Bus or Tram? Or something else?

11th August 2015

Michael Coulter comments in The Age (2/8/15):

"Driving to work is a tedious affair, but it has its compensations. Close to the top of the list is exchanging a smug glance with your passenger while cruising  down the two-occupant-or-more transit lane of the Eastern Freeway. Often you can pass two kilometres of stationary, fuming driver-only cars without touching the brakes, which goes to show that on some days the view from the high moral ground is spectacular. One such self-satisfied morning, I was reflecting on how lucky it was that so few people car-pool when arithmetic intervened. If every car had two occupants, there would only be half the cars on the road, which would mean all the lanes would be moving freely. But what if there was some sort of magic car that could carry more than two people? If you could somehow put 60 or 70 commuters into the one vehicle, what would that do to congestion? At that point a bus loomed up in the rearview mirror and I gave thanks that I wasn't crammed onto that noisy, jerky, smelly old thing …

"The above story is literally true except for the ending, which is only allegorically correct. Because for whatever reason, people really don't like buses. This was demonstrated once again this year by a pair of Sydney academics, who found that when given a choice between equivalent light-rail and bus services, people overwhelmingly went for light rail. Part of the aversion comes from an almost ideological preference for rail over buses. Rail is seen as fast and convenient, buses as slow and uncomfortable. There is a distinct social stigma attached to buses, best captured by the infamous quote (usually, though not verifiably, attributed to Margaret Thatcher) that  'a man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure'.

"Then there is an emotional element – the romance of rail. This may be particularly pronounced in Melbourne, where buses have to compete with trams, the de facto emblems of the city, for the hearts and minds of the travelling public. The other part of the aversion, though, was due to lived experience. In cities with better bus services, the study found, people tend to like them more. It's not precisely revelatory, but it tells you that if you provide a reliable, efficient, regular service, people will use it. If you build it, they will come. And there is a compelling case to build it. Melbourne is choking on its own traffic, and solutions seem to be billions of dollars and many years away. The rail system has been allowed to degrade and needs billions for a modern signalling system and infrastructure renewal. We urgently need to find $6 billion to remove level crossings. The metro rail tunnel is at least $9 billion and nine years away. New trams cost about $14 million a pop.

"Even more pressingly, as we wait for this new infrastructure to (hopefully) come on line, the city grows by 1800 people every week. Instead of having them clog our roads or wait at the as-yet-unbuilt platforms of our proposed new railways, let's get them on the bus. A bus costs about half a million dollars and takes months, rather than years, to deliver. It can go anywhere there's a road, including all those new suburbs that will never see a train station, and can carry about 70 people at a time. It doesn't have to travel into the city then out again, meaning you can connect the suburbs without clogging the CBD. (The demand for that is already demonstrated by the extremely popular SmartBus routes.) For a $50 million outlay, which doesn't even get you to the planning stage of a rail tunnel, you could buy 100 buses. If each one carries only 70 passengers an hour for 18 hours a day, that's an extra 46 million journeys a year. Or take our old friend the Eastern Freeway, which handles about 56,000 cars a day. To replace them all with buses would cost about $400 million – or about 10 per cent of the cost of the chimerical Doncaster rail line.

"Happily, Melbourne is already turning to the bus. Public Transport Victoria figures show that in the 2013-14 financial year, buses carried 127 million passengers, up 10 per cent on the previous 12 months. For perspective, trams carried 176 million and trains 232 million. Imagine how that process would be accelerated if buses ran at the same frequency as trams. What we need to do is get buses running at a frequency where potential passengers no longer need to check the timetable. If you know one will be along in the next 15 minutes, suddenly it's a viable alternative to the car. It won't be a profitable process at first, but public transport by its nature is not a profitable enterprise. Consider too, that each car taken off the road pays a dividend in liveability, productivity and the environment. Two things need to happen, then, for the sake of Melbourne. The first is our public transport planners need to get a lot more buses on the roads. The second is we, the travelling public, need to put aside our prejudices and get on board. Or, to put it another way, we need to build a bridge and get over it – in a bus."

Ref: http://www.theage.com.au/comment/get-on-board-get-on-the-bus-20150731-giotez.html#ixzz3iSrVWHjK