Bus Networking – solutions are not that hard!!

Replanning Melbourne’s Bus System

Nicholas Low

Melbourne’s outer suburbs and growth areas need an effective bus system. What Melbourne has in large quantity are bus stops, one for every 247 people. What our city does not have is an effective bus service throughout the whole metropolitan area.

The bus system has been designed, if that is the right word, to put a bus stop within easy reach of every home. But the bus service in outer Melbourne is so infrequent, so variable, and so unreliable that few people even think of using it. On average across the metropolis, for every kilometre a bus travels there is just one occupant (See Victoria’a Bus System Fact Sheet later). Buses are running empty!

The average frequency of service across the metropolitan system has been reported to be one bus every two hours.

The cost of running this dysfunctional system is huge. The annual cost to the Victorian budget is about $1 billion. Taxpayers contribute about $7.50 for every bus passenger carried; that is in addition to the fares paid by those passengers. But the hidden costs are much greater, though more difficult to quantify. First there is the cost of congestion. For every trip that could be made by bus and is instead made by car, more congestion occurs on the roads. There is constant worry in government circles about traffic congestion in Inner Melbourne, the CBD and the radial motorways. But outer Melbourne congestion goes under the radar. There are traffic jams getting to schools and tertiary institutions, to shopping centres and hospitals, and to railway stations. Finally there is the cost in greenhouse emissions. Since the ridership of buses is so very low, the bus system, with all its diesel buses, almost certainly contributes more to global warming than the same trips made by cars.

A comparison with London’s bus system is instructive. London’s buses carry on average 17 persons per vehicle kilometre, and the cost to the budget (net cost) is just six pence (about 11 cents) per person.

How the system can be improved is fairly well known. We are told that PTV is working on it. In the two examples prepared by Master’s students of the University of Melbourne the necessary redesign is demonstrated for two areas:

  • Narre Warren


  • Epping

Epping Bus Plan 04122016 3

The two studies were completed by separate groups of planning students working independently with a brief to analyse the social and physical structure of the localities together with their ‘planning’ and ‘transport’ contexts, and to propose a redesign of the local bus system to better fit local needs.

Points they have in common are:

  • Thorough understanding of the local context, including identifying major destinations generating traffic.
  • A theoretical understanding of the principles of network planning.
  • Proposed new high frequency (at 10-15 minute intervals), direct ‘point-to-point’ bus routes together with feeder bus services.
  • Co-ordination of bus timetables with train arrivals at railway stations.
  • Attention to complementary measures to provide safe walking and cycling paths connecting with local employment centres and transport nodes.
  • Concern for environmental sustainability, and particularly greenhouse gas emissions.

The two studies should be fairly easy to understand, but there are some terms from the transport planning literature which may need clarification:

  • Pendulum lines or routes: routes on which buses travel from beginning to end, back and forth along the same route, continuously.
  • Frequency: how often buses arrive at stops to collect passengers.
  • Capacity: how many passengers a bus can legally carry.
  • Orbital routes: routes of buses travelling all around the circumference of the metropolis at different distances from the CBD.
  • Point-to point or ‘arterial’ routes: bus routes connecting major destinations along the most direct possible lines.
  • Feeder routes: bus routes connecting to arterial bus routes and railway stations.

Implementing such redesign, however, is not simple.

  1. First of all, despite the low level of bus use per route kilometre overall, 122.5 million bus passengers used the system (2015-16). That represents a considerable public commitment to the existing deployment of routes. Great care must be taken to ensure that any change does not disadvantage vulnerable populations.
  2. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution for every locality within metropolitan Melbourne. Some areas of Melbourne are well served by buses. Some services are very efficient and effective. The problems of the system vary greatly from place to place. Each area requires a comprehensive analysis and plan combining local transport proposals with land use considerations.
  3. Making the bus service more effective means doing much more than reforming the routes and timetables. Safe and pleasant walking and cycling paths to bus terminals and stops are badly needed. The layout of many existing outer suburbs does not lend itself easily to direct bus routes or to access to bus stops and terminals.
  4. Much more needs to be done to design every transport interchange point so that it is an easy and safe walk, with clear signage, from one mode of transport to another, or even from one bus route to another.

The way forward must be gradual rather than dramatic. But it must be given high priority. It can be done quite quickly, and should commence as soon as possible.

Change should be preceded by experiment with demonstration projects and accompanied by public information and consultation. Careful thought must be given to servicing local areas out of easy reach of main bus routes, perhaps by small community buses connecting to the arterial bus system.

Initially more money will probably have to be spent on bus services, not less: meaning introducing new point-to-point routes without withdrawing existing services. But compared with the cost of major infrastructure works to roads and railways, the cost can be kept relatively small.

None of these approaches are likely to have an immediate political payoff. In the medium term, however, improving the only public transport service available to the outer suburbs and growth areas will provide a lasting legacy for which the government that achieves it will be applauded.



Melbourne metropolitan

2013-14 2014-15 2015-16
Bus passengers,


127.6 (iii) 124.0 (ii) 122.5 (i)
Kilometres travelled, millions 109.2 (iii) 111.0 (ii) 113.3 (i)
Number of bus stops (iv) 18,296? (date of this figure not given)
Average bus occupancy, passengers per km (estimate) 1.17 1.12 1.08
Melbourne population (v) 4,530,000 (est)


Victoria regional

2013-14 2014-15 2015-16
Bus passengers,


15.2 (i) 15.4 (ii) 14.7 (i)
Kilometres travelled, millions 22.9 (i) 23.9 (ii) 24.8 (i)
Number of bus stops 7,306? (date of this figure not given)
Average bus occupancy, passengers per km 0.66 0.64 0.59
Regional population (iii) 1,410,000 (est)


Total cost of the state’s bus service to the annual Victoria budget

Expenditure from the budget $million 987.8 (revised)

1032.8 (2016 estimate)

Total passengers 137.2
Cost per passenger $ 7.20

Source:  Victoria, Budget Paper No. 3 Service Delivery Table 2.2 Output Summary, page 123

The comparison with London’s bus system is interesting. Whereas the bus occupancy in metropolitan Melbourne (2015) was 1.08 persons per km, London’s figure was 17.2. Whereas the budgetary cost per passenger in Victoria $7.20, the budgetary cost per passenger in London 0.06 pounds (about 11 Australian cents).


(Travel in London, Report 8 2015 Table 3.5 Summary of key indicators of travel demand for principal travel modes in London. P. 72. Expenditure figures from: Table 5.1 Transport for London’s expenditure and revenue on public transport services)


2008/9 2013/14 2014/15
Total PT passenger kilometres, millions per year 17,470 20,374 20,882
Bus passenger kilometres, millions per year 7,942 8,411 8,420
Vehicle kms, millions 489
Passengers per route km (average across the bus network) 17.2
Net expenditure (gross less fares and other income) million pounds 493
Net expenditure per passenger km.




Transport for Melbourne is a small think tank and advocacy group of transport professionals whose mission is to promote a better understanding of transport issues that Melbourne faces now and how these can be better addressed.