I found myself at a party recently chatting about public transport. Not just late trains and packed trams, but specifically buses.
Who said buses aren’t interesting to anybody?
It was in the broader context of sustainable transport in the inner-north, but one of the anecdotal snippets was this: one of the people I was chatting to lives in Brunswick and has a friend in the Edgewater estate at Maribyrnong. While she is an avid cyclist (rides every day to work in the university district), when she goes visiting this friend, she inevitably drives (about 15 minutes), because the cycling routes are limited (and not very flat), and it’s not really viable to do the trip by public transport either.
For trips like this by public transport, buses are the only option. Inner-city orbital routes like this aren’t going to have trains any time soon, and while there are three orbital tram routes, more are unlikely.
Buses – the poor cousin
The problem is that, as we all know, buses of are the poor cousin in Melbourne. They are often infrequent, and have shorter operating hours than the other modes. While weekend trains typically run every 10-20 minutes, and trams every 8-15, most buses get nowhere near that.
For Brunswick to Edgewater you’d be looking at the 508 bus, then the 472. The 508 runs half-hourly on Saturdays and every 40 minutes on Sundays. The 472 runs every 20 minutes on Saturdays and every 50 minutes on Sundays. The time spent actually travelling might be okay, but the mismatch in frequencies means the chances of a good connection between the two are almost zilch.
And we wonder why crosstown road routes like Alexandra Parade get congested. Even for short trips (most Alexandra Parade trips aren’t a full east-west journey that would be helped by the proposed tunnel), the parallel PT routes — all buses — are hopeless:
|Route — major road
|Frequency peak hour
|504 — Brunswick Road
|506 — Glenlyon Road/Dawson Street
|40 (weekdays only)
|508 — Victoria Street
|503 — Albion Street
|510 — Moreland Road
The 57 tram and 402 bus are also in that area, and aren’t too bad most of the time, but aren’t really crosstown routes; they both originate in or on the edge of the CBD.
While people will gravitate towards the most usable services (just as motorists often gravitate towards arterial roads and freeways), unfortunately it’s not as simple as merging all those infrequent routes from a vast geographical area into one single frequent service and expecting people to use it. Some consolidation can help, but you still need a usable grid of frequent services, within say 400-800 metres of trip sources and destinations.
Better buses work
The patronage growth on more frequent orbital Smartbus services shows there is huge potential for more people to make this kind of trip by public transport if decent services are provided.
In fact, one of the orbital Smartbus routes – the Blue orbital – would have just about served the very trip from Brunswick to Maribyrnong we were discussing. The Blue orbital was proposed by Labor, but they never implemented it. The plan — as with the other Smartbus routes — was it would have combined several existing routes, adding in service upgrades, to provide an option for cross-suburban travel in the inner-suburbs, avoiding having to go into the city and out again.
View Proposed Orbital Smartbus routes in a larger map
My reading of the old maps is that the Blue Orbital would have run from Brighton to Elsternwick (the existing 216/219), then along Punt Road to Clifton Hill (the 246), then west through Brunswick to Moonee Ponds (the 508), then heading to Highpoint and then replacing part of the 223 to Footscray (including just about passing within walking distance of Edgewater) and then replacing the 472 through Yarraville and Newport to Williamstown.
I actually think the Brighton end would not have been that useful — just as the plentiful 216/219/600/922/923 buses are now, it would have been unused. But the section from Elsternwick to Footscray would, I think, have been a great investment in assisting with more cross-suburban trips. (Though I expect it would be a longer-than-necessary trip from Brunswick to Maribyrnong.)
If long orbital routes won’t be provided, then at least the existing shorter routes need to be made more frequent and direct. There’s no real reason, for instance, they couldn’t be as frequent on weekends as they are on weekdays. The buses are available.
Route reform needed
Reform of routes, rationalising and straightening them out to run direct instead of all over the place, would also help run faster more frequent buses — you know, the sorts of services people will actually use.
PTV are actually working on such a plan. While they haven’t yet release a plan for bus routes, word is a bus and tram plan is in preparation. As their demand forecast report flags, bus routes will be re-organised into four categories: Smartbus (up to every 10 minutes), Direct (up to every 15 minutes, running along arterial roads), Coverage (hourly, serving local neighbourhoods, and targeted at people who don’t want to walk a distance to high-frequency services) and Inter-town (hourly, connecting rural-fringe areas to outer-suburban Melbourne).
This is good. The current bus network is a mess — some areas have frequent service simply because they used to have trams, but terminate short of logical traffic generators; some routes that should be primary connections into major centres take ages to get anywhere because they go through backstreets.
They also need traffic priority measures so they don’t get stuck in heavy traffic, as shown in the Punt Road photo above, where one 246 has caught up to another.
Restructuring the network into a grid of more frequent services will help a lot to provide a more usable public transport network overall.
And it’s not necessarily terribly expensive. Buses now crawling through suburban backstreets can run more efficiently if they stick to main roads.
But some extra funds will be needed. Will they get the money they need? The government’s big push on the East-West link has once again highlighted cross-city transport, but if it gets up, swallowing a decade of transport funding, and the only practical option for many of these trips remains driving, then roads will continue to be clogged.