At the last Council meeting of 2012, Councillor Bendall was successful in getting the numbers for a resolution instigating a thoroughgoing review of the Council’s free bus service, the Mosman Rider. The Mosman Rider was an initiative of the previous Council and Mayor Abelson and Cr Bendall have made many public statements questioning the value of the service, so this motion comes as no surprise. Supporters of the service see it as the beginning of the end. Cost benefit analyses are a convenient way of justifying ideologically driven decisions. Any desired result can be achieved, depending on how the dollar figure for benefits is calculated. The fundamental problem is that while the costs are very clear and carried by Council, the benefits are distributed across multiple stakeholders over a long period of time and are very difficult to measure.
It is of course absolutely reasonable for the new Council to review whether the Mosman Rider is achieving its objectives in the most cost effective manner. It is also reasonable to ask whether the objectives themselves are worthy, have the support of the community and represent a better option than lower rates or spending on something else.
As one of the councillors who invested a lot of time and passion in getting the service established I am clearly going to be just as biased in favour of the Mosman Rider as Cr’s Abelson and Bendall are against it. This is the response that I would give to in response to Cr Bendall’s request for a review of the service. [The actual report prepared by Council staff is on the agenda for the April meeting. Council staff have done an excellent job comprehensively addressing each of the points in Councillor Bendall’s resolution with extensive data to back up their claims].
What are the objectives of the service
The primary objective has always been to provide a basic minimum level of mobility for Mosman residents who for whatever reason are mobility impaired. Specifically to provide a means of getting from home to the shops, to transport nodes and to foreshore recreation areas for those without a driving licence who and live in parts of Mosman not well served by public transport.
A secondary objective has been to encourage all Mosman residents to use public transport for local trips, since every car left in the garage means less pressure on parking, less congestion, less air pollution, less accidents and less greenhouse gas emissions.
At the time the service was introduced, there was a third objective – that of keeping access to the beach free. In the same way that the London congestion tax was used to subsidise public transport, revenue from parking meters paid for the Mosman Rider. Non-residents could park for free anywhere along the route and thus access the beach for nothing,
Are these legitimate aims
They are aims being very strongly promoted at all levels of government, in Australia and across the world. It is not hard to see why. Very few of us are getting the required 30 minutes of exercise we need a day to stay healthy. All the research shows that incidental exercise, the sort that we get when we use public transport rather than door to door transport in our own car, is the best way of sustaining the required level of physical activity and if the population is healthy the public purse outlays on health are much reduced. The Heart Foundation has published much on the topic. The NSW government through the Premiers Council on Active Living is urging local government to provide incentives and remove barriers to active travel. At the federal level the Department of Infrastructure has just released a discussion paper: ‘Walking, Riding and Access to Public Transport’ and the American Public Health Association is continuously building on the already overwhelming evidence that providing people with an alternative to driving pays
for itself many times over in reduced health care costs, reduced congestion and reduced need for parking infrastructure.
Other areas of government stress the economic value of providing services that allow people to remain independent and living in their own homes as they age. Others again stress the importance of reducing social isolation and ensuring that the elderly can get to medical appointments. Having the independence to meet up with friends where and when you want is highly valued by youth.
I would assume that the current Council agrees with these objectives, but are less convinced about how effectively the current service is achieving them. So let’s look at that.
To what extent is the service achieving its stated objectives
You only need to go for a ride on the Mosman Rider to observe that a lot of elderly people who one suspects are beyond driving use the service. Surveying this demographic of the clientele would show the extent to which having the service was a factor in keeping them independent,
It is also clear that a lot of young people use the service to meet up with each other or go to the beach. Many families with young children use the service to go to the shops, beach or Zoo. Children love it.
There are many regulars: travelling on the bus is quite a social experience, aided by the very friendly drivers. It is not just young people who use the bus for meeting friends for a coffee
So can it be said that each person who uses the bus represents mobility being provided to someone who would otherwise be mobility deprived or a trip that would otherwise be made by car? Certainly some of the passengers do and thus they provide evidence that the service is achieving its objectives. Some do not. For example they may use the bus when otherwise they would have walked or used the services provided by Sydney Buses.
So the question we must now explore is can the benefit of the service be expanded by attracting more passengers who, had it not been for the service, would have used their car or not made the trip at all.
How big is the pool of potential passengers?
The current route of the Mosman Rider was designed so that a large proportion of the population of Mosman is less than a ten minute walk away from the route. What limits its use is that either people don’t know about it, or the service frequency is too low (once per hour) or the journey time is too long (one hour for a complete circuit of Mosman). It is these two latter factors that make the service uncompetitive with driving yourself, even taking into account the hassle of finding a parking spot. Another factor maybe the presumed unreliability – we all know the bus gets delayed in traffic so often it is running well behind its timetable, and who wants to wait at the stop with a suspicion that the bus has already passed through? In fact reliability is not a problem for those in the know, as the mobile phone bus locator system largely overcomes that problem.
Clearly a higher frequency service with a shorter journey time would increase the pool of potential passengers, but it would also cost a lot more to run. Two buses would be needed to provide a half hour service on two different half hour loops.
