and Greece. It was the appreciative and insightful tone of your responses to these postcards that got me enthused about blogging in the first instance.

And postcards are suddenly cool again – mainly because I have been transplanted across the Tasman once more for work. So here follows the first of what I hope will be several postcards from Brisbane. The reason I will need several posts, I think, is because Brisbane is so bloody interesting.

Not in an “oh my gosh” isn’t everything wonderful”, but in an “oh my let’s spend money on transport but I’m not sure in a good way.” Basically, Brisbane is interesting because it does so much that is right, while at the same time wasting obscene amounts of money on terribly expensive infrastructure projects.

Before we get into the serious nitty grit-picky, let’s start with a picture postcard perfect transport photo. The one below shows me sweating profusely having cycled 200m along the recently flooded but soon to be fixed cycleway, which ran just above the surface of the river. While it looks like I’m smiling, I’m actually grimacing in response to 30+ degree heat (NB: Brisbane does not suit delicate little red-headed fairies such as myself).

Photo credit: Julie-Anne Genter

In the background of the photo above you can see the construction of one of Brisbane’s most recent pedestrian and cycle only bridges. But enough of the transport eye candy; it’s now time to get down and dirty with some numbers (NB: Data sourced from here and here):

  • Population: 2.15 million, area: 6,000 sqkm, average density: 346 people/sqkm
  • PT patronage: 180 million, or 82 trips per capita p.a. of which:
    • Bus – 120.3 million
    • Train – 52.8 million
    • Ferry – 5.2 million
  • PT operating budget AU $1.5 billion p.a. (NB: This includes some minor capital spend on bus stops and driver facilities, but not for corridors, as well as organisational overheads), which was spent as follows:
    • Bus – $503.9 million ($4.19 per trip)
    • Rail – $835.5 million ($15.82 per trip)
    • Ferry – $19.1 million ($3.67 per trip)
  • System-wide cost recovery 23.6% and smartcard market share 81.6%

So how does Brisbane compare to Auckland? Well, in terms of what they do well:

  • PT infrastructure – Brisbane has a relatively extensive rail and busway network which together form the “rapid transit” heart of the wider network. In the city centre this culminates in two underground bus tunnels supported by dedicated surface bus lanes from most directions. In terms of their rail networkthe network is electrified and operates at reasonable frequencies, although I understand further frequency improvements are not possible because the network capacity is constrained downtown. With so much rapid transit infrastructure the services are fast and reliable and attract considerable patronage.
  • Smartcard uptake – Brisbane really was the poster child of integrated ticketing; they made an early push for integrated fares and ticketing (tag on/off) and the GoCard is now used for over 80% of all trips. The discount for using a GoCard is at least 30% of the standard fare, which is quite an incentive (by contrast HOP is only 10%). The high update has a noticeable effect on bus dwell times at stops. TransLink also offers a 30% discount for travelling at off-peak times, as well as fare caps that kick in beyond a certain point. The off-peak discount, in particular, is something Auckland should consider, when marginal willingness-to-pay and marginal costs of supply and both low.

Now let’s consider the not so good news:

  • Costs - Brisbane’s public transport network seems relatively costly, with an overall cost recovery of only 24%. That’s only half of what Auckland achieves – and we’re headed for 50% in the near future. Reasons for Brisbane’s high costs are many and varied. Cost recovery, however, ultimately boils down to a) operating costs and/or b) patronage and/or c) fare revenue. Given that Brisbane’s patronage is relatively high, as are fares, then a process of elimination would suggest that Brisbane’s lower cost recovery is attributable to higher operating costs. One of the reason Brisbane’s operating costs may be higher is their issues with sprawl (see below), which in turn results in people traveling long distances. It may also reflect generally higher wages in Australia, especially for highly unionised public sector workforces.
  • Sprawl – It’s not immediately obvious from the statistics presented above, but Brisbane sprawls in all sorts of directions and all sorts of strange ways. The city has chronic issues with what I think is technically knows as “leapfrog” sprawl, whereby poorly connected blocks of land beyond the urban fringe are developed in isolation, thereby fragmenting the urban edge and making it extremely difficult to deliver efficient public services after the fact. Take a look at the image below to see an example, but to gain a true appreciation for the beast you’d be best to jump on Google Earth and have a zoom.

