Tuesday, October 11, 2016

More buses, the ultimate band-aid solution

As a regular public transport user, I meet the cry of “more buses” as a solution to Canberra’s long term transport future with rolled eyes, a sigh and the odd scream. Sure, buses are a serviceable part of public transport system, but once you reach a certain population and size, they cannot be the only solution.

For a bus system to potentially service a population of just shy of half a million people, we’re looking at building supporting infrastructure and changes to business and staffing models and the costs incurred with these changes. Providing a rapid bus service does not simply mean buying a couple more bendy buses, whacking a logo on the side, and letting them fang down Northbourne Avenue or Adelaide Avenue in a way that would make Daniel Ricciardo proud. 

To enable rapid bus services we would need to see changes to Northbourne (such as less stops, raised platforms, priority lanes and specialised vehicles) that are already happening for light rail that people seem to have such a problem with, and yet apparently it would be okay if we did all that for buses?

First let’s understand the difference between buses and light rail and what they’re meant for in city public transport.  

Light rail provides a backbone to public transport. Light rail is not intended to be flexible, meander through suburbs like a big maxi van and stop at your door. In fact, you’ll be hard pressed to find a bus service in a city the size of Canberra that does this. 

The purpose of light rail is to service major arterial roads on a regular basis, connecting town centres in the most efficient and reliable way. From the start and end points of light rail services, buses take up the service of suburbs. Stage One of light rail will free up hundreds of bus hours, making them more useful in the suburbs than they ever will be trapped behind dozens of cars on Northbourne Avenue.

There are drawbacks to buses that people who don’t take them regularly won’t understand: 
  • they are subject to the flow of traffic, 
  • they aren’t very roomy, 
  • there aren’t as many seats as you think there are, 
  • they can (and do) break down, and 
  • rides can often be jerky and uncomfortable. 

In peak hour, buses are filled very quickly (for those who say you’ll never get a seat on the light rail, try taking a 200 series Rapid Bus in peak hour), and reliability and adhering to timetables is reliant not only on traffic but also the behaviour of the passengers, particularly where suburban routes turn into arterial routes such as the 259 and where multi modal travel wins over a single route that lasts an hour and provides more opportunities for delays.

Light rail, by comparison, will effectively have its own lane and its progress along the route will not be hampered by what motorised traffic is doing. Unless there’s a car crash right on the light rail track, a dingle on Northbourne Avenue will make no never mind to the light rail. 

Passengers who don’t have their MyWay card out of the wallet and ready to go when the service arrives also won’t hinder the progress of light rail – when light rail pauses along its way at each stop, there is a pre-determined amount of time for passengers to get on and off, passengers have a bit more time to tap on and off with ticket facilities at stops as well as on the light rail vehicles, and if you have a question, you won’t be holding everyone up by taking up the driver’s time. 

The driver is separate from the passengers and instead customer service officers at stops and on the light rail will field questions and concerns so the driver can get on with driving and keeping the service on time. Many people who don’t use public transport don’t realise that it’s often passengers who can hold up the service along its route.

“More buses” screams nothing but “more traffic” along routes that are already congested and slow particularly in peak times. Without dedicated bus lanes – which would either require road widening or taking a lane off current traffic – more buses is not a long term solution. “More buses” also comes at a cost. More vehicle purchasing costs (which have to be paid immediately, as opposed to the light rail PPP model), more drivers, more maintenance, bigger depots, not to mention massive infrastructure changes that are required to make additional buses actually worth the initial outlay. 

Can you imagine the outcry that car loving Canberrans would make if Northbourne Avenue became two lanes so that the third could be bus only? The Letters to the Editor section of The Canberra Times simply isn’t big enough! 

Alternatively, the proposal of an additional lane for motorised vehicles down the middle of Northbourne Avenue makes even those who couldn’t care less about the current public transport debate raise an eyebrow in bewilderment. It’s still going to require tree removal and building of infrastructure such as stops, and it will result in an additional lane that makes the ‘country chic’ median pointless, as well as providing a precedent to turn medians into roads.

In a city over 100,000 people, buses have their place as part of an integrated transport system with light rail at its spine. A massive shift in how Northbourne Avenue and, in the future, other arterial roads in Canberra are used will have to happen either way in order to make light rail or “more buses” actually have an impact on the quality of public transport in Canberra. 

There is only so wide we can make a road for “more buses” until there isn’t any room left for anything else. Utilising the ready made medians for level light rail tracks will, however, provide a substantial change to public transport access and availability with minimal impact to how the roads in Canberra currently work. 

When you consider all the implications, “more buses” will provide more headaches for Canberra road users in the long run, either by losing current lanes or creating more of an eyesore of our medians than light rail ever could.

The “more buses” argument is not only unsustainable, but is a band aid solution that will require additional updates and fixes in the very near future. 

Light rail allows buses to do what they do best which is servicing suburbs along existing roads, with light rail transport easily and efficiently servicing major roads where flexible routes are not required. 

As a regular public transport user, this is what Canberrans need now in order to save time commuting, and increase the usability of the existing bus service. Multi modal travel has been shown to cut commuting times, simply by allowing the right mode of transport to do what it does best, and this is where integrated public transport will allow Canberra’s public transport system and its efficiency to grow. 

More buses, in isolation, are only a band-aid solution. 

Article by Cyn Piromali

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