Sydney Overground

The Sydney Overground: "Un-plan your life" with travel anytime, anywhere.

Achieved with less, but more frequent (every 5 mins - 'turn-up & go') and better connected bus routes than at present, with the 'service-offering' communicated by a simple map copied from the London Underground
- the cost-effective solution to improving Sydney's public transport.

See  more in these slides (& these) or my paper "Strategies for Growth in Integrated Public Transport Networks".

The following map illustrates the concept for just Sydney's eastern suburbs, but as suggested by my indicative (& now outdated) 'metro-wide' costing, I propose that the high-frequency Sydney Overground network would operate metro-wide (roughly speaking, inside Sydney's orbital motorway plus eastern & northern suburbs).  

Some busy routes like Parramatta road might be amenable to alternative modes (although trams are rarely worth the cost).

The high service frequencies are made affordable by having fewer duplicate route sections (currently mostly going to the CBD), but also by having a lower grid density (routes per square km), which means longer walking distances for a small proportion of customers.  This spreadsheet has my calculations indicating that for a given fixed budget subsidy, the grid size should optimally be greater than 2km square, implying a maximum walking distance of 1km for someone at the centre of the grid.  The overwhelming majority would have shorter walking distances and the higher affordable service frequency should outweigh the lost patronage for the few people who won't walk the required distance, thus increasing farebox revenue and affordable service levels.  Even these few disadvantaged people could instead use shared-vehicle taxis or on-demand minibuses to go the "last mile" between home and a frequent transit route (or the full trip at greater cost), although as the "last mile" term may suggest, most people are more than willing to walk a mile (1.6km) if they are confident it's worth the trip (i.e. if there's a fast, frequent, simple and reliable service there).  The historic "400m planning rule" - ensuring 95% of the population are within 400m of a bus route - is economic nonsense!  

Similarly, the current excessively close spacing of bus stops along a route reduces average travel speeds (and hence also increases the resources required to provide a given service frequency, since it takes longer to run a route there and back) and reduces reliability (because more stops introduce more random variations in delay times).  My guess is that the optimal stop spacing would be greater than 800m, so we should probably scrap about half the existing bus stops.


Whilst the Sydney Overground was finally adopted as the concept underpinning the NSW Government's plan for 'Sydney's Bus Future', it's taking a lot longer than I expected....

I first developed the concept in June 1998 (see "Transformin g Sydney Buses"), hopeful that a big advantage of reconfiguring bus networks was that it could be done very quickly and cheaply - in time for the Sydney 2000 Olympics (so much for that!) - and sent it to a number of people including at Sydney's Institute for Sustainable Futures and the UK Deputy PM and Minister for Transport at the time (August 1998), John Prescott, and then in December 2000, the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone.

The November 2001 paper, "Strategies for growth...." and related slides (& these) also include ideas on efficient pricing, management competition and supporting innovation with new technologies.

This got significant media attention, as it was published prominently in Sydney University's Warren Centre Sustainable Transport for Sustainable Cities project and the Overground network concept hit the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald on 4 July 2002 ("Rapid-fire Buses to unclog Sydney") - see the following image (but note my paper says nothing about tendering State Transit's services as the article suggests, although I don't disagree).

I was also awarded NSW Young Transport Professional of the Year (2001) for this work, and received this commendation from an experienced UK/Sydney transport professional:

"It's a terrific document! I hope that it isn't all negated by the wrong answer to your opening question ("Are we serious about reducing urban congestion and pollution through greater use of public transport?”)

Present practice would lead you to think the answer is no, but I can't recall anyone ever rocking the boat before to the extent you have.  Telecomms analogies, option valuation, Ramsey pricing, competition in management... Love it."

And after all this, it was promptly ignored by the NSW Government!  Although I may have had some influence on the governance & contractual reforms that I recommended in my personal submission to the 2003 Unsworth Bus Review (which were broadly adopted).

Sadly, the UK, Australia and much of the rest of the world proceeded to get distracted for over a decade by light rail, promoted by irrational Greens as the solution to every problem, and of course by infrastructure companies who could make more money selling light rail systems than simply redesigning bus routes.

The NSW Government initially rejected light rail for Sydney CBD and proposed, in its November 2006 Urban Transport Statement, to reduce CBD congestion through bus re-routing by creating a new Mid City Interchange precinct around Town Hall, but these congestion-relieving route changes weren't implemented until 2016 - in order to facilitate light rail construction!

Meanwhile, other people have been applying the concept to other cities around the world, such as Barcelona.