Time to sweat the small stuff on transport

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Developing a first-rate public transport network isn’t just about cutting ribbons on mega infrastructure projects. If we want to improve our public transport system it’s time to start sweating the small stuff, Tony Morton says.

Social justice relies on the effective, equitable and efficient provision of public services: not least, public transport. Alongside good universal education and health services and safe streets for our cars, bikes and feet, excellent public transport is vital to maintaining healthy, liveable cities and regions.

These thriving cities and regions pose a space and energy conundrum. Everyone needs to get around as part of their day-to-day activities, and that can cause chaos and congestion.

A half-century ago, the automobile offered what looked like a compelling solution in a world of cheap petrol and plentiful land for freeways and far-flung suburbs.

Yet as soon as cars became affordable for most people, it became clear they weren’t a solution at all. Instead we had created a world of chronic traffic congestion, by fixating on car travel and neglecting the alternatives.

Public transport has always been able to move more people at lower cost than cars, using less space, generating far less pollution, and building, rather than dividing communities in the process.

This has been demonstrated in cities around the world, such as Zurich, Toronto and Singapore, that have built up public transport to offer the convenience that made automobiles so attractive in Melbourne and across regional Victoria from the 1950s.

These cities show that effective public transport is also efficient and equitable, carrying rich and poor alike and attracting lots of paying passengers to finance a high quality service, in a virtuous circle that underlies the strength of systems from the Paris Métro to the busways of Medellín or Curitiba.

Effective public transport enables travel from any one point to another within an urban area, and connects regional towns and cities, in reasonable time and at reasonable cost.

The more effective it is, the more communities will use and value it, and the more they will support governments to invest to improve it further.

It also needs to be equitable. This means not creating transport-rich and transport-poor classes based on historical accident or political favour.

It also means funding public transport from a combination of public subsidy and fare revenue, taking into account people’s capacity to pay, alongside the cost of providing the service.

Just as important is efficiency. Efficiency is the reason we have public transport in the first place, rather than trying to run our cities and regions exclusively through private car travel with one or two people per vehicle.

Victoria misses the bus
The recipe for such effective, equitable and efficient public transport systems is now well-developed, having been distilled over several decades by planning experts such as America’s Professor Vukan Vuchic, Britain’s Dr John Whitelegg and Australia’s late Professor Paul Mees.

It has proved as effective in ‘new world’ cities like Toronto or Perth, as in ‘old world’ European cities in whose dense medieval cores public transport was regarded as having a natural advantage (yet which are now surrounded by broadacre suburbia that would not appear out of place in Australia).

Successful public transport, with few exceptions, is multimodal. There is no single ‘optimal’ technology that solves the space and energy conundrum, and cities that attempt this (most commonly with buses, as in Brisbane) tend to run into capacity constraints sooner than cities like Zurich or Vancouver, whose networks rely on a variety of modes, drawing on the relative strengths of each to form a network.

“A decade after plans were announced to coordinate
buses and trains in Melbourne, they still meet largely by accident.”

Picture driving north through Melbourne on an arterial road: depending on your destination, you can either continue north as far as desired, or change direction and go east or west.

Similarly, good public transport is organised in networks of fast, direct routes, with interchange points designed to make changes relatively painless.

Services are either frequent enough to avoid long waits, or have their timetables explicitly coordinated at key interchanges. This makes travel possible in all directions, from anywhere to anywhere, with only a small number of line changes.

Yet in Victoria we’re slow to learn these lessons.

A decade after plans were announced to coordinate buses and trains in Melbourne, they still meet largely by accident.

Timetables are written to have a bus depart one minute before a train arrives, with the next bus not for half an hour. Bus-bus connections are unheard of, despite the fact that buses do run on most major roads, and potential interchange points exist all over the metropolitan area.

The view has persisted that instead of providing a network, we should design individual bus routes to serve every major destination within a local area, resulting in meandering, zigzagging routes that are barely comprehensible to a new user.

We are also slow to provide dedicated bus lanes on arterial roads (when we are not actually removing them, as in Stud Road in 2011) and fail to provide more than token traffic signal priority for either buses or trams, even though each one can be equivalent to a queue of over 50 cars.

As a result, using some buses in Melbourne is scarcely faster than walking.

Politicians, commentators and planners decry the cost of running near-empty buses at intervals of half an hour or more for reasons of ‘coverage’ or ‘social inclusion’.

But the reality is that in many suburbs, using public transport is just not a viable option for those not wanting to “resign from the human race” as Prof Mees used to say. Take these two case studies as examples.

Carol and her four-year-old son Alex live on Melbourne’s western fringe in Caroline Springs. Carol
also works part-time in Footscray, about 17 kilometres away. Although Caroline Springs is near the Ballarat train line, there is no station for Caroline Springs, despite a decade of plans. Even if there were, stopping trains from Melton run only every two hours. Carol walks Alex to a day care centre in the town centre. From there it’s bus lotto: a handful of buses run at different times to three different stations on the Sunbury line, at frequencies from every 40 minutes to every hour. Each bus takes 20 to 25 minutes to reach the station, and Carol soon learns that the most direct route on a map (via Albion) is actually the most awkward, because changing from bus to train requires a three-block walk due to a pedestrian-hostile road layout. In the afternoon, Carol chooses her station carefully to get the right bus back to Caroline Springs before the day care centre closes at 6pm, hoping the train doesn’t run late and make her miss the bus. After being stranded twice in six weeks, Carol has taken out a loan to buy a second-hand car. Although Carol owns her home, she finds that between loan payments, fuel and childcare bills, there are some weeks when she struggles to pay for food and groceries. Caroline Springs rates very highly on the Griffith University VAMPIRE index, which measures cost-of-living pressures due to combined housing and transport costs.

