Friday, January 07, 2022

How to win votes with public transport: Guide for 2022 Victorian election candidates

So you want to get into (or remain in) Parliament?

You’re standing in November’s state election. You’re contesting a lower house seat, most likely in middle or outer suburban Melbourne. You’ve been endorsed (or are seeking endorsement) from one of the main parties. Or, because of local issues, you think you stand a good chance as an independent. You may even be an incumbent who is struggling because of changing public sentiment towards your party or an unfavourable redistribution which removed your best areas and reduced your margin.  

You will likely have some idea of local issues. If it’s a growth area there may be insufficient schools, libraries, hospitals and other services for your population. Established areas may be facing population decline in the country or densification in inner suburbs. Housing access, development, policing, state taxes or the environment may be other concerns. Service delivery and cost of living are also always discussed, especially during these times where people have lost jobs or have got fewer hours due to the pandemic. 

Public transport is one of those key service delivery issues. More so than other services (eg health and higher education) it is almost entirely a state matter. Thus if you are contesting a state election you must have an idea of community concerns and needs regarding transport. 

Depending on where you are it could be a new rail line, upgraded station or bus route.  If you are in a party you will want their platform to include projects that benefit your area. The best thing a local member can say is “I got you this new station, level crossing removal, bus upgrade or similar” as part of their re-election pitch. Assuming you win in 2022, will you be able to do this in 2026?

Why better public transport?

Public transport might not have been something that you personally have used greatly or thought much about. But it’s still good that other people use it even if it just means fewer cars on the road in front of yours. Other benefits include less competition for parking, more walkable neighbourhoods and lower carbon emissions. 

Then there’s the direct benefits for people you want to vote for you. 

People think trains, trams and buses when the term ‘public transport’ is mentioned.  But it’s actually more than those. Public transport is best thought of as the ‘great enabler’. It enables people to do what they want to do and get the most out of their life. Or, more concisely, to fulfil their dreams. That is it allows people to take up jobs, education or other opportunities they might not have otherwise been able to.  

If transport services are good enough then they can allow families to get by with one less car. That can deliver large cost of living savings or allow them to improve their lives in other ways. At least it gives them security and choice that wouldn't exist if the transport services weren't there.  

A lot of potential improvements are relatively quick and cheap yet can make a substantial difference to peoples mobility. As a candidate it’s a good story to tell – provided that you and your party are advocating the right things. More on that later. 

Why include public transport services in your campaign? There's two main reasons. First of all it's a  basic 'bread and butter' issue affecting how people live and their living costs. And a core state responsibility as befits a state election. Secondly there is more goodwill towards and less division regarding public transport than many other issues, especially on social policy. You might have a position on matters like injecting rooms or 'Safe Schools' like some did in 2018. However these polarised people and you may lose as many votes as you gained by taking a strong stand. Whereas improved public transport has a broader consensus in favour with no serious opposition. At best people will be supportive while at worst they will be indifferent. So if you advocate improvements to it you will only gain, not lose, votes.  

What transport needs improving in your area?

You may or may not have enough first-hand experience to know. If your social circle is narrow (which it can be for hacks-cum-candidates, especially those 'parachuted' into seats they had no previous association with) your friends might not have much of an idea either. There are exceptions, but the 'political class' (that too many candidates are drawn from) can be prone to overestimating household median incomes and misreading community sentiment on some matters.  

Regardless of your own background, you should at least make it your business to know the area's main transport issues. That is so that what voters tell you is not a surprise and you can provide well-based feedback on what your area needs to your party when they’re formulating policies. Also you don’t want to be embarrassed by publicly backing some crazy scheme that is neither feasible nor likely to win funding. Leave that to less disciplined people in your party.  

Where can you start? I suggest looking at PTV local area transport network maps. You should look at several to cover all your seat and popular destinations up to maybe 10 or 15 kilometres away. These maps will show the train, tram and bus lines. 

Use a Melway street directory or similar (which also has bus routes mapped) to see if some pockets have homes or jobs but no routes nearby. A gap may indicate a need for a new route or extension. Also check if routes seem simple and direct and they go to logical destinations like train stations and shopping centres. Some areas have routes that stop slightly short and could be made more useful if extended. People prefer straight to circular routes and there may be scope for improvements here.

Just because there is a line on a map does not mean the service is any good. Did you know there are some bus routes in Melbourne that have just one or two trips a day? These are most unlikely to be useful at the times most people will wish to travel. This is why you also need to look at timetables. The most useful and successful routes have frequent service all week over long operating hours. Again you can use the PTV site to look up timetables (I find the pdfs most convenient). 

