Assorted old transport notes
Russell Degnan

No blogging recently, distracted by teaching and marking instead, but some stories are too good to pass up. The Brumby government has been copped a beating a while back for spending money on spinning their transport initiatives instead of on the system. The spin is annoying, but otherwise I can bear it, and the money is, as stated, fairly piddling. But then you come across a non sequitur like this:

"The reason we have done the ads is, in all of the research we have done with commuters, they say they want information about what is happening on the system," she [Lynne Kosky] said.

Now, I may be wrong, there may be a commuter survey out there saying that people want information on new projects and initiatives being undertaken by the department, rather a raft of actual projects and initiatives. But I doubt it.

What this comment represents is a deplorable disconnection between the department and/or the government with what commuting actually entails. If I ticked a box or made a comment saying I wanted "information about what is happening on the system", then I wouldn't be talking about the next few years, I'd be talking about while I was traveling". I'd be wanting to know if I was wasting my time freezing my arse on the bus stop when it would be quicker to walk to the station, or a different bus. Or I'd want to know the alternative routes and times from where I was, at the time I wanted to travel (a service already provided incidentally, but only online, not by mobile).

It is unbelievably sad, that a quite reasonable and sensible request by commuters for information that would actually take pressure off the system has been met with a stale and wasteful advertising campaign. Especially when that same information, distributed widely and reliably, would in the current climate of invention and added customer value, allow people to build useful systems for real time route finding.

But it is also a bizarre decision in light of recent practice. The quality and quantity of information presented on the transport system has improved by an order of magnitude in the past few years - remember when you'd have a one in five chance of having a route map on board a train? The aim should really be to take the next step beyond those initiatives, but as with most little transport initiatives, they are piecemeal, even when they do some good.

Meanwhile, the minister's department is proposing to waste money putting bicycles on buses. This is not to say there isn't half a dozen commuters who are both a) travelling a significantly distance across town and b) in need of a bike at either their origin and destination.

But two things need remembering. Firstly, the major strategic purpose of both bicycles and buses is to connect commuters to the radial railway system. Very few commuters would use either a bus (even the smart buses) or a bicycle for a trip longer than thirty to forty minutes. And secondly, for trips of that length, a bicycle is roughly as fast as the bus anyway - faster once you include delays from congestion and waiting times.

There is hardly a significant demand for such a service, unlike on trains, where bikes are still either belittled or inadequately provided for: is it that hard to install some vertical, space efficient hooks in carriages?

The money would be far better spent improving bicycle lanes and off-road routes parallel to smart bus lanes, to get cyclists there quicker and easier.

It would also be remiss of me not to round out this summary of transport articles from a month ago without mentioning The Age's campaign to bring back conductors. I am in faovur of the idea, but apparently, at least according to Chris Berg this makes me nostalgic for human interaction and a nicer society, rather than a disgruntled opponent of ticketing systems.

I'm not though. I have spent far too many years designing human-computer interfaces not to recognize too fundamental truths. Firstly, somewhat regardless of how clever you are, and how good your interface is, until a computer passes the Turing test, you can't beat a human's ability to be flexible in performing a task. Yes, a computer can sell tickets, and provide some directions, and other commuters can help people on and off the tram, but not to the same level of quality, and not in a way that improves running efficiency and reduces far evasion. Secondly, no matter how intuitive your interface is, customers have a remarkable ablility to both break it, and be baffled by it. The current ticket system in Melbourne is completely baffling to the uninitiated (ie. tourists). Myki will probably be worse, because it tries to be more clever, and clever is confusing.

Which is not to say Myki isn't a good idea - actually it is probably a pointless waste of money, but politicians love the idea of automation, because it looks like an easy way to save money; at least until the IT bills come in. Fare system improvement is a good idea. Re-introducing conductors is a good way of improving the fare system.

Sterner Matters 12th August, 2008 19:43:05   [#]