Joe is a disability pensioner living in Dromana on the Mornington Peninsula. He is one of more than 40,000 people whose only public transport service is the route 788 bus from Portsea to Frankston. It runs every 45 minutes on weekdays and every 75 minutes on weekends. Joe previously used it to visit his disability service provider in Frankston, but a ‘rationalisation’ of services some years ago means that he must now use a different provider based in Hastings. Briefly in 2009 a bus ran every two hours from Mornington to Hastings, but was scrapped due to poor patronage. So Joe must travel into Frankston and then to Hastings on the Stony Point line, which also runs every two hours. With waiting time it takes Joe a full day to travel to Hastings and back. The same trip takes less than half an hour each way by car, which Joe can’t do due to his disability. He recalls that when the Peninsula Link road was built at a cost of $900 million (for which Victorians will ultimately pay more than $2.5 billion due to financing costs) there was no money spent on improving public transport on the Peninsula.

The lure of the megaproject
Building an effective, equitable and efficient public transport system requires disciplined planning, but this is too often overshadowed by one-off infrastructure megaprojects with towering ambitions, high price tags, and ample ribbon-cutting opportunities for politicians.

Some megaprojects are important and necessary. But one 
only learns this as a result of a network planning exercise.

Both major parties in the 2014 Victorian election are committed to some form of rail tunnel under central Melbourne. On technical grounds the competing projects differ less than advertised.

Both fulfil the key aim of providing an additional ‘path’ through the city from the western suburbs and allowing more trains to cross from east to west. Their capacity benefits are both equivalent to about three alternative West Gate Bridges.

Their real differences are a matter of ‘geographical justice’: whether it’s better to serve the existing suburb of Parkville and a new suburb at Arden, as seen in Labor’s plan, or whether Montague should be the priority instead, as advocated by the Coalition.

The proposals also have differing implications for how people approach and move around the city centre.

Based on these considerations, the PTUA’s preference is for the original Melbourne Metro proposal, as currently pitched by Labor.

Yet a fundamental problem with both these proposals is the lack of strategic planning context. Rail megaprojects, and competing road projects such as the East West Link, are presented as if they are the only measures required to secure Victoria’s transport future.

Yet no central city rail tunnel will deal with the network problems Victoria has. Even on the train network, only specific corridors will benefit. It also appears either proposal will take at
least a decade to deliver: public transport cannot simply stand still in the meantime.

“It’s time to spread our focus out from the rail and road megaprojects to include more of the little things that make a transport system really work.”

Time to sweat the small stuff
One of the more interesting initiatives in this election is the Dandenong Corridor rail upgrade.

Despite coming across as another megaproject, it’s actually a package of smaller measures to boost the efficiency of the Pakenham and Cranbourne train lines.

Just one of these—the provision of up-to-date signalling technology—should roughly double the line’s capacity if carried out properly, and make possible an extension to Monash University and Rowville.

Yet we’re told this project is not a government initiative at all, but an ‘unsolicited proposal’ from the private train operator.

Why are such practical and sensible measures not being planned in the public interest by our government on behalf of the community?

Overall there is still scant political commitment in Victoria to effective, equitable and efficient public transport.

Specifically, there’s little focus on the buses and trams, which are the sole mode of public transport within walking distance for perhaps 90 per cent of people in Melbourne and Victoria’s regional cities.

Some higher-profile promises will have flow-on benefits across the network.

The Victorian Greens are proposing to fill ‘gaps’ in Melbourne’s tram network to improve connections with trains and district centres.

The ALP’s proposal to eliminate 50 level crossings in Melbourne will improve running times for buses and trams, even if the main beneficiaries are motorists.

The Coalition has committed to a rail line to Melbourne Airport, but not for another decade.

All these proposals are to be commended.

But the need for extensions of the rail ‘backbone’ to growth areas such as Mernda, in the city’s far north-east, Clyde in the outer south-east, and to the car-dependent regions of Doncaster and Rowville still receive less political attention than their strategic importance warrants, despite positive announcements from the ALP and the Coalition in the lead-up to the November election, to extend the train line to Mernda.

Developing a first-rate public transport network isn’t just about cutting ribbons on mega infrastructure projects.

Just as important are initiatives such as tram and bus priority at traffic lights, bus frequency improvements, straightening out bus routes, coordination of timetables and convenient interchange facilities.

Not as glamorous perhaps, but just as important.

It’s time to spread our focus out from the rail and road megaprojects to include more of the little things that make a transport system really work.

Sweating the small stuff on transport will improve Victoria, giving all people more opportunity to access jobs and services, be part of the community and fulfil their potential.

Who wouldn’t want to cut the ribbon on that?

Tony Morton is President of the Public Transport Users Association (PTUA).

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