Taking the myki: Melbourne’s transport policy failures show importance of good policy design

23 May 2011

For those of us who live in London, it is hard to imagine that Melbourne's versions of 'Boris bikes' or Oyster cards could be a failure. But, despite a pilot involving students in Melbourne, and looking and feeling like other successful bike share schemes, the Melbourne scheme was a palpable flop - and  its version of our Oyster card is so unpopular it became an election issue.

The Institute recently played host to Professor John Alford of the Australia New Zealand School of Government, which trains top level Federal and state civil servants. He gave staff a demonstration case study – on the failure of the Melbourne equivalent of Boris bikes.

Failure on biking

The project involved 600 bikes located at 50 hire stations across the city centre. Melbourne is pretty flat and bike friendly with 100km of bike paths. But the scheme generated fewer than 70 rides a day in the first two months after it went live. In the 10 times bigger London scheme that period generated 1 million rides – or more than 16,000 a day.

The answer is quite simple. In London, Boris bikers wobble around bare-headed. Fewer than five per cent of Boris bikers used a helmet. The safety conscious Aussies levy a $147 insta-fine on anyone caught without a helmet. Casual bike hire and mandatory helmet use don’t mix – but no one implementing the scheme had thought about how real potential bike hirers (as opposed to the downtown students they trialled it on) might behave. That is an all too frequent design flaw.

Melbourne's version of the Oyster Card (photo courtesy of Daniel Bowden's flickr photostream)

Melbourne's version of the Oyster Card (photo courtesy of Daniel Bowden's flickr photostream)

…and on electronic travel cards

The second Melbourne transport issue is their reviled version of London’s hugely successful Oyster card. When I have visitors to London, I make sure they equip themselves with an Oyster card on arrival. It’s convenient, easy to buy and much, much cheaper than ordinary fares. When I suggested to friends in Melbourne that I might buy a myki card on my holiday, they looked at me as though I was mad.

It turned out not just to be mad, but almost impossible. First, mykis are hard to buy. They are available from a couple of downtown outlets (no good in the suburbs) and you can’t order online.

Second, the promise on mykis is that they cost you “no more” than your ordinary weekly ticket (and the existing tickets are a perfectly good deal). So no good for visitors and no incentive for regular commuters.

Third, trams and buses didn’t accept them at the start – losing one of the huge Oyster advantages. Six months in, only five per cent of Melbourne train passengers had switched to myki. That has slowly begun to increase, but it still accounts for just one in five commutes.

Fourth, the technology is notoriously flaky and liable to overcharge. When it launched, press reports suggested that one in 10 myki users were being overcharged.  And the whole project came in massively over budget.  And for proud Melburnians the final insult was that Perth had implemented a system that worked at about a tenth of the equivalent cost.

An uncertain future

So, on paper, the idea sounds exactly like Oyster. But a series of poor implementation choices  made the myki a hot election issue in Melbourne. The newly elected Victorian government premier, Ted Baillieu, has launched a review into the $1.35 billion system, describing it as “a financial disaster and a functional disaster for commuters.”

There may be many dividing lines in next year’s London Mayoral  elections, but binning Oyster won’t be one of them.

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Comments (4)

  1. Suzukiscottie on 24 May 2011 at 4:48 am

    A pretty poor summary of myki; little research done and nothing to substantiate the claims made. “press reports”??? They never get things wrong do they?

    Myki is available online and at numerous outlets. Myki is cheaper than the current system for passengers, and offers greater flexibility. Most issues surround the temporary integration with legacy equipment.

    Increased costs are largely to maintain the current failing legacy system and to buy additional myki equipment, government indecision doesnt help either.

    The problem for the public is that there is no incentive to move to the new system whilst the legacy system is still operational.

  2. Jill Rutter on 25 May 2011 at 11:15 am

    i think not a bad summary of myki as you yourself point out…

    1) accessibility — I can buy an Oyster card at every tube station and in outlets throughout London; as a visitor its VERY easy to access. In Melbourne for fourteen days over two separate visits, online does not help me at all. It would have suited me very well – a weekly card was too much for my first visit (to see England retain the Ashes); too short for my second one to watch the start of the Djokovic run… In London there are no barriers to mass take-up for ALL potential users. Online confines it to people living there.

    2) pricing – if you want people to migrate, it has to be worthwhile to get people off the legacy system; myki does not offer that so as you say there is no incentive; in Oyster it was brought in at a small price differential initially and then a huge discount to force people to go off the old system (and enable savings by reducing ticket staff as part of the economics of making it work).

    I think the really interesting question for Melbourne (which we could not find in the press reports… so you might be able to help us) was whether there was any good reason from moving from a pretty well accepted automatic ticketing system to another one. To an outside observer the rationale does not seem that clear — and it was clearly completely lost on my Australian friends.

  3. Jim Betts on 31 March 2012 at 7:55 am

    The mag stripe system is life expired (or will be in the next 12 months). Your visit to Melb occurred during the preliminary stages of transition from mag stripe to smartcard. So a comparison with a fully deployed Oyster system is not valid. Hope you enjoyed the cricket and be sure to let me know next time you’re in the world’s most liveable city.

  4. Jill Rutter on 11 April 2012 at 3:22 pm

    Jim: will be sure to – and will hope that the system is flourishing a l’Oyster when I am back (though none of my Australian friennds pointed out that it was a system in transition – nor did the press). Never sure that a city as car dependent as Melbourne should do quite so well on liveable city ratings – but I love it all the same

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