Friday, November 12, 2021

The state capital with the worst public transport?

How do you measure how good (or bad) a city's public transport is? There's no one way. You could count the number of stations or bus stops. Or the length of train track or routes. Maybe a number like service kilometres per year per capita. Though that doesn't give a clue as to how efficiently it's deployed. Or maybe usage figures like trips per capita or modal share to indicate usefulness? Another possibility is just to ask people who have lived there or may still do.  

A comparison of these will take days I don't have. So I'll take a different tack. Everything that follows will be off the top of my head. I'll give A to D ratings based on a little user experience, a little reading and a lot of gut impressions. I'll give a fail (F) if something's really bad. And explain ratings if I think they over-simplify things and miss significant nuances. After all ... 



Networks vary. The ratings are all a bit rubbery. You might reasonably quibble over some. And I've been selective in the criteria, eg I've skipped over geographic coverage and fares. Neither have I differentiated by mode, even though people may rank some higher than others.

You won't get accurate results. But I think when you look at several characteristics you can build up a fair impression of each city's network and, vitally, the extent that it is the best it can be. You may differ on some points with comments welcome below.  

For now though, enjoy the comparisons between Australia's five >1m population state capitals. 

Extent of own rights of way PT corridors

A Sydney
B Brisbane
B Melbourne
C Adelaide
D Perth

One of the few infrastructure criteria here. Having lots of rights of way corridors allow fast and reliable service to multiple destination, with public transit beating driving for some trips. Sydney ranks highest due to its extensive rail network and T-ways, not all of which are radial. 

Brisbane and Melbourne are also infrastructure rich but are more heavily radial. Brisbane also has the largest bus component of all capitals. And a few ferries thrown in. Adelaide has fewer rights of ways than the bigger cities, though it does include the popular O-bahn and the Glenelg tram. Perth has the fewest radial lines so rates a D. However the quality of  the rail it does have is excellent. And it's expanding its network and uses what it has well, as you'll see later.  

Network quality for peak CBD travel

A Sydney
B Melbourne 
B Perth
B Brisbane
C Adelaide

This is one of public transport's traditional roles. Its presence takes cars off the road, reduced parking pressures and makes CBDs function with the people and activity they do. I've ranked Sydney highest, with its mode share providing evidence of transit's success here.

Melbourne has a large CBD-focused rail network but loses a couple of points for its slow trams and often infrequent feeder buses to stations. If it fixed those it would rank an A. 

Perth has only a few rail lines and no big busways so falls down a bit here. But it has worked hard to compensate with coordinated feeder buses to stations operating every 20 minutes or better on almost all routes during peaks. This beats a lot of routes in other cities.  

Brisbane does well with a lot of rail lines and busways. Peak train and bus frequencies are OK. However feeder buses away from the busways are marginal, arguably even more so than in Melbourne.

Adelaide's radial network mean that most get a one seat ride to the CBD, though it has fewer radial lines than Brisbane and its peak frequencies don't seem to match Perth. It is heavily dependent on buses that, apart from along the O-bahn, can be delayed by traffic. 

Overall peak service provision is traditionally better than at other times which is why I've given no city a D or F, though parts of their network may still individually rate lower.  

Network quality for cross-suburban travel

A Sydney
B Perth
C Melbourne
D Adelaide
D Brisbane

Very important if you want a more broadly useful network for diverse trips since most people do not work in the CBD. Basically a mix of infrastructure, route networks and frequency. 

Sydney's less radially-based rail network with good frequencies make it a clear front-runner. Perth and Melbourne lack non-radial trains but have significant orbital routes operating at 15 minute frequencies. I've ranked Perth a bit higher because bus/train headways are better harmonised and they've added or upgraded circumferential routes in the last decade. Whereas Melbourne hasn't added or reformed a single SmartBus orbital in that time. Widespread 30 - 60 minute weekend frequencies on key routes also lower Melbourne's rating. Melbourne has huge potential here; targeted bus service improvements building on the road grid could easily lift it to decisively beat Perth and rival Sydney. 

