Lights, camera, ACTION: the wheels on the bus go where needed

By Stephen Easton

September 8, 2014

The ACT government has used detailed passenger data to redesign its ACTION bus network for the first time. And while not all passengers are happy, peak hour is running more smoothly.

The system’s “MyWay” smart cards, introduced in 2011, provided a wealth of user behaviour to measure. This information was combined with over 2300 pieces of feedback from drivers and passengers, collected during a four-week public consultation on proposed changes last September.

Inevitably, some passengers are unhappy with the changes and have taken their complaints to social media, generating negative local news coverage for ACTION. Things took a turn for the worse when some drivers started handing out the minister’s phone number to aggrieved passengers on slips of paper, and now a lobby group for Weston Creek residents has fired off an angry letter about the changes.

ACT director of public transport James Roncon is not surprised there are complaints and believes his team have struck the right balance with the new network, without any increase in funding.

“That’s the thing with ACTION — we’re damned if we do and we’re damned if we don’t,” he told The Mandarin. “Because we’re a government business with community service obligations, if we don’t provide services for everybody that might want them, whenever they might want them across the day, we’re maligned.

“And when we try and be a bit more smart with the way we design networks and spend our money, to try to get the best bang for our buck, given that we’ve only got a limited budget, we can get maligned there as well. So you’ve just got to do what you think’s right.”

The new network, he explains, focuses on increasing the frequency of services along the main arterial routes, or “trunks”, where previously buses were filling up, leaving some commuters stranded. Supply was not meeting demand on the main routes during peak times.

“… it’s just not economically viable for us to run a bus service for only a few people.”

“ACTION’s number one core objective is mass passenger transit,” Roncon explained. “That means getting as many people as possible from their point A to their point B in the shortest possible time frame.

“The second objective is legislative compliance and a lot of that’s things around accessibility — people of all walks of life being able to access the buses — and then the third one is anything ancillary to that, like bike racks on buses and those sorts of things.”

Some of the trade-offs are that passengers have to walk further to get to the bus stop, and services don’t go as late into the night.

By looking at the MyWay data, Roncon says ACTION was able to see just how few passengers were using late-night services in Canberra. It was felt those resources would be best diverted to increasing frequency on the main commuter routes.

“Our main focus is mass passenger transit,” he reiterated. “People don’t always like it when I say that but we’ve got to look at where the most people want to travel to, what times of the day they’re travelling — and that’s where we’ve got to divert our resources to, to make sure we satisfy that.

“As hard as we’ll try to put late-night services on to cater for people and get them to where they want to go at off-peak times, it’s just not economically viable for us to run a bus service for only a few people.”

Previously, changes to routes and timetables were based solely on feedback from drivers and passengers, which meant there was every chance of the squeakiest wheels getting the most grease.

Going forward, the ticket data can be used to continually adjust the network, and ACTION has recently hired a business analyst to pore through it all for insights. At the moment, they are searching for any unexpected “choke points” but Roncon is confident the basic structure of the network will stand the test of time.

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