Friday, November 13, 2020

Missing the bus: The Victorian Greens' disappointing 'Green New Deal'

On Wednesday afternoon the Victorian Greens were cock-a-hoop. They managed to get endorsement for their 'Green New Deal' in Victoria's Legislative Council. 

Getting the strong numbers they did would have required support from Labor plus others. While passing motions (as opposed to legislation) goes unnoticed by the public, it's considered pretty cool by those involved. Their timing was also deft, with the defeat of President Trump in the US and the resignation of Joel Fitzgibbon from federal Labor's front bench 'shifting the dial' a little towards green-friendly policies. 

Also notable is that the Legislative Council has had just one Green member since the 2018 election. That's well down on the five seats won in 2014. Getting the motion passed indicates that Greens can work with others including Labor, despite rivalries being not far below the surface (eg this Twitter thread).  

The rest of the leader's tweet is about influencing the budget due in just over a week. That's encouraging for supporters but likely wishful thinking. That's not to say that the budget won't contain some initiatives that could be considered 'green'. But proposals will have been developed some time ago.   

This is because budgets are complex documents with input and agreement between numerous portfolio and coordinating departments. Their development takes months. And external factors, for instance the contents of and projections in last month's Federal budget, can prove influential. Savvy advocacy groups knew that the time when new policy proposals were being considered has passed, even noting this budget's delays due to COVID-19. November 24's budget should be very advanced by now, unless something dramatic to force a change happens.  

Still, there's always next year's budget. And it's worth looking at the content of the Victorian Greens' 'Green New Deal' policy rather than just the process. In particular, as is on-topic here, the soundness of their proposals for public transport services. 

The following came out just after the motion was passed. Public and active transport is a key plank. That is good.

There's more on the Greens' website, complete with bus logo (below). 

Here they mention that a Green New Deal could create jobs and tackle climate change and inequality. Keep both uppermost when you read what follows. 

The next page talks about trains, trams and bikes. 

The centrepiece for cycling is a 'bike superhighway' linking the Green-held seats of Brunswick, Melbourne and Prahran. 

Trains and trams get a separate Rail to Recovery paper. 

Despite the extreme cost-effectiveness of upgrades and benefits for where over four million people live and work buses get no mention anywhere. That bus logo turned out to be a cruel ruse with nothing more said about them anywhere. 

It's as if, in the minds of those who drafted this 'Green New Deal', the majority of Melburnians, whose nearest and often only public transport is a bus, neither exist nor have legitimate public transport needs. Walking, which has a wider social base than cycling, and is essential to reach trains, trams and buses, also goes un-mentioned. 

In more detail, this is what Rail to Recovery proposes for trains: 

* Trains every 2 - 3 minutes during peak hour and
* every 5 - 10 minutes off peak times.
* Staff at every station, first train to last.
* Over 100 new high capacity trains.
* New tunnels and extra tracks.
* Modern high capacity signalling across the network.

The likes of Box Hill and Caulfield already have peak trains running at or close to the 2 to 3 minutes suggested. That's been needed for capacity. But do they seriously think that the likes of Williamstown, Altona and Alamein justify it? After all they do say every train line

While Melbourne on Transit supports boosting frequency to speed travel, even proponents must realise that there is a point of diminishing returns when service is already very frequent. At this point cost-effective measures to free capacity include network reform to divert some travel from pinch points, revised fares like peak surcharges to shift demand and, eventually, larger trains (like we're getting). 

Adding four more trains per hour to triple service from 2 tph (every 30 min) to 6 tph (every 10 min) vastly reduces travel time variability or long waits. Such a large improvement would transform how people would use trains, with average waits falling from 15 to 5 minutes. That's huge, with an even bigger reduction in travel time variability (ie maximum waits drop from 30 to 10 min). 

To their credit The Greens cite a 10 minute frequency as Step One for trains and trams. But they go further. Adding another 4 tph would give 10 tph (every 6 min) while another 4 tph would give 14 tph (every 4.3 min).

Such increases are good where needed to increase passenger capacity. But elsewhere it's overkill. This is because the reduction in average waits tends towards the insignificant as frequency goes from high to very high. You'd only ever consider 2 to 3 minute frequencies if justified for capacity or the trip mix involves many short trips with lots of transferring.   

That's especially given the marginal costs involved which start off small but become exponential when boosting already high frequencies. Adding off-peak frequency is initially mostly just about hiring more drivers. That's relatively cheap.  But if peak frequency upgrades are needed you will need to buy, stable and maintain more trains. That's a further cost hike. 

If you want still more service you may have difficulties running it on the existing infrastructure. The first thing you do is implement more efficient timetables and operating patterns. When that's exhausted the next upgrades require steps to allow closer train spacing. Examples include upgraded signalling and more station exits and platform connections to clear busy platforms of passengers faster. 

Only then, if you still need more capacity, would you build more tracks. That may require land acquisition, or, if there isn't the ground space, elevation or tunnelling. Now we're talking about major projects costing billions. You'd carefully review their cost-effectiveness, especially if they are only going to be fully used a few hours of the day.  

The lesson is this. By all means run good 7-day frequencies day and night across the nework. And beat the current infrastructure-obsessed government over the head for scrimping on the service aspects (and lagging behind Sydney).  

But don't overservice the peaks. Especially right now when COVID and more working from home has depressed patronage. Otherwise you will be spending good money for diminishing benefit to the detriment of more pressing needs in transport.  

