Should bus lanes be shared?

Hoddle St bus lane, looking north (off peak)

The Government’s announcement this week that motorcycles will be able to travel in the bus lane on Hoddle St for a six month trial period revealed a surprising diversity of views about who should and shouldn’t be able to travel in bus lanes.

At present, only buses and bicycles can use the bus lane on Hoddle St (it runs on the south side of Hoddle between the Eastern Freeway and Victoria Parade – there’s no bus lane on the northern side).

The reporter for The Age, Jason Dowling, did his homework and canvassed a number of organisations with an interest in the matter. The Government and the Victorian Motorcycle Council evidently favour buses, motorcycles and bicycles, but:

  • The RACV says the lane should be limited to buses and taxis
  • The Bus Association says only buses should be permitted
  • Bicycle Network Victoria is against motorcycles – it says the lane should only be used by bicycles and buses

I can’t see any problem with motorcycles and scooters using the bus lane. They’re fast enough so they won’t hold up buses and they’re small enough that they shouldn’t present queuing problems at intersections.  Although they’re not without problems (noise and pollution from two strokes), they’re a relatively efficient form of transport compared to cars and low occupancy buses. If cyclists can successfully share a lane with buses that barely fit, contending with motorcycles should be a cakewalk. Motorcycles warrant space in the bus lane.

However the logic of the RACV’s argument that taxis and hire cars should be able to use bus lanes is hard to fathom. There’s no environmental or equity benefit to be gained from making a trip by taxi rather than by car. The only real difference is that in one case you’re paying for a chauffeur and in the other you’re doing the driving yourself (although for a traveller from one of the 10% of Melbourne households that don’t own a car the equation would be different).

Taxis provide an important service, but they aren’t “public transport” in the meaningful sense of a vehicle shared by multiple passengers going to multiple destinations (except sometimes at the airport). They are “public transport” only in the narrow sense that they’re available to anyone for a price. That’s also true of rental cars and I can’t see any reason why they should get access to bus lanes either.

If anything, bicycles are probably the least appropriate mode to share with buses. They’re slower and hence can potentially hold buses up, depending on conditions. In order to overtake a cyclist safely, a bus on Hoddle St will need to enter the adjoining lane, thus weakening to some degree the whole point of a dedicated bus lane. Read the rest of this entry »


Should replacing level crossings be given higher priority?

Hot wheels metropolis (1200 cars, but no trains)

The Committee for Melbourne has called for a $17.2 billion program to remove all Melbourne’s level crossings over the next 20 years.

The Committee says just two separations of road and rail were constructed by the Kennett government and two by the Bracks/Brumby government. While Melbourne has 172 level crossings, Sydney tackled the issue years ago and now has only eight.

However the Baillieu government has given an undertaking to grade-separate ten crossings at an estimated cost, on average, of around $100 million each. The Committee reckons the private sector could pay a big chunk of the $17.2 billion cost in return for the commercial rights to each site, although the Herald-Sun warns such a move would very likely “be fiercely opposed by anti-development groups”.

There’s a lot to be said for giving a higher priority in the transport capital works program to eliminating level crossings, as they present a number of problems. One is they slow traffic, including buses and trucks. According to the RACV’s public policy manager, Brian Negus, crossings along the Dandenong line are closed for 30-40 minutes an hour during the peak, exacerbating traffic congestion. This is likely to become a bigger problem as the share of public transport trips carried by buses increases. The interaction between crossings and nearby signalled junctions is a major barrier to the efficient performance of the transport network.

Level crossings also impose a limit on the frequency of train services. There are only so many trains that can realistically be sent down a line given each service entails stopping traffic in both directions for well in excess of one minute (in Newcastle, crossings are closed on average for passenger and freight trains for between three and seven minutes!). Some crossings are forecast to carry nearly 40 trains per hour in the peak by 2021.  Another issue is traffic queuing across rail lines — as well as the occasional car/train incident — limits the efficiency of the network. Further, level crossings are a safety hazard for pedestrians and give parents a reason to discourage children from walking to school.

While I’ve not seen an analysis for Melbourne, there’s little doubt the benefit-cost ratio of level crossing elimination would be very high. I expect it would be well ahead of some other much larger transport projects, such as the Avalon, Doncaster or Rowville rail proposals.