There’s a lot more to talk about so let me know what you’re most interested in and I’ll make an effort to get some thoughts down. Some possible topics that spring to mind:

  1. Central city access/mobility – pedestrianised main street, walking/cycle acces points, rail station locatons, bus stops and key corridors, one way street system, signal cycle times  …
  2. Busway infrastructure and service patterns – these really are quite spectacular. Brisbane has not only two radial busways (South-east and Inner Northern) but also a crosstown busway (Eastern). These are serviced by a network of high frequency bus routes.
  3. Highway infrastructure , tunnels, and PPPs - Far and away the worst thing about Brisbane is the mega-billions they’ve squandered creating massive amounts of highway infrastructure, in the process cutting the city off from the river and many of its surrounding suburbs.

I will say that in general I find Brisbane to be a wonderful peer city for Auckland – it’s bigger and richer, so tends to do things earlier and spend more money in the process. We’d be silly not to learn as much as we can from their many successes, and failures.

On that cliched note, here’s another vacuous photo of me – this time standing on the platform at central station as the train arrives to whizz me home. Looking forward to that soon enough!

Self-indulgent transport blogger waiting to board train


Another Australian PPP fails – will we learn from it?

Some interesting news coming out of Australia today, with yet another transport public-private-partnership (PPP) on the brink of collapse, due to over-optimistic traffic forecasts. This time it’s the Airport Link toll road in Brisbane:

THE operators of Brisbane’s Airport Link have gone into a trading halt, amid increasing speculation about the company’s financial future following much lower than expected traffic volumes…

…It comes as the operator struggles to achieve even 50 per cent of its forecast traffic volumes of 135,000 vehicles a day.

Since a discounted toll took effect in late October, Airport Link carried 53,172 vehicles a day down from 85,000 in its first six weeks of operation when motorists were able to use the tunnels for free.

BrisConnections had projected a figure of 135,000 from the end of the toll free period, rising to 160,000 within 18 months of opening.

A retired Sydney academic notes that this failure is far from unusual and all comes back to that same vexed issue that we discuss so frequently in blog posts: overly optimistic traffic predictions:

Professor John Goldberg has written a complex 24-page analysis of the project and his findings are unswervingly grim. He says that Brisconnections, the listed company which oversaw the $4.8 billion project, faces “inevitable financial collapse”.

Skewed traffic forecasts, poor cash flow and unmanageable debt will prove its undoing, he believes.

Until recently, the listed company had insisted that everything was fine.

That reassurance came even though vehicle numbers have fallen far short of expectations since the 6.7km road opened in late July with an introductory free tolling period which ended last month.

But Brisconnections acknowledged on November 2 that its bankers had appointed insolvency and restructuring firm PPB Advisory to conduct an independent business review. Investors were warned that there may be “adverse implications”.

Is Brisconnections heading for the same fate as RiverCity Motorway Group, which collapsed about $1.4 billion in debt less than a year after the 2010 opening of Brisbane’s cross-river Clem7 tunnel?

That’s what Prof Goldberg thinks. Normally, such a dire forecast might be met with skepticism.

But Prof Goldberg, who taught at Sydney University and worked as a senior researcher at CSIRO for 30 years, has form.

He correctly predicted the failure of the companies operating the Cross City and Lane Cove tunnels in Sydney. That foresight earned him a place before a 2005 NSW Parliamentary inquiry.

“The public-private partnership concept has failed in Australia and should serve as a warning to superannuation funds of the high risk of investment in road infrastructure,” he writes in his current paper.

Investors have poured more than $23 billion into 11 toll roads across Australia since 1994 and the net return on equity has been small or negative in each case.

On the one hand I’m not fan of PPPs for transport because I think they’re just a form of “creative accounting” that benefits nobody but the lawyers drawing up the complex contracts. However, on the other hand if these high profile PPP failures in Australia had just been public sector roads we may well have never known about them, because the horribly inaccurate traffic predictions wouldn’t have been an issue. So it seems that – perhaps by learning the hard way – the PPP system might end up bringing a bit more rigour to the process of assessing whether projects are actually needed or not.

But that will be too late for the Airport Link, where it seems the process of working out how many vehicles were going to use the road each day was based on a rather convoluted process:

A common flaw in the failed tolls roads and, notably, Airport Link, is the use of a “work back” philosophy to forecasting traffic numbers, Prof Goldberg says.

The promised return on equity to investors is a starting point used to work back to how much revenue must be generated from the expected daily flow of vehicles, which has been inflated to wildly unrealistic targets, he says.

Brisconnections had forecast 135,000 vehicles a day would use Airport Link from the start and the numbers would eventually climb to 195,000 daily.

The most recent average traffic count showed a dip to just 66,203 a day in October, a period when the road’s use was still free for more than half the month.

The Clem7 traffic performance has been equally dismal, with an average of just 24,000 vehicles a day, less than a quarter of expectations.

