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To fix buses, make them more like trams

Here’s a snapshot of Melbourne’s public transport patronage over the past five years, by mode.

Source: Budget papers.
Train excludes metropolitan V/Line boardings.

Tram and train are growing. Tram in particular saw strong growth thanks to the Free Tram Zone, but both those modes show increased patronage.

The trams now carry over 200 million boardings on just 24 routes.

But bus patronage is stagnant – with around 120 million boardings per year on around 400 routes – despite population growth, much of it in the middle and outer suburban areas that are only served by buses.

(By comparison, Sydney’s buses carry around 300 million trips per year.)

A big factor is that Melbourne’s buses generally have low service quality: many routes are infrequent, slow, inefficient, inconvenient.

In some parts of the world, cities are fixing their buses… Paul Comfort of the Transit Unplugged podcast talks about the bus systems that are growing patronage, and notes three primary factors:

  • “rebooting” bus networks via route reform to make them more direct
  • measures to “remove friction” – including bus priority, off-board fare payments, and all-door boarding
  • and increasing frequency

These types of changes would make Melbourne’s buses run more like trams – and crucially, make them more attractive to passengers.

Bus 811/812 route map (PTV)
Current bus 811-812 route map. The Brighton-Moorabbin-Southland section replaced the old direct route 617 with a slower indirect route via Moorabbin East in 1991. The change also reduced service frequency.

1. Route reform

One of the most frustrating things if you get onto many Melbourne bus routes is just how long they take to get from A to B.

A PTUA study back in 2012 measured how direct bus routes are. On average the routes were 70% longer than the direct alternative from start to finish. 20% of routes were more than double the shortest distance by road.

There can be good reasons for this – the long Smartbus orbital routes are really multiple routes strung together, not intended to be used from end to end. And many routes divert to major traffic generators such as railway stations and shopping centres. Fair enough.

But many buses run routes that divert too much, including off the arterial roads down slow minor roads instead (hello route 822). Some routes are split into different variants, making them confusing.

The overall result is a bus network that is too slow for most people, is expensive to run for the route coverage it provides, and is difficult to understand.

Contrast this to the tram network. It’s helped by its origins: largely built when public transport was growing and direct routes were a priority (and new street layouts were more suitable), and it was harder to fiddle with in the period late last century when patronage was declining and cuts and consolidation were rife on the buses. As a result trams are still mostly direct, mostly on main roads, easily understood – and popular.

The specifics of bus route reform vary of course – Peter Parker’s “Melbourne On Transit” blog has numerous articles looking at specific areas for proposals to improve routes.

Punt Road, June 2008

2. Bus priority

Speeding up bus operations is particularly important at present, given the COVID-19 crisis, to help reduce the potential exposure time for passengers and drivers.

It should be blindingly obvious that a bus carrying 20, 30, 40, 50 or more people should get priority over individuals in cars.

But while bus priority lanes (including jump-start lanes at traffic lights) have been implemented in some locations, but are sorely lacking in others.

The recent widening of the Chandler Highway bridge from a single lane in each direction to three lanes in each direction is a good example. Plenty of space for bus lanes to insulate buses from future traffic congestion, and an opportunity to improve north-south buses across the Yarra, but no.

Likewise Skybus struggles on without bus lanes, despite an Infrastructure Victoria report recommending they be provided ahead of any airport rail link – and despite recent widening of Citylink.

And over in Fitzsimons Lane, they’ve removed bus lanes. (Sounds like they are leaving bus queue jump lanes; hopefully these help.)

Where bus lanes do exist, they need to be enforced properly. This is an ongoing problem on Hoddle Street for instance.

Dedicated lanes aren’t the only way of improving bus speeds. Queue/jump start lanes at key intersections can help as well.

And smarter traffic light programming can help buses get through without hitting a red, and speed up journeys. This was originally a part of the Smartbus program, but much of this seems to have fallen by the wayside. It would be good to see it revived – often it doesn’t take precious road space, and may be more politically palatable than re-allocating general traffic lanes for exclusive bus usage.

On-road priority methods should be equally applied to trams as well as buses, of course.

