Sunday, June 28, 2020

How significant is 78 million more bus trips each year?

Buses in Melbourne are usually thought of as public transport's small fry. Most corridors have rail services and its world famous trams link inner suburbs to the city. Buses account for barely a quarter the network's patronage; a much lower proportion than for any other Australian city. 

However buses are the nearest public transport to most homes and suburban jobs. They connect universities and shopping centres poorly served by radial trains and trams. Our current network operates well below capacity, with many vehicles spending most hours of the day idle at depots rather than being in revenue service on efficient and useful routes. 

The potential of what you might call 'Big Bus' was illustrated on Friday where I discussed a little-repeated goal to increase Melbourne's annual bus patronage from 122 to 200 million by 2030. That's a rise of 64% or 78 million trips. I described the target growth as being four times the usage of our entire SmartBus network. Unfortunately those not acquainted with buses had to take my word that it was a large scale, even transformative, aim. Numbers of that size tend to lose meaning. Comparisons with better known projects may be a better way to illustrate their significance.  

The last government to roll out serious 'Big Bus' improvements was that of John Brumby in 2010. These involved new Doncaster area and orbital SmartBus routes. Credit should also be given to the 2006 'Minimum Standards' program, which upgraded something like 100 routes to operate 7 days per week. Bus patronage rose strongly during this time.

The rest of the 2010s, in contrast, has been quieter. Its first half had good but 'smell of oily rag' network improvements. In its last half even the pace of these had slowed. Achieving the 78 million growth target would require a massive renewed interest in buses, including a resumption of 2010-level activity in most of the next ten years.

Contrast with the Metro Tunnel

How does the 78 million more trips per year goal compare with the forecast increase we'll get from our biggest transport projects like the $11b Metro Tunnel? Are buses still small fry?

It might come as a shock that buses are bigger than Metro Tunnel.  78 million more bus trips per year is four times  the expected increased usage generated by the Metro Tunnel alone and over double that of it with associated projects (the 'extended program').

Don't believe me? Check the numbers.

Below is an extract from Appendix 5 of the Metro Tunnel's Business Case. It indicates 52 000 more trips per day. That's 19 million per year with the best case assumption they're Monday - Sunday trips, not weekday-only trips. The extended option (with high capacity trains, Melton electrification and additional tracks) increases that to 90 000 more trips, or 33 million per year.

The difference in favour of the 200 million by 2030 bus plan is even more stark when plotted on a graph as below: 

To summarise, the Metro Tunnel on its own is transformative for some near-CBD destinations but less so elsewhere. A lot of the service increases that make the network useful all day seven days per week are off-peak boosts that could have been done without the tunnel. The extended program spreads the benefits further but still not to the metropolitan wide scale that improved buses would. 

Even achieving just half the 78 million per year increase in bus patronage by 2030 would exceed the  growth projected from the (best-case) Melbourne Metro extended program. Bear that in mind if you think that the 78 million increase number is fanciful.  

Contrast with the Suburban Rail Loop

What about a comparison with the even bigger Suburban Rail Loop? This is a longer term project so I've projected the 2030 bus patronage target forward to 2051. I started with a 200 million base (the figure given to the Metropolitan Transport Forum talk as the 2030 target) and assumed much reduced growth of 1 or 1.5 percent per year thereafter.  That results in annual bus usage of around 250 million trips or a little more by 2051. 

The Suburban Rail Loop has a projection from its Strategic Assessment document. The 400 000 extra trips per day generated translate to 146 million more trips per year by 2051. Again I've generously assumed the same patronage 7 days/week rather than it being a weekday number. 

That 146 million trips increase is substantial. But when you compare it to the project's cost it might not appear so large. On the other hand since the SRL only adds a few new stations it does look big. However it is only a bit more than total bus patronage in 2019 and less than it will be in 2051 even if bus usage growth is only half that envisaged in the 2019 - 2030 period.  

