When is public transport not public transport? In the accepted sense, the public transport network in the ACT is currently the ACTION bus network, augmented by a Taxi service and a few Deane’s Bus services carrying people from Queanbeyan into the ACT and back, but not really servicing routes in the ACT. There is also a bus that carries passengers to and from the Airport from Civic, and of course the various Coach services that carry people to and from Sydney and occasionally – the nearby towns of Yass and Goulburn.
There is also a service operating at night over summer called Nightrider. It’s a service using buses, and it carries a few passengers, but it is more of a public safety service than a public transport service. As such, it needs to be assessed in that way. Recently this service has been criticized by the media, critics and even the services own sponsor - the Chief Minister.
Today I want to first look at the need and justification for the Nightrider service, and then look at the way in which it needs to be assessed as a public service, then on how to improve patronage of the service so that it can achieve the aims of a public safety program.
Public policy justification and implementation
When putting strategies in place to tackle a public policy issue, the question has to be asked ‘What is the outcome we are seeking’. Public policy can be arrived at in several ways
- the Ministers direction,
- an implementation of legislation,
- a knee-jerk reaction to an imagined problem
- a genuine solution to a genuine problem.
Behind the scenes in thousands of federal, state and local level public service offices around the country, implementation of policy or ‘service delivery’ is carried out fairly efficiently because ‘policy’ trickles down from Government to the people in the relevant Department who are familiar with the issues and can develop a policy implementation program (also known as the solution) and then implement it (the service delivery part). This largely goes unheralded, and taken for granted.
Occasionally service delivery can be impaired when a Department Head or other public servant is subjected to pressure from politicians to deliver a service before the appropriate framework to manage it is in place. Politicians know full well that any new program requires:
- staff to be recruited,
- procedures to be established and put in place,
- buy in from stakeholders
And of course – the actual implementation when all of the above has been setup.
Service delivery costs money, taxpayer’s money. When service is delivered quietly and efficiently, everyone usually just accepts the fact that the council has repainted the seats at the park, fixed the pothole or rounded up the stray dogs.
When unreasonable and illogical reasons for and benefits to be accrued, are predicted from service delivery - the public pays attention and asks questions. Usually along the lines of ‘how much are you spending and on what – why don’t you spend that money your wasting on x and paint the seats in the park, mend the potholes or round up stray dogs?’.
When it works, no one notices. When politicians promise the unpromiseable, or overegg the benefits, or fund only one part of a program and not another then the entire exercise can be imperilled, and poor results for the public will occur, with the inevitable spin from the pro and anti forces.
And so we come to the Nightrider service.
Every year in Canberra a foreseeable public health problem arises when drunken festive season revellers in Civic fight with each other or drive home drunk. There are multiple reasons for this
- violence caused by excessive alcohol
- people drink and drive
- no buses after midnight
- too few taxis to ferry inebriated patrons from Civic to suburbia.
What is the public policy issue?
- preventing violence in Civic
- reducing drink driving
- preventing road trauma
What is the outcome being sought?
- removing drunks from Civic in volume
- getting drunken people home without them driving themselves
- defusing possible sources of violence such as congested taxi queues
- keeping people safe.
The costs to the community and taxpayer, arising from the damage to people and property from excessive alcohol consumption, violence and road trauma are high, and ongoing. Is this a new problem, which only manifested itself in 2010/2011 with a ‘trial of a Nightrider bus service run to see how it pans out?
No. This problem of excessive revelling and drink driving is perennial. How has the ACT dealt with it? Lets jump on the Internet wayback machine and look at a 2006 press release from then Transport Minister John Hargreaves:
NIGHTRIDER - THE BEST CATCH AFTER 1:00AM
Minister for Territory and Municipal Services, John Hargreaves, today announced the start of ACTION’s Nightrider Service.
“With the warmer evenings and festive season now upon us, ACTION’s Nightrider service provides a convenient and easy way for you to get home, “said Mr Hargreaves.
“The ACTION Nightrider provides partygoers and late night entertainment enthusiasts a reliable service to get them home safely. The Nightrider service aims to make getting home after a night out safer in Canberra. The community needs a safe alternative to get home and ACTION’s Nightrider service provides this alternative.
“The Nightrider commences on Friday December 1 and operates every Friday and Saturday night until Saturday 23 December and runs again on New Years Eve. Seven Nightrider routes departing from the City Bus Interchange will take passengers home starting from approximately 1.00am to 4.45am.