Things to look at include starting and finishing times, how frequent services run and whether there are Sunday or public holiday services. If your local bus doesn't run 7 days until at least 9pm then you are being short-changed as this was a minimum service standard introduced in 2006 but not yet fully implemented. 

Weekends are often the busiest times at major shopping centres but buses may not run or be infrequent. Connections with trains are another issue; if the train is every 20 minutes then a bus every 23 minutes will not consistently connect with it. An upgrade could give buses easier to remember timetables that mesh evenly with trains all day. Then there’s peak services – many routes run only every 30 or 40 minutes and may not match school or work start times well. 

You could also compare your area against others. Some areas have better bus or train frequencies than others. This is often due to historical quirks rather than rational planning. If you are in an area where trains or buses are busy but infrequent (or don't run on Sundays) then a strong case may exist for a service upgrade.   

The PTV journey planner can also help. Try planning random trips to popular destinations within your seat. Industrial areas right near residential areas where there ought to be a bus but isn't can give interesting results. If travel times are too long compared to driving then there may be a need for better frequency or faster, more direct bus routes. 

Want specific network ideas for your area? See my Useful Network series. That has items examining local networks throughout Melbourne. Specific routes are covered on Tuesdays. Other sources include proposals from various organisations including local councils through their transport strategies. Between these you are almost certain to find analysis of and ideas for services in your seat. 

Recent policy 

If you could summarise recent public transport policy it would be this: Spending on ‘big build’ infrastructure while starving service. 

That’s not to say more infrastructure is not needed. For instance some outer suburbs could do with rail extensions. Some stations need access and amenity improvements. Closer in areas could benefit from their trams being extended a kilometre to the nearest station. Bike paths and pedestrian crossings feature highly on cost-effectiveness measures.  

However the incumbent government has built a lot, particularly with regards to level crossing removals, new stations and the Metro Tunnel. And they are proposing airport rail and the Suburban Rail Loop for the future. 

Infrastructure does however need to be used to maximise benefits from its construction. It's no good having grand new stations if few trains stop at them. Or massive fleets of buses that are only used a few hours a day on slow and complex routes. This is the service aspect of public transport. It is every bit as important as infrastructure. Although there has been a minor pick-up in pace lately, service and service reform has been neglected by as much as infrastructure has been boosted in recent years. 

What's the practical result of decades of sidelining service? It means that buses and trains are not as useful for as many trips as they should be. For example many areas haven’t had bus routes and timetables reformed for 20 or 30 years. Problems with unreformed services include routes that no longer meet modern needs, confusing deviations, short operating hours, low frequencies and services that wastefully overlap other routes more recently added.

Only a minority of people commute to the CBD 9-5 yet much of our network is still heavily geared to getting people to just a couple of square kilometres of city when there are larger needs closer by that could be better serviced. There is also a large casually-employed workforce, often on lowish incomes, who could take public transport but can't because operating hours and frequencies are inadequate for good connections at the time they travel. Again fixing this is quite economical, in many cases just working our existing trains, trams and buses harder.   

Bus routes in some areas have not caught up with Sunday or even Saturday afternoon shopping. They may also finish in a dead-end street rather than extend to a new station or shopping centre a kilometre or two down the road. The silver lining for an engaged candidate is that most seats have 10 or 20 'quick wins' with service that could address a multi-year backlog and make buses and trains more useful.  

The stalling of timetable reform several years ago has also left train timetables in some of Melbourne's most politically marginal areas unreformed. Many so far unrealised opportunities to simplify stopping patterns and increase frequencies exist on trains as well as buses. On this we are well behind Sydney which has 7 day trains every 15 minutes on most lines as opposed to maximum waits of 30, 40 and even 60 minutes on ours.   

Both Labor and Coalition candidates can advocate improvements in their seats in a way that suits their party's narrative. For example Labor could sell a 'swing to service' as being a logical step after their infrastructure builds. Meanwhile Coalition candidates could highlight Labor's past neglect of service matters and propose a new emphasis on it. On this the Coalition could point to rail timetable upgrades that happened during the Baillieu/Napthine and even Kennett eras, particularly in the east and south-eastern suburbs.   

Know what is possible and affordable

The costs of infrastructure projects are often reported. Service-related projects can be less easy for an outsider to cost. Although well-organised parties prepared with concrete proposals can get good advice from the Parliamentary Budget Office. An example from a while back was when The Greens got costings on their plan to boost metropolitan train services

Something like a rail extension tends to be a longer term project. It may not even be completed in the term that it is promised, especially if the government doesn't quickly start, commissions a study then sits on it again.  

