Understanding transport – back to basics

Executive Summary

The purpose of this paper is to provide an understanding of city transport, how it works as a system and the extent to which it should be an integral part of city planning.  It includes a brief outline of ways in which the existing system can be improved based on lessons that have been learnt by cities that have been confronted with similar problems and achieved far better outcomes than Melbourne.

Melbourne could emulate many of these cities but to do so would require a new mindset on the part of government and the broader community that recognizes that this is not only possible and achievable but would also make Melbourne a more livable and prosperous city. This mindset must start with an integrated transport and land use plan that focuses on

  • Making better use of existing infrastructure, properly maintaining it and managing it more effectively and more efficiently
  • Promoting transport modes that make most efficient and effective use of our transport infrastructure and managing them in a way that makes them more attractive as modes of first choice for more trips
  • Planning of city development and city services that reduce the need for travel in the first place.

The plan needs to acknowledge that all modes of travel i.e. the car, walking, cycling and public transport are modes of community choice and operate in a competitive market in which access, convenience, quality of service and other factors are critical factors. Patronage has to be won by meeting people’s travel needs – understanding this is particularly important if the government wants people to use their cars less often (particularly in peak times)  by getting more people to use public transport or cycle.

Whilst such a plan cannot promise any single fix or easy solutions, there are a number of measures that can be implemented that would make a significant difference and could be realised quickly at relatively low cost. One of these is to implement the government’s own Transport Integration Act to provide a high quality seamless public transport service by integrating and coordinating trains, trams and buses by ensuring all modes travelled quickly and reliably to time and connections are guaranteed at interchange points in a physical and timetable sense. Key priorities would be

  • Redesign the bus network
  • Provide priority on roads for buses and trams
  • Dramatically improve service reliability by increasing maintenance standards and operational efficiency for trains, trams and buses
  • Increase service frequencies – particularly for buses
  • Develop a timetable for the system as a whole that is designed to guarantee connections at interchanges.


When people talk about the need to improve Melbourne’s transport system the most common response is we need to remove traffic congestion or bottlenecks in selected locations or we need to improve our public transport by building more railway lines or improve capacity on existing lines. The focus is invariably about spending money on more infrastructure – responses that address symptoms rather than underlying problems of the system as a whole. The reality is there are no simple single fix solutions. The problems confronting Melbourne and all other cities are systemic and require a large number of strategic interventions to the system as a whole. Many of these will have nothing to do with infrastructure.

The Transport System   

Melbourne’s transport problem can be divided into two components. The first is its relationship with city planning and development, and how it generates the need for travel in the first place.  The second relates to the way we design, build, operate and manage our transport system, its effectiveness and efficiency and extent to which it makes optimal use of the infrastructure that supports it. Both are relatively short to medium term responses of course and ignore the broader question of what kind of future we should be planning our cities and transport system for – a more fundamental but far too challenging question for governments to consider seriously so it has been ignored for the purpose of this paper.

The first problem is to a large extent a function of the city itself, its social and economic activity and how the city is laid out in a physical sense and the way in which this forces people to travel.  Clearly housing developments that are located a long way from services or employment centres will force people to travel further and usually more often. But the nature and availability of transport services can also influence the way the city grows. Rail lines and roads for example can act as attracters for new development. This highlights the need for an integrated approach for transport and city planning but significant changes in transport patterns and demand are generally slow in the absence of major events such as oil price or economic shock that forces major changes in economic and social behavior such as the Great Depression.

Quicker responses to transport problems generally require a focus on the second component and in this respect there is a lot that can be learnt from a growing number of cities that have been confronted with similar problems, many of which have achieved far better outcomes than Melbourne. These cities exist in North and South America, Europe and in Asia and demonstrate clearly that substantial improvements can be achieved – not by building more roads or freeways but by smarter investment and planning in the way we use all transport modes i.e. walking, cycling, public transport as well as the car, by promoting those modes which make the most efficient use of our transport infrastructure and create an environment which encourages people to select them as modes of first choice for as many of their trips as possible.

Walking and cycling (including pedal, battery power or small motorized scooters) place relatively little demand on public infrastructure and are relatively easy and inexpensive to promote. In most situations all that is required is the provision of a safe, convenient and pleasing environment and this can usually be accommodated within existing road reservations. Building off road paths is a more costly option and whilst these generally provide a more attractive environment for pedestrians and cyclists they still need to be accessed using the road network.

