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What next for the Public Transport Users Association?

I’m disappointed The Age ran a story this week with the lede: “After almost 10 years in the role, Melbourne’s chief complainer about public transport has finally had enough.” The headline was just as rude: “Transport mouthpiece to step down.”

Exhibit: You’d think these would be everywhere in a UNESCO City of Literature (photo by Stan Alcorn)

The “chief complainer” and “mouthpiece” is Daniel Bowen, current President of Victoria’s Public Transport Users Association (PTUA), who’s just announced he won’t stand for re-election next month. Since The Age and the PTUA have pretty well been singing from the same hymn sheet in recent years, I can only hope it’s an attempt at humour that doesn’t come off.

The PTUA started 36 years ago as the Trains Travellers Association, changing its name in 1984 to its present decidedly prosaic incarnation. It’s a small, lean and hungry group of volunteers that punches well above its weight in shaping discussion of public transport, particularly in Melbourne.

It’s had some extraordinarily able spokespersons in recent years like Paul Mees and Daniel Bowen. What’s marked them out is their in-depth understanding of the technical aspects of public transport planning and operations.

What’s mattered most though is they’re good media performers and have worked hard, making themselves very accessible to the media. The laziness of the press and TV has doubtless helped here, but they’ve also shown an imaginative and proactive approach to using it.

Daniel Bowen has been particularly impressive. He brought a measure of reasonableness and maturity to the PTUA’s media profile. It’s fair to say, I think, that the public like him – if he were inclined to, I reckon he’d be successful in politics.

With the change of President after nine years, though, it would be timely for the PTUA to reflect on its role and future direction. To my mind, there are a couple of key issues to think about.

The first is tactical and relates to the PTUA’s self-defined role as an advocacy group. It’s an essentially political organisation with a line to sell and its been very forceful in selling that line.

It’s not afraid to massage and spin to maximise the impact of issues it holds to be important. Its defining focus is the media and that’s meant it has tended at times to take a populist position.

Its also elected on occasions to ignore the real-life constraints on constructing and managing transport systems. For example, it’s advocated virtually every major rail proposal that’s been touted, without showing much concern for their merits or for prioritising them within the constraint of scarce resources.

I’d like to see the PTUA take a more considered approach on some issues. For example, rather than offering unreserved support, it should be advocating against the likes of marginal projects such as the proposed Rowville rail line, on the basis that there are far higher priorities for the transport dollar.

The PTUA seems to prefer to take the simplistic, but easy to sell, line that all public transport’s equally good if it involves rails. In a world of unlimited resources that might be fair enough, but not in the real world. I think this is one area where the organisation could really improve its relevance.

The second issue concerns whether making the media your defining strategy is the best approach for an organisation like the PTUA. It necessarily involves bucketing various other parties on a consistent basis so it has its risks.

Members should think very carefully about whether success in garnering media attention is really the same thing as success in achieving better public transport outcomes. They also need to consider if the PTUA might be more effective if it adopted a different strategy.

Those ostensibly similar organisations, the RACV and Bicycle Network Vicoria (BNV), tend to work more with Government (although that’s not to say they’re never openly critical). They even run programs on behalf of government – for example, Melbourne Bikeshare is managed by the RACV.

They doubtless think that’s a more effective way of advancing the welfare of their members than relying primarily on managing the media. In my view that approach comes with its own risks (some of which I’ve discussed before).

I tend to the view that the PTUA’s arms-length approach is probably the right one. Partly that’s because it doesn’t have the option of “working with” other stakeholders like government, at least in part because it doesn’t have a large membership base.

Both the RACV and BNV have “killer apps” that attract members – roadside service and cyclist insurance, respectively. Moreover many members find driving and cycling intrinsically interesting, whereas public transport users treat the experience like washing clothes – necessary but inherently boring.

Without a large membership base, the PTUA’s scope to influence from “inside the tent” is limited. So I suspect the media strategy probably is the right approach for the PTUA. But it certainly warrants further reflection.

The third issue concerns who the PTUA speaks for. It’s run by a small group of dedicated and passionate enthusiasts (actually, seems to be a dynastic club!). They have a demonstrably green agenda that includes a huge expansion in public transport’s mode share and restrictions on driving.

Most readers of The Urbanist will be sympathetic to that objective. However it’s very unlikely that all of their agenda (and the implicit values underlying it) reflects the concerns, much less the political orientation, of most public transport users.