There are nevertheless a number of issues raised by this proposal. One is the need to prioritise works – some crossings are relatively minor and simply don’t warrant expenditure in the forseeable future. Probably 80% of the benefits will come from grade separating 20% of crossings. Back in 2009, the Public Transport Users Association argued these ten crossing should be given the highest priority, given their impact on road-based public transport:

  • Bell Street and Munro Street, Coburg (one project) (Smartbus 903)
  • Springvale Road, Springvale (Smartbus 888/889)
  • Bell Street, Cramer Street and Murray Road, Preston (one project) (Smartbus 903)
  • Glen Huntly Road and Neerim Road, Glenhuntly (one project) (Tram 67, and trains subject to speed restrictions)
  • Balcombe Road, Mentone (Smartbus 903)
  • Buckley Street, Essendon (Smartbus 903)
  • Clayton Road, Clayton (Smartbus 703)
  • Burke Road, Gardiner (Tram 72, and trains subject to speed restrictions)
  • Camp Road, Campbellfield (crossing elimination and new station) (proposed Smartbus 902)
  • Glenferrie Road, Kooyong (Tram 16, and trains subject to speed restrictions)

That’s a particular perspective, yet it matches some of the RACV’s priorities. Last year the RACV said the four worst crossings in Melbourne are in High Street near Reservoir station, on Burke Road near Gardiner station in Glen Iris, on Clayton Road next to Clayton station, and Murrumbeena Road near the station. The Dandenong rail corridor also figures high in the RACV’s priorities.

I’m not sure there is as much value in development rights as the Committee for Melbourne imagines. Many level crossings, perhaps most, may not have enough suitable land available for development after meeting grade separation and operational needs. The most promising opportunities are probably where the rail line rather than the road has been lowered, but this can be expensive. Many of those that do have land available may be in locations considered unsuitable for development by planners. And let’s be clear that development in air space over railway lines is a fantasy – it’s simply too expensive in all but an extremely small number of cases. For practical purposes, development in air space is not an option. Read the rest of this entry »


Is the proposed airport train off the rails?

Royal wedding preview

The idea of a high-speed Melbourne Airport-to-CBD rail line is in the news yet again, this time advocated by the RACV.

You’ve got to give the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria its due. While simultaneously calling for roadworks to reduce congestion and improvements to traffic flow in Hoddle Street, it’s morphing into a general transport lobby group that “advocates improved transport services for all its members, including those who use public transport”.

This story on the RACV’s call for an airport train has attracted over 100 comments, most of them favouring a rail line. There’re the same themes that come up every time The Age runs pro-airport rail stories – it’s embarrassing that Melbourne doesn’t have a dedicated rail line; car parking prices at the airport are extortionary; Skybus fares cost an arm and a leg; the contract with Citylink won’t allow competition; and the airport and taxi industry won’t let anyone kill their golden goose.

Even while they approvingly cite the example of Sydney’s and Brisbane’s airport trains, commenters nevertheless generally assume an airport train would be high speed, would solve congestion on Melbourne’s freeways and would cost no more than a Zone 1-2 fare.

I’ve explained before why an airport rail line is unlikely to make sense for a while yet, but it’s a good idea to take another more considered view of its prospects than those advanced by unabashed boosters. Here’re twelve reasons why a rail line to Melbourne Airport is unlikely to make sense for a while yet.

First, Skybus already provides a dedicated public transport service from the airport to the CBD with higher frequencies and longer span of hours than any train service in Melbourne. Most times trips to Southern Cross station take 20 minutes. While they blow out to over 40 minutes in peak hour, that could be addressed for a fraction of the cost of a new rail line by extending the existing dedicated on-road lane to other sections of the route that are prone to congestion.

Second, there’s little to be gained from spending more than a billion dollars to replace a high quality public transport service (Skybus) with another one (train), when the money could be spent on providing better public transport to areas that don’t currently have adequate service.

Third, every study undertaken to date has concluded that a rail service isn’t warranted. It might be in the future but not yet. In the meantime, there is considerable potential to increase the capacity and speed of Skybus. As pointed out here, Brisbane’s south-east busway already carries 15,000 passengers per hour. Read the rest of this entry »


Does driving cost less than transit?

Median journey to work time in Melbourne, by mode, ordered by approx distance of home municipality from CBD (VISTA)

With petrol prices spiking upwards, it’s a good time to examine the relative cost of driving versus public transport. You can save a lot of cash if you’re prepared to live without a car, but you’ll pay in other ways.

According to the RACV’s 2010 Driving Your Dollar survey, it costs $10,668 p.a. on average to run a medium sized car like a Toyota Camry Altise. The cost could be as low as $6,759 p.a. for something small such as a Toyota Yaris or as much as $19,234 p.a. for a behemoth like a Toyota Landcruiser GXL. On the other hand, a zones 1and 2 Yearly Metcard costs $1,859 p.a. for unlimited travel. However ticket outlays need to be adjusted for household size. In my case, my wife would also require a yearly pass and our two children would need travel concession passes. That brings the total cost up to $4,562 p.a., but that’s still considerably less than the Camry’s $10,668 p.a.

