advocacy public policy sustainability governance

Time for Serious Reform of Melbourne’s Bus Services

For most Melburnians buses are their only form of public transport, but buses are only part of the public transport service. A bus improvement strategy cannot be developed in isolation. It must be an integral part of the public transport network and should be the “glue” that ties the entire public transport network together. One of the main problems with Melbourne’s bus service is there are not enough of them, particularly during off-peak or weekends. But the network itself also requires a radical overhaul.

For most Melburnians buses are their only form of public transport, but buses are only part of the public transport service. A bus improvement strategy cannot be developed in isolation. It must be an integral part of the public transport network and should be the “glue” that ties the entire public transport network together. One of the main problems with Melbourne’s bus service is there are not enough of them, particularly during off-peak or weekends. But the network itself also requires a radical overhaul. 

The bus network shown above is out of date. PTV do not publish maps of the bus network any more so we do not know what it really looks like today although it will not have changed much. To the untrained eye the routes appear confusing and provides little information about connectivity with bus routes, tram and train lines and how this could be used to get around Melbourne.  

The need for network reform/redesign has been understood for many years but despite several attempts there has been little progress. Introduction of the “Smart Bus” demonstrated the potential for significant patronage increases and their introduction has been a success. But the Smart Bus is only a small part of the network and much of the bus network remains poorly patronised. Introduction of electric buses will result in improved energy efficiency (although it will never meet a zero-emission target) but efficiency improvements must be matched by improved patronage. Running empty EV buses is not what we want.

The new bus plan developed by John Stone et al, discussed below (published in The Age 23 July) is welcomed and deserves serious consideration but it raises many questions. Some of these include:

  1. The extent to which this model can be replicated more widely throughout Melbourne as part of an integrated public transport plan which embraces all modes of travel ie trains and trams as well as buses, and how easily can this be done?
  2. Could other network design techniques be included?
  3. What is the strategy for implementation?  Stone recommends wiping the slate clean and starting afresh, but funding constraints would limit the extent to which this could be achieved, so a strategy based on incremental change to some extent would be necessary. Such a strategy would have to consider traveller’s needs to ensure the loss of existing services was compensated by new routes and service frequencies.
  4. How would the introduction of new network elements be prioritised?
  5. The bus plan has been developed to a large extent on business-as-usual projections and emission reduction targets that are increasingly seen as obsolete. The existing target of zero by 2050 is well short of what is required. The Climate Council advises a 75% reduction by 2030 and zero by 2035 if we are limit global warming to 2 degrees. This is far greater than the 43% reduction legislated by the Federal Government. International pressure will demand more ambitious targets and ultimately there will be penalties for non-compliance.
  6. The extent to which Australia can meet this target is problematic and will compromise the capacity of many people to travel. It will also have significant implications for Melbourne’s economy: its ability to provide essential goods and services including food and water, the kind of jobs that have meaning in a zero-world economy, how it functions as a city, where people live and the population that can be supported. This will in turn determine the demand for transport and patterns of travel behaviour which must in turn be reflected in a new public transport plan for the future.    

Whilst the need for network reform is urgent, it will take time to implement. In the meantime a lot can be done to improve service quality on existing bus routes now. Introduction of bus priority on roads using a variety of measures, including traffic signalling and bus lanes would increase the speed and reliability of bus services and could be carried out quickly at relatively low cost. Improved customer information such as maps which illustrate how travellers can use the system to get around Melbourne would cost very little. These are only a sample of the kind of low cost measures that can be carried out to improve bus services now. The temptation is to treat these as isolated bus issues but they must be integrated with other elements of the public transport network so it can provide a seamless service between the different modes ie trams, trains and buses.   

Electric buses across the west every 10 minutes – it’s not a dream

John Stone, July 23, 2022

Greenhouse gas emissions from transport are growing faster than any other sector of the economy – it is time to finally put the brakes on.

Despite all the clamour for greater incentives for us to drive electric cars, the surest way to meet our climate targets is to find ways for us to drive less. Offering alternatives to driving is also essential for many living in Melbourne’s car-dependent suburbs, where a second or third car is an increasing burden for households squeezed by higher interest rates and fuel prices.