Similar comments apply to station staffing. The Greens 'one size fits all' approach would staff even the quietest stations first to last train. The benefits of this are marginal. If you want to create jobs recruit bus drivers and reform networks instead. At least then you'd spread service to the 'have nots' that The Greens' plan ignores.  

What about trams? The Greens' New Deal proposes the following:

* Trams every 5 minutes all day, every day.
* Over 300 new high capacity trams.
* Line extensions to fill in the missing gaps in the tram network.
* New level access stops for every stop.
* Improved separation and priority for trams in traffic.

I don't mind these. The accessibility improvements are overdue. Priority will improve speeds, boost patronage and possibly allow some frequency improvements. Some extensions would provide more  suburban interchange points, rather than have trams terminating a kilometre or so from trains. 

Five minute frequencies are also nice. But given that many tram routes run at 12 to 20 minute base frequencies most times it would be an expensive upgrade. You might meet them part way, aiming to bring trams up to the 10 minute base frequencies in Step 1. But in full conscience I cannot recommend more while so much of Melbourne, including some quite dense areas, remains with 30 to 60 minute base frequencies for buses, complex routes, limited operating hours and substantial coverage gaps. 

Other Greens' public transport policies

What seems to be their overarching 2018 transport and freight policy principles present some good concepts. Although the free school travel is of dubious merit if your values support active transport, localism and state schools. That document says little about buses, including the pressing need for bus network reform. 

Amends for this are made in two other documents released before the 2018 election. These give specifics regarding bus upgrades. Indeed they are more detailed than anything from Labor or the Coalition parties. The most wide-ranging of these is the metropolitan-wide Greens SmartBus Solution. Also, then Greens MP Samantha Dunn released an ambitious eastern metropolitan bus network plan that focuses heavily on transport to La Trobe University. 

You might quibble about the priorities but The Victorian Greens did have some substantial bus upgrade policies in 2018. But when they proposed their flagship 'Green New Deal' policy  none were included. 

This is despite buses being the mode nearest to most people and jobs. Also the policy mix in the New Deal could exacerbate transport inequality by going overboard on expensive to provide peak train service frequencies when more could be done sooner for less with more cost-effective measures across all modes. 


The Victorian Greens probably mean well. Groups such as the PTUA generally rated their public transport policies favourably in 2018. However ditching previous policy work and neglecting buses (and walking) in the Green New Deal is a severe oversight that narrows the deal's appeal and efficacy. Even a couple of links to the previous bus policies would have been something! 

The fact that no one influential piped up and said 'What about buses?' when the bus-less Green New Deal policy was being developed tells something about the internal workings of the party. As well as their place and prospects in the Victorian polity. At one time their only hope was in state and federal upper houses. But recently their vote has become more concentrated. This has been visible with large wider area losses (eg upper house seats) but local gains (including lower house seats). Compare 2014 vs 2018  election results to see the numbers behind this shift. 

Showing blindness on buses (and suburban issues generally) risks the Victorian Greens becoming what their critics accuse them of. That is an elite inner-suburban virtue and lifestyle club distant from the daily struggles (including transport) of those who don't share their privilege. This narrowness will limit the potential of Greens to grow their support base, despite the unbounded optimism of party elders like Bob Brown. 

A genuine statewide 'Green New Deal' would make walking top priority. Melbourne alone needs thousands of kilometres of new footpaths, hundreds of wombat and zebra crossings and dozens of roundabout removals and traffic light signalisations to make walking work. That would hugely spread benefits, create thousands of local jobs and support '20 minute cities'. 

In relation to public transport  the inefficient but fixable bus system would be the ripest to start with, along with targeted shoulder and off-peak train frequency upgrades to remove those horrid 30, 40 and 60 minute frequencies that make us way worse than Sydney. Such upgrades, as often discussed in the Useful Network, would ensure that the benefits of any Green New Deal are equitably enjoyed by the many rather than the few. 

Thought that was harsh? Reckon the Victorian Greens have more of a clue than portrayed? Prove me wrong in the comments below!


Andrew said...

In theory it looks a great idea, but if the New Deal is to work, where's the $$$ going to come from? It's alright for the Greens to come up with these ambitious projects, but they're not, and never will be in government. So this New Deal will, like every other grand scheme previous governments have drawn up will end up in the bottom of a draw somewhere never to be seen again.

Michael Iurovetski. said...

Wait. I thought Greens have some documents on bus routes they want to make Smartbuses.

Peter Parker said...

@Michael. They do. Mentioned in the blog item above. But not mentioned in their new deal material.

Michael Angelico said...

Your final comment is spot on - this policy overwhelmingly favours people who live (and work) in dense inner suburbs where buses are a curiosity. And in most cases have no kids, as shown by their unstated assumption that monetary cost and travel time are the biggest factors that cause people to drive cars - they seem to have no understanding of the concept that parents might want to keep an eye on their kids on the way to school.

This is why when we say "diversity builds strength" we mean people who are actually different from each other, not people who have traditionally been marginalised.

Simon said...

Of course it is always good to have public transport improvement proposals presented and whilst I support improved tram and train frequency at off peak times, I think you are right in the current environment with many working from home I don't think it is necessary to have extra peak services. Of course when patronage returns to somewhat normal levels, maybe at that time it can be reviewed.

With buses yes they should have been included in this plan, as for a lot less money and time many more smart bus routes could be operational and improved frequency to public transport blackspots.