The ‘work back’ philosophy seems utterly bizarre, to say that least.

Given the numerous failures of PPPs in Australia, for reasons which seem to be happening in New Zealand too, it is interesting that our government seems so keen on pursuing them for projects such as Transmission Gully and perhaps the future Puhoi-Wellsford road. The worry I have is that if private investors in PPPs are so burned from the Australian experiences then all the “demand side risk” (i.e. whether the road will have enough use and generate enough toll revenue to make it worthwhile) is likely to end up sitting with the public while the private investors make out like bandits through ‘creative accounting’. Pretty much the worst of both worlds.

Why do we never learn from the mistakes of others?

Auckland’s PT: expensive and poorly used

An Auckland Council report on various aspects of our transport system makes a number of comparisons of Auckland’s public transport system with various cities in Australia, Canada and the USA – as well as Wellington. The cities used to compare Auckland against, including their population and what different technologies their PT system includes, is shown in the table below: These are a good range of cities to compare Auckland’s performance against, in my opinion. We have a number of cities with fairly similar population densities to Auckland (Sydney, Vancouver) cities with a similar population (Portland, Calgary, Adelaide) and cities with a variety of PT systems. On the key statistic of boardings per capita, it’s clear to see that Auckland is the very bottom city on this list. The per capita boardings of the Canadian cities are pretty amazingly high.

If we just compare with the Australian cities (and with Wellington) we can also see that while Auckland’s patronage has grown over the past decade, it hasn’t increased as much as many other Australian cities, particularly Melbourne and Perth: It’s interesting to remind ourselves that Melbourne has a railway link tunnel fairly similar to what’s being proposed in Auckland, and the ability to get heaps of people into Melbourne’s CBD by train has played a major role in the revitalisation of downtown Melbourne over the past decade, obviously contributing significantly to its rising patronage.

If we look at modeshare comparisons, once again Auckland lags behind the other cities – although it must be remembered that this is 2006 data and undoubtedly things will have changed in Auckland since then. It’s a shame that the Canadian data wasn’t able to be broken down by PT type, but for many Australian cities it’s notable that generally rail has a similar, or greater, modeshare than buses for peak time travel. Auckland is very much the exception to that rule, which probably highlights a PT system that is a bit too dependent on buses (due to our historic neglect of the rail network).

So why are things so bad for Auckland? Setting aside the obvious historical reasons, it’s clear by comparing Auckland with these various overseas cities that we provide a lower quality and quantity of services than elsewhere, but we charge the highest price on a per kilometre basis. Firstly, the quality & quantity: In short, we’re providing a pretty rubbish service compared to all the other cities used in the comparison. But what are we charging compared to all these other cities: So despite having the lowest quality PT service out of all these comparative cities, we then go and charge passengers the highest fares out of any of the cities. Not content with that, we are also then one of the few cities not to have a properly integrated ticketing/fares system. The reasons for our low patronage levels are starting to become pretty obvious I think.

Another element to consider is the cost-effectiveness of our service delivery. Obviously the cost of providing our rail system is pretty high, because we’re running incredibly old trains and use an incredibly outdated, overly labour-intensive, ticketing system. Our bus service seems relatively normal to provide on a per kilometre basis: While our services don’t seem particularly expensive to provide on a per kilometre basis, because we have the lowest average loadings of our PT vehicles, Auckland then stands out as close to the most expensive city to provide public transport on a per-person basis: Looking at the graph above it seems fairly obvious that the key way for Auckland to improve the cost-effectiveness of its public transport network is by increasing passenger loads and thereby reducing working expenses per passenger kilometre. Nevertheless, because our fares are so incredibly high on a comparative basis, Auckland’s farebox recovery level actually isn’t bad when compared to many of the other cities: There are quite a few pages of pretty good analysis and suggestions about how we can improve Auckland’s situation towards the end of the document, but for me the information above is extremely helpful in outlining quite a few things:

  • Despite an improvement to Auckland’s PT system over the past decade, we’re still doing very poorly compared to comparative cities in Australia, Canada and the USA. Furthermore, most of those cities have been increasing their patronage at even faster rates to Auckland.
  • Compared to other cities, Auckland’s PT service quality is considered to be extremely low, while quantity of service provided is also fairly low (although somewhat understandably given our low use). Improving service quality (better reliability, faster speeds, value for money etc.) is likely to be the most effective way of increasing use.
  • Compared to the other cities, Auckland’s fares are incredibly high – particularly as we don’t have integrated ticketing. Making fares for unlimited daily, weekly or monthly travel quite a bit cheaper is likely to be quite effective at boosting patronage and making PT seen as better value for money. Peak/off-peak pricing splits are also likely to be a good idea.
  • Compared to Wellington in particular, we are paying too much for the provision of services on a per kilometre basis. Compared to all cities we’re paying too much on a per passenger basis. This suggests that we’re running too many empty/underloaded buses or trains around, particularly during peak times when it’s most expensive to get a vehicle on the road. I also wonder whether this makes a good case for a publicly owned bus company to do what Kiwibank has done to the banking industry and keep prices a bit sharper.
  • Our farebox recovery levels are actually quite high compared to many overseas cities, suggesting that efforts to improve cost-effectiveness should come from boosting patronage through service quality improvements, rather than by hiking fares.

