Breaking the Bus Stigma

By Gareth Mogg

Brisbane's BRT Network
“Melbourne has great buses!” said no one ever. Sure, Melbourne has buses. They’re even clearly visible, taking up space on Lonsdale Street or roaming around the suburbs like a teenager with too much time on their hands. But more often than not they’re running entirely empty, and one begins to question the meaning and purpose of the bus as a feasible public transport option. Yet, buses are able to provide significant transit benefits and have been reimagined in recent times in cities over the world as relevant, effective and high capacity transit options. With the Victorian State Government’s recent plan to overhaul bus contracts (a current cost of $600 million to the State Government) the question emerges - can Melbourne fully ‘get on the bus’ and embrace the bus as a feasible public transportation option?

The role of the bus in Melbourne
When people think of Melbourne, one of the more ‘iconic’ images that springs to mind is the classic tram – which is hardly surprising given Melbourne’s tram network is the most extensive in the world, and is a strong part of the City’s heritage. Following trams, Melbourne’s train lines are also some of the oldest routes in the city, with many routes having been constructed in early colonial times and relied upon as the instigator for the growth of our suburbs before the advent of the private motor car. In more modern times, the upkeep of these two transit systems are high on the Victorian state government’s priority list as demonstrated by the creation of a new route (Metro Rail Project), significant route upgrades (Level Crossing Removal project) and various extensions (Route 55 and 96 tram track extensions).

Bogota's BRT System
However, both transit systems suffer from a common ailment – their monocentric nature. All routes travel into and through the city (which is fine if that is your destination) but cross-city travel is slightly more difficult. For example, if you want to take a tram or train from Brunswick to Northcote, you have to travel into the city before heading back out in effectively the same direction. Sure you could walk and cycle this route (or call an Uber), but sometimes neither of these are viable options.
Enter the bus (specifically, the 508 [if anyone is interested], which traverses from Brunswick to Northcote direct). However, this route, and many others in Melbourne, operate buses that sit largely empty in a sea of high personal car traffic. Why is this so? What benefits could an improved bus system bring? How is this being done elsewhere and what can we do?

Bus system case studies
One needs only look as far as Brisbane for a successful ‘real world’ example of an integrated Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system. The basic principle of the BRT is providing the necessary infrastructure and rolling stock for high frequency, direct bus services which, in the case of Brisbane currently, consists of 5 high capacity busways with buses running every 12 seconds in the busiest part of the city. International cities, such as Curitiba (Brazil) and Bogota (Colombia), have also constructed BRT systems in order to deal with growing traffic congestion and disorganised bus routes, with Bogota now having 12 BRT lines which services 2.2million trips per day (while reducing the number of buses on the road by over 7000!).
Other developed cities such as Canada’s capital Ottawa have also employed BRTs to a similar effect: quicker travel times, fewer transfers and grade separated routes from vehicle traffic.

Ottawa's BRT System
An important part of the appeal of BRTs in relation to other transit options (such as subways, trams or train lines) is that BRTs are cheap to implement. They also require less construction, can be rolled out in stages (so they are able to open up before completion and start earning a return), and generally require no expensive tunnelling. They are also adaptable; they are not limited by tracks and routes can be quickly and easily adjusted to respond to externalities (weather, accidents, and road works) and even passenger demand. Importantly, BRT’s capacity can rival that of LRT and be operational in half the time.

We know that Melbourne already has a strong integrated transport network primarily within the inner city region that caters for over train 192,000 commuters and over 43,000 tram users every day. Yet car use is still dominant, with over 1.2million people driving (or as a passenger) per day (figures as of Census day 2011). Buses currently account for just under 30,000 patron trips per day despite the fact that Melbourne actually has quite a prolific bus network capable of connecting people and places in a better, more efficient manner than both train and tram. Yet they remain Melbourne’s most unpopular mode of transport, and the notion of more of a BRT style system may be able to assist with this.

Admittedly, the notion of a BRT in Melbourne isn’t without its challenges, but perhaps there is room for Melbourne commuters to further embrace the benefits of the bus by way of further infrastructure investment and a considered ‘multi-modal’ transit strategy and investment. After all, buses are adaptable, more sustainable than personal car travel (when full), efficient and cheap. They can also provide better connectivity and be operational in a very short period of time.

And who knows? With better organised routes, separated bus lanes, and better availability of route information (in the form of readable route maps) – perhaps we could hear more people shortly proclaim that “Melbourne has great buses!”

How do you feel about Melbourne’s buses? Do they invoke feelings of joy or rage? Do you have a local bus route that serves you better than tram or train? Let us know in the comments!

Further Reading


  1. You're right, BRT is a must for cross-suburbban travel! We've had an attempt at this in Melbourne with the introduction of the SmartBus orbital routes in 2010. It was found that the route 903 orbital was attracting an extra 30,000 passengers per week as a result of having a better frequency and a generally better service. The key to a good BRT service is frequency because this gives passengers more flexibility to plan their day as they won't worry about having to wait an hour if they miss a bus. Tie this in with all the infrastructure upgrades suggested in this article and Melbourne will have a world class bus network.

    1. Thank you for your comment! I agree, there is definitely a gap to fill in terms of 'cross-suburban travel' as you put it. Greater frequency is a positive and a much needed step. Yet without the infrastructure, this could just result in even more empty buses traversing neighborhoods! A healthy balance is often required.
      Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

  2. 402 bus running between Footscray and East Melbourne, via Kensington, Royal Melbourne Hospital, Melbourne University, Lygon Street etc. Fabulous ... but stops mid-evening!!
    901 bus running between Broadmeadows Station and Terminal 4 at Melbourne Airport. Basically means a Zone 1 ($4) myki fare from Flinders St to Airport!! Takes about an hour, but way, way cheaper than taxi, Uber, or Skybus!!

    1. The 402 is convenient bus route to myself, but it does end far too early to be a viable means of transportation.
      Thanks for sharing!


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