Why aren’t there more Smartbuses? Smartbuses work.
Smartbus is a fancy marketing name for buses that run more frequently than most other routes, have some bus priority and realtime electronic signs at major stops. The figures in this government press release show the upgrades of routes to Smartbus result in strong patronage growth.
I’ve excluded the older 703 and 888/889 services from the graph. They were part of the initial Smartbus trial, upgraded in 2002, and growth was initially strong, but has flattened out. These routes don’t actually conform to the Smartbus standards, so run less frequently than the newer routes listed above. 888/889 is getting a boost on Monday when it becomes the 902, with a new timetable, and an extension to Airport West. There’s no word on whether the 703 will be fixed.
The figures above show that if you make bus services more frequent, and run them for longer hours, then more people will use them. The jury’s probably out on all the electronic gizmos; many of the signs are periodically unreliable, though admittedly they do work much of the time.
The aims of clever electronics to give buses traffic light priority has never seemed to work as well as promised, and has given way to lower-tech old-fashioned priority bus lanes and jump-start lanes at intersections (where the bus gets a B signal before the rest of the cars, so it can jump to the start of the traffic queue.)
Weekend (and evening) services are a bit poor, with typical waiting times of 30 minutes being totally uncompetitive with car travel, and a long way from parity with inner-suburban tram services running every 12-15 minutes.
And there’s some uncertainty over whether stringing together shorter routes into mega-long services has been a good idea. The expanded 902 from Chelsea to Airport West will be 76 kilometres long, which must play havoc with timekeeping. And few people would catch it from end-to-end, given there are faster, more direct services.
I tend to think of it as not one big long mega-route, but a whole bunch of smaller feeder routes strung together. A lot of people use them just to reach the local station or shopping centre.
But faults aside, it’s undeniable that they are a success story. So why aren’t there more of them?
They’re not particularly expensive to implement. The next extension, the “Yellow” route 901 from Ringwood to Melbourne Airport (about 70 kilometres), will cost $37.9 million in capital funding, and about $19 million per year in running costs. [Source: Budget papers] This is tiny compared to the amounts being spent freeway expansion — Peninsula Link is costing $759 million for 27 kilometres.
Apart from that and the “DART” Smartbus-style services proposed for Doncaster (luckily not planned for Frankston), there aren’t any more on the drawing board. In fact one proposed route, the “blue” orbital, was cancelled, and part of the 902, from Werribee via Deer Park to Airport West, has been indefinitely deferred.
Surely if the government were serious about offering decent PT to the whole city, they’d have more Smartbuses planned. Give every suburb either a train, tram or Smartbus service, boost the services to run frequently seven-days-a-week, and give every suburb a public transport that is actually in some way competitive to car travel.