Buses: Small vs big

Happy new year!

We’re all used to the standard size buses (pictured above).

Bigger buses either go to double deck, requiring higher bridge clearances, or longer articulated buses, needing longer bus bays and larger turning circles.

Spotted recently on the Western Freeway near Melton: a smaller FlexiRide bus.

Melton FlexiRide bus on Western Freeway

The aspect ratio on this pic is correct – this bus is a Hino Poncho – it appears the bus is designed to be narrow, presumably to more easily fit along suburban streets between parked cars, where a full size bus might not be able to go.

FlexiRide is an on-demand bus service used in a number of outer suburban areas and regional towns.

Woodend FlexiRide bus stop

FlexiRide is designed for routes with low patronage, and which are never going to get high patronage – the on-demand aspect of it would make that impractical.

Similar on-demand services have been around for decades – in the Croydon and Rowville area FlexiRide services have replaced (for a trial period, possibly permanently) the long-running Telebus services, which were booked by phone – you now have the option of using an app.

On-demand routes are unlikely to encourage large numbers of people out of cars. But they can be very useful by filling the gaps between higher frequency main road routes which do get people out of cars – but which may not be easily accessed by those with mobility difficulties.

Small buses like these can work well on low patronage routes. But they also present challenges for operators who also have to run routes (or portions of routes) with higher ridership.

When specific buses need to be used on specific routes, there can be consequences if there are faults or maintenance delays. Overcoming this means bigger fleets with more spares, which means more cost.

This has been a problem on the “Manningham Mover” routes 280/282 in the last few days.

Bus reliability aside, bus driver rosters might involve a bus being used on a busy run then on a quiet local run. It’s not always going to be possible to match the vehicle size to the passenger demand.

For the Melton FlexiRide route, the service is provided by Transit Systems in Footscray, meaning a lot of dead-running between the depot and the route. Local depots could help – but can also mean even bigger challenges for fleet management of the less common bus types.

Additionally, Melbourne is full of routes which try to serve multiple purposes – both low-ridership neighbourhood access and high-ridership routes to railway stations and major shopping centres. Network route reform could help here by better segmenting bus routes.

Challenges aside, it’s good to see this type of investment and innovation in the bus network. The State Government looks set to revamp the bus network in coming years.

It’s no secret that buses are the poor cousin of Melbourne’s public transport, despite huge parts of the suburban area relying on them. It’ll be good to see what the Government comes up with to improve them.

By Daniel Bowen

Transport blogger / campaigner and spokesperson for the Public Transport Users Association / professional geek.
Bunurong land, Melbourne, Australia.
Opinions on this blog are all mine.

12 replies on “Buses: Small vs big”

I agree that buses are the poor cousin of Melbourne public transport. I am a regular user of buses in different parts of the metropolitan area. The big issue is widespread fare evasion. Relatively few people touch on or touch off. Another (rarely if ever discussed) is cultural; a significant number of Melbourne people seem to have an aversion to using buses. This is obvious on almost every journey especially when you consider the “demographic” of the passengers aboard. I have chosen my words carefully. At the same time, buses provide opportunities to explore Melbourne at relatively low cost. This used to happen occasionally pre pandemic, mostly international visitors or sometimes, only sometimes, seniors taking a day out.

@Paul, I contend that it’s a complete myth that most Melbourne people have an aversion to buses. They have an aversion to poor (infrequent, slow) services.

There’s plenty of people who use the services that are good. Smartbuses, including the Eastern Freeway services, and even Skybus (frequent but expensive) were all packed in the Before Times.

Would a system like Flexiride help with places like Point Cook to get people out of cars and supplement whatever few buses they have there? Every time I go there I feel like everything is built around cars.

I probably have an aversion to buses because I can’t read my book as I get travel sick (doesn’t happen on train or tram). This is mainly due to the roundabout routes buses follow that take you down back alleys (slight exaggeration, I admit) with lots of sudden twists and turns. This adds a lot of minutes to the journey – another negative.
Your photo makes the Hino Poncho look a lot bigger than the one viewed via your link (many thanks). It is definitely mini-bus sized.

@arfman, my point here is that FlexiRide does not work as a high volume solution. It’s built on the assumption that not many people will catch it. It has a role, but it’s not mass transit.

If your aim is to get lots of people out of cars and into buses, use conventional bus routes, direct along main roads, at high frequency, with whatever traffic priority is required to make it fast and reliable.

I agree Daniel. I realised that the success of such a solution would be its own demise too as it makes way to a timetabled service. It’s kinda sad that out in the west there’s enough demand for buses but most of the day it runs with a handful of passengers because most people think they’ll only get on it if it’s more frequent.

FlexiRide does have merit, but just like TeleBus, the biggest problem by far is the lack of services, not the way it operates. While it is better than TeleBus in hours of operation, it still falls short of the minimum standard and lacks proper weekend services. While Melton’s new FlexiRide runs every single day of the year, the Lilydale- and Rowville-based FlexiRides still don’t run on Sundays or public holidays (and in the case of Rowville, no Saturday services either).