Bus 601: Prepay and all-door boarding trial at Monash University

3. All-door boarding

All-door boarding can help speed up buses, and it’s being done in a number of cities around the world, particularly in North America.

NACTO (the National Association of City Transportation Officials, USA) has a good whitepaper on this here.

Could all-door boarding happen on Melbourne buses?

Yes. If you were hanging around Monash University one day in January, you might have spotted a crowd hanging around the 601 bus stop, trying out various bus loading scenarios, including all-door boarding. This was a DOT exercise to look at issues such as use of bus capacity, and unloading/loading (dwell) times.

Discussions and a trial are underway… but meanwhile… boarding via the back door has happened anyway.

As part of COVID-19 measures, Transdev Melbourne, one of the biggest bus operators in the city, has asked all passengers to avoid using the front door, and touch-on at the back.

4. Prepay buses

Paul Comfort also talks about moving payments off the vehicle to speed up loading, making buses a prepaid service. This goes hand-in-hand with all-door boarding.

Melbourne and many of Victoria’s regional cities have already gone a long way on this thanks to Myki, with only a small minority of people paying on-board the bus.

Could you go entirely to cashless, and ask all passengers to top-up before travel?

Once again, it’s happened anyway – due to COVID-19.

Going cashless, if it can be made to work permanently, also means operational efficiencies such as bus drivers no longer having to leave the depot with a cash float to be able to provide change.

What about the middle ground: allowing top-ups on board, but not providing change? That would speed things up. If the cash was deposited into a locked box on the bus, it could also improve security. (This has been the practice on some American systems for decades.)

Well it turns out Transdev have already stopped giving change – it was happening before COVID-19. This photo is from December:

Myki bus top-up: No change given

There could be some issues with not allowing on-board top-ups, or not providing change, particularly for the cohort of passengers who are watching their pennies, and who might top-up the cost of a single fare each time they travel.

Some passengers may also lack online access, though there are other options:

  • You can ring PTV and top-up by credit card over the phone, but the same group may also lack credit cards.
  • You can use a Myki Machine at a station or top-up at a retail outlet, but these are scarce in many bus-only outer suburban areas.

If buses implemented all-door boarding and prepay, they would become more like trams. This would mean that more ticket checks are needed on board, as on trams and trains – though with many passengers making connections at railway stations, better monitoring of the train network may be easier to achieve to protect revenue.

5. More services

Perhaps the biggest major barrier to more bus patronage is waiting times and poor operating hours.

While many of Melbourne’s busiest bus routes are those that run most frequently, in many cases this is for purely historic reasons. For instance the inner-west’s most frequent buses (216, 220, 223) all used to be trams.

Transport is supply-led – infrequent routes will never get lots of passengers on board, even if overall travel demand is heavy. But extending operating hours and making more routes run more frequently will get patronage.

Unlike some of the measures above, adding services incurs ongoing costs. But it’s less of a burden if the other steps are also taken: if the route structure is made more efficient, and the buses are moving more quickly.

A good first step would be upgrading weekend and evening services on the busiest routes, when there plenty of buses sitting idle in the depots, minimising the additional cost.

Huntingdale Bus interchange

The pay off

Any of these bus upgrades can be tried in isolation of the others, though the more are applied to routes, the better.

The Smartbus program combined route reform (more direct routes, better aimed at traffic generators) with more service – as well as better real-time information and a little bit of bus priority. Patronage growth was impressive.

It’s been a similar case in a few areas around Melbourne where route reform and (modest) upgrades have been applied, for instance in the Brimbank area.

Patronage growth can mean more fare revenue coming in, offsetting the cost of the upgrades.

Importantly in the immediate aftermath of COVID-19, it’s not just about ridership: there is tremendous economic and social value in enabling people in bus-only suburbs who are displaced by the downturn to be able to access jobs and education without having the financial burden of running a car – not to mention helping relieve the burden on society of more cars on the roads.

One thing’s for sure: the current strategy of doing very little* is not working – bus patronage should be growing at least in line with population growth, but it isn’t.

Some smart investment in better bus services – to make them more like trams – will get more people using them.


