Why do we dislike buses?

Houston, we have a problem...

Melburnian’s seem to love trains and dislike buses. Melbourne Airport and Doncaster are both served by high-frequency bus services with a wide span of operating hours, yet large numbers of people want to spend billions replacing them with trains.

The list of criticisms of buses – relative to trains – is long. Right at the top is slowness. Buses operate in traffic, follow circuitous routes, stop frequently and idle while passengers dig out spare change to pay the driver. They’re uncomfortable too. Shelters are perfunctory, the ride is jerky and difficult if standing, seats are jammed too close together and too many drivers don’t seem to actually like passengers. And buses are unreliable. They’re invariably late and if you miss one the wait for the next one will seem interminable. If it’s night or a weekend there’s a good chance that was the last bus for the day.

Then there are systemic criticisms. Buses aren’t ‘legible’ — prospective passengers can’t see where the route goes. Sometimes routes vary over the course of a day. Buses are also impermanent. Developers are less inclined to risk investing along a route if it can be changed overnight or even removed. And there’re hard-nosed criticisms, too. Buses don’t carry many passengers. Operating costs are high because each vehicles requires a driver. Per capita GHG emissions and energy consumption are no better than cars. Engines are noisy and polluting.

As things stand, buses look pretty bad compared to trains, even given the unreliability and crowding that characterises peak hour train services in many Australian cities. Buses have a serious image problem, not just here but in many western cities.

But it’s an unfair comparison*. The key reason buses are perceived so poorly relative to rail is they are mostly assigned to marginal routes with low patronage. Operators follow indirect routes and stop frequently to maximise revenue; they reduce frequency and hours of operation to minimise costs. They can do that because their customers aren’t usually sophisticated CBD workers but travellers who are mostly “captive” to public transport. In other words buses mostly operate in a different market to trains. But it’s given them a bad reputation.

Most of the criticisms can be fully addressed, or at least softened, when the comparison is like-for-like i.e. when buses operate the sorts of long-haul commuter services that urban rail is customarily used for in Australia. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems typically have high patronage and operate in their own right of way (just like trains) or in dedicated on-road bus lanes. Stops are major interchanges spaced kilometres apart and tickets are bought before entry.

BRT vehicles can be made with the internal look and ‘feel’ of (light) rail and the jerky ride can be minimised with electric engines. Articulated buses carry large numbers of passengers and can provide better leg room. According to Corinne Mulley, Chair in Public Transport at Sydney University, Brisbane’s South East Busway carries 15,000 passengers per hour and in Bogota buses carry 45,000 per hour.  She says “US evidence points to infrastructure costs for dedicated buses being approximately one third of light rail costs”. As a point of reference, Eddington forecast that a Doncaster rail line would carry up to 12,250 one-way trips per day. Read the rest of this entry »

-Why don’t Melbourne’s buses use LPG?

The rail line that never was.....

I have a heightened consciousness about diesel buses and 4WDs belching carcinogens because I’ve just finished reading Siddhartha Mukherjee’s excellent book, The Emperor of all Maladies: a Biography of Cancer.

Melbourne’s fleet of 1700 buses is powered almost entirely by diesel engines. Each year they collectively travel around 80 million kilometres, each bus consuming 90 litres of diesel per 100 km. That’s more than 70 million litres p.a. in aggregate.

Melbourne’s taxi fleet, on the other hand, is comprised mainly of LPG powered vehicles. LPG offers a small saving in CO2 emissions compared to diesel (about 10%) but its main advantage is much lower pollution. Compared to ultra-low sulphur diesel, LPG produces less than a fifth as many particles and less than 1% as many ultra-fine particles. It also produces less than one tenth as much oxides of nitrogen (NOx).

One company estimates the cost of converting the engines in the existing bus fleet to LPG at around $55,000 per vehicle. The company says buses that use LPG consume about 100L/100km (about 10% more than diesel buses) but there’s a significant saving in the cost of fuel.

The price of LPG is currently less than half the price of diesel. A bus that covers (say) 100,000 km p.a. would cost $130,500 p.a. in diesel (at today’s price of $1.45 per litre) but only $60,000 p.a. in LPG (at $0.60 per litre). That means the cost of conversion could be recouped within a very short period. This difference depends on factors like distance driven and fluctuations in relative prices. For example, a new excise on LPG of 2.5c a litre comes into effect from July this year, rising to 12.5c over the next four years. On the other hand, the current troubles in the Middle East have increased oil prices.

This highlights another singular advantage of LPG over diesel – it’s less dependent on international price fluctuations. Australia has immense reserves of natural gas from which the propane and butane in LPG are derived. Proponents of LPG also argue that it extends engine life, reduces maintenance and makes buses less noisy.

There appear to be many good reasons for bus operators to shift to LPG so why hasn’t this happened? Read the rest of this entry »

-Sydney buses from the air

Melbourne data visualisation company, Flink Labs, has produced another excellent transport animation – this time it’s 24 hours in the life of Sydney buses. Flink Labs prepared it as part of the apps4nsw program.

There’s also an associated real time bus map which uses GPS to show the location of Sydney’s many buses. It’s updated every minute.

Unfortunately it might not work with Internet Explorer (hmmm, Flink Labs must have a very interesting business model – maybe it’s intended solely for smartphones?).

Sure are a lot of buses in Sydney!

Readers might recall Flink Lab’s superb animation of Melbourne’s trains which appeared on these pages in July.

See also these animations of transport in Auckland and Lisbon.

Is a busway right for Mernda?

If I lived in Mernda I’d be pretty unhappy that the Brumby Government (here and here) is only going to give me a bus service rather than extend the Epping rail line beyond the new station at South Morang.

Sure, it’s Bus Rapid Transit with its own dedicated 7.5 km busway (here and here). And buses will be coordinated with arrivals and departures when trains start operating from the new South Morang station.

But it means I would have to change mode at South Morang. That will inevitably lose me some minutes. Moreover, a bus is simply not as comfortable as a train.

This seems like a politically fraught decision. The President of the Victorian Planning Institute says it’s bad planning and that buses are a “dinky service”. The President of the Public Transport Users Association (PTUA) says buses are “not as good as a train and are certainly not what residents are looking for”.

However I don’t live in Mernda. And I pay taxes, so I’m quite interested in public money being spent efficiently and equitably. I also understand that there are many demands on available funds, not just from other transport projects but from other portfolios like education, health and housing.

So when I stand back and take a look at this initiative I can see some positives. In fact I think this is the right decision. It’s how governments should be approaching this sort of issue. These are my reasons: Read the rest of this entry »