FlexiRide can really only shine when the main road bus services around it are straightened out and with improved frequencies instead of being the jack-of-all-trades (e.g. route 690 between Boronia and Kilsyth, where the route tries to serve two places at once where a FlexiRide would be ideal), or where it becomes the “last kilometre” instead of having to walk around in circles courtesy of pedestrian-hostile street layouts (which is typical for Rowville, Chirnside Park and other similar suburbs). It should never be the sole bus for the masses, with no alternative only because the main road bus service in the area is a joke e.g. route 675, which makes the “Area 2 & 3” (for lack of better name) Mooroolbark FlexiRide look like a SmartBus by comparison.

Another good place for FlexiRide would be Mt Evelyn. For decades, the 679 has travelled around in a circle in the back streets of Mt Evelyn (via the shops and former train station in Wray Crescent) wasting several minutes to pick up one or two people if lucky (usually zero if not counting Wray Cr itself) before doubling back on itself and continuing on its journey. A FlexiRide around Mt Evelyn would allow the 679 to speed up its timetable by losing its P-shaped loop while providing much better coverage in the area e.g. the entirety of Birmingham Rd and surrounds.

As for small vs. big buses, a notable mention goes to the former National Bus Company, which since its inception ran minibuses (Mercedes-Benz LO812, which were nicknamed pie carts by the drivers) on several local routes in the Doncaster and Ringwood areas, until said buses became obsolete. It is debatable whether a 1990s four-cylinder “pie cart” with manual tramsmission and a rough ride or a full-size ten-litre six-cylinder automatic bus from 1979 that couldn’t take a mild hill at anything quicker than walking pace was the better vehicle! Of course, the newer air conditioned buses were all on the freeway routes, leaving the dregs to the lesser routes. Just like TeleBus, most of these coverage routes had infrequent, early-finishing, Sunday-less timetables (in stark contrast with some of National’s former Met Bus routes which ran 7 days a week and until midnight on weekdays), but National’s buses also came with one bonus – National had their own distance-based one-way tickets which were slightly cheaper than 2-hour Metcards. No TeleBus or FlexiRide operation though, these were all fixed routes. Naturally though, the unique tickets (which were printed on thermal paper from the grey machine rather than actual Metcards) went the way of the dinosaur long before myki took over; I don’t even think Ventura offered them.

One thing in favour of these smaller buses might be their comfort level. I have noticed that the suspensions on normal buses are never configured for comfort, and a lot of impact is delivered to passengers through the body of the bus. This is less of a problem in a fully loaded bus, but on a nearly-empty bus (quite a frequent experience), its uncomfortable even to run over painted rumble strips on a suburban street.
A smaller bus will have lighter axle weights when unladen and its laden weight will be closer to its unladen weight, due to its low passenger capacity. Even without good suspension, it has the potential to be more comfortable than a full-size bus.

It certainly wasn’t always the case, smaller buses used to be agricultural in the ride quality department, with the leaf spring suspension from the donor medium-duty truck chassis seemingly unchanged. The old Hino TeleBuses I grew up with in Mooroolbark in the 80s through 90s used to shudder and bounce over even the mildest road imperfection, never mind the level crossing and the artsy 90s stone-paved pedestrian crossings in Brice Avenue. Likewise with the once-ubiquitous Mazda T3000/T3500 school buses, which couldn’t pull the skin off a rice pudding yet seemingly lasted forever despite being thrashed (naturally-aspirated diesel engine doing 4000 rpm in first gear while the bus crawled along at 20 km/h uphill, unable to even use second because the thing would have stalled).

The minibuses built this side of the year 2000 are a lot better in ride comfort though. Gone are the gutless non-turbocharged engines, manual transmissions, hot and sweaty vinyl seats and rock-hard truck suspension, replaced by modern turbo diesels, automatic transmissions, cloth seats, airbag suspension (or at least softer leaf springs that can actually soak up a few bumps), and the most important thing, air conditioning.

I have long thought that many suburban routes could be operated by smaller buses with marginally increased frequency without wasting capacity. There are many routes in Preston and Reservoir areas with odd frequencies of 22 to 24 minutes. All they need is one more bus on each route, even if they are small ones, to bring up the frequency to 20 minutes, which will facilitate more useful train connections.

I really do hope there will be a revamp in the bus network and a simplification of that. (Honestly, another question is why it took so long to get there when Toronto already had this without any apparent issues, but I guess that is for another time.) Who knows? If a few of these bus routes become popular as a result, then it might create a case for dedicated transit corridors, which would further help entice people out of their cars.

@Yao: Actually, I think part of the reason why bigger buses are used is from labour costs. Apparently, savings from smaller vehicles won’t offset costs of hiring 1-2 extra drivers; although does Daniel have better insight to that?

I do agree with the use of the smaller bus on the more localised flexi-ride routes, as, you need a more agile bus, in such an environment.

On other routes, it would be better, having higher capacity buses, so you can carry more people, to better offset the cost of the driver. By reducing the costs, help make improved services more viable, and more likely to run. Perhaps you can pay the bus driver a little bit more, and attract more to becoming bus drivers too???

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