19 replies on “To fix buses, make them more like trams”

Great commentary Daniel. Having recently lived in Adelaide for a couple of years, I would say Adelaide’s trains could learn a lot from Melbournes trains, but Melbourne could learn a hell of a lot from Adelaide on how to run a bus network. Even excluding the excellent O-Bahn (which really behaves more like a tram), most bus routes have a defined catchment area where it weaves around the streets for a few minutes, then they jump on a direct route to an activity centre (shopping centre, the city, train station, etc). This makes the bus only a few minutes slower than driving yourself for most journeys and avoids all the issues with a car like parking and running costs.

Fare evasion is a big issue on Melbourne buses although patronage figures quoted have probably taken this into account.

I am a regular of buses in different parts of Melbourne. In normal times, it seems there is a general reluctance of long term Melbourne residents to ride buses. At the same time, more recent arrivals from cultures were public transport use is commonplace seem happy to ride our local buses. Check this out next time you’re riding a bus anywhere in Melbourne.

The style of people who often “hang around” suburban public transport terminals and interchanges could be a deterrent to expanded use of local routes. However, such people seem to have “gone to ground” since the advent of CORVID-19.

Great article and I completely agree with all your points. What a great opportunity for job creation to include more bus services. We could have buses running so frequently down bus lanes that a timetable would not be necessary. I would also advocate turning all major roads and freeways into a bus rapid transit as is being developed in Brisbane (Brisbane Metro). There are some amazing examples around the world of electric buses that look like modern trams that could have dedicated sky stations above freeways that can connect two suburbs either side of the road. The Westgate Tunnel project is great example of this where a BRT could begin with a stop at the new Aviation fields (Point Cook) with its own dedicated lane then a connection to Williams Landing Station and further stops at Altona Meadows and Altona North where there is massive housing development beginning by the freeway as well as the other side of Yarraville (Bradman’s Mill location). This could then enter the tunnel to Docklands with other services entering the Westgate bridge for Fisherman’s Bend. All our freeways could work like this and it would be cost effective, quick to implement and create a lot of jobs as soon as possible.

Thanks Daniel, so what is stopping all or some of this happening? Is it the Dpt of Transport, is it the Operators, is it the contracts the operators are on and their incentives? I have watched and tracked the ridership as well. I have attended lots of presentations by BusVic and others around the country. So much of what you say has been said by others as well. It has also been said just prior to state elections.

Covid will lead to more cleaning but I am not sure it will lead to any major changes. Patronage has been flat for years. It’s obviously not a revenue thing then. Or improved revenue is not a big enough driver for them.

What can we learn from major route shakeups undertake by other states, Canberra recently did one (with launch of new trams), has it worked? Some of it must have. We are obviously a much bigger state and the impacts are bigger but changes can be incremental tested for several months.

Excellent article as always Daniel. A small technicality: in Sydney, buses do the job of trams except for a couple of new tram lines carrying probably 20 million p.a. at present. So you really need to compare the total tram+bus (street transport) figures for both cities. When seen this way, Melbourne’s street transport patronage is about the same as Sydney’s (about 320 million p.a.) Where Sydney is really stronger is with rail, but it can also be said that bus patronage in Sydney is still growing strongly whereas bus+tram patronage in Melbourne has pretty-well flatlined. On present trends it won’t be long before the total patronage of Sydney’s street public transport moves ahead of Melbourne’s.

Another point: with all-door boarding, the buses need to have all double-leaf doors, not just the front door. A fully low-floor like the new hybrids is also a great advantage for internal passenger distribution and flow. PTV would do well to introduce both as minimum design standards.

Regarding bus drivers no longer accepting cash to top up Mykis, Daniel wrote:
“You can ring PTV and top-up by credit card over the phone, but the same group may also lack credit cards.”

As long as PTV also accepts DEBIT cards to top up Mykis, that problem may be in the process of resolving itself. (Is it correct that anywhere you can use a credit card, you can also use a Visa debit card?)

My elderly mother was an enthusiastic early adopter of bank-issued plastic, but she has a number of friends and relatives who until recently remained firmly wedded to their old-style bank passbooks. They just didn’t trust plastic cards. They liked the security of seeing their bank balance written in that passbook. On pension day they’d go to the bank to withdraw cash, and then use it to pay for all their shopping and bills.

