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Liberals' public transport plan: big on ideas, short on analysis

The holistic, customer-focused perspective of the Canberra Liberals' new "Transport Future" policy offers much-needed relief from the current technology-based debate over how many of our shrinking proportion of public transport users should switch from rubber-tyred buses to steel-tyred trams.

A decade ago, public transport consultant Jarrett Walker persuaded Canberra that the future of our public transport lay in catering to highly patronised 'profitable' trunk routes, rather than less patronised 'unprofitable' suburban routes. Since then our transport plans have prioritised the needs of the public transport system ahead of the needs of its passengers.

But many journeys – including suburb-to-suburb journeys on "circuitous" routes that the Liberals want to make "more direct" – start on suburban routes. Side-lining of suburban routes has led some passengers to switch to cars. The bus commute share fell from eight per cent in 2006 to seven per cent in 2015.

Many of the Liberals' initiatives will attract more people to public transport: dedicated bus lanes; kiss and ride; rapid routes; express services; cashless buses; accessible buses and bus stops, on-board information systems (already on many buses); and roving customer experience ambassadors.

But there is no apparent analysis behind the claim of "Travel from Gungahlin to the City … up to 10 minutes faster than light rail." This claim would be barely credible for a pre-dawn express service that is unlikely to attract a handful of passengers. It is completely implausible for any peak-hour bus service.

The government's 2012 "Transport For Canberra" plan fell into the trap of setting arbitrary targets such as "10.5 per cent by 2016." "Canberra's Transport Future" largely avoids this trap. The reason for this may be that, like the Government plan, it fails to analyse the impacts of its proposed initiatives.

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There is no mention of the ACT Transport Demand Elasticities Study, which concluded that the most effective way to get more people onto public transport was to reduce journey time. Express buses will attract little extra patronage if they are stuck in congested traffic and crawl past bus stops without taking on passengers.

Nor does the plan mention Census journey to work statistics that indicate that the people most likely to switch to buses are not car drivers, but people who currently travel as car passengers. Bus lanes and intersection jump-starts will reduce bus travel times and increase bus patronage. But they will do relatively little to reduce traffic congestion or transport emissions.

A jump-start intersection, where buses have a slip lane that will get them going before the rest of the traffic, saves buses about 10 seconds. But it delays general traffic by a similar amount. This delay cuts about 10 per cent from the green traffic signal phase, and from the number of cars that can pass through the intersection during each cycle of the traffic lights. Over a half hour period, a jump-start can delay general traffic by an extra three minutes. This extra delay can increase total bus journey times, if it affects buses that have not yet reached the slip lane.

Much of Canberra's traffic congestion occurs when traffic lanes operate at less than full capacity. A bus lane rarely operates at full capacity, because it is is restricted to buses, taxis and motorcycles. For example, three lanes of traffic turn right from Flemington Road into Northbourne Avenue. During a typical cycle of the traffic lights in the morning peak the middle lane carries about 30 vehicles, the right lane caries about a dozen, and the bus lane carries only a few. Most of Flemington Road's traffic congestion could be eliminated by converting 100 metres of the 1.3-kilometre bus lane to a transit lane.

Inexplicably, the plan makes no mention of transit lanes. A mid-block transit lane can allow buses and cars (if they carry passengers) to bypass several minutes of queued morning peak traffic, and to get close enough to the intersection to pass through on the next green signal. It can do that without reducing the capacity of the intersection. And it can further reduce traffic congestion and transport emissions, by encouraging car drivers to become car passengers.

Allowing bicycles into buses may reduce patronage. Bicycles take up valuable passenger space – especially on rainy days when many of Canberra's fair-weather cyclists switch to buses. Non-cycling passengers will be deterred by the risk that their clothing will be stained through contact with oily bicycle chains.

The plan does not explain how it will "ensure services depart on time, every time." Mussolini did it, but ACTION currently struggles to achieve three out of four services less than four minutes late and less than one minute early.

The Liberals omitted the word "public" from the title of the report. The layout suggests that they expect to produce plans for driving, walking and cycling closer to the October election.

Leon Arundell is chairman of Living Streets Canberra, formerly the Canberra Pedestrian Forum.