Adelaide and Brisbane have one or two orbital or partly orbital routes but their frequencies are too poor to be considered reliable transport. As well as being smaller Adelaide is on a long narrow plain so arguably has less need for orbital routes than Melbourne or Perth. Brisbane is a larger wider city. You can't go many places without backtracking via the CBD, incurring unnecessary travel. If you think the D rating is harsh compare Perth's 998/999 with Brisbane's 598/599 timetables (both orbital buses) then get back to me.  

Overseas cities that are reforming their networks post-COVID are tending to shift emphasis from providing very high peak frequencies to the CBD to having a more broadly useful network serving more destinations throughout the day. Hence I think this criteria is one of the most important here. 

% Population near service every 15 min or better (weekday off-peak - all modes) 

A Sydney
B Adelaide
C Melbourne
C Perth
D Brisbane

Important if you want a network where you go when you want to go rather than have to plan your life around timetables. Frequency also helps with connections for more complex trips. Sydney is highly rated partly due to its consistently good train frequency. It's also worked hard to reform its buses so main routes run every 10 min 7 days per week, though outer areas are still lacking.

I've given Adelaide a B despite its trains not being consistently frequent. This is because Adelaide has a lot of 'Go Zone' bus corridors running every 15 minutes within about 10 - 15 km of the CBD. Because Adelaide has grown much less than the four other capitals this ring still includes a large proportion of its population. Hence a higher percentage of its population has frequent service compared to faster growing cities that have massive fringe tracts with buses only every 40 - 60 minutes.  

Melbourne only gets a C. Its frequent trams in the inner suburbs and SmartBuses in the middle-eastern suburbs assist its score. But they aren't enough to outweigh the widespread 20 minute train frequencies on about half its Metro lines and lower frequencies than that on most bus routes. If you were to shift the goalposts to a 20 minute standard then Melbourne would rise to beat Adelaide due to it having a lot of 20 min trains and buses that the 15 min standard used here excludes.  

Perth has gone from having almost no service every 15 minutes about 30 years ago to having a lot now. That includes all its train network, making it second only to Sydney. Bus reform has also added 15 minute service on key radial and orbital corridors. Perth's planning in this regard has been excellent with the only thing holding it back being (opposite to Adelaide) its very high sustained population growth in outer suburbs that most commonly only get hourly buses interpeak. 

Brisbane well earns its D rating, and not only due to Melbourne and Perth scale fringe population growth. Trains are typically every 30 minutes so there isn't the consistently frequent rail backbone that Sydney and Perth enjoy. Its frequent bus routes are confined to relatively few 'Glider' and 'BUZ' routes. About half of the latter run along the busways with the other half on normal roads. They are pretty much all radial and confined to within the City of Brisbane area. There are no frequent orbital routes, and if there were interpeak trains would need to be upgraded to minimise waits for multimode trips. These are trips 

Weekend day service availability and frequency

B Sydney
C Perth
C Melbourne
D Brisbane
D Adelaide

Weekend service can make the difference between a network that's widely useful and one that isn't. Unfortunately many systems still have big differences between weekday off-peak and weekend service levels. Operating hours can also be restricted, particularly on Sundays. 

Sydney gets a high rating due to its consistently frequent trains and efforts to roll out 7 day frequent bus routes. The main area where more works is needed is in its lower and middle income western and south-western suburbs. Doing this would lift it to an A rating. 

Service every 15 minutes on trains and key bus routes cause Perth to well exceed Brisbane and Adelaide. Again bus reform has increased the number of routes qualifying with incremental improvements to service frequency over more of the day. Its trains are generally better than Melbourne but too many of its local buses are still hourly for it to rate better than the C rating I've given it. 

Melbourne has a hodge-podge of weekend frequencies. It can take most credit for trams (every 15 min and often better). Trains are middling, with the typical 20 minute weekend day frequency being inferior to Sydney/Perth on 15 minutes but superior to Brisbane (every 30 minutes). Sunday mornings in Melbourne (with widespread 40 min train frequencies) can be inferior to Brisbane (every 30 min) but Melbourne can claim 24 hour service since Night Network started. Also dragging Melbourne down are buses, with service often halving on weekends to every 30 - 60 min, and in some cases nothing. 