The quickest and easiest way to address both rising transport emissions and living costs is to re-invent Melbourne’s broken bus system for the 21st century.

Our recently completed and externally reviewed research at the Melbourne Centre for Cities, shows how we can within only a few years, move to clean electric buses operating on a fast, frequent, connected network that gets us where we want across Melbourne’s suburbs.

The Victorian government’s recently released Zero Emissions Vehicle Roadmap is moving in the right direction with subsidies for zero emissions vehicles (ZEV), new charging infrastructure, and a ZEV bus trial. But, the growing public appetite for climate action and rapid increases in the cost of living mean that we can and must be more ambitious. So far, there are firm commitments from the Victorian government for only 341 new electric buses to be in service by 2030. This is less than 20 per cent of Melbourne’s current route-bus fleet.

Our work with industry insiders shows how we can do better.

We know that electrification changes just about every aspect of bus operations from depot layouts to maintenance techniques and the way power is delivered and paid for. We will need strong government leadership to manage costs and risks across multiple industries and strict rules about what happens to the diesel fleet, with clear timelines for them to be off the road, not just sold on for other uses.

Battery-electric buses are already operating in many places overseas . The government could make an informed call now on technical specifications for vehicles and charging infrastructure, and use its buying power to establish the necessary supply chains and performance regulations. This is possible because the state ultimately pays for the capital and operating costs of Melbourne’s buses.

But there is a catch. Melbourne’s buses run under 28 separate contracts with fourteen private operators – some big multinationals, others small family businesses delivering only a few services. Many operators have, over decades, developed a sense of ownership of “their” routes and resisted efforts to simplify the system. This model cannot accommodate the transition to electric buses. So, the expiry of most of the smaller contracts in mid-2025 is an important deadline for finding new ways for government and contractors to collaboratively manage the transition.

This transition to cleaner buses is only the first step. It won’t help the climate or ease suburban transport woes if we run clean buses on today’s convoluted routes and unreliable timetables which only very few Melburnians use. We need more Melburnians using buses.

Fortunately, there is a proven approach to bus service design, articulated by University of Melbourne researcher Paul Mees in the 1990s, that can help us get the most value from a new electric bus fleet. Paul’s work showed how some cities, by exploiting what he called the ‘network effect’, attract drivers onto public transport even at residential densities comparable to suburban Melbourne. They do this by operating fast and frequent services connected in a grid that makes it easy to travel to many destinations. Effectively, the convenience that travellers find so appealing in London and Paris can be reproduced in the suburbs using electric buses.

This approach underpins Victoria’s 2021 Bus Plan. This plan is a great first step, but it is a more of a mud map than the detailed blueprint we need for the next term of state government.

Better Buses for Melbourne’s West


Michael Buxton

In Better Buses for Melbourne’s West, we use the Remix transit planning tool to show how a modern bus network would give communities in Melbourne’s west an alternative to driving.

We started by drawing a grid network on key arterial roads that would run at a 10-minute frequency all day (including weekends) with an average speed of 25 km/h.

We were surprised to find that a new network could be delivered using existing operational budgets for buses in the west, plus a modest top-up to keep pace with population growth.

Capital costs, for this first stage, are also low, with upgrades only needed at bus stops and at key intersections to give buses priority.

Once it’s up and running, we could super-charge the network, making it even faster and cheaper to run by investing in internationally proven techniques to isolate buses from other road traffic.

Melbourne’s plan for the future will transform the CBD and surrounding suburbs


Nicholas Reece

Deputy lord mayor of Melbourne

Our modelling also showed that, on average, more than three times more people could reach shops, services, and opportunities for social interaction at their local centre within 30 minutes on a weekday morning. For Hoppers Crossing, the increase is more than tenfold! And, these new bus services would be within an 800-metre walk of most households in the west. This would be easily accessible for most people and, if linked to affordable on-demand services, would leave no one behind.

Our research shows we can be optimistic about finding alternatives to driving in the suburbs. The task now is for the government to refine a new network through careful planning and community consultation and for all of us to build political support to make a world-class system of clean electric buses a reality in Melbourne before 2030.little 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *