Fares discussion welcome, but better service is still the main game

The Public Transport Users Association has welcomed the conversation on public transport fare reform sparked by the release of a new Infrastructure Victoria report “Fair Move: Better Public Transport Fares for Melbourne“.

But PTUA President Dr Tony Morton said many of the proposed measures, like off-peak discounting, would only work properly in the context of improved service frequency and span, particularly in Melbourne’s suburbs. “Off-peak discount fares make a lot of sense,” he said, “particularly in a ‘COVID normal’ world where we need people who can to avoid travelling at peak times to reduce crowding. It’s a fair substitute for ad-hoc measures like the Free Tram Zone that advantage a lucky few without much of a clear policy rationale.”

“The obverse of this is that outside peak times, you often have to wait 20 or 30 minutes for a train, and you can easily be waiting an hour or more for a bus. It’s the poor standard of service, not the lack of a price signal, that’s keeping people away from public transport at these times.”

Multimodal is king

Dr Morton noted Infrastructure Victoria had, in response to feedback from the PTUA and others on its earlier “Good Move” report, moved away from proposals that would have undermined the multimodal nature of the system. “It’s an important principle of our system, as with most of the world’s best, that you don’t charge people extra simply because they need two different modes of public transport to complete their trip rather than just one,” he said. “The Fair Move report accepts this and is improved as a result.”

Despite this, Infrastructure Victoria continues to emphasise the idea of charging different fares for different modes of public transport, a notion that ultimately works against the objectives of the transport system.

“Thanks to decades of hands-off planning, Melbourne has a train system (plus a few express buses that act like trains) heavily oriented toward central-city commuting in peak hour, a well-used but geographically limited tram system, and a residualised bus system that caters to small populations in the suburbs who don’t travel long distances and are prepared to work around infrequent services,” Dr Morton said. “Infrastructure Victoria has looked at this largely-accidental outcome and formed the view that as the train users tend to have higher incomes and bus users lower incomes, charging more for a train and less for a bus is the best way to promote social equity.”

“The problem is that using this kind of statistical profiling as the basis for policy easily leads to unconscious discrimination. Train users have higher incomes on average, but this masks the fact a lot of lower-income people use trains too, including in peak hour. And it’s those lower-income people who are less likely to be able to adjust their work hours and take advantage of discounted off-peak train fares.”

“What the disparity between trains and buses actually reveals is the absence of high-income people from buses, rather than an absence of low-income people from trains. You don’t see this as much in cities like Vienna or Toronto where public transport caters to a higher proportion of the population.”

“Likewise, you can’t expect Infrastructure Victoria’s modelling to have picked this up, because the models are – out of necessity – based on where Melbourne has been, not on where we ultimately want to be as a city.”

Dr Morton pointed out that the mode of transport for a given journey from A to B is determined by long-term network planning and not within the control of individual travellers. “If you’re in Fawkner on the Upfield line and going south to access jobs and services closer to the city, then you’re going to be on a train, even though it only runs every 20 minutes in peak hour and there’s no plan on the horizon to improve that,” he said. “Go further south and there’s a parallel train and tram line for historical reasons, but they’ve evolved complementary roles: the tram is used for local shopping and the train to go to the city. Differential fares might see a lot more people crowd onto that Sydney Road tram, but it’s really hard to see what social purpose that would fulfil.”

“Through all this we also have to remember, the one choice individual travellers can most easily control is whether to use public transport at all or to get in the car. That’s a function of the quality of public transport service available, much more than finer details of fare calculations.”

“Seamless networks with multimodal fares – where what you pay depends on time and place, but not the technicalities of how the system gets you from origin to destination, because that’s the system’s business not yours – have become established as world’s best practice over decades,” Dr Morton said. “By and large, the cities charging different prices for different travel modes are those like Sydney still dealing with the legacy of uncoordinated operators each with their own idiosyncratic fare system. The de facto global standard is the one regional transport authority – ‘Verkehrsverbund’ as the Germans call it – with a single fare scale.”

Myki Pass still valuable

The PTUA agreed with Infrastructure Victoria that replacing the weekly Myki pass with a weekly fare cap, as originally proposed for Myki a decade ago, could make more sense in a post-COVID world where people might only travel any distance from home on 3 or 4 days each week. But monthly and longer Myki passes should stay, as they play a valuable strategic role.