To top up their Mykis, it was their habit to hand cash to the bus driver. Most of them live in the outer suburbs, and buses are their most frequent mode of travel.

Covid-19 has changed all that. It’s not only bus drivers who are reluctant to accept cash; it’s nearly everybody. Suddenly this card-averse demographic is realising that it will be difficult to buy *anything* anymore, no matter how small – a takeaway coffee, a bun, a magazine, a prescription medicine – without using plastic.

I rang my mother recently to ask how her friends and relatives were coping, and she said that every one of them, without exception, has been persuaded by their bank to accept a debit card. They are now in the process of learning how to navigate daily life with a plastic card instead of cash. (It’s difficult. If you’re standing in a shop behind them, or you’re asked to help them navigate a phone transaction, please be patient. It’s not easy to adapt to a whole new technology when you’ve been using cash all your life.)

They’ll never get credit cards, but as long as PTV accepts debit cards, they’ll be OK, I think.

@pn1, you’ve said a few times that there are cultural differences that determine whether people are willing to ride buses…

I think it’s far likely to be economic factors, but take a look at the trams (and trains). A far wider cross-section of users. Which is the point of the blog post: make buses more like trams, and everyone will use them more.

@Simon, BRT definitely needs to be tried in a bigger way in Melbourne, but I think it’s important not to fall into the Brisbane trap of assuming that BRT can do the job of trains. So yeah it might be a good idea on some freeways in Melbourne, but not on the ones where the freeway parallels train services.

@Arthur, it’s not the Department, the Operators or the contracts that are the barrier. It’s the State Government. They need to fund upgrades. (Ditto with upgrades to other PT modes.)

@Marcus, great info – thanks!

@Tony, good point. Just as some of Melbourne’s better buses are those that replaced trams, doubly so for Sydney!

@Karen, I could be wrong here, but isn’t the Debit or Credit card differentiation invisible to merchants? Really interesting to see how the current situation has quickly shifted people to cards.

Last year, bus drivers on the 601 would regularly open both doors and allow passengers to board in both doors at the same time at Monash University – so they’ve already been doing this for some time.

I’d love a revised / frequent / direct 624 that connected to say, the 508 originating from Caulfield station via Chandler Hwy. It would connect to so many train lines and give a decent option to get to the Mernda / Hurstbridge lines from the inner south-east without having to change at Richmond to the 246 / (or walk to West Richmond if you’re able) or the city. The current options via Chandler Hwy are virtually non-existent. With the closest north-south roads crossing the Eastern Fwy being 3km either side, there’s a big missed opportunity here.

Buses have an image problem. You see it all around the world in consultations and project reports.
Put a bus route down a street and it can negatively effect property prices, put a tram line down a street and property prices will increase (Good for councils as income from property taxes increase). Replace a bus route with a tram line and patronage jumps.
The perception of buses is that they are noisy, dirty, bounce around, cramped, transport of the poor. Compare that to the image of LR/Trams/Metro: clean, green, stable, predictable fixed route, spacious, futuristic.
People just don’t find buses sexy and are reluctant to take a bus unless there’s no choice – such as in Sydney.

A good deal of main roads in Sydney, and even some local ones in places like Castlereagh Street, parts of York Street, or the streets in Liverpool have some form of bus priority or another. And in one section of the South-East light rail, the buses and the trams share the right-of-way. Furthermore, there are proposals and trials to add widened footpaths, ped-only sections, and bicycle lanes – and this is despite Sydney’s roads/open spaces in general (and those in the CBD in particular) being far more constrained than Melbourne’s. Really, if the NSW Govt and their local councils can do this, then, mate, the Victorian Govt and their local councils just don’t have any excuse to not take Covid as an opportunity to aggressively convert lanes on all non-CBD main roads into bus lanes, get rid of some of the median parkings, and add more of their widened footpaths, bus lanes, tram extensions, and segregated bicycle lanes.

I’ve noticed here in Melbourne, with the exception of the Doncaster buses and the Smartbuses (and I might have missed a few others), they are generally supplementary to trains or just serve local neighbourhoods, with hardly any being trunk routes even though some of them serve places with no tram or train services.

