Adelaide: A Network Design Proposal Fails

In my long experience redesigning bus networks, it’s been rare to see a team spend years talking with people, studying reams of data, and developing a design through many iterations, only to have the result be nothing.  Most designs I’ve worked on have either been implemented or at least been the basis of some improvements.

Adelaide, Australia, however, has just abandoned a thorough redesign of its network.  It was a political decision, in which the Premier of South Australia overruled his own Minister of Transport, who had proposed the changes.    (I was not involved in this project.)

The basic idea of the plan was to reorganize services into a simpler pattern with far less complexity and far more frequency — which is what high-ridership redesigns (like the projects I worked on in Auckland, Houston, and Silicon Valley) do.  Such a revision will typically delete stops that are too close to other stops, and may ask people to walk to frequent service on a nearby main street rather than having infrequent service closer to their door.  It may require some people to change buses who don’t have to do so now.

The result of the proposed simplification is typically a dramatic expansion of the high frequency network, which in turn means a network that provides faster door-to-door travel times and is easier to learn, remember, and explain.

Here’s a slice of the existing Adelaide network.  Lots of infrequent routes, but none of them are likely to be coming when you need them.

Here’s what it would have looked like under the new network.  Here, red lines are likely to be coming whenever you need them — they run every 15 minutes all day — while blue lines come every 30 minutes.  (Oddly enough, this is the same color scheme that we use in all of our maps!)

If your goal were higher ridership, or maximizing where people can get to in a fixed amount of time, this kind of network design would do that.    (Again, I was not involved in this design, and am not endorsing the specific design choices.)

But even if you do everything right — even if you do the right engagement, analyze the data well, and come up with the best possible design, people will scream.  That’s because many riders are used to the system as it is, and have no interest in how the network improves access to opportunity for anyone but themselves.  It doesn’t matter how useless the existing network is.  Some people use it, and they will defend it, and the negative feedback is always louder than the support.

Almost all journalists will tell the negative side (Rage! Recriminations! A chance to paint leaders as incompetent!) because it just gets more clicks than the positive side (More people can get to more places, especially disadvantaged people! More people will ride! Less car traffic and pollution!)  So of course, if a plan eliminates some bus stops that are too close to other stops, the headline will be:



It’s possible to make this reaction worse by doing a poor job at engaging decision makers and the public at every step, but it’s not possible to make it go away.  Thus, I always have to remind elected officials at the beginning of the process:  “All network designs that don’t add new operating cost are controversial.  The more they try to achieve, the more controversial they are. Some people will scream at you. It may divide your own coalition. If you’re not up for that, let’s not even begin.”  This, quite simply, is why some really incoherent and wasteful ones are never fixed.

So what went wrong here?

The excellent blog Melbourne on Transit blog has a long post-mortem. I agree with most of it, and would add:

  • If you are using the redesign to cut service, there should be a clearly understood reason, like the pandemic and related budget crises. Service cuts due to crisis can be a good time to do redesign — if that helps reduce the overall damage of the cuts — but it means that you have to deal with anger about the cuts at the same time that you deal with anger about the redesign.
  • Minimize the number of controversies you are having at once.  Network redesign is controversial enough when the public is allowed to focus on it; it gets much harder when the public confuses it with other issues happening at the same time.  Don’t try to reform contracts with operating companies, or introduce new companies, at the same time.  Don’t raise fares at the same time.
  • Don’t propose magical outcomes.  The government used the language of trying to “reduce subsidies” while improving service, due to some alchemy that was supposed to happen inside the operating companies.  This is not how it works.  Setting impossible expectations is a guarantee of failure.
  • Provide very clear information in lots of formats, with good before-and-after analysis tools.  We provide before-and-after trip planners, maps of how access (where you can get to in a reasonable time) changes, and lots of other ways for people to engage with how the plan affects their lives as well as how it affects the city.
  • Go to the public with options, or at least a draft, with a clear message that the plan will be revised in response to comment.

Still, it’s a struggle.  This may not have been the right design for Adelaide, but it’s unfortunate that after all that effort, they’ll get nothing.  An obsolete and inefficient network will always be popular among people who are used to it, but if that’s always a reason not to improve it, the whole city loses.

