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Liberals' bus plans logical but devil in the detail, says top bus consultant

The Liberals' plan for new rapid bus routes is a logical start, with more direct routes being cheaper to run and better patronised, leading public transport consultant Barry Watkins says.

But Mr Watkins, regional manager for MR Cagney, a long-time consultant on Canberra's buses, said the hard work was yet to come – working out which of the six proposed fast routes would be viable and which suburban services would be reduced to pay for them.

The Liberals unveiled their plans last week for six new rapid, direct bus routes, adding to the current two. Buses would run every 10 to 20 minutes on routes the Liberals said were drawn up by asking how people would drive.

Mr Watkins said buses worked well when they competed with driving the car, so starting with the major driving routes was logical. The standard approach to devising a bus network was to determine high-capacity, high-frequency corridors for premium services. A good network had a hierarchy of more frequent and faster routes, with local routes feeding in.

"A logical route is straight lines – what's the shortest line between major destinations. You do it from first principles, then work out how well each would work," he said.

"It needs to compete with what you can do in your car – if it's significantly slower you're not going to have a good outcome."

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Mr Watkins said Canberra's buses cost between $4.50 and $5 a kilometre, plus overheads. Faster routes were slightly cheaper than the "coverage" routes, because one of the biggest costs was driver pay.

For a cost-neutral route, the buses needed 70 passengers an hour on every bus, or 2.5 passengers per kilometre, which was more than five times what Canberra buses were attracting now. 

Mr Watkins said the idea of more rapid routes was "great, but they're going to cost money to operate".

"It all comes down to funding. How much are you willing to pay for your public transport network?"

The tough decisions came when governments had to end suburban services. Previous attempts to make indirect routes "straighter" had failed after push-back from the community.

"It happens every time you design a bus route that there will be somebody who loses out. You're trying to build a better system for a whole city, at the cost of a few greatly inconvenienced people. They're the calls you have to make."

The Liberals promise to retain every suburban route, although say services might change, with some buses running less frequently.

Mr Watkins said bus routes could be faster, more direct, cheaper to run and better patronised if people were prepared to walk further, but closing stops caused community angst, with many people having valid reasons for not wanting to walk further.

In reality, people would walk further for good quality buses or trams or trains. People would not walk far to a bus that ran once an hour because if they missed the bus there were no easy options.

"People who use public transport every day don't necessarily mind whether it's a bus or light rail or heavy rail. They want to know they will get to work on time, and they want to have a comfortable and safe journey, and if they miss it, another will come in five minutes. If you provide a good service no matter what mode it is people will take it up."