As I noted recently, 38% of Melburnians use public transport at least once a month. I imagine they overwhelmingly share the PTUA’s frustrations with the inefficiency of the overall system, but I expect only a small minority share the same ideological position on issues like freeways.

It’s testimony to the media smarts of the organisation that it’s nevertheless managed to position itself so effectively as the key consumer voice – in fact the only one – on public transport in Melbourne.

The critical question here is whether the PTUA wants to be an organisation representative of the narrow concerns and views of all public transport users (similar to RACV and BNV); or whether it wants to be a ginger group promoting a broader but largely non-mainstream view.

For the same reasons mentioned above in relation to membership, I don’t think it can ever be broad-based. If the media treat it as representative that’s more the media’s fault than the PTUA’s. Personally, I’d like to see it continue to push a “radical” agenda.

Even if the PTUA were to conclude, like me, that its strategic direction is pretty much right, it should still use this opportunity to stop and have a good hard think. I hope though that it decides to be more discerning about priorities. And well done to Daniel Bowen – he’s a very hard act to follow.

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  • 1
    Last name First name
    Posted September 18, 2012 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

    Parker Alan. OAM
    Daniel Bowen is indeed a hard act to follow. I have a member over 30 years (On an Off) and I note the prodigious amount of email information he produced every week on his watch.

    Personally like Alan , I’d like to see the PTUA continue to push a “radical” agenda.

  • 2
    Nik Dow
    Posted September 19, 2012 at 1:48 am | Permalink

    Spot on comment Alan regarding “anything rail is good” and the need to prioritise.
    Have we really tried to run a good bus service to Rowville? Fixed rail becomes good economics when the passenger volume exceeds a given level (maybe 10,000 pax/hour?). Until a bus service is running with numbers approaching this level, the evidence for a rail line is not there.

    To the Rowville line we could add an airport line, where the numbers on the excellent bus service are nowhere near that required to justify the capital expense of a railway. This rail-ism blinds the PTUA (not completely) to the need for a huge expansion of bus services, mainly in the outer suburbs. To their credit they have championed the smart bus services, which are the way to go.

    Underlying all of this however is the lack of a consistent methodology to inform the Government’s PT investment decisions. The PTUA doesn’t have the resources to do this work, only government has.

  • 3
    Tom the first and best
    Posted September 19, 2012 at 6:29 am | Permalink

    I point those here in the direction of

    http://www.danielbowen.com/2011/04/06/rrl-issues/

  • 4
    Krammer56
    Posted September 19, 2012 at 7:53 am | Permalink

    As a member of BNV I have always thought they struck a pretty good balance between advocacy, technical backing and providing something for their members. This has allowed them to both agitate for a better cycling world and work as an involved stakeholder with local & state Government to achieve thier goals.

    On the other hand, as you note, the PTUA has a more redical approach that has precluded them from being able to say anything nice about anything done in PT. This results in them always being on the outside, becasue there is little point in involving them if all you get is negative feedback in the end ayway.

    And this more redical approach is also probably why they only have 1,000 members (out of 500,000+ of us who regularly use PT).

    For the PTUA to thrive and become more relevant, I suggest they need to become the go-to representatives of the PT travelling public – this would not only give them more credibility, but they may end up being more influential in enhancing Melbourne PT system.

    And while they are at it they need to get off their fixation that there is a simple fix to the rail system – the “we ran more trains in 1930′s, why can’t we do it now?” line. After all these years of political thrashing both side of Goverment have received, don’t you think it would have been fixed if it was that easy!

  • 5
    St Etienne
    Posted September 19, 2012 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    There’s a fine line between being on the inside like BNV and operating independently like the PTUA. Like a lot of other bike riders I have become incredibly frustrated with BNV’s weak advocacy due to their determination not to upset their political masters. I would much prefer to see bold and innovative ideas coming from our cycling representatives rather than the unimaginative and cautious approach that has characterised the organisation for the past few years.

    The PTUA, on the other hand, has always been forthright in demanding the best for the PT-using public, even if it means exposing and embarrassing the government. It may be a moot point as to whether such an approach is more effective but I know which side I’d prefer to be on.

  • 6
    michael r james
    Posted September 19, 2012 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

    I too saw that headline the other day and was also put off by it (there are lots of complaints about inappropriate headlines by the subediting at Fairfax having been outsourced to NZ). After reading the article I thought Daniel Brown should get a medal from the city.