4 Responses to Adelaide: A Network Design Proposal Fails

  1. Malcolm M July 16, 2020 at 6:57 am #

    The public consultation was woeful. I put a question by email and on the Facebook page about how buses would “feed” into a new train extension when the bus stop was a 300 m walk from the station. There was no attempt to answer the question either by email nor on the Facebook page. It wasn’t just me, but there was no attempt to address anyone else’s question on Facebook either, only a message to their feedback formally. This is a playbook for failure of the whole project, because it allows rumours to start simply because of lack of information about what is being proposed. It would have been a wise investment to have a member of the project team answer such questions on Facebook, perhaps providing details of what was proposed and that the team welcomed the feedback to modify the final plans.

    It would be good to have had a journey planner for the current and proposed system, as you mention in your blog post.

    There were questions on the Facebook page about which bus stops would be scrapped, and it seemed the development team hadn’t planned to that level of detail. There was nothing about the benefits of scrapping some stops through better journey times. On many of the major roads in Adelaide, each stop a bus makes causes it to miss a green wave in the traffic light system.

    There was no background technical report on the website. This could have put the case for a budget-neutral bus reform, and listed the patronage of each route per hour of service. Such a report is bound to have been prepared, but was kept hidden from the public.

  2. GAVIN July 19, 2020 at 12:37 am #

    Overall i think the bones of the new network were right but it fell flat for a few reasons. I don’t live in Adelaide but grew up in South Aus, so was interested to folllow it.

    -Bad consultation. Basically if you wanted to compare old and new, you had to juggle PDFs in multiple tabs. There was no interactive maps which is unforgivable.
    No face to face consultation due to the rona.

    -Bus stop removals. I don’t mind making people walk to the frequent network, but I think it relied to heavily on removing coverage routes, so the baseline walking distance was 800m. Too far.

    This doesn’t mean the network needed to be the spaghetti it is now, but I don’t think it would have hurt to have hourly coverage routes threading in between the go zones without overlap.

    Personally, if they had to make the changes revenue neutral, they could have done fewer new go zones, and put slightly more resources towards coverage.

    In particular I thought the cutbacks in Gawler were a bit much. Many parts of Gawler we’re going to get Demand responsive transit, which I think is a bit silly from a network planning perspective if right now they are electrifying the Gawler line and presumably increasing frequency to the suburb.

    Overall the network still would have been much simpler and better than the current one.

    -Tram and Rail privatisation. Bad timing since it made people skeptical of motives.

    -Finally, I think some finer grain stuff was wrong, eg not enough emphasis on ensuring secondary hubs like North Adelaide, Marion etc were accessible without having to make three changes.

  3. Jack Whisner July 28, 2020 at 1:05 pm #

    Excellent analysis. Project communication has to be clear and tradeoffs acknowledged. The SR-520 area of King County Metro and Sound Transit (ST) has gone through fits and starts attempting to restructure its service. One project was begun in 2006, completed its first phase, and then ended by cautious transit management after Transit Now passed in November 2006. The project aims were to restructure an indirect network and improve efficiency. Transit Now was a sale tax increase that eventually led to RapidRide lines and some restructures. Link LRT was extended to the UW stadium station in March 2016. Metro and ST began to consider having its radial routes that are oriented to downtown Seattle via congested I-5 meet Link at the UW instead. The truncated SR-520 routes could have also been much more frequent and reliable and served the University District. But IMO, transit management was overly cautious and delayed the project. A 2016 project was canceled. A 2017 project was stillborn and would have only included the translake routes and not the local network. Local routes and translake routes are part of the same network used by riders. When it began, the ST messaging was confused; instead of being about improving service, it was pitched as helping with capacity issues in downtown Seattle. Riders were probably confused. The next project included the local routes and the key two-way all-day Metro route, but did not include the Metro peak-only translake routes or most of the ST translake routes. Caution reigned. The implementation was delayed to March 2020 to await ST changes to the transit tunnel. So, now there is a Covid 19 recession and physical distancing. Some of the loopy one-way peak-only routes of the 1980s continue. ST bus do not meet ST Link as well as it could. Network restructure missed the opportunity to get ahead of WSDOT construction on SR-520 or the Convention Center impact to Olive Way. In 2019, downtown Seattle was over full of buses and jammed; transit service was worse; ridership declined. In 2021, Link will have three more stations and four-car trains, but ST is still not asking its riders to meet Link at the UW station.