“Abolishing Myki Passes does nothing but alienate public transport’s most loyal customers,” said Dr Morton. “It’s also an important tool to encourage mode shift in a world where the average motorist spends as much on annual registration, insurance and servicing as on petrol or tolls. They’re going to be particularly sensitive to travel options that involve a substantial incremental cost per trip. A Pass is a convenient ‘set and forget’ option that also incentivises the use of public transport for non-work travel – all the more critical in a post-COVID world.”

Independent price setting requires expertise

Ultimately the design of a public transport fare system is a delicate balancing act involving diverse objectives. It needs to be simple for passengers to understand and for authorities to enforce. It must be legible enough that passengers can readily anticipate the cost of their journey. It needs to provide a sustainable revenue source to maintain and expand services, while providing a competitive alternative to private car travel. It should be broadly reflective of the cost of providing the service, but must also be equitable – providing targeted concessions to those of limited means but otherwise charging similar amounts for recognisably similar journeys.

“Designing a fare system and setting fares is a highly complex exercise, with no unique right answer,” Dr Morton said. “It is part of the strategic planning of the entire public transport system and needs to be undertaken by those with appropriate subject-matter expertise.”

The Infrastructure Victoria report includes a recommendation for decisions on fares to be in the hands of an independent authority, modelled on IPART in New South Wales or the Essential Services Commission in Victoria. “The idea may have some merit, but we also need to learn the lessons from NSW,” Dr Morton says. “In that state, the kind of multimodal approach to fares common in other parts of Australia and worldwide has been actively resisted by an ‘independent’ regulator with little relevant expertise in transport planning.”

“The PTUA would be more supportive of these decisions being given to an independent planning agency staffed by experts – such as PTV was intended to be a decade ago.”

COVID-19 smashes the life from cities, which is why we must smash COVID-19

by Tony Morton

As COVID-19’s second waves wash over our technologically advanced civilisation, so follows the commentary on what this pandemic means for cities and for daily life in the future.

Public transport sits at the heart of the discourse, and for good reason. In normal times, public transport sustains the life of the world’s most celebrated large cities, making possible the organic development of large activity centres drawing on vast metropolitan populations. While country towns and villages function well day-to-day based on foot, bicycle and short car trips, the currency of cities is the ability to gather people in large numbers for all manner of activities, reaching over large distances to cater to mass and niche interests alike, but all within a limited budget of time and space.

This is why COVID-19 poses a direct threat to the city, for as long as it remains at large. Ever since the pandemic threat emerged early this year, public transport has been singled out as a transmission vector. But it’s never been just about public transport. Physical distancing obviously plays havoc with public transport’s ability to gather large numbers, but it also undermines all those activities for which large numbers would gather. Whether it be collaborative work, art or music, sport or entertainment, eating or drinking en masse, COVID-19 debases the very currency of cities.

Even if regular public transport users switch to driving alone to short-cut the threat, as some have recently suggested to Monash University researchers, the real danger may lie elsewhere. The more experience gained with this virus, the clearer it becomes that (for example) avoiding public transport only to spend the day in an indoor workplace, surrounded by possibly infected yet asymptomatic co-workers, is likely misplacing the risk. (For this and other good reasons, calls by unnamed “business leaders” for more CBD car parking so city workers can avoid public transport are best ignored.)

Nor, on the evidence, has public transport proved the stand-out transmission vector it’s feared to be. Although there are a handful of suspected cases of transmission on buses or bus stops in Auckland and Sydney, cities that mandated face coverings have not recorded any such cases. In Paris or Tokyo, for example, detailed studies ruled out the train system as a factor in spreading infections. Though it is always possible for transmission to occur on public transport, it appears that when sensible precautions are taken such as wearing masks and cleaning surfaces regularly, the virus has spread largely by other means.

So are cities themselves the problem? Many jumped to that conclusion during the first wave in the US, when the virus cut a swathe through New York and the heavily urbanised north-east. New York’s relatively high density and transit-oriented urban form was quickly blamed for the spread, despite the fact that east Asian cities with even higher densities – many with popular democratic governments – were successfully controlling the spread. And the US outbreak had much further to go. As of the end of August, seven southern US states including Florida, Arizona and Georgia have more COVID-19 cases per capita than New York.

Cities like Orlando, Phoenix and Atlanta, currently in the throes of COVID-19, are the product of a powerful ‘anti-city’ movement that dates back even earlier than the 1918 flu pandemic. Originally well-intentioned, it idealised a world of orderly self-contained villages where everyone’s needs would be met locally and people would live closer to nature. While superficially attractive, the ideal was in practice far too inward-looking: it had nothing to offer those aspiring to a life beyond that offered by a handful of local employers. Social mobility required physical mobility, and without the mass transit networks that 19th-century cities used to advantage, many 20th-century counterparts succumbed to unending car dependence, congestion and pollution.

COVID-19’s mandate has toppled barriers to working from home, and some believe this does away with the need for people to locate near a fixed place of work. Does this mean we can all live in little villages after all, and communicate electronically with our workplaces? Yet while working from home could take the rough edges off peak-hour commuting, it hasn’t removed the nexus between social and physical mobility. This is obvious to anyone who’s tried to change jobs in the past six months, or works in fields like arts or entertainment that depend on the currency of mass audiences.

If a mass movement to working from home does survive the post-COVID recovery, it will provide a necessary corrective to transport planners’ singular focus on peak-hour commuting. Perhaps there can be a new focus on local bus travel in the suburbs, where service has always been poor (and now, when people have to crowd onto too few services, potentially dangerous). But it also forces a rethink of projects like the North East Link, whose claimed benefits rely on assumed growth in peak-hour commuting for years to come. Our governments can easily turn Melbourne into an Atlanta or a Los Angeles, but this won’t spare us from future pandemic lockdowns.

Perhaps what we gain from all this is a clearer view of what is really valuable about cities. Recall that Melbourne’s centre was never as dead as it was 40 years ago, when it was a destination for 9-to-5 office workers and nothing more. For us to lead our best lives, it’s vital that we smash COVID-19 and emerge on the other side. Though commuting may be less central to our lives then, cities and their mass transit systems will surely remain so.

Tony Morton is President of the Public Transport Users Association.

PTUA concerned on curfew cuts

The Public Transport Users Association (PTUA) is concerned at the rush to cut public transport services during Melbourne’s stage 4 lockdown and curfew, causing confusion and delays for those who have to travel.

“While we appreciate the need to scale back services at a time when much of the economy is shutting down, there has been a severe impact on those who need to travel for essential work, and a lack of information”, said PTUA spokesperson Daniel Bowen.

“On Monday night details of drastic evening service cuts for trams and trains were only published as they took effect, giving travellers no time to plan ahead.

“A number of bus services also saw cuts after 8pm, but many of these were not published anywhere, leaving passengers in the dark.”

The PTUA believes the cuts should have waited until Thursday when the workplace shutdowns start in earnest, allowing time to better plan and communicate the changes.

Mr Bowen said that the cuts need to be refined, with a better outcome being a paring back of high frequency peak services, and leaving something closer to the usual service in place after 8pm for essential workers. In the case of trams and trains, this might be the equivalent of a Saturday timetable.

The sudden changes on Monday night left trains running mostly hourly, but with some gaps of up to 90 minutes or more [1].

“While the capacity will probably be sufficient to maintain physical distancing given the curfew and the shutdown of most workplaces, the big problem is the wait times. Imagine finishing your shift at 11pm and having to wait 90 minutes for your train home”, said Mr Bowen.

“For those who have to get to and from work in the evening, it makes the service nearly unusable, particularly if making connections between services.

“Meanwhile, with most white-collar workers at home, services running every few minutes in peak hour are near-empty.”

Mr Bowen called on the government to refine the timetable changes to better support essential workers such as those in distribution centres and medical roles.

“Trams and trains on a Saturday timetable every day would be a far better outcome for passengers compared to the situation we have now.”

“We know it’s a fast evolving situation. We urge authorities to look at this again: ensure a minimum 30 minute frequency on metro train lines in the evenings so those who have to work still have a service they can use”, concluded Mr Bowen.


[1] On the Craigieburn line, the second and third last outbound trains were cancelled, leaving a service gap of 98 minutes between 10:52pm and 12:30am.


Coverage of this story:

COVID-19: Public transport timetable boost needed to help stagger trips

The Public Transport Users Association (PTUA) has called on the State Government to boost public transport services across the day as a response to the COVID-19 crisis.