    Not being from Melbourne I cannot really judge the PTUA but as a matter of principle I’m with St Etienne (1:36 pm) in that weak advocacy is worse than no advocacy: the organization ends up being used and abused by the politicians and road lobby. Being invited to their cocktail parties is probably not a good sign. When you look at the state governments of Newman, O’Farrell and Baillieu, all relentlessly anti-cycling, anti-pedestrian and anti-PT the only people who will effectively take the case up to the ruling powers necessarily will have to be passionate and committed. Like the vicious politics against Clover Moore in Sydney, anyone imagining that anything other than very robust advocacy would be effective is misguided. Given that Melbourne has a cycle hire scheme and the increasing popularity of cycling it seems the PTUA is not so ineffectual.

    I wish them luck with their next leader. These things are very difficult to maintain momentum but I am reminded by the New York City equivalent called Transportation Alternatives which in the 2000s had Harold Varmus on their board. As if winning the Nobel Prize (Phys. & Med. 1989; ahem I worked in the adjacent lab to his at UCSF in 1992) was not enough he was also director of the US-Nat. Inst. Health during the Clinton years (doubling its budget to beyond $30 billion p.a.), then became director of the Sloan Kettering Memorial Institute at Cornell U. in NYC in the 2000s. Obama appointed him director of the National Cancer Institute in 2010. His wiki entry says he “is an avid bicyclist and an Advisory Committee member of Transportation Alternatives the New York City-based advocacy group for pedestrians and cyclists. He is also a runner, rower, and fisherman.” He is a born New Yorker. There is not a politician or public servant who would not pick up the phone if he called or if he requested a meeting.

    I mention him because Melbourne has Peter Doherty (Nobel, P&M 1996) and his just-published book Sentinel Chickens shows he has an interest in environmentalism and sustainability. These guys are always very busy but they also have (by definition I suppose) huge energy and often a high sense of communitarianism. And of course people like these are master politicians.

    I also see that Transportation Alternatives has a few other celebs on its advisory board; probably a lot but the ones I recognized are: David Byrne (yes that David Byrne and recent author of Bicycle Diaries
    ; he used to take his bike with him on Talking Heads tours, who knew!) and Matthew Modine.

    Of course NYC has the advantage of a very progressive mayor in Bloomberg, and so they may have got their version of the Velib system without TA. But it always helps to have some celebs on such bodies. (I wonder if Princess Kylie cycles?)

  • 7
    IkaInk
    Posted September 20, 2012 at 3:27 am | Permalink

    @Krammer56

    It’s absolute rubbish that the PTUA are always on the outside, or that they are inherently negative. They do get consulted by politicians, and politicians sometimes speak at their meetings (for example Terry Mulder was the guest speaker for a meeting last year). They regularly give credit where credit is due: 10 minute frequencies for the Frankston line is something they mention often as a real positive move from Metro; and they frequently promote how Smart Buses have had real positive effects on Melbourne’s bus network, while they push for more bus routes to be upgraded to this level of service.

    Additionally, whilst Paul Mees argues that we ran more trains in the 30s than we do now, he is no longer a member (or at least an active member) of the PTUA and hasn’t been for a while. I don’t think you’ll find Daniel or anyone else on the committee trying to spruke that argument very often. However, we did run more trains then and we’ve since built the city loop which was designed to add a lot of extra capacity, so honestly why can’t we now? (hint: we can and Metro plans to.).

  • 8
    Tom the first and best
    Posted September 20, 2012 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    We are about equal (within a train or 2) now with the number of trains through Flinders St Station (excluding Port Melbourne and St Kilda) in the busiest hour/8-9 in the morning with the 1929 peak in trains. In 1929 there were only 6 tracks through Richmond compared to today and many more level crossings.

    The City Loop itself added practically no capacity to the rail network (4 extra trains` capacity on the Clifton Hill group and this extra capacity is not even used and possibly 4 trains on either the Caulfield or Burnley groups). It was the associated works like the extra pair of viaduct tracks (Flinders St-Spencers St) and the extra pair of tracks from Flinders St to Richmond for the Burnley group. The real reason behind the City Loop was a combination of property development, tram passenger diversion, having a big inner-city rail project and pedestrian congestion reduction. The first 3 are also behind the proposed new rail tunnel in the CBD. The big spend in the CBD diverts funds away from suburban PT projects like the City Loop did in the 1970s and 80s.