Adelaide and Brisbane are rated at the bottom. Very little of anything in Adelaide (apart from the tram and O-bahn) runs every 15 min or better on weekends. Brisbane is better endowed with its main buses running every 15 minutes. In both cities trains are typically 30 minutes. This means that both Adelaide and Brisbane have a very disjointed network on weekends that needs significant planning to get around on, especially for non-CBD trips. 

After 8pm service availability and frequency

B Sydney
D Melbourne
D Perth
D Adelaide
D Brisbane

This was really hard to assess, but Sydney again emerges as generally top due to good evening frequencies on trains and major bus routes. However the latter tend to be concentrated in more affluent areas and there are still significant issues with frequency and operating hours in outer areas. This is why Sydney doesn't get an A. 

Melbourne has a mix of key routes (including SmartBuses) that run until midnight and most other that finish completely around 9pm. In contrast Perth and Adelaide seem to have a lot more local bus routes that keep going until say 11pm, at least Monday to Saturday. Melbourne's 20 minute evening tram frequency wins it points relative to everything else but doesn't mesh well with trains that are (on most lines) every 30 minutes. This 30 min evening train frequency makes Melbourne like Brisbane and Perth, though Perth has been gradually extending the period that its 15 minute service runs. Melbourne's taken a different tack, with three lines upgraded to every 20 minutes at night earlier this year. 

Brisbane was the hardest to assess. Its premium routes are very very good. In fact, with 15 minute service until midnight, they rate better than trams in Melbourne. However there are just not many of them. And there are lots of local buses that finish earlier than Melbourne's - eg 6 or 7 pm. Though if you're near the rather extensive rail network the operating hours are wide so trips are at least possible, provided you can accept the waiting for connections and backtracking. 

About the best that can be said is that night public transport is patchy in Australian capitals, with Sydney being head and shoulders above a mediocre lot. If you want to go single mode, then honourable mention to Sydney trains and Brisbane BUZ buses (every 15 min) followed by Melbourne trams (every 20 min). 


After midnight network extent and service

A Sydney
B Melbourne
C Brisbane
C Adelaide
D Perth

Without a doubt Sydney has long been No 1 here with some transport running overnight 7 days (not just weekends). But Melbourne has really lifted its game lately. First there were upgrades to NightRider buses maybe 10 years ago. Then there was Night Network in 2016 that delivered overnight weekend trains on all lines plus six tram routes. And just recently key regular bus routes were upgraded to run 24 hours on weekends. This was something that Brisbane and Adelaide had done well before. Brisbane has a very limited train service, with Adelaide all buses but quite an extensive network on Saturdays. 

Perth is a very clear laggard. Perth used to have a few night buses but these were scrapped so all that remains are a few extra train trips. Despite being much bigger it just seems less interested in night life than even Adelaide, possibly due to a greater morning-based beach culture. 

Multimodal network integration

A Perth
B Adelaide
C Melbourne
C Sydney
D Brisbane

Basically how well the network fits together to get people to where they need to go without too much waiting around. It could include factors like network planning, fares, passenger information, physical interchange and more. 

No contest here. Perth takes top honours. It was the first to integrate fares across all modes in the '70s,  mastered branding (no silly name changes in over 30 years) and has progressively reformed buses to feed rather than parallel trains. This enables both modes to play their strengths and deliver a connected network.

Adelaide was also an early unifier of fares. It has also kicked some goals for passenger information, notably for its frequent network 'Go Zones' and maps. However it loses points in that its bus network parallels trains a bit too much and is complicated. 

Melbourne and Sydney rate a C, with different strengths. Melbourne does well with its multimode fares and has so far resisted misguided attempts by Infrastructure Victoria to dismantle these. Sydney has unified ticketing media but not fares. This creates perverse disincentives in network planning and usage. Melbourne can also take credit for multimode passenger information. However its physical train/bus interchanges can be quite poor. Plus Melbourne still suffers with its trams often stopping a kilometre or so short of trains, with few efforts made to resolve this. Recent Sydney projects, such as their Metro can claim better train/bus interchange than some of what has been lately built in Melbourne (such as at some grade separation sites) and is being planned for projects like the Suburban Rail Loop. 

