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Perth 2012 transport

Perth’s CAT buses: lessons for Melbourne?

Another in a series of posts about Perth PT and how it relates back to Melbourne.

Perth’s city centre (and town centres of Fremantle and Joondalup) have CAT buses — Central Area Transit — free services running (reasonably) frequently in loops that people can hop on, hop off to get around.

They are very popular; those I saw in Perth and Fremantle were often busy, and one Red CAT we caught in Perth got close to capacity at one point.

Perth Red CAT bus

Perth CAT bus

Alongside the CAT buses, central Perth also has the Free Travel Zone, which gives you free travel on any train or bus within the central area using a SmartRider card.

Those who rave about CAT buses reckon they’d be terrific in Melbourne may have missed some vital points about why Perth has them (and the FTZ):

Firstly, they are used for high-volume hop-on, hop-off trips. If the drivers had to check or sell tickets, they’d be too slow. In Melbourne this isn’t a problem, because almost all CBD travel of this kind is performed by trams, where drivers don’t have to attend to tickets.

In fact, many of Melbourne’s trams are much higher capacity than Perth’s CAT buses, the main CBD routes run more frequently (about every minute in some cases, compared to every 5 minutes for the best CAT buses), and are consistently busier.

Melbourne tram in Bourke Street on route 95

Secondly, Perth has no daily fares like Melbourne. In Melbourne a suburbs to CBD commuter or visitor pays no more than two journeys thanks to the Myki daily cap (the same applied with Metcard 10×2 hour tickets) or you use a Weekly/Monthly/Yearly Pass which includes travel all day.

So if you’re paying for your trip to and from work, then travel around the CBD at lunchtime costs no more. In Perth this doesn’t apply, unless you hit the DayRider cap — but this only applies for travel after 9am. So Perth commuters would pay extra to travel around the CBD during the day if they had no free services such as the CAT and the Free Travel Zone.

Perth Red CAT bus stop

Thirdly, if as in Melbourne you can provide CBD travel which gets around the above problems, then who would benefit from providing free services? I’ll tell you who: motorists who have driven to the CBD. (Tourists benefit too, admittedly.)

Indeed, I suspect that one reason Perth retains CAT buses is because of a long tradition of welcoming motorists into the central city — the slogan at one stage was “Your car is as welcome as you are“. I think we know Melbourne’s public transport system has its faults, but frankly, motorists who have driven to the CBD don’t deserve a free ride.

Of course, Melbourne has the City Circle tram, and the Tourist Shuttle (which isn’t actually a shuttle). Doesn’t mean we need more free services though.

I’d rather see that money go towards the outer-suburban areas where most PT services are unusable.

We have a lot to learn from Perth — some ideas would work brilliantly; free CBD services aren’t one of them.