New bus routes should take less time to set up but, perhaps surprisingly, aren't necessarily that much quicker than infrastructure projects like grade separations. A new route requires planning work and almost certainly new buses and a contracting process. 

In very rough terms a new 10km long bus route operating every 30 minutes needs two new buses and costs about $1m per year to operate. An almost similar cost would apply if you were to upgrade an existing 10km long route currently only running hourly to every 20 minutes. Unless you are lucky with slack time in the timetable route extensions also need new buses unless you are willing to cut frequency. I discussed how long it took to start a new bus route here

Where several routes overlap it may be possible to review a network to deliver simpler and more direct services without buying more buses. This is more cost-effective than simply layering a new route over an existing network. However it may take longer if there is a public consultation process to be worked through. 

When trains were crowded people were clamouring for peak period service upgrades. Peak train commuters can be politically influential but adding services is expensive where you need to buy new trains and (even more so) where you need to build more tracks (or at least modernise signalling) to fit the extra trains. Also the proportional benefit of adding two extra trains per hour is much higher at off-peak times such as at night (where it may represent a doubling of service and a halving of waiting)  compared to peak times when the extra frequency would hardly be noticed on most lines. Right now there is unlikely to be demand for peak upgrades. However the opportunity could be taken to reduce the number of complex peak stopping patterns on some lines for an overall simpler service. 

The simplest and cheapest upgrades are the sorts of improvements you can make without buying new trains or buses. The costs here involve extra driver hours, fuel and maintenance so are relatively modest. Common examples would be more frequent off-peak trains or boosted weekend buses. In the latter case many bus routes are only half as frequent on weekends than on weekdays despite some of their major destinations like shopping centres being busier on weekends. This is mostly a historic hangover based on past travel patterns. Especially off-peak when you increase frequency you increase patronage since the service becomes more convenient and attractive to use.

What transport planners call 'shoulder peak' times also present opportunities to make service a lot more useful with only a few extra trips added. Many train timetables become way less frequent when you move away from peak times, even though there are still quite a lot of people travelling. Scope exists to slot in extra trains before and after the morning and afternoon peaks to have more gradual roll offs in service and higher frequency during still-popular times. As an example boosting the 30 minute mid-evening service on some lines for a two hour period (eg 8 - 10 pm) requires just two extra trains each way to deliver a 20 minute frequency and four train trips each way for a Sydney-level 15 minute frequency. More cheap train service improvements discussed here

What about upgrading existing bus routes? You might not greatly upgrade poorly used or convoluted bus routes without first reforming them to make them simpler and more appealing. Unless the route was the only one in a neighbourhood and you wanted some cheap 'quick win' upgrades now with a more thorough review planned for later. For instance you could add a modest Saturday afternoon, Sunday or public holiday service. Or maybe an extra weekday early morning or early evening trip for commuters. 

Such small upgrades are good and often cheap. But other upgrades to busier routes would get more riders and thus aid your campaign more. Increased usage potential is greatest on routes that are already reasonably popular and direct to major stations, universities and shopping centres. 

Depending on the area a look through timetables may reveal such routes that are every 15-30 minutes on weekdays but drop off to hourly (or sometimes worse) on weekends, particularly Sundays. There is often no patronage rationale for such a sharp drop-off in service as the weekend trips that do run are amazingly busy. Consequently a weekend frequency upgrade, and possibly some modestly extended operating hours, is likely to be popular. It is also the simplest upgrade to implement as there is no need to change routes, open tenders nor publicly consult (as it's just adding trips). Also the message is clear and there are no complications that can arise with misunderstood network reform proposals. Simple upgrades like these are thus ideal for a candidate to advocate.       

Service increases like these involving the same number of trains or buses makes your network more efficient as its high fixed costs are distributed over more passengers. The more passengers there are the more voters benefit from the extra services you campaigned for. 


I've given some ideas if you are thinking about what transport things to advocate for your area. 

The first step is to understand the area and the services that are there already. You need to have an idea of how they compare with services elsewhere along with local needs to identify where gaps might be. 

A practical local transport package will likely include measures across all modes. Look out for 'small infrastructure' opportunities like short missing walking and cycling links. It may be possible to work with local government to deliver these. Back rail extensions or new stations where warranted. Advocate new and extended bus routes where there are logical new destinations. And champion frequency and operating hours upgrades, especially on popular lines and routes at times where they can be done by working the existing train and bus fleet harder. 

All these can deliver benefits that get to the core of why you went into politics - ie to make  a difference and make peoples lives better. And, unlike (often necessary) big infrastructure, a focus on the service aspects is long overdue and can deliver relatively quick wins that could assist your re-election in 2026. 

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