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Podcast: What’s the deal with the 370?

A podcast investigating one of Sydney's notoriously bad bus routes.

There are many ways to tell the story of Sydney’s sprawling, beleaguered, much-maligned bus system. Ask, and most regular commuters will willingly regale you with a horrendous bus story, or offer up an exhaustive list of reasons as to why their bus is the worst.

Catch the 370, one of our city’s longest routes, from Leichhardt to Coogee, and you’ll find yourself taking a little over an hour to traverse a distance that would otherwise take only 25 minutes or so by car. Suffice it to say, this bus has a reputation.

Amid the system-wide struggles against privatisation, and the myriad route changes Sydney buses have faced and continue to face in recent times, I wanted to find out:

What’s the deal with the 370?

Hear about transport reliability, TripView statistics, and strained working conditions from myself, a software developer, a current bus driver, and an assortment of people willing to have a microphone shoved in their face.

Special thanks to Lina Ali, Katie Bell, Elliott Collins, Joe Fidler, Isla Mowbray, Maddie Russell, Jack Schofield, Rhea Thomas and Declan Warn for their involvement, and to Zoe Ferguson, Andy Maconachie, and Tegan Nicholls for their help and advice.

Transcript

Patrick: You’re at the bus stop waiting for the bus. It’s running late, it was meant to come ten minutes ago. You check your phone, TripView says ‘Realtime Data Unavailable’…*sigh*…why does this always seem to happen?

Patrick: Would you say Sydney buses are reliable in general?

Vox Pop: No, no I would not.

Patrick: Do you find buses in Sydney to be reliable in general?

VP: Oh yeah, I love buses, I’m a bus gal.

Patrick: Are Sydney buses reliable?

VP: Sometimes.

Patrick: Would you say buses in Sydney are reliable in general?

VP: Am I allowed to swear?

Patrick: Yeah.

VP: Fuck no!

Patrick: There are more than six hundred bus routes in Sydney. And people love to complain about them. But among commuters in the Inner West and Eastern Suburbs, there is one bus that takes the cake. The 370.

Running between Coogee Beach and Leichhardt, taking over an hour from start-to-finish, the 370 has built a reputation of running late…really, really late. It’s no surprise really, it snakes through a bunch of traffic bottlenecks and infamously congested areas like Glebe Point Road, King Street, Botany Road. It’s not uncommon to find it twenty or thirty minutes late, even an hour late. In the worst cases, it just doesn’t even show up at all. But in recent years, it seems to have gotten a little bit better.

I’m Patrick McKenzie, and I want to find out: What’s the deal with the 370?

Speaking from experience, the 370 is pretty bad. It’s made me late to catch other buses, late to meet up with friends, it’s even made me late for a job interview. Like, I remember being on the way there, giving the interviewer a ring, and telling them I was running late. As soon as I said the words ‘370,’ they were like “Oh yeah, that’s totally, fine, it’s the 370 – no worries.” It’s notorious to say the least.

But don’t just take it from me…

Patrick: What can you tell me about the 370?

VP: Look, mate, the 370 is possibly the most unreliable bus in Sydney, and that’s not just me saying that, that’s most people I’ve talked to, ever.

VP: I think it’s pretty infamous for frequently running late and not the best service.

VP: It’s inconsistent, it’s often late, it’s often early. It never quite hits that sweet spot where it’s right on time.

VP: I’ve heard it’s pretty shit.

Patrick: Have you ever caught it?

VP: Once, and it was late.

Patrick: Do you catch it often?

VP: It was my school bus, so I’d catch it, 6 years, every day. Look, it’s just late…all the time.

Patrick: It wasn’t very hard to establish that people weren’t the biggest fans of this bus. But I needed some expert insight…some empirical evidence. A 2018 article in the Sydney Morning Herald stated, that in 2016, the 370 was Sydney’s most complained-about bus. Then there’s the Facebook group ‘The Universe Would Cease to Exist if the 370 Bus Arrived on Time’. Then there’s Katie Bell.

Katie’s a software developer, and in 2017, she presented at a conference about a project she’d done in pursuit of a quest very similar to mine. Her question: Is the 370 the worst bus route in Sydney?

This is what Katie had to say…

Katie Bell: Back in 2018, where I was living and where I was working meant that I was taking the 370 bus on a regular basis, and occasionally, something would happen where it was just frustrating to take that bus, you might find that you go there at the right time, or you go there at any random time, and the bus is normally meant to run like every 15, maybe every 20 minutes, but it will still be 40 minutes until the next bus comes, and, I don’t know about you, but I don’t actually want to wait 40 minutes for a bus that’s only saving me about 30 minutes worth of walking time. But there was this app called TripView, I started using this app because it shows you when the next bus is going to come. So you know, you can make that decision of ‘Do I wait for the 370 because it’s going to be here in a couple of minutes, or do I walk instead because it’s going to be a long time before the bus comes?’

Well, that TripView data must come from somewhere. If I could like gather this information, and aggregate it over time, I’d be able to see is the 370 actually, really, the worst bus in Sydney? And so in order to get it, I had to go through this process of like, watching the real time data and aggregating it myself. So the first thing I did was set up just like a little bit of code that every minute would fetch the real time data and just store it in a folder on the cloud. And so it just quietly gathered data!

Patrick: So after collecting the data from every bus, at every bus stop in Sydney, once every minute for 4 months, Katie had a verdict.

Katie: I found it was pretty terrible. I think it was, if I remember correctly, when I first ran the data, if you look at how often as a percentage of bus runs, is the bus more than 20 minutes late. Then the 370 was actually the second worst route in Sydney. There are worse buses, but it is actually pretty bad. And it was actually really cool to see that when I went back and I ran the numbers, again, with newer data about a year later, that it had actually improved in its rankings! The amount of times that it was running more than 20 minutes late was significantly less than it was before.

Patrick: What was the reaction to the results of the project?

Katie: I got a lot of people coming to me and being like, “Yes, the 370! Yes, I understand.” But, it also really brought out how frustrating people find Sydney buses in general. Because after I gave this talk, I must have had dozens of people like coming up to me. And they all wanted to complain to me about the specific bus routes that they hate. 

Patrick: So do you still have any involvement with the 370? Are you still catching it at all?

Katie: I still catch the 370, I still live on the 370 route. I don’t take it to work anymore, but I do take it to get to the gym and back. I’ve actually had a really good experience with it lately, since I started taking it to the gym. It will still be you know, up to five minutes late, but like, “Okay, that’s better than at being 20 minutes late,” you know?

Patrick: Describe the 370 for me in one word.

VP: Tragic.

VP: Confusion.

VP: Bumpy.

VP: Hell.

VP: It’s always an interesting one…

Patrick: When I asked Katie why she thought the bus seemed to have gotten better, she referenced the Sydney Morning Herald article, and said that coverage of the bus’ notoriety may have driven some changes at Transport for NSW.

Our conversation also spanned to urban planning: Would the 370 get better if there were more clearways along congested areas? What about the businesses along these roads that rely on parking and foot traffic? Are more bus lanes the answer? Traffic lights that prioritise buses? 

A solution wasn’t forthcoming. The statistics were enlightening, but I still wondered. What about the people who drive the 370, how do they feel?

So I took to the streets, or, rather, the buses, to try and chat to a driver in action, yearning to know what it was like to be behind the wheel.

But it wasn’t exactly a success.

Patrick: Ok, so, I’ve left the house to go and catch a 370, and I’m walking to my nearest stop. It’s probably about a 7 to 10-minute walk away…

…I’m waiting at the bus stop, the bus is in about two minutes, lets see how this goes

Patrick (in background): Hi, how you going?

