Number of bus routes (red line) vs regional population

South East Queensland (SEQ) has lots of buses but there’re sharp differences of opinion about whether they’re managed as efficiently and equitably as they could be.

An important new report by public transport agency TransLink, SEQ Bus Network Review, was released earlier this month by the Qld Minister for Transport, Scott Emerson. It identified a range of issues with the regional bus system:

  • Capacity utilisation: Half of all services (50.3%) carry fewer than 7 passengers on average.
  • Overlap: Two thirds of bus routes share more than 70% of their bus stops with another route.
  • Frequency: Routes with high frequencies are much more attractive to patrons. Within the Brisbane City Council area, they account for 8% of all routes but 44% of all passengers.
  • Utilisation: 84% of passengers on the frequent network travel between 7 am and 7 pm, but the same high level of service is provided from 6 am to 11.30 pm.
  • Infrastructure constraints: Bus congestion in the CBD is acute. 600 buses per hour entered the CBD in the AM peak in 2011 (220 in Adelaide St). Under the business as usual scenario, this is expected to rise to 1,070 in eight years.
  • Operating expenditure: Over the last three years, annual funding for buses increased 22.1% (from $475 million to $580 million) and in-service kms by 9%. However patronage only rose 1.6%.
  • Legibility: There are 446 routes across the region and 230 in Brisbane. Navigating the network, and finding the right place to board in the CBD, is difficult for new and occasional users.

Public transport advocacy group Rail Back On Track endorsed the tenor of the findings. On 9 March, it issued a media release saying:

We believe the current bus network is……operationally unsustainable because adding more and more buses to the system is causing huge congestion and delays in the city centre…..Brisbane’s failing bus network presently prioritises transporting air over transporting passengers.

The TransLink report proposes these issues should be addressed by re-balancing resources away from under-used services toward a network of high frequency “turn-up-and-go” trunk routes.

It argues the changes would be revenue-neutral. The increase in patronage induced by the higher level of service would generate sufficient revenue to pay for the changes.

For example, it’s proposed the number of high frequency routes in Brisbane would be increased from 16 to 26, bringing 20% more people within 400 metres of a trunk route. The focus of the frequent service network would primarily be on 7am-7pm services, 7 days a week.

Across the region, route numbers would be reduced 30%, largely by consolidating and eliminating under-performing services.

Capacity utilisation in corridors entering the city centre would be improved by requiring some passengers to forgo single-seat trips to the CBD. Some routes would be  redesigned as feeder services to trunk routes and rail stations, requiring a transfer.

Rail Back On Track endorses the direction of the changes, arguing that “recycling waste, duplication and inefficiency in the current bus network will give the city the simplicity, frequency and span of service that we need.” It goes on:

The current bus system is anti-patronage and doesn’t serve the needs of the city. We look forward to a simpler, frequent and more reliable network.

There’s considerable resistance to the proposals. For example, Qld planner Linda Carroli wrote on Larvatus Prodeo on 12 March that the “proposed changes will result in negative impacts which will become disincentives for bus usage”. She’s particularly concerned that:

the direct bus route which runs mostly along Gympie Road will now terminate at Chermside Bus Interchange and require commuters to transfer.

Brisbane City Council, which operates the most services in SEQ, also opposes the changes. Last week the Transport Minister walked away from the recommendations, saying “there will be no changes to bus routes in Brisbane without full support of the Brisbane City Council.”

He handed responsibility for implementing the report over to Council, which promptly announced they’re dead in the water. Lord Mayor Graham Quirk said:

Brisbane’s bus network isn’t broken and doesn’t need a radical overhaul like the one proposed by Translink, which is why I’ve scrapped it now that the state government has handed council control.

This argument can be conceived of in terms of the inevitable tension in transit planning between the demands for ‘patronage’ versus those of ‘coverage’.

Nevertheless, as I’ve argued before, I think the idea of a network of fast, frequent services is the right choice (I’m not, however, familiar enough with contemporary Brisbane to endorse the detail of specific route changes).

An effective public transport system that can service the whole metropolitan area rather than just the CBD requires that travellers be prepared to transfer.

I’m reminded of what transit planner Jarret Walker said recently when discussing a broadly similar proposal for Auckland. In considering the proposal, he asked Aucklanders to focus on the key question:

Are you willing to get off one vehicle and onto another, with a short wait at a civilised facility, if this is the key to vastly expanding your public transport network without raising its subsidy?  

As the severe tram congestion on Swanston Street attests, even Melbourne’s vaunted tram system suffers from too many single-seat trips to the CBD and too few access points.

The report notes that 20% of all trips in SEQ already involve a transfer, up from 13% in 2008/09.

So far as eliminating under-used routes is concerned, travellers have shown they’re prepared to walk further to frequent, direct services.

It already happens in cities like Melbourne that have good rail networks. As I’ve noted before:

Half of Melbourne’s train travellers walk more than 800 metres (to the station) and a quarter more than 1.3 kilometres.

There are better ways of dealing with the transport needs of those who can’t walk to stops than running under-used bus services e.g. demand responsive transit (which I’ll look at in more detail next time).

The noises coming from the Transport Minister and the Lord Mayor indicate Brisbane isn’t about to follow Auckland’s lead (which isn’t to say the rest of SEQ will necessarily follow suit).

Partly that’s because the Government handled public consultation and “selling” the changes poorly and without conviction. I also think more emphasis should’ve been given to cross-town movement.

But the biggest problem this debacle shows up – which I’ll have to leave for another time – is running the buses should be kept out of the hands of local government.