I've rated Brisbane a D. Passenger information away from the main bus routes is terrible. As mentioned before bus routes parallel rather than feed trains with few cross-suburban routes. Past attempts at reform in this area have failed. Unlike the other cities, where just state agencies run public transport, in Queensland's capital the City Council is a major player, planning and operating many buses. This makes integration organisationally harder, even if some people there want it. Brisbane can however take credit for its Go Card and fare revamp, which made it the second last city in Australia (with only Sydney to go) to unify fares. 

Availability of network maps (on system and on-line) 

B Perth
B Adelaide
C Melbourne
C Sydney
F Brisbane

A little niche area but important I think for casual travellers. Especially if you want to know what the network can do (as opposed to plan a specific trip). I've rated Perth as top due to the large maps they have at main bus interchanges and stations. They also have multimode maps on their website, though their lack of overlaps make them harder to use for trips over borders. A good touch though is their highlighting of frequent 900-series routes.

Adelaide has also done some good work in this area including highlighting its frequent routes. Melbourne wins points for having local area maps available via its website. However they misleadingly calls them 'bus maps' (when they are multimode). Melbourne would have easily rated a B about 10 years ago when local area maps were included at bus stops. Unfortunately there were removed some years ago. Melbourne also loses points for its efforts at interchanges with network maps there rare. 

Brisbane gets the wooden spoon. Its Translink website includes maps for main routes but not local routes. Admittedly these would be somewhat hard to draw due to a complex local bus network, but it should at least be possible, as Melbourne has shown with its local area maps. If the stated reason why they can't is that the bus network is too complex, then the answer is obvious - simplify it! Their ability to do that is rated later. 


Efficient use of what it has (infrastructure and vehicle utilisation)

A Sydney
B Perth
C Adelaide
C Melbourne
D Brisbane

The first of our efficiency measures. I'm going to take a stab in the dark here. I'll rate Sydney highly due to their high minimum train frequency at almost all times trains run. Their bus network reform is using buses well where it's been implemented due to providing frequent all day service and removing overlapping routes. 

Perth gets a B. Good train frequencies operate all 7 days (though less so at night). It has buses that largely feed rather than parallel trains. And it's more active in incremental bus network reform than lower ranked cities. The main area Perth falls down is in off-peak bus frequencies - a lot of outer suburban buses run every 20 min in the peaks but drop down to 60 min interpeak. If off-peak bus frequency was commonly higher then it would rate an A. On the bright side the new 900-series 'SuperBus' routes have consistently higher all day service, including every 15 min or better on Sundays.

I've ranked Melbourne and Adelaide the same. Melbourne does relatively well for its trams due to quite high off-peak frequencies on those. However it is let down by train and bus frequencies dropping off, particularly interpeak and (especially) weekends where there is still travel demand on some corridors. Another reason for similar rating is that both Adelaide's Go Zone and Melbourne SmartBus have similar service standards, that is every 15 min weekdays, 30 min weekends. 

Brisbane rates lowest due to its 30 minute off-peak train frequencies, which are generally inferior to Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. I would give it a fail if that was all that I was rating. However it does enjoy high frequencies on some key bus routes, which improves the overall result to a D.

The above may sound negative but isn't. Brisbane's public transport is the classic 'lazy asset'. Lots of infrastructure, massive scope for cost-effective improvement but currently under-managed with assets grossly under used. It could be so much more useful if existing assets were worked smarter and harder. In this it presents Australia's biggest opportunities for enhancement, perhaps even bigger than the similarly under-performing bus network in Melbourne.  

As proof that a city can improve its position one need only look at Perth. It's been the biggest improver over the last 30 - 35 years. Go back then and its trains were infrequent like Adelaide's and buses worse than Brisbane without the latter's redeeming features like frequent busway services. The Perth network then would have rated a very poor C if not a D, down there with Brisbane. However a concerted program of train upgrades and bus reform has delivered a high ranking, making it most improved. Hence it presents an example that other cities, notably Brisbane, Adelaide and even Melbourne, can draw from.  

Staff efficiency per passenger carried

A Perth
B Adelaide
C Melbourne
C Sydney
D Brisbane

Another complete guess. I'll try answer it for railways only as it is here where variations are likely to be greater. Perth is a completely modern railway, with everything changing during electrification in the '90s. Services are lean, fast and efficient. Station staffing is multi-purpose. Its small network carries more passengers per track km than larger networks like Brisbane which it even beats on raw patronage numbers. 