Patrick (VO): I rode the bus the end of the route in Leichhardt, and at the last stop, approached the driver to ask for a chat…

Patrick (in background): Sorry mate, I just had a question. I’m doing a Uni project…(fades out)

Patrick (VO): He told me that it was against Transport Authority policy to give interviews. I tried to reassure him, saying I didn’t want him to talk shit about Sydney buses, only to get his perspective on driving the 370. 

He told me that he needed to get going, and that I needed to get off.

So I tried again…but got the same result

Patrick (on the street): Ok, there’s another 370 in about two minutes, gonna give it a third-time-lucky try. See how we go this time…be extra, extra friendly…

…just had another try, another rejection unfortunately.

Patrick (VO): I was close to giving up, when an alternative emerged.

Through a family friend, I was able to get in contact with a current Sydney bus driver. Although he didn’t drive the 370, and wished to remain anonymous given company policy, he was still very open about his experience, having driven buses in Sydney for over 10 years.

Bus Driver: Oh, hi, is that Patrick?

Patrick: It is, yeah, hi, how you going?

BD: Good mate, good.

Patrick: Would you describe it as a tiring or emotionally-testing job at times?

BD: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, at times it’s really exhausting. Sometimes it’s very good. It’s a bit of a range of emotions, physically it is ok sometimes but, you know, you can tire. It depends on what your schedule is and they do tend to– your rosters are, you know, very mixed. So sometimes you can be working 12 days straight, which is pretty tough.

Patrick: So what’s it like handling delays or driving difficult or congested routes. What’s your experience of that?

BD: Well, I think it’s improved lately. I have, in the past, definitely felt very frustrated. When I started, let’s go back, the conditions were a little bit easier, one had a lot longer and more relaxed time of it in the scheduling. So, for instance, going from A-to-B, you’d get a longer time, and you would be able to devote more energy to customer service, and now they’ve really tightened up the schedules, and that means that it’s more stressful, so you have to, you know, really not be so gentle with your driving, you have to push it a little bit just to make time.

Patrick: That completely make sense, because I can imagine, like, working for up to 12 days would be quite draining.

BD: Oh, totally, totally. Yeah, it’s very exhausting, it really is, that 12 days straight, it really is a real killer.

Patrick: What, from your perspective, do you feel is the general public sentiment towards buses in Sydney, if that makes sense, in terms of, like, reliability for instance.

BD: Well, look, I think that in the areas where I’m working, we have a much less chaotic traffic system, and therefore, it works much better where I am. But I do believe that, in the Inner-City, particularly Eastern Suburbs and Inner-City and the West, it can be very chaotic, and the timetables aren’t adhered-to very well. Like, there’s no thought of the driver, the schedules have been tightened so much it probably gives them less leeway, so I think it’s just a question of, you know, the company just being a little bit over-greedy with the amount of runs that they expect to be achieved on-time.

Patrick: Is there anything that you feel like people might not understand about the experience of driving a bus?

BD: Oh, I think so, for sure, there are a lot of things. You know, I think that people can just look at a bus driver and just think, you know, it looks pretty straightforward – and a lot of the time it is. But, it is very tiring, it’s pretty low-paid, and at the moment, we’re going through a transition into, you know, privatisation which is– it’s not great because it means that we’re losing a lot of our conditions that unions kind of worked hard for.

I think that, people wouldn’t really understand all that kind of stuff, it’s not very well-publicised, and, yeah, I mean, that’s about it…

Patrick: While bus driving has its ups and downs, issues like privatisation, tight turnarounds, and strict management pose significant challenges. Without the infrastructure and planning to support these changes, the stress ends up being pushed onto drivers and commuters.

While I was putting together this project, Transport for New South Wales announced changes to a bunch of Eastern Suburbs bus routes starting late this year, including the 370.

Instead of starting at Leichhardt, the bus will now start at The University of Sydney and run every 10 minutes, with a new 469 route servicing Leichhardt to the Uni.

Will this prove to be a permanent fix, or just a stop gap solution?

We’ll just have to wait and see.