  • 9
    IkaInk
    Posted September 21, 2012 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    @Tom – I agree wholeheartedly. I just didn’t want to spend more than a sentence on an argument that was off topic. The point was more that the PTUA don’t make the argument Krammer has claimed they do.

  • 10
    Alan Davies
    Posted September 21, 2012 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    IkaInk #7:

    Thanks, that 2021 service plain is a useful map. And to go off-topic: It shows 18 tph in the peak from the two existing lines at Clifton Hill. Since capacity to the city is 24 tph, that leaves only 6 tph for a Doncaster line in the peak. Key issues: (a) Doncaster would be at peak capacity from day one (b) is 6 tph in the peak an adequate level of service by 2021 anyway? IIRC you’ve alluded to signalling improvements liberating more capacity, but this PTUA post implicitly accepts the 24 tph capacity constraint.

  • 11
    IkaInk
    Posted September 21, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    Yep, I’ve discussed this all before on your blog Alan. Although a long time ago I was certainly for the Doncaster line, I’m now not so sure as I haven’t done a thorough enough analysis on the matter.

    However I do think there is a lot still worth considering.

    Is 6 trains per hour adequate? You’ve argued plenty of times that its not likely to attract very high ridership so I’d say a train every 10 minutes would be perfectly ok for a while yet. It is certainly better than half the network gets now. If passenger numbers did grow and trains were full, then it would be worth considering digging the tunnel from Victoria Park through Parkville and Carlton, towards Melbourne Central. The point is the tunnelling part of the Doncaster project is not necessary yet, and may not be for a long time. As this tunnelling would almost certainly be the most expensive part its the part we should be most cautious about.

    As for the existing Clifton Hill group trains not having room to expand if we put the Doncaster line in without the tunnel: I pointed out that 7 minute headways is actually pretty damn good for a city of our size (comparable to much of the London Underground), and that extra passenger capacity could be added through a smarter internal layout and by using 6 car sets instead of 3 (where you sacrifice passenger space for 2 unused driver compartments, and large couplings). For an idea of how much capacity this could add: our fleet is considered overcrowded at 800 passengers (although they can and do fit a lot more), the newest Toronto Rocket cars can handle nearly 1600.

  • 12
    IkaInk
    Posted September 21, 2012 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    Also, I don’t believe I ever suggested signalling improvements for the CH group, but I did say that some exceptional train operators go above and beyond “best practice” and run at 90% capacity (instead of 80%) which in theory could allow 27 trains per hour. As Melbourne struggles with reliability now I think 90% capacity is a few decades of heavy maintenance, upgrades and operating improvements away.

  • 13
    Alan Davies
    Posted September 21, 2012 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    IkaInk #11, #12:

    “Is 6 trains per hour adequate? You’ve argued plenty of times that its not likely to attract very high ridership so I’d say a train every 10 minutes would be perfectly ok for a while yet.

    That’s not a sound argument. If it isn’t going to attract high ridership then it’s questionable it should be built in the first place.

    “If passenger numbers did grow and trains were full, then it would be worth considering digging the tunnel….”

    If we already know it’ll be at capacity when it opens (say in 2021), then the decision about the tunnel should be taken at the same time as a committment is made to the whole project.

    I agree increasing capacity to 90% cannot just be assumed.

  • 14
    IkaInk
    Posted September 22, 2012 at 1:08 am | Permalink

    I haven’t tried to claim that it is not questionable to build the line (at least in the past few years). However it is a perfectly sound argument I have made.

    The argument is as follows: is there enough passengers to warrant building the train line at all? If no, then don’t build: If yes, then; will the forecast passenger numbers within the next 30 or so years justify higher than 10 minute frequencies? If no, then proceed without the tunnel: if yes, then; are the forecast passenger numbers high enough to justify the project including the tunnel? If no, then what other options exist to cater to the forecast passenger numbers. Are there other benefits to building the tunnel that help justify the costs.

    Finally Alan we don’t know that it will be at capacity at 2021. Even if the numbers of trains running is at capacity that does not mean passenger numbers are at capacity. The trains might still be half empty. The Doncaster line might use the current train fleet, while newer higher capacity trains are used on higher demand routes, as more of the fleet is upgraded Doncaster can be upgraded to. Passenger capacity is not the same as fleet capacity on the line.

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