Also wondering, what’s stopping buses from being as frequent as trams? If it is wages, then it seems Yarra Trams are willing to pay for additional wages for more trams, with some running with low capacity at times, so why can’t buses do the same as a service?

I had an interesting argument with a Labour insider that they can’t be direct because disabled people need better access to services

@Daniel, re BRT: I used the ITDP’s BRT Standard to measure the current Doncaster routes when I was contributing to VTAG’s EES submission for the North East Link. The current routes get around 23/100, and the proposed ‘busway’ scores about 32/100. Frankly, it’s pathetic, but it also would have been very easy to increase that score to 55/100 and possibly 70/100 if they actually wanted to, instead of it being a fig-leaf for the road project. (Some of the scores are open to interpretation, so others might come to different conclusions. But the exercise is definitely worthwhile.)

Refer https://www.itdp.org/library/standards-and-guides/the-bus-rapid-transit-standard/the-scorecard/

As for BRT on freeways parallel to railways being a bad idea – low(er) priority, but not necessarily a bad idea on balance. The BRT Standard suggests stop spacing of 300-800m range, so a route from say Chadstone to Southbank, largely paralleling the Glen Waverley line, would have about 30 stops, roughly three times as many as the railway. The main difference is that BRT is more analogous to Metro tier than Commuter tier rail services; the Glen Waverley Line, when measured by the BRT Standard, scores about 70/100 but loses some points because the stations are spaced too far apart – which makes sense for commuters but not for maximising walkup patronage pedsheds.

@Arfman, the main constraint on bus frequency is that, frankly, we don’t have nearly enough vehicles. Melbourne currently has about 500 trams and about 2000 buses. If you take the tram network, 400m radius, and divide the fleet across that area, you get about 2.35 vehicles per sqkm. If you divide the bus fleet across the remaining populated area of Melbourne, you get 0.71 veh/sqkm. Allowing for fleet replacements, you’d need to have about nine or ten new buses per week for fifteen years, along with extra drivers, maintenance staff, depots etc.

@Shayne, but is the bus image problem with the populace, or the decision makers? I’d say the latter. There are plenty of cities where good quality bus services are well-used (and as noted in the blog post, even Melbourne’s Smartbuses, which get part of the way there, are very popular)

@Hisashi, the City of Melbourne is doing a little of this, but it appears to be mostly just implementing their existing transport plan – and the Vic State Govt isn’t really involved. https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/car-parks-out-footpaths-and-cycling-lanes-in-as-city-prepares-for-post-covid-commuters-20200507-p54qrp.html

@arfman, it’s not the operating companies’ decision. It’s up to the State Government to fund more services.

@Anonymous, there is an argument that those with mobility issues need public transport to be nearby, and having all services on main roads may be an impediment to them.

But you see plenty of wheelchair users making use of trains (even more limited than main road buses), as well as Smartbuses and trams (where they’re accessible).

A good example is Melbourne’s inner-SE, around St Kilda. The trams and even the buses all run on main roads with an efficient grid network. People get by, and as a back-up there’s City of Port Phillip’s Community Bus as a safety-net.

@David, thanks, that looks like a good resource!

In regards to fare handling by drivers, I was pretty impressed with the fare machines on Hiroshima’s trams. There are these compact fare boxes near exits for passengers to pay and handles change without driver intervention (https://www.hiroden.co.jp/en/s-howtoride.html). Also we already have those paypass / paywave topup machines at tram stops, surely it can’t be too hard to have them on buses and trams?

Bus patronage has not decreased as per the article in fact it is the other way around but due to the Myki ticketing fare evasion is up a 1000 fold thus showing less patronage

There needs to be a massive review of the whole Ventura bus network, and perhaps to the Eastrans network too.

When you think, all of the Ventrua bus routes are the legacy of being developed under as many as 12 different bus companies (sorry cant be sure of the exact quantity off the top of my head), with the many complications you get from that, there is no wonder that we have a mixed up network like we do.

To some extent, Eastrans, is also a network, whos network has been inherited from the development of many separate bus companies.

Now that Ventura is all one company, replacing all those, you no longer have the big deal breaker of, having one company operating into the territory of another like it was in the past.

We now have that opportunity to get ourselves a really decent bus network, like we have never had in the past.

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