Public transport can provide much more efficient use of transport infrastructure than the private motor vehicle but the challenge is to make it a mode of first choice for more trips. If this is not achieved anticipated patronage increases and fare revenue may not materialize and provide a disappointing return on funds invested.  This is an important consideration because government funds for public works are limited and compete with investment requirements in other portfolios such as health, education and so on.

Public transport is a capital intensive service industry and operates with a high level of fixed costs. It is in the community interest that it operates with high levels of patronage as efficiently and effectively as possible. If it fails to do this patronage will be poor and it risks been seen as irrelevant and a large burden on the public purse.  Whilst public transport is obliged to meet a number of community service obligations, it operates in a competitive environment – mostly with the car for most trips. In other words it needs to win patronage on merit and this needs to be reflected in government policy and a clear understanding of peoples travel needs and of the car as its major competitor and why it has become so successful as a mode of first choice for the vast majority of trips in Melbourne.

The rise of the private car

The success of the car has been a result of many factors and it is the combination of these that has been critical for its success. Early in its history cars were not particularly comfortable, reliable or convenient. They needed a crank to get them started and the roads on which they traveled were few and in relatively poor condition. Trains and trams by comparison offered more comfortable and quicker travel for most trips, but this changed rapidly after WW2. Substantial investment in the road network enabled cars to travel more quickly with greater comfort and convenience throughout all of the city particularly in suburban growth areas where public transport was non- existent or provided a comparatively poor and uncompetitive service. The car quickly became the government’s favoured mode of travel and Melbourne’s transport future.  The car enjoyed extensive support – parking, road safety policy, registration and insurance and so on, many of which became imbedded in government legislation/regulation at all levels and city planning schemes. The car was also supported by a wide range of commercial services such as petrol stations, manufacturing, maintenance and repairs, and many others, and also became an integral part of other business planning and operations, such as tourism, entertainment and so on. Car based industries collectively have become a major part of the local economy and helped reinforce it as a formidable competitor in the transport market but ultimately it has been the coverage and quality of the road network that has provided the conditions for its success.

Public transport enjoyed few of these advantages, and in many respects performs poorly compared to the private car. In particular

  • Network coverage is poor and severely restricts travel options, unlike the car one cannot use it to go anywhere any time
  • For the most part travel times on it are uncompetitive because route speeds are relatively slow – particularly for road based public transport and connectivity for people making connections (in a physical and timetable sense) is typically poor or even non existent
  • Public transport vehicles are often less comfortable than the private car
  • Service levels are often poor and inconvenient
  • Service reliability is often uncompetitive because of delays caused by faults or breakdowns of various kinds, and the impact of traffic congestion on buses and trams
  • Customer information is often poor.

One of public transport’s few advantages is cost but for most people convenience and quality of service is a far more important consideration and the number of trips where public transport is competitive in this sense is relatively small compared to Melbourne’s transport task as a whole.

The car however has become a victim of its own success. The road network has become increasingly congested as more people use it as the mode of first choice but the points of congestion vary depending on the day and time of day. The morning and evening peak travel periods have become longer and new peaks have emerged.  Taxi-ing of school children has increased the morning peak and created a new peak late in the afternoon. Points of congestion also occur in different locations on Saturday mornings (typically shopping related), Friday evenings (generally entertainment related) and even Sunday mornings (café and breakfast lunches) and occur at different locations throughout Melbourne. Clearly there is no magic fix for traffic congestion and despite these congestion peaks much of Melbourne’s vast road network lies substantially underutilized or empty for a significant part of the 24 hour day.

Melbourne’s transport dilemma

Traffic congestion is seen by most people as a major cost to people in terms of travel time, inconvenience and pollution. Recent government responses which target major congestion hotspots will not eliminate congestion and the most likely outcome is that it will shift the “problem” elsewhere. Road or freeway projects are costly, have major impacts on the local community and tend to degrade the livability of the city as a whole. These are problems that have confronted almost all cities throughout the world and in the vast majority have created a legacy of new problems. Recent research has also provided evidence that growth in car use has peaked for much of the world and in some cities is declining in absolute terms. The take up of motor car licenses amongst young people has also declined in percentage terms. “In 2014, over one-third of 18-24 year old Victorians were not licensed to drive”¹ . Whilst some of this decline can be attributed to economic factors such as increasing unemployment/underemployment and higher cost of accommodation, and there are other factors at play, “there is a pattern of changing travel mode choice among young adults characterised by their driving less, not at all or delaying getting a licence. As well there are some strong preferences for other transport modes, such as public transport and walking”. As noted in this report, “ Potential implications of such changes in travel modes include reduced road infrastructure revenue and costs, reduced traffic congestion, environmental benefits and reduced road deaths and injuries, but also a need for safer infrastructure for cycling, motorcycling and walking”. In Melbourne bicycle sales have outstripped those for cars for many years and although many of these are for recreational use there has been a growing trend in bicycle trips for non- recreational trips which compete with the car and public transport albeit off a small base. Clearly building more and more roads is not the answer.

