Thursday, July 11, 2024

UN 178: Better public transport for Victoria's Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander communities



On Tuesday I mentioned that Melbourne wasn't good at providing frequent public transport service to its less advantaged suburbs, with us rating down there with Brisbane according to the Climate Council's Next Stop Suburbia report. This is despite, even ignoring the warm fuzzy social equity stuff, doing so makes patronage and financial sense.

2021's Victoria's Bus Plan recognises that we have relatively frequent bus routes that are poorly used and high-productivity lines that are under-serviced. These tend to be in the same areas that the Climate Council identified as being underserved. Concentrations exist in the south-east around Dandenong and a large strip of Melbourne's west and north from Werribee through to Sunshine, Broadmeadows and Epping.


Maps like the above will be familiar to those who have studied social disadvantage in Melbourne, even if it's other matters like income inequalities and health outcomes. This highlights the intersectionality of disadvantage, which is described here by Victoria's Gender Equality Commission.

Intersectionality is all about multiple factors reinforcing for an even bigger effect. For example income, education, postcode, transport access, language literacy, gender, race and class backgrounds can limit or at least shape a person's choices and set up a tyranny of low expectations in certain social groups, sometimes reinforced by 'soft bigotry' from outside. That can retard social mobility and perpetuate existing inequalities across generations. 

The Victorian government recognises Aboriginality as one of these intersectional elements. In my look at DTP's most senior executives (that lots of them apparently read) I noted that the Department had an Aboriginal Self-determination Plan. However this was more about widening indigenous participation in DTP's management rather than good transport service outcomes for the broader ATSI community in Victoria. 

Evidence of progress on better transport services is limited, especially in Victorian municipalities with high ATSI populations. This is important given that (nationally speaking) ATSI people are less likely to have access to a motor vehicle than other Australians (75 vs 85%) with a higher proportion reporting not being able to get to places they needed to. Hence the question of whether ATSI Victorians are getting good transport service from their tax dollars is a fair one to ask today.  

Where do Victoria's ATSI people live? 

The ABS has a population summary derived from its 2021 census. A summary chart is below: 


Victorians with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage are highly dispersed and about three-quarters live outside the seven top municipalities listed above. But having already extensively written about almost all other Melbourne suburban areas, I will just concentrate on the top seven or eight, including regional cities. 

Do areas with high ATSI populations have inferior PT?

I mentioned intersectionality before. The Climate Council mentioned inferior public transport services in working class areas. Whose effect is to inflate living costs (due to forced car ownership) and compound disadvantage further.

Is there a similar effect for ATSI populations? 

I think there is. 

Most Victorian regional cities generally have better bus networks than equivalents in other states.  Most have had network reviews in the last decade or so, with the rate of network reform faster than many established Melbourne suburbs. 

However three large regional cities stand out for having basically no bus network redesigns for service upgrades for many years. These are Shepparton, Mildura and Wodonga. All have extremely indirect or confusing routes. Mildura's was sufficiently recognised as a problem with a network review to be the Victorian Bus Plan's only regional component. However little has been heard since.

Mildura has a rudimentary Sunday bus service. Shepparton and Wodonga lack it completely. Even though smaller cities like Warrnambool and Traralgon have 7 day networks. As does Albury, across the border from Wodonga, which gained major NSW government-funded bus improvements last year

As for train services, Mildura has no rail service, Shepparton has two-thirds Bendigo's population but gets a fraction of the frequency (though improvements are planned) while Wodonga had its CBD station closed and a new inaccessible station built out of town. Due to the removal of its CBD station and the lack of upgrades to bus services, Wodonga may be the only Victorian regional city that has public transport no better (and arguably worse) than 15-20 years ago. 

Surely it can't be coincidental, but it just happens that the three largest regional cities with more than 3% ATSI population have inferior public transport services for their size. These being Mildura, Shepparton and Wodonga.

Geelong and Bendigo have many more trains to Melbourne and better urban bus networks. 7 day bus service is almost universal across Geelong buses with one or two exceptions. However limited operating hours, especially on weekends, lessen the usefulness of buses as feeders for longer distance day trips (including to Melbourne), as may be needed for family, mob and health visits.

Despite it being the premier's home city, Bendigo's buses are less developed than Geelong's (or Ballarat's) with a significant portion lacking 7 day service. This includes Route 51, the nearest bus to the Bendigo and District Aboriginal Cooperative. The approximately 6pm evening finish of many bus routes also limits their usefulness on weekends, especially as part of longer distance trips.  

