Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Mainstream or specialist services?

An article on page 7 of the May 30 Glen Eira-Caulfield Leader confirms that the free Monash University intercampus shuttle bus between the Caulfield and Clayton campuses will be replaced by a new Smartbus service between Caulfield and Rowville.

Some time earlier we heard that a new route 400 service will operate between Laverton and Sunshine via the correctional facilities at Laverton North. The only transport in the area is currently a free hourly prison shuttle from Laverton Station. I understand that this prison service will cease to operate once Route 400 begins.

Both examples share a common element. That is of free specialist shuttle buses with limited frequencies and operating hours being replaced by mainstream bus services attracting standard fares.

Unless the passengers involved are physically unable to use a regular bus service (in which case a subsidised taxi or paratransit service is most suitable), such 'mainstreaming' is generally sensible policy.

For a start existing users of the specialist service get better service frequency, operating hours and more readily available information. Overall patronage is increased due to the service being opened to general passengers. For its part, the government gets higher efficiencies (through combining duplicating, often state-funded services) and increased fare revenue.

The only shortcoming is that users of the existing shuttle services may not like having to pay a fare for somewhat slower travel (given that there would be intermediate stops). However even these passengers would gain from the frequency, hours and route improvements. Also the fare argument loses its potency when it is realised that those who used public transport to reach the (previous) shuttle service will find that their existing tickets are valid on the new service and no extra fare may be needed.

The State Government is right to explore avenues for mainstreaming services. It should consider further steps, especially in low-density rural and semi-rural areas with limited regular service.

Although specialist services ('community buses') run in some suburbs, the most important of these are school buses, particularly in rural areas.

With an ageing population in rural areas, there is much scope for much smarter use of these services. Local innovations might include devoting the front row or two of seats to adult passengers and extending school bus runs to a town centre stop.

If there are spare buses during the middle of the day, it might be possible to operate some regular midday town services between the peaks. In the larger centres late-afternoon post-school services for commuters (using buses returning from the afternoon school run) might also be practical.

Though such services are unlikely to be very frequent, they could still provides a social benefit for little cost. Travel could either be free or attract a gold coin fare (eg $2 adult, $1 concession) to go towards improvements such as passenger information and seats at stops.

For another creative example of cleverly using existing services for public transport, but this time courtesy of the local postman, read about the UK's Post Office Buses.

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