I believe there is still considerable scope for increasing passenger numbers with the existing service. Mosman has a growing number of both children and retired people. Both groups are under less time pressure than their working counterparts and once you rule out time as an issue there is a lot of attraction in being chauffeured, enjoying the social experience, being dropped at the door, being able to drink and not having to find a parking spot. The Mosman Rider and Sydney Buses services taken in conjunction actually allow you to get from anywhere to anywhere in Mosman and back again with not too much waiting time, particularly, if the mobile phone location services are used and you start your trip only when the bus is due.
Passenger numbers have risen steadily since the service was first introduced. People typically learn about the service from friends. Once they have experienced how convenient it is, it enters their mindset and they become repeat customers. Even without any further promotion passenger numbers and hence the community benefit will grow over time as the message spreads by word of mouth. The benefit to cost ratio will consequently grow. By promoting the service the benefits would grow even faster. A short video of current clients saying how they use the service and why they like it along with details of the route and timing, screened at the Hayden Orpheum would reach the right demographic. It could be also be screened at Council and at Bridgepoint and in local schools.
Other ways to promote the service would be to letterbox drop houses adjacent to the route with timing information for their locality – when the bus passes through their area and how long it takes to get to each key destination. New residents should be taken on a guided tour of Mosman on the Rider once they have been on it and seen how it works it won’t be such a leap of faith to use it for a real trip.
Another potential benefit of the service would be to map out ‘a day in Mosman’ for international tourists staying in the city. It would involve a ferry ride to Taronga Zoo (with or without a Zoo visit), the 238 to Balmoral Beach for lunch, the Mosman Rider for a tour around Balmoral Heights and Beauty Point, a visit to the Art Gallery followed by a stroll down the shopping strip, then a 230 to Mosman Wharf and home on the ferry. Many other itineraries could be invented. The Mosman Rider passes no less than 20 places to have a coffee.
Could the cost of the service be reduced without compromising its quality?
The benefit to cost ratio can be increased by either increasing benefits or lowering costs. In this section I examine various options for reducing the cost while maintaining the same level of service ie an hourly service from most parts of Mosman to the Mosman shopping strip and a half hourly service from the shopping strip to the beach.
Let’s start with the route. The route was painstakingly worked out to meet the following criteria. It needed to be within easy reach of the majority of the Mosman population, it needed to pass close to all of Mosman’s key destinations, it should complement and add value to Sydney Buses services, it should be impacted minimally by congestion, it needed to pass the same spot at the same time each hour, it needed to get people quickly to the beach and shops, but if they stayed on the bus, deliver them to any of Mosman’s key destinations. The route chosen needed to be negotiable by the bus and have plenty of safe places to pick up and drop off passengers.
The route finally arrived at was a figure of eight loop crossing over at Balmoral. By using loops rather than a star pattern duplication of Sydney Buses services is minimised.
An argument has been made that the original mobility objectives could be achieved by expanding community transport – for example providing for the eligible elderly a fixed number of taxi vouchers. Or more ambitiously replacing the Mosman Rider with a computer based bus despatching system that would respond to calls from potential passengers, optimising its route to pick up each passenger and deliver them to their destination. Leaving aside the loss of independence (having to ask for help rather than simply using a service) and the unpredictability of your arrival time with such a service, the major disadvantage is that such services are not scalable, costs rise in proportion to passengers. For the Mosman Rider, benefits increase with passenger numbers, while costs are held constant. There is thus no financial impediment to promoting the service, and consequently reducing greenhouse gas emissions, reducing demand on parking, reducing congestion
The Mosman Rider, now that it is established and growing in popularity has so much potential. It could become very Mosman to do the social and environmental right thing and get around Mosman by a combination of walking cycling, Mosman Rider and Sydney Buses – excepting of course when the weather was bad, or you had lots to carry, or you were short of time. The State government in its Transport Master Plan has argued that Sydney bus services should be restricted to trunk routes with feeder buses providing for micro mobility. Mosman and Manly will be well placed to negotiate a deal with the State government when this happens, having developed experience in running their own services
Another way of reducing the costs would be to charge for the service. This would add to operational costs and also be a disincentive. It would also be unfair as the chief beneficiaries are not the passengers but the community. They benefit from having one less car on the road. In the long term, when the service is fully established with two buses providing a 30 minute service it would be appropriate to charge a fare, provided that at that time the OPAL card is in use across all transport in Sydney, including the Mosman Rider. In the short term sponsorship, or on bus advertising could be considered.
Wouldn’t it be better to scrap the service and lower rates?
This is a matter for political judgement by the councillors. Every Council service could be scrapped and the rates dropped ever lower. The Mosman Rider first, then perhaps the Library, then the sporting venues. Where do you draw the line? I think that the Mosman community is quite comfortable with the mix of services they get in return for their rates, and are generous enough to accept that they are paying for some services that they personally don’t use but are vital for others.. As the population ages, more people live here and fuel prices increase support for the Mosman Rider will grow ever more stronger. Scrapping or even significantly changing the service now would be to squander a four year build-up of passenger good will and three years of fine tuning to optimise the service. It would put a lot of cars back on the road and make a lot of people seriously question whether they could continue independent living. It would make a lot of children who get so excited about riding the ‘Whale Bus’, very sad. It would make me sad too, seeing a great initiative by one Council destroyed by the next. But I guess that is how politics is played these days.