This pretty much matches up with what I’ve thought for a long time (although I am surprised how comparatively high Auckland’s fares are). One hopes that now Auckland Transport and Auckland Council have all this information, it will become more obvious what interventions will be most useful. Things like better bus priority measures, a more efficient bus network, a more intensively used rail network and and improved ticketing system.

I hope that eventually we can get off the bottom of all these public transport statistics.

B-Line on weekends too?

The B-Line initiative on Dominion Road and Mt Eden Road bus services has apparently been quite successful. For a minimal resource investment (just a few stickers and a marketing campaign) patronage has apparently increased quite markedly on these two bus routes. Hopefully Auckland Transport will share information on the increase shortly so we get an idea about how many more people, on average, are riding these two bus routes now compared to the months before B-Line was launched.

I was initially a bit sceptical of B-Line: not because I didn’t think it was worth doing (in fact quite the opposite), but because the “a bus every 15 minutes between 7am and 7pm Monday to Friday” undersold the actual quality of both the Dominion Road (which has a bus every 5 minutes) and Mt Eden (a bus every 10 minutes) bus services. I do still wonder if they’d advertised it as “a bus at least every 10 minutes” whether we might have seen even bigger patronage increases.

But that’s a bit beside the point. The reason B-Line has been a success is pretty obvious: the services are marketed (and deliver) as being a high quality service run at better than normal frequencies with better than normal buses enjoying better than normal bus priority. In effect, it gets around the general perception of Auckland’s buses as being crap, slow, infrequent and unreliable by distinguishing these routes from the “dirty masses” of other bus routes throughout Auckland. These are sold as superior routes – and people have flocked to them.

Auckland’s not the only city in the world to adopt this kind of approach to improving buses. New York has its “select bus services” and Brisbane has its “BUZ routes” (which I became aware of thanks to a comment from BrisUrbane). The principles of the BUZ routes are somewhat similar to the B-Line: a service quality/frequency guarantee: One thing that I really like about the BUZ is that way that it can be shown on a map – as is outlined above. I’m very hopeful that as Auckland’s B-Line system expands we can create a map showing all the B.Line routes on it – similar to the map above. The other thing that really impresses me about BUZ is that Saturday, Sunday and evenings are included in the “timetable guarantee”. That means pretty much no matter when you want to catch a bus along these routes, at worst you’ll have to wait 15 minutes. By comparison, Auckland’s B.Line only offers its “a bus every 15 minutes” guarantee 7am-7pm, Monday to Friday.

The network features show a focus on integration with the rail network and looking to serve trips made outside the traditional commuting hours. The results of the BUZ initiative are really interesting. Patronage along all the routes has increased dramatically, but perhaps even more fascinating is which particular times of the week that have enjoyed the greatest patronage gains. Weekends and evenings. The results indicate a percentage increase on patronage in the 2003 base year before the initiative was introduced:

The beauty of having massive growth in off-peak patronage is that generally this won’t cost anywhere near as much compared to having to cater for increased peak time patronage. That’s because you already own enough buses and probably employ enough drivers to operate a peak time timetable: the extra operating costs for the off-peak services are minimal and therefore you can effectively get patronage gain for very little cost. By comparison, if peak time patronage had gone up by 250% on the 130 route listed above the transport agency would have needed to buy a massive number of new buses.

Looking at the figures above, the immediate thought that came to my mind was that the Sunday and evening increases probably look so big because they came off a very low base. While this is true to some extent, as the graph below shows along a lot of routes more people now travel on Sundays than previously did on weekdays. That is quite spectacular growth in weekend patronage: It would appear that people are very willing to catch public transport on weekends and in the evening if they are provided with a service that they know is high quality and frequent.

So my challenge to Auckland Transport is to extend the hours where they provide the “B.Line guarantee” beyond just 7am-7pm, Monday to Friday. Make it seven days, make it all evening. Judging by what has happened in Brisbane, the results should make the effort well worth it.