Most large regional cities have Aboriginal cultural, community or resource centres. Public transport accessibility to them varies. Those in at least Geelong, Bendigo and Shepparton have buses within about 500 metres. However 'last few metres' access to them can vary with limited or no paths and pedestrian crossings. 

What about Melbourne LGAs with high ATSI populations? These are Wyndham, Casey and Whittlesea.  All are dominated by the usual infrequent bus routes with service every 40 to 60 minutes at most times. This is despite Wyndham's bus routes being much more productive than the metropolitan average. Parts of Casey and Whittlesea, especially, have bus networks that haven't been reformed for many years. Wyndham and Casey have no premium service SmartBus routes while inner parts of Whittlesea have the 901 and 902 orbitals.  

All three metropolitan LGAs lack frequent off-peak trains, with their 20 minute off-peak frequency comparing unfavourably with 10-15 minutes as more common in the south and east. And the fastest growing parts of Wyndham (as well as Geelong) still only get trains every 40 minutes on weekend versus 10 - 20 minute weekend frequencies on Metro lines.  

Upgrade priorities for LGAs with high ATSI populations

Here are some opportunity-expanding public transport service priorities for Victoria's local government areas with the highest ATSI populations: 

Greater Geelong  - Wadawurrung country

* Upgrade weekend trains from every 40 to every 20 min
* Upgrade remaining 5 and 6 day bus routes to run 7 days (nearly all currently do - just needs upgrades to a handful eg Route 40 to deliver this) 
* Widen operating hours on suburban bus routes to match local route standard in Melbourne and to enable full day trips away via V/Line
* Upgrade the busier routes to finish at midnight with maximum 20 min waits (starting with Route 1), potentially with premium network branding (similar to SmartBus). Route 1 is quite close to the Wathaurong Aboriginal Co-operative. 
* Boost coach services for better regional connectivity to Geelong's surrounding towns, preferably 7 days
* New DDA compliant paths and improved walking connectivity on busy Torquay Rd to facilitate access to Narana Aboriginal Cultural Centre from Route 53 bus stop opposite. Similar improvements may be desirable at Wathaurong Aboriginal Co-operative, North Geelong, which offers various health services. 


Greater Bendigo - Dja Dja Wurrung and Taungurung country

* Upgrade weekend train frequencies including earlier weekend am starts
* Introduce 7 day service as standard on suburban bus routes (ie upgrades on routes like 51, 54, 60 and 64 that lack it) 
* Widen operating hours on suburban bus routes to match local route standard in Melbourne and to enable full day trips away via V/Line
* Boost coach services for better regional connectivity, preferably 7 days
* Noting the non transit-oriented location of the Bendigo & District Aboriginal Cooperative, investigate whether improvements can be made for walking connectivity from the nearest bus stop and surrounding streets such as better paths and crossings.

Greater Shepparton - Yorta Yorta country

* Increased train frequency from Melbourne
* Introduce 7 day service and longer operating hours on city bus routes
* Boost bus and coach services for better connectivity to surrounding towns
* Improved DDA compliant walking connections between bus stop (Route 2) and Bangerang Cultural Centre
* Explore potential for otherwise idle or underused school buses to provide town transport as looked into by a recent parliamentary inquiry and backed by industry bodies such as BusVic

Mildura - Millewa - Mallee country

* Review and simplify current complex city bus network with improved operating hours 7 days
* Boost bus and coach services for better connectivity to surrounding towns
* Explore potential for otherwise idle or underused school buses to provide town transport as looked into by a recent parliamentary inquiry and backed by industry bodies such as BusVic

Wyndham - Bunurong and Wadawurrung country

* Upgrade weekend Geelong line train frequencies to every 20 min maximum waits at night and weekends
* Upgrade Werribee line to run every 10 minutes interpeak and weekends
* Improve connections to local jobs, including a Tarneit to Laverton North route
* Better 7 day bus connections to major health destinations (eg Mercy Hospital) 
* Boost busier local routes from every 40 to every 20 min 7 days (eg 150, 152, 160, 182, 192, 494, 495, 497) and increase operating hours of these until at least 11pm every night of the week noting their very high patronage productivity compared to the Melbourne average for buses

Casey - Bunurong and Wurundjeri country

* Upgrade train services so that maximum waits are 20 min (notably Sunday am & weekend evenings)
* Review and simplify bus routes in Hampton Park/Narre Warren/Berwick area with all to operate to minimum standards, 7 days a week and a special focus on connecting to major employment areas
* Improve 7 day bus connections to local health services eg hospitals at Berwick and Dandenong
* Upgrade all routes in Doveton and Endeavour Hills to operate minimum standard operating hours (including 842, 843, 844, 845 & 861)
* Boost weekend frequency and hours on key routes including 828, 841 and 926, with Route 893 operating until midnight. 