Of course many children already have a school travel concession pass. And adults who know they have a limited travel range could probably get by with either a zone 1 ($1,202) or zone 2 ($799) ticket and buy extra daily tickets on those (presumably infrequent) occasions they travel cross-zone. Travellers who use public transport exclusively will in all likelihood spend more on taxis and occasional light truck rental, as well as sacrifice some spontaneity in trip planning, but in cash terms they should still come out well ahead of car owners.

Whatever the overall saving is, it isn’t going to be realised by households who keep their car and simply use it less. The bulk of outlays associated with a car are standing costs like depreciation, insurance and registration. In order to be significantly better off in cash terms, a household either has to lose a second car or decide they can get along without any car at all.

But this simple accounting doesn’t provide a fair comparison. There’s one big difference that has to be taken into account – travel by car is much faster on average than by public transport. The latter is most attractive for work travel, but even then the median journey time in Melbourne is almost double that by car (see accompanying chart). Those longer trip times in part reflect commuters who catch trains from distant places to the city centre. But the main reason is that passengers have to expend time on tasks like walking to the stop, waiting for the service and in some cases transferring between services.   Read the rest of this entry »


Does the RACV truly think long term?

Click for detailed map (slow to download)

The Age published details on Monday of what it says is a leaked Vicroads “plan for hundreds of kilometres of new freeways”.

The “plan” is actually just a map showing how Melbourne’s road network might look in 2040. Vicroads isn’t conceding that it prepared the map but it isn’t denying it either. Most of the projects are already shown on the Melway or are well known – only the outer, outer ring road and two Geelong roads seem genuinely new.

There is a heap of negative comment on The Age site. The most interesting comment however is a quote in The Age from an RACV spokesperson who says the map represents the sort of ”truly long-term thinking” needed if the city’s road system is to cope with predictions that Melbourne’s population will grow to 7 million by 2049.

I have no issue with the need to think about road transport well into the future. As I’ve pointed out before, even the most optimistic long term public transport plans envisage that the majority of travel will still be by car. While the car’s mode share is likely to decline, the absolute level of car travel – in green cars – is nevertheless highly like to increase.

But I beg to differ with an RACV spokesperson who is quoted as saying that this road plan constitutes “truly long term thinking” about the road system. I don’t see how the efficiency, sustainability and capacity of the road system as depicted in this wish-list can be assessed without having information on a host of other variables that will affect the use of road space in the future. Read the rest of this entry »


Is Melbourne Bicycle Share getting better?

Now that Le Tour has started, it’s timely to think about cycling.

And yes, Melbourne Bike Share is getting better (sort of). RACV announced back on 21 June that Melbourne is getting more blue Bixis “with 40 bike stations and 500 bikes commencing roll out this week”.

Melbourne: 50 stations and 600 bikes (+ helmet)

That clearly reads as additional to the existing ten stations and 100 bikes, and so should give us the full 50 bike stations and 600 bikes that were originally announced.

The new stations are located at New Quay, Bourke Street, Merchant St, Yarra’s Edge, along Elizabeth Street, the Rialto Tower, Southern Cross and Parliament Stations, Lygon Street and the Eye and Ear Hospital. Unfortunately the RACV doesn’t provide a time frame for the roll out but the Melbourne Bike Share map indicates that more than 30 stations are now up and running.

That’s good news, but there’s an alarming piece of information in the press release – the 100 bikes that launched the scheme were rented only 700 times (by 400 renters) in the initial three weeks between 1 June and 21 June. Read the rest of this entry »


Melbourne Bike Share – how can the Government save face?

There is a near universal consensus that Melbourne Bicycle Share is misconceived and almost certain to fail. Most attention has focussed on the compulsory helmet requirement but as I noted last week, this is a program that addresses a need that doesn’t exist and is designed in a way that will almost guarantee failure.

But no one wants a fiasco. The Government wants to save face, the RACV wants to keep its management contract and no one wants to see Melbourne’s reputation damaged by the failure of the blue Bixis.

So, I propose some radical surgery for Melbourne Bicycle Share.

First, forget about targeting the scheme at CBD workers running short errands. Reposition it instead as a service to promote tourism. The tariff should be turned around completely to support longer hire periods. For example, something more tourist-friendly, like $20 for the first two hours and $5/hr thereafter – hence $30 for 4 hours – would be close to the mark, although the tariff should be set with the goal of operating on a commercial basis.

Second, the Government should change the law to give anyone who can produce a valid out-of-State ID the right to ride a blue bike without a helmet. The exemption would not apply to any other bicycles and would be justified on the basis of supporting tourism. Tourism has been used to support Sunday trading in the dark and distant past when shopping on the Sabbath was a sin, so it’s an old and much used workhorse. Read the rest of this entry »