“Services drop passengers within walking distance of their Canberra homes within the suburbs listed on the timetable. The cost of the services is only a $5.00 cash fare,” said Mr Hargreaves.
The key themes to be plucked from this release are:
- convenient and easy way to get home.
- get home safely
- safe alternative to get home
These are good public safety reasons to support and fund such a service.
Looking at google results a bit more closely, it seems that the same press release seems to be recycled every year with minor changes depending upon the actual date the service is to begin and whoever is the Transport Minister at the time, so lets not dissect each one, and just look at a non-Governmental (but still a policy stakeholder) view on the requirement to run a Nightrider service.
In 2008 the same scheme again ran over the festive season, and one of the sponsors, The NRMA, issued a press release on why they were providing funding for the service:
MEDIA STATEMENT 11 December 2008
GRANT ASSISTS PROMOTION OF NIGHTRIDER SERVICE
A grant of $15,000 by the NRMA – ACT Road Safety Trust to ACTION will assist in the promotion of the popular Nightrider bus service, which commences on Friday 12 December 2008. The service will operate over eight designated routes from the Civic Bus Interchange between the hours of 1.00am and 4.45am for the next two weekends leading up to Christmas as well as operating on New Year’s Eve.
“The Trust is delighted to be again contributing to this program, which traditionally operates in the lead up to the festive season,” Trustee Ms Kerry Fitzgerald said. “Alcohol continues to be a key contributor to road trauma and the Nightrider service offers a safe alternative for getting home after a night out.
“It is easy to underestimate how much alcohol you have had and many people mistakenly believe they are fit to drive home. However, it takes time for your liver to process alcohol and a cup of coffee will not hasten the process.
“People uncertain as to whether they are still under the legal alcohol limit to drive now have an inexpensive and secure alternative means of transport home. The service is timely with ACT police reporting an alarming upward trend in the number of drink driving offences.
“This is the sixteenth year of operation of the Nightrider service, which is testimony to its popularity and success. In 2007, the service carried some 2,000 passengers home safely – an increase over the previous year.
“The service is being promoted via print and radio as well as on the ACTION website. Timetables and posters will be distributed to late night venues as well as being available from bus interchanges and Canberra Connect Shopfronts.
“The Trust is pleased to be working in partnership with ACTION, FM104.7, the Chronicle, ACT Policing, AdCorp and the Australian Hotels Association to promote Nightrider. This is a great example of the community working together in the interests of road safety,” Ms Fitzgerald said.
The key themes plucked from this release are:
- Alcohol continues to be a key contributor to road trauma
- offers a safe alternative for getting home after a night out.
- many people mistakenly believe they are fit to drive home
- inexpensive and secure alternative means of transport home
- In 2007 the service carried 2,000 passengers home safely
- road safety
These are sound and supportable reasons for the NRMA to contribute to a program aimed at preventing road trauma, and supporting public safety.
Lets now look at 2010, with the same public policy issues regarding safety and violence in Civic still resonating with the public. It is early December 2010 and as surely as hot cross buns will be found in the shops on Jan 2nd 2011, early December will see a press release issued regarding how to get people out of Civic and back to suburbia, following their Xmas/New Year celebrations and after the ACTION network closes down before midnight. The 2010 version of the press release announcing this traditional service, sees a new strategy - a ‘trial’ of an extended Nightrider service running not just over the Xmas/new Year period, but over several weeks. This service will run into February.
Trial of extended Nightrider service starts this weekend
A three-month trial of a Nightrider bus service commences tomorrow night (Friday), Chief Minister and Minister for Transport Jon Stanhope announced today.
Deanes Transit Group will run the service every Friday and Saturday night throughout summer, as well as providing additional services on New Year's Eve.
"The three-month Nightrider trial is part of the reform of the Liquor Act, which recently received a significant overhaul to include several new laws designed to improve public safety by tackling the anti-social and violent behaviour associated with excessive alcohol consumption," Mr Stanhope said.
"In addition, the rates of drink driving in the ACT suggest that we constantly need to remind people to plan their night out, and if they intend to drink, work out how they are going to get home in advance. The Nightrider bus service is designed to help get people home safely after a night out in Civic."
Departing from the City interchange, eight Nightrider routes will take passengers home every 90 minutes between 1am and 4.45am. Fares will cost a flat fee of $10 and will drop passengers within a reasonable walking distance to most Canberra homes.