A growing number of cities are now responding by improving the accessibility of alternative modes (to the car) such as public transport, walking and cycling that use infrastructure more efficiently and make them more attractive as viable and convenient modes of travel for more trips instead of the car. Some have also developed strategies that reduce the demand for travel in the first place. These cities are in North and South America, Europe and Asia. Some like Toronto and Vancouver are not unlike Melbourne in many respects, and many achieve better outcomes with far less infrastructure than Melbourne. These cities can provide valuable lessons that can be adapted here in Melbourne. The basic principles are relatively simple and can be applied in Melbourne and other Australian cities but they are not being adopted, despite the fact that the need for an alternative strategy based on the above would be in Melbourne’s interest and has been acknowledged for decades. So why is Melbourne so resistant to change?

 Some lessons from International best practice

The strength of a city transport system depends to a large extent on the way it functions as a network. This has been the key to the success of the car and it must also be the key to improving Melbourne’s public transport system.  If public transport is to compete with the car for more trips it must create a network that enables people to travel anywhere around Melbourne – not just to inner Melbourne, quickly and conveniently with a seamless service that links trams, trains and buses in way that enables people to make connections with minimal waiting time (maximum of 5 minutes). Smart cities have designed their public transport system on the assumption that people have to make transfers to get to their destination and have enjoyed substantial increases in patronage as a direct consequence.

Melbourne’s public transport by comparison is largely route based with minimal connectivity between buses, trams and trains in both a physical and timetable sense.  Whilst the train and tram “network” is reasonably clearly defined the bus network is very difficult to understand. Buses should be the “glue” that ties the public transport network together but it does not perform this function at all. Routes are circuitous, slow and often unreliable. Because they are given little or no priority on roads they are often caught up in traffic jams.  It is hardly surprising that bus patronage has been declining for some years and now averages only one (1) person per route kilometer. The bus network needs to be redesigned and buses given priority on the road to enable them to travel more quickly and reliably to time with a time table for the system as a whole that guarantees connections with other buses, trams and trains at interchange points.

The reliability of trains and trams also needs to be improved to guarantee connections at interchange points. Trams also require priority on roads to ensure they travel quickly and reliably to time.

Most of the infrastructure required to achieve this already exists and (with the exception of much of the rail system) is in good condition – it is the road network and the traffic signalisation that supports it that should become the critical element of a tram and bus priority system.  Railway infrastructure has been allowed to run down for decades and the need for substantial investment in maintenance and renewal is well documented. This should be a first priority – ahead of major projects such as the level crossing program, metro rail tunnel and rail extension projects which do little to address more systemic problems in the system as a whole. There is little point constructing a grand new railway line if the rest of the system (which it must connect to) is verging on collapse because of lack of maintenance.

Melbourne’s transport plan based on “business as usual” is clearly not working. Melbourne needs a new plan and it should be based on lessons that have been learnt from cities that have become benchmarks of international best practice. It should be a plan that is developed and implemented for the benefit of Melbourne as a whole – not just selected parts of it, with a new governance charter that ensures it cannot be used/abused for political electioneering purposes.

Barriers to Change

  1. Changing the mindset

The starting point for change is the mindset. If the community does not want change there will be little or no pressure on politicians to change, and the community will not cry out for change unless it is aware of the issues, their implications for Melbourne as both a liveable and prosperous city and the knowledge that there is a viable, practical and affordable alternative. Melbourne’s transport system is not well understood. Most people still think of transport in terms of infrastructure and that its problems can be solved quickly by massive expenditure on infrastructure. A growing number of cities have demonstrated that this is simply not true, and this is the case for Melbourne. Physical infrastructure is very costly to build and maintain and there is a compelling case to use it as effectively and efficiently as possible and look after it by maintaining it properly to appropriate standards. All of this needs to be more widely understood.