Challenges for the Minister

Ben Carroll MP became the new minister for public transport less than a week ago. So far he hasn't put a foot wrong, expressing interest in the portfolio and saying all the right things. 

Suburban buses rated an early mention. 

One would expect any incoming government (or minister) to review the record of their predecessors. Leaders will wish to bring their own ideas, priorities and style to the job. And they might be influenced by recent events, including avoiding predecessors' mistakes.  

Take Daniel Andrews and Labor's win in 2014. They defeated a one-term Coalition government that, despite internal problems, was expecting to remain for at least two terms. The increasingly volatile electorate however had other ideas, punishing the Coalition in 2014 and again, more severely, in 2018.

Baillieu and Napthine's coalition governments were cautious administrations that stressed financial responsibility (although they did some financially reckless things like write pre-election side-letters for expensive road projects that there wasn't a political consensus on). Whereas Andrews and Labor started construction almost immediately after they gained office so that even if they lost in 2018 their projects would still be completed. As it turns out people liked the jobs-creating construction program and rewarded them with a second term and increased majority.

There's parallels with ministers, even if from the same party. At least the smarter ones know that their tenure depends on the support of others. That can be fluid. The party that gives can also be the party that takes. Internal competition is particularly high if a government has a big backbench arising from a large electoral majority. A good minister would want some early runs on the board so they at least have a record to talk about no matter what might happen later.

I wrote about the last 65 years of Victorian ministers responsible for public transport here.  No one can seriously doubt that Melissa Horne has been the role's least significant occupant for close to 30 years. Admittedly Martin Pakula's term was less but he presided over historically large bus and train timetable upgrades before his party's 2010 loss. The main virtue of Horne's anodyne record is that it would keep her off any 'worst transport minister' list.

My profile on Minister Horne is here. While it included a prescient tweet from Adem Somyurek, no one then was to know how the exposure of his factional dealings were to lead to the reshuffle that saw Horne demoted and lose public transport within months. 

The point of this background is to illustrate the context the new minister finds himself. One would expect that ministers would be keen to leave a good legacy. Power can be unexpectedly lost due to forces outside one's control.

Unlike Melissa Horne, Ben Carroll starts mid-term. That can be difficult because the lead time on many public transport projects limits the ability to deliver pre-2022 election upgrades if desired. As he'll likely be advised by people in the Department, even small things like weekend bus service improvements using existing buses, take ages to arrange due to currently schlerotic internal processes. Because of that decisions to improve buses need to be made fairly soon, even for changes two or even three years off. Unless he can win early funding and direct the department to speed things up a bit. 

Secretary, show us the plan! 

The Department Secretary made that bold remark about an ambitious patronage goal last November. Since then nothing further has been known to have been said. 

This is extraordinary given we're talking about a passenger patronage impact between two and four times that of the Metro Tunnel. It could even rival the scale of the Suburban Rail Loop. 

If you're going to be changing how tens of millions of passenger trips work you'll need some sort of plan for it. 

Substantial public money, potentially up to hundreds of millions extra per year by 2030, would be involved. We should not resile from this as well-executed bus network reform compares well in terms of cost-effectiveness against dearer and slower to build projects like freeways and rail loops. However it does need to be explained, not least to those in charge of public expenditure. 

A program would include a process of redesigning local networks and funding service frequency upgrades vastly faster than the current pace. There will have to be a major bus fleet buying program for improved peak period and growth area services. 

Due to the scale of the purchases other departments may have views on local employment, industry development and potential use of electric buses. New sites for depots will also need to be found. 

Roads (one of the minister's other portfolios) will need changes to speed buses through bottlenecks while also making them quickly crossable for walkers to bus stops, especially mid-block. More on what's needed in Friday's post. Other ideas here

All this is bold, exciting and daunting. However an aspirational goal, said once and not reinforced later, is not enough. A substantial budget and strategy is needed to make it real. And due to connectivity between modes, it needs to cover train and tram as well, especially right now with the Auditor-General sniffing around. 

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