A Manuka/Kingston to Civic loop will also be trialled to operate every half hour between 12.30am and 4am for a flat fee of $5 to link revellers to the buses departing the city and get people home.
Those connecting to another bus in Civic will only have to pay $10 in total if they keep their Manuka/Kingston ticket, however, it is important they know the time of their City bus departure and plan enough time to connect.
Deanes Transit Group supported ACTION last year to provide the service given the disruption that late night services can have on driver requirements regarding their scheduling. This year the service is being operated by Deanes Transit Group following a competitive tender process.
Mr Stanhope said that a variety of security measures will be implemented for the trial, including a security guard on each and CCTV.
The trial will be evaluated next year to determine its success and possible extension in future years.
The message over summer is to be able to have a fun night out in Civic it is important to plan your travel. For more information on bus routes and times visit www.transport.act.gov.au
The key themes plucked from this release are:
- improve public safety by tackling the anti-social and violent behaviour associated with excessive alcohol consumption
- the rates of drink driving in the ACT
- if they intend to drink, work out how they are going to get home
- Nightrider bus service is designed to help get people home safely after a night out
- get people home
- security measures will be implemented for the trial
- security guard on each(presumably the word bus was left out of the press release at this point)
- plan your travel
Prima facie, this is an excellent piece of service delivery planning, and satisfies the public policy objective which – if you recall - is all about:
- preventing violence in Civic
- reducing drink driving
- preventing road trauma.
Indeed, this expansion of the traditional Xmas/New Year service is a result of new legislation, sponsored by the Greens, aimed at reforming the Liquor Act and decreasing alcohol related violence and alcohol related road trauma.
Setting up a public service program for removal of funding
The annual Nightrider service had been operating over the New Year period, OK it started a little later this year compared to earlier ‘trials’ of the annual service to take our drunken citizens back to their town centres, but it was running and was set to run over the first few months of the year.
So imagine my surprise when the most recent press release concerning this piece of service delivery regales us with the following:
Slow take up of Nightrider service
A total of 936 people have used the Nightrider service during its first month of operation, Chief Minister and Minister for Transport Jon Stanhope announced today.
"The main Nightrider service provides eight routes into the suburbs from Civic, with 24 service runs at a total cost of $10,700 per night," Mr Stanhope said. "A disappointing total of 197 people used this service in its first three weekends at what worked out to be an average cost of $326 per customer.
"The Civic/Manuka/Kingston loop provides eight service runs at a total cost of $870 per night. Sixty-one used this loop service in its first three weekends at an average cost of $86 per customer.
"While nobody could ever put a price on potentially saving someone's life, it is clear that the service is being under-utilised and the Government will need to review how it operates in the future.
"While take-up was higher on New Year's Eve with 678 customers (at an average cost of $24 for the route services and $21 for the loop service), the first three weekends only saw a combined 59 customers, 94 customers and 105 customers respectively using the service over the Friday and Saturday night."
The contract for the three-month trial is has been awarded to the Deanes Tranasit Group and is worth more than $270,000. Revenue in the first month totalled $8,860.
Mr Stanhope said the three-month Nightrider trial is part of the reform of the Liquor Act, which recently received a significant overhaul to include several new laws designed to improve public safety. The Government agreed to trial the service for an extended period of three months.
"I urge people who are planning a night out and who intend to drink to make use of the Nightrider service which will get them home safely for a small flat fee. If people choose not to use it, though, the Government can simply not afford to subsidise it over such a long period of time."
A full evaluation of the trial, including final analysis of the figures, will be undertaken at the end of summer. Nightrider has been advertised on both print and radio, in bars and clubs and online, including a targeted campaign on Facebook. For more information on bus routes and times visit http://www.transport.act.gov.au/.
The key themes plucked from this release are:
- 936 people have used the Nightrider service during its first month of operation
- total cost of $10,700 per night
- disappointing total of 197 people
- average cost of $326 per customer
- nobody could ever put a price on potentially saving someone's life
- New Year's Eve with 678 customers (at an average cost of $24 for the route services and $21 for the loop service),
- contract for the three-month trial … more than $270,000.
- Revenue in the first month totalled $8,860
- three-month Nightrider trial is part of the reform of the Liquor Act
- several new laws designed to improve public safety
- will get them home safely for a small flat fee.