Whittlesea -  Wurundjeri country

* Upgrade Mernda line train frequency to every 10 minutes daytime and 20 minutes evenings and Sunday mornings. 
* Upgrade bus routes to run 7 days to minimum service standards
* Review and simplify bus routes in municipality, notably around Thomastown/Epping, with frequencies harmonised to mesh with trains and longer operating hours on key routes
* A focus on better 7 day connections to major employment areas, including industrial areas
* Improved 7 day bus access to major health destinations including Northern Hospital Epping. Also Victorian Aboriginal Health services at Epping and South Morang.  
* Add new routes to new housing growth areas
* Review adequacy of transport services to more rural parts of municipality. 

Wodonga - Dhudhuroa and Waywurru country

* Review and simplify current complex city bus network with improved operating hours, the same network weekdays and weekends and added Sunday service
* Boost bus and coach services for better connectivity to surrounding towns
* Restore public transport connectivity between every train and Wodonga CBD 
* Explore potential for otherwise idle or underused school buses to provide town transport as looked into by a recent parliamentary inquiry and backed by industry bodies such as BusVic 


The above is the result of a quick 'desktop analysis' as well as known needs. Rightly or wrongly they have a 'mainstream' focus with many highly beneficial to non-aboriginal populations. They would need refining in consultation with local communities as not all needs will necessarily have been captured. 


Getting them done

Almost all the above 'closing the gap measures' are cheap and cost-effective to do. Most have wider benefits, extending well beyond Victorian ATSI populations. So, to ask a question all too familiar to many who follow aboriginal affairs, why haven't they been done? 

Everything above requires political will to implement. 
Politics is about choices. Leadership is about setting priorities. Governments can't do everything that is asked of them.

Especially with compulsory voting parties need the middle ground to win. That can involve parties pitching for 'softer' voters from the other side rather than servicing their traditional base, whose support or at least preferences can be taken for granted.

When Labor governments have been in (such as Victoria for all but 4 years this century) this has meant a risk of neglecting basic services in their most loyal working class seats in favour of winning marginal support. The 'numbers people' at party HQ know that they cannot govern on west, north and outer south-east suburban votes alone. Rather the party needs regional city and southern/eastern suburb seats to win and keep office. 

In transport you hear this playing out in discussions about the relative merits of the east's Suburban Rail Loop versus (say) the Western Rail Plan or more dispersed bus and rail frequency upgrades (like those mentioned here). 

So far this approach has worked well for the current government, with its opponents' weakness a key asset. Labor has been able to win and then retain the east while holding the west and north, despite falling primary vote support in the latter. Thanks to the preferential system, some erosion makes no difference to the main game - ie winning enough seats in parliament to form government.

This was the case in the 2022 Victorian state election where a 40-something per cent primary vote in traditional safe seats like Broadmeadows is enough to see off challengers, especially given the low Liberal support. Combined with retentions and even gains since 2018 in the east, this has meant a commanding Legislative Assembly majority. 




However there are potential emerging weaknesses. The more primary vote falls the nearer one gets to an avalanche point, like seen with the teals in the 2022 federal election. Then things become a lot more volatile, including in seats once considered safe. 

Perceived neglect of basic services, weak local representation and favouritism towards other areas can all be exploited by opposition or independent candidates. While the latter may not win their preference flows are increasingly important in seats with eroding major party support. 

Investment in basic and community beneficial services, like these, might be just the thing a long-term government needs to stem such vote erosion. Including in seats with substantial ATSI populations. 

Conclusion

Described, this NAIDOC week, is a program to upgrade public transport in cities and suburbs that are home to the highest number of Victorians of ATSI background. 

Most are bus frequency upgrades that merely work the existing fleet harder. Thus the main resource needed would be drivers, which would provide local employment opportunities. 

As well as an improved life for local ATSI populations, the benefits of improved public transport connectivity would be far wider, extending to much of the general population as well. 

Further reading on transport for ATSI communities

* Determinants of health - transport (includes some statistics quoted above)
* Research: Experiences of Older Aboriginal People in Navigating Transport Systems in an Urban Setting
* Research: Indigenous communities: Transport disadvantage and Aboriginal communities (paper apparently unavailable online but try contacting Graham Currie)

Also see Yoorrook Justice Commission hearings (which one hopes will cover transport topics). 




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