More importantly, it is important to remember that public transport is a service industry, and that infrastructure is required only to support the service plan. The decision process should be as follows:

  1. Determine the service levels required throughout Melbourne
  2. Establish a service network to achieve this
  3. Create a timetable for public transport services for Melbourne as a whole (not just independent routes)
  4. Establish vehicle types to run each route (i.e. whether it be tram train or bus/minibus or even taxi) which will depend to a large extent on passenger loadings
  5. Develop an operating plan that makes optimal use of the transport fleet and the extent to which it needs to be increased or modified to meet customer service requirements
  6. Establish infrastructure required to support the operations plan, the extent to which it needs to be renewed, replaced, upgraded etc. or as a last resort build new, and a maintenance plan to support it, and lastly
  7. Develop a marketing and customer information system to support it.

This is the kind of process one would expect in a successful service business – dominated by service requirements in which infrastructure is one of the last considerations and the need to make efficient use of it is paramount. Our transport system does need substantial investment in infrastructure but it must be strategically targeted, provide the best value for money and be fit for purpose as part of an overall strategic plan for the system as a whole. This thinking is not part of the current political mindset and it needs to change.

There also needs to be a change in the belief that Melbourne is different, that none of the above thinking can be applied here and that we cannot learn lessons from international best practice, and that even if we could we have little confidence that we could do better. It is a mindset of low expectations and this needs to change. We need a new mindset based on an understanding that an alternative transport plan such as the one outlined above is not only possible from a practical and a political perspective and affordable but should be adopted as a matter of urgency. In this respect experiences from other cities are reassuring but there will be a need for new skills to implement it and a new strategy for managing the process of change at every level. Other cities have demonstrated that this is possible and certainly achievable in Melbourne, but it will need institutional reform to make it happen.

  1. Other barriers to change.

The number of people or organisations of various kinds that have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo is substantial and sophisticated strategies need to be devised to address these. This will require skills in policy and strategy design and change management. Incremental change using demonstration projects is one way of progressing change but  projects need to be implemented first in areas where there is already a high level of acceptance for change, where success can be achieved to the necessary standards quickly and easily and at relatively low cost to provide a demonstration effect i.e. that it is possible in the first place, that the anticipated benefits can be achieved and be used to develop support for more widespread implementation i.e. system wide.

Once the new system is in place alternative measures can be implemented to discourage excessive car use or moderate it during times of peak travel demand, but this should only be implemented after motorists have been provided with a viable and convenient alternative.

Government also needs to restore key competencies within its department and key agencies to ensure they can provide high quality advice and provide an environment in which public servants can provide such advice without fear or favour.  Governments must resist lobby groups that wish to promote transport “solutions” that provide outcomes that suit their vested interests.

Summary and Conclusions

Melbourne’s transport planning is characterised by:

  1. A general lack of understanding of transport planning principles and how they apply in a metropolitan context
  2. Declining influence of government departments and government authorities that are responsible for advice and administration of transport and city planning
  3. The increasing influence of non- government organizations such as consultants, construction companies and others that are now seen by government as alternative sources of professional advice
  4. The absence of a clearly articulated strategy -current strategies are often ad-hoc compromises and pander to a large number of interest groups that have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Many of these have considerable political influence
  5. The absence of a strategy to make it happen and manage the change process that can be used to develop broad based acceptance for change.

Current policies are based on failed policies of the past and have worrying implications for Melbourne’s future as a livable and prosperous city, a city that is showing signs of stress that is expected to grow rapidly in coming years. There is a need for a new vision and a new strategy to make it happen but this will require significant change in political thinking and the government bureaucracy.  There are no magic solutions but substantial improvements can be achieved with a plan that focuses on all alternatives to the car i.e. walking, cycling (in all its forms), public transport as well as city planning and development that reduce the need for travel in the first place.

Perhaps the most appropriate course of action is for the Minister to pack her bags and visit some of the cities that have become bench marks for city transport and see how they do it. This was the advice given to a former Minister for transport, Peter Bachelor and he responded by sending a delegation to Europe for this purpose. It did result in a policy shift and one of its legacies is the Transport Integration Act. Unfortunately, in recent years this Act is now largely ignored. It should be the foundation for a new direction in public transport and is a key element of the Charter for Melbourne’s transport developed by Transport for Melbourne. The Charter outlines the expectations and aspirations for Melbourne transport but it needs to be accompanied by another Charter on governance to make it happen.

¹ RACV research paper Young adult licensing trends and travel modes,  September 2015