- Government can simply not afford to subsidise it
- final analysis of the figures, will be undertaken at the end of summer.
Now this is curious. There are now multiple references to cost, revenue, contracts, passenger averages, subsidies, analysis etc – with the word safety used only twice, and a glib reference to not putting a price on saving lives. This is clearly the first part of a strategy to not run this service in the future.
This focus on cost obfuscates the reason for the Nightrider service. The critics of this trial are missing the point, and I am not confident that the terms of reference for any ‘analysis’ of the three-month trial will take these factors into account – and its really quite simple - Is the $10,000 a night too great a cost to mitigate the safety issues that the trial is designed to address? How many drunks are not getting involved in brawls or driving themselves home drunk – with the horrible ‘long tail’ medical, social and financial implications those decisions create for the entire community.
How to improve the Nightrider service
It is clear that there is confusion in the Chief Ministers office as to whether the Nightrider service is a public transport or a public safety issue. I’d suggest this is a decision that needs to be taken on the public safety merits, not the public transport merits.
Now, even if we are assessing Nightrider on public safety and health merits, patronage is still low and could be increased. If the passenger numbers are not reaching the levels that were forecast, or ‘hoped’ for then that is a separate issue which needs to be addressed. The reasons for the lack of use of this service are typically, hidden in the press release of 11 Jan 2011. They are:
- 90 minute timetabling on some services
- Ten dollar fares
- No advertising
- No easy way to find the Nightrider timetables
Removing impediments to success
I would suggest that the main problems leading to lack of patronage of the Nightrider service can be addressed, and fairly quickly.
90 minutes timetable. Drunks or even regular sober people are unlikely to wait 90 minutes for a bus back to Woden. They will either go back to the pub, seek another form of transport home or wait, becoming increasingly drunker and frustrated - with the inevitable trouble that frustration will lead to.
Decrease the wait between bus services to 30 minute services on all Nightrider routes.
Ten dollar fares – three people will pool their money and three people will catch a cab. After they have waited for an hour in a taxi queue, with becoming increasingly drunker and frustrated - with the inevitable trouble that frustration will lead to. Why they have set the amount for the fare at ten dollars I have no idea. It’s a jump of five dollars from the previous year! Is there a formula for arriving at this number? I agree a service should not be free, but ten dollars seems high.
Drop the fare back to the previous fare of five dollars.
No advertising. Admittedly I’m not the target market here, but a bit of advertising for this service would help. The press releases and website claim that people need to plan their trip to town, and back. This is hard to do when you are unaware of the Nightrider services existence.
Advertise the Nightrider service where young people will see it – an ad on the RiotACT website, in BMA, on Facebook, on coasters in the pubs themselves.
No easy way to find the timetable. If I want to catch a bus in Canberra where do I go to find a timetable? The ACTION website. Yet when you look at Action there is no mention of Nightrider – why? Because it’s a service operated by Deane's from Queanbeyan. Not even a pointer to the Deanes website from their routes and timetables page. Unacceptable. Now fortunately there is a mention of the Nightrider service on Deanes website – it is a link to Transport for Canberra’s website where a PDF of the Nightrider service timetable pops up. This is the best timetable for this service. If you are savvy enough and aware of the existence of Transport for Canberra as an ACT Government body, and actually go to their webpage, you will find a link to a confusingly obtuse timetable page. It is there, but not easy to interpret.
Make it easier to find the Nightrider service timetable.
In conclusion, one has to ask the ACT Government is this program a public transport program, or a public safety program? If it is the latter then it needs to be judged on metrics from ACT Policing. Have there been
- fewer fights
- less injuries
- less drink driving offences
Delivering our young people home safely is a program that needs to be supported, but it needs to be implemented in a properly researched, competently delivered way. At present the service meets neither the needs of a public safety or public transport program. Sadly, based on the 11/01/2011 press release from the Chief Minister, I suspect this service will be judged on revenue and cost instead.
I suggest that Transport for Canberra look at how this service can be delivered more competently instead of delivered expediently, and then plan on how to deliver it in the 2011/2012 season. Instead of announcing and planning occurring in October 2011, perhaps we can look at a framework that can be delivered every year with contracts, advertising, planning and timetabling set in place, with only the minor details adjusted every year. This service is an important public safety program, which should be budgeted for each year and planned in accordance with sound service delivery principles, not driven by press releases focussing on costs.