Wednesday, 22 May, 2019


What does it take to create a vibrant city centre? To answer this question, we researchers at the Hunter Research Foundation (HRF) Centre are seeking to identify, integrate and animate data sets on population, transport use, and economic activity.

Many key agencies and organisations collect relevant data, with some data made publicly available. Such data are already helping to indicate progress on revitalising Newcastle. ‘Activation’ of the city’s precincts can be progressively measured and communicated to inform planning with the help of these and other relevant data sets. Key to that is assembling a revealing dashboard of indicators. Such a dashboard is a current focus of the HRF Centre. It could include figures on use of public transport.

Publicly available transport data indicate how our city is changing. The data show significant growth in patronage in the past 12 months. Of particular note is the increasing use across all public transport modes by adults– Newcastle buses, the Stockton ferry and the heavy rail Hunter line, according to rolling, 12-month averages.

Newcastle bus usage by adults grew by 9.3 per cent over the year to April, an average of 10,513 extra trips per month (350 extra trips per day). Stockton ferry use by adults grew by 5.5 per cent, averaging an extra 1,344 trips per month (44 extra trips per day); and the Hunter train line by 7.2 per cent annually or 2,804 extra adult trips per month (93 extra trips per day).

Added to the increases on other public transport modes are the 229,034 trips on the light rail in March and April, of which 121,871 were adults as measured by Opal card usage. Overall, the data across the public transport modes indicate around 75,000 additional adult public transport trips per month, in and around Newcastle, as compared to a year ago. That is an extra 2,400 instances per day of adult public transport usage - suggesting an extra 1200 adults per day are new or returning public transport users for their return work commute, shopping trip or visit.

When trying to gauge activation of specific city precincts, some publicly available datasets, such as bus and heavy rail ridership, currently lack sufficient granularity. They are not showing enough information about where people started and where they got off the bus, for example. However, they can still be useful when used in context with other data.

The publicly available data on the light rail usage are much more detailed. They enable us to identify the most and least utilised stops. We get an early or baseline indicator of current ‘activation’ of city precincts – that is, where people are going. Such insight offers the potential to predict what strategies might increase activation. This information enables government and business to understand the potential benefits of planned public or private investment.

The rail-light rail interchange is the busiest stop on the new route. The graphic below shows the next most ‘activated’ light rail stops. Newcastle Beach and Civic, with access to the University’s city campus, are the busiest. That is followed by Queens Wharf (with access to the Stockton ferry), Honeysuckle (TAFE), and finally Crown Street. Will the Crown Street stop move up the rankings when the large number of East End apartments and offices, currently under construction, are completed? What about the usage of the Honeysuckle and Civic light rail stops when the University’s Innovation Hub and School of Creative Industries building is completed?

The linkage of the light rail stops to other public transport modes – e.g., Queens Wharf stop to the Stockton ferry, and the Newcastle Interchange to both the Hunter and Central Coast/Sydney rail lines – can be seen to foster “multi-modal” transit. This story will be interesting to follow.

A meaningful set of indicators to measure the activation of the city – and region – require analysis of more data from more sources. At the HRF Centre, we are talking to regional stakeholders who manage or use relevant data. They are being invited to a ‘data-tent’. The data sharing that can result would enable us to conduct more detailed and nuanced analysis and to identify key indicators for the publicly available dashboard that we see is needed.

It is not a fishing expedition. Rather, the Centre’s researchers provide expertise in analysing and interpreting a variety of data sources to identify the figures that provide the most revealing and relevant insights on Newcastle and the Hunter region. The team are skilled in the confidential management of large data sets, and the University provides valuable support in that process.

Newcastle and Lake Macquarie represent living laboratories within which we can witness economic and social transformation. We are excited by the prospect of leading development of a ground-breaking social-mapping dashboard to demonstrate their progress. Smart cities that are open to the world provide such information as it gives confidence to those who are considering moving in, investing or setting up shop.

Karl Strichow, Research Affiliate, HRF Centre, University of Newcastle

This opinion piece was published in the Newcastle Herald on 22 May 2019