Adelaide, which I've given a B, has a different feel. Way fewer passengers than Perth but less staff also. It seems to be a more 'oily rag' railway with only basic facilities and stations.

I've rated Melbourne a C, although it had big staff cuts in the '90s. Most of its station are unstaffed during the day. But it brought in PSOs about 8 years ago to guard even the quietest stations at night. Night Network would have also lowered the staff per passenger carried. 

Sydney has both high staff (including guards) but also high patronage from its frequent and useful network. This has made it rate more efficiently than otherwise. 

This can't be said for Brisbane. It has a physically large but infrequently served network with likely high  non-driver staffing. This includes at stations with infrequent trains. Combined with low usage for its network size, this makes it look less efficient, especially compared with Perth whose smaller and more frequent railway carries more people. However QR's operational reliability is now very good, having made big advances from the 'Rail Fail' years where they stopped training drivers and had a shortage. 

Ability to do and pace of bus network reform

A Sydney
B Perth
C Melbourne
F Adelaide
F Brisbane

Sydney's doing the most in the bus reform world at the moment. This is helped by there being substantial resourcing for new service. Sydney would however do well to shift attention to its outer west and south-west, not just the wealthier northern beaches, east and inner-west to spread benefits wider. 

Perth lately seems to have been a bit like Melbourne, ie more an infrastructure than service emphasis. However it is still successfully doing incremental reform and service upgrades which are progressively simplifying their network. What Perth does is good. It slips to a B rating due to lack of resourcing as there are still loose ends. However reform is still alive as shown by the bold Airport line-associated network proposal. 

For its size, growth and past backlog, Melbourne has been a slow mover. Had I written this a year ago I'd have given it a D. The pace of reform was slow, even for operationally cost-neutral network simplifications that would keep service kilometres the same. It's scored a C due partially to recent moves to rethink and reform buses. However without substantial extra funding and with senior DoT people still devoting attention to side issues like flexible route buses, it's a fragile rating. 

Adelaide and Brisbane are bottom ranked. Adelaide's is due to last year's collapse of an ambitious reform program. Had it succeeded it would have rated a B on this scale, though there were issues with the content of the reform (eg lost coverage) and poor consultation. Brisbane tried bus reform a few years before Adelaide. With involvement of state and local tiers of government it was unwieldy and also failed.

If you want bus reform there's just two large cities in Australia to learn from - Sydney and Perth. The rest have either failed or are just warming up with (so far) uncertain results.  

Institutional structure and management

A Perth
B Sydney
C Melbourne
C Adelaide
D Brisbane

More wild guessing. Things just seem to work in Perth. Things that Melbourne made heavy weather of (think decades' worry over operator contracting, (re-re-re) branding and various ticket schemes) get achieved in Perth without fanfare or controversy. They get decently planned and operated networks instead. 

Sydney has also achieved a lot in the last decade or so, with transformation across all modes. This follows a period of stasis and flip-flopping over various Metro schemes, not to mention wider political scandal and volatility. I've given Sydney a B based on considerable recent achievements that have transformed the network. However other issues may justify a later downward revision, eg issues with their cracked trams and the Transport Asset Holding Entity. 

Adelaide and Melbourne get only middling scores. Mostly because I don't know much about Adelaide and Melbourne's arrangements keep getting moved about or sidetracked on matters peripheral to planning and running good transport services. 

It's a D for Brisbane. Why? Having local and state government agencies has made their progress on things slower than in other cities. There's much to reform, with many complex routes and poor frequency. But they failed when they attempted it. It's not just 'nice to haves' like branding, but stuff with real user impacts, such as the frequency and usefulness of the public transport network, that have suffered with minimal recent progress. 

The result

I won't assign specific weightings to each of the criteria. Not least because there were ones I could have included but didn't.  

But I will give weight to having a broadly useful network useful for diverse trips to diverse places at different times. And not just the traditional 9am - 5pm CBD commute, which even before COVID, was declining as a proportion of all trips made. And as it happens more versatile networks also tend to have more of their fleet in revenue service for more of the day with higher all-week patronage and farebox recovery so there's some wider benefits.  

I will also roughly consider operational efficiencies, the willingness to develop and deliver needed network reform and having the institutional structure to support same. I will also look at how hard each city has worked to get the best service and patronage out of the railway lines, trains and buses it has, ie working infrastructure hard, or 'sweating the assets'.  

Which leaves just one thing - the result. 

Which mainland Australian state capital has the worst public transport overall? 

~ ~ ~ Brisbane ~ ~ ~


Summary 

Why did I nominate Brisbane? Every city has its problems with public transport. Mostly they are confined to a few main areas. For example Sydney's disintegrated fares. Melbourne's poor off-peak train frequencies, slow trams and unreformed bus network. Perth's lack of exclusive corridors and low off-peak bus frequencies. And Adelaide's infrequent trains and complex unreformed bus network. 

Brisbane is more a case of having a few good things but large problems with the rest.  For example there are some nice busways and amazingly frequent all day/all week service on its BUZ corridors. It also does quite well on Sunday mornings by starting its trains early. 

But apart from that Brisbane's services and network are very second-rate. Its metropolitan trains are less frequent outside peaks, carry fewer people and have higher running costs per passenger. A lower proportion of its population is near frequent service than elsewhere. And non-CBD transit is difficult as buses parallel rather than feed trains, with no frequent orbital buses. It adds up to a lot of infrastructure and staff but a poor ability to run them to form an effective and efficient network. So much potential but lazy leadership who can neither see nor harness it.  

As for fixing the mess, a large city council and artificial local government boundaries stymie reform like nowhere else. This is because service planning and delivery straddles state and local government (Brisbane City Council) bodies. The result is a sort of inertia exacerbated by the lack of a single metropolitan transport planning agency at state government level such as (imperfectly) exists for all other capitals. 

Brisbane's biggest problem though is perhaps the mediocrity they accept and the excuses they make for it. Eg 'Brisbane people are different to southerners and won't use public transport'. Such exceptionalism gives a cover for inaction.

It's more accurate to say that people everywhere are equally pragmatic in using the best transport option available to them. It's just that in Brisbane this doesn't happen very often due to how its network is configured and run. 

If only Brisbanites set their mind to it with Perth-style reform (ie off-peak train frequency upgrades and bus reform) then their network could be so much better for relatively little capital expenditure. 

Will the city that recently got the right to host an Olympics (because no one else wanted it) rise to the even bigger but more beneficial, challenge of creating useful public transport network for its people? 

Only time will tell. 

Comments are invited and can be left below. 


3 comments:

shintemaster said...

Interesting article.

Not sure how you would quantify exactly however I would be very interested in this having a way to measure access equity / socio economic access. My experience in Melbourne is that - generally speaking - there is a significantly weighted supply of services / expenditure towards the most socio economically advanced suburbs. Arguably a situation where factors such as the heritage overlays act against fair and efficient use of resources. (ie. a lot of traditional train stations / tram lines in wealthy areas with low density).

Andrew said...

I don't know what it's like in other capital cities, but here in Adelaide most of the money spent on improving bus service's have been in the inner north, south, east, west & O-Bahn services; Areas where there's a high percentage of cars.
Whereas areas such as the outer southern, outer northern suburbs (the poorer areas) & the Adelaide Hills (population is centred in towns only) have been overlooked time and time again.

Nicholas said...

I would consider Melbourne worse than Brisbane public transport wise. The Brisbane trains are less frequent but offer far better passenger amenities such as on board toilets and the high staffing levels results in clean and safe stations at all times. I would prefer lower frequency with comfortable trains and on board toilets to every 10 minutes trains.

I would also consider Queensland Rail more reliable than Metro Melbourne. However outside of the inner city of both Brisbane and Melbourne buses are terrible and network coverage has large holes in especially in hinterland areas of Moreton Bay. Inner Brisbane bus network is generally better than transport in inner Melbourne. better traffic separation eg bus ways and faster journey times than trams.

Regional Travel Victoria far outweighs Queensland with frequent daily services on all routes and extensive cheap coach network all booked through a single website. Queensland has a mix of public funded and private coach services with many not even offering daily services and often with eye watering prices even for concession holders. eg $70 for a trip from Toowoomba to Brisbane and back on a coach. A similar return trip in Victoria would be Bendigo to Melbourne on a train is only $20 concession! distance is similar.