A PTUA analysis of train timetables found that on some lines, services and capacity dropped by two-thirds outside peak hour.

PTUA spokesperson Daniel Bowen said that as people returned to work and students returned to schools and universities, social distancing was going to be critical, and that spreading peak demand was a key part of achieving this.

“It’s clear that we can’t return to the usual peak loads, with rampant overcrowding on trains, trams and buses”, Mr Bowen said.

“We don’t want a situation like Adelaide, where passengers are unable to maintain social distancing.[1]

“It makes sense to encourage staggered working hours, with people travelling at different times – but this won’t help if public transport frequency and capacity is not boosted to enable it.”

Analysis of Melbourne train timetables shows that capacity is cut by up to two-thirds outside peak hour.[2]

“This means that on some lines, off-peak trains can be as crowded as peak hour”, said Mr Bowen.[3]

Mr Bowen said that while public transport infrastructure and fleets were stretched during peak hour, for most of the day there is spare capacity sitting idle.

In recent years, Perth and Sydney have boosted rail timetables to at least every 15 minutes all day [4].

In contrast most of Melbourne’s stations have trains only every 20 minutes – unchanged for decades – despite normally strong overall travel demand throughout the day.[5]

Melbourne buses and outer-urban V/Line services are even less frequent, with 30-40 minute waits between services being common, making connections difficult.

“The public transport network is key to Melbourne’s economic recovery from this crisis. But it must be run in a way that ensures passengers and staff are as safe as possible.”

Mr Bowen said that some passengers were wary about returning to public transport.

“The increased cleaning on the system is very welcome, and should continue. The government should seek health advice on options such as deploying hand sanitiser dispensers at stations, and the effective use of masks.

“But fundamentally, capacity must be managed, and the key to this is encouraging staggered travel, which is only possible by providing sufficient services throughout the day”, concluded Mr Bowen.


[1] ABC: Coronavirus concerns raised by Adelaide rail passengers after social distancing breaches revealed

[2] Comparisons of train timetables showed that the Sunbury, Craigieburn, Mernda and Hurstbridge lines service frequency and capacity drop by two-thirds (66.7%) outside peak hours.

The graph below shows trains per hour 8:00am-8:59am vs 10:00-10:59am at the “city cordon” (Richmond, Jolimont or North Melbourne). Percentage is the reduction to capacity outside peak.

Peak vs off-peak train services

Notes:

  • Lilydale/Belgrave/Alamein measured as 10:30-11:29am to reflect the 8 trains per hour pattern that runs from 10:30am to 1pm. Frequency then drops further to 4 tph after 1pm.
  • Upfield and Williamstown see no capacity reduction outside peak because the peak and off-peak service is near-identical, with only 3 trains per hour
  • Network-wide, overall capacity (train services per hour) drops by 55.6% outside peak hour. Evening service capacity (8pm-8:59pm) is 70.9% lower than peak hour.

[3] PTUA: Midday trains crowded

[4] Sydney Trains since 2017 have had services every 15 minutes or better, all day until 11pm to 71% of stations. Sydney Morning Herald report.

[5] PTUA: Call for Govt to fund official PTV “every 10 minutes” train plan


See also:

Herald Sun: Public transport group urges for more off-peak services to help social distancing on trains

Membership offer – Join PTUA for a year for the cost of a week of Myki

Swapped your Myki for video meetings?

For the same cost as a week of Myki, you can join the PTUA for a year!

Support the campaign for better public transport for just $45.

Click here to join now


  • PTUA regular annual membership is discounted to $45 for a year – the same as a weekly Myki Zone 1+2 Pass, or five days of Myki Money.
  • Discount applies to regular membership when joining or renewing online.
  • Does not apply to Concession or other tiers, or when joining or renewing via paper form.
  • This offer is for a limited time only.

Myki Passes now able to be paused

Following our approach to the State Government, PTV have advised us today that they can now pause your Myki Pass.

By pausing a Myki Pass, any remaining travel days will be ready for use when you are ready to get back onto public transport.

This applies to both Commuter Club (through PTUA or other organisations) and to regular Myki Passes.

In order to pause a Myki Pass, PTV will need to block your existing card and send you a new one, which will be activated the next time it is touched on.

You will need to call PTV on 1800 800 007 so this pause can be arranged.

Please note that any replacement card will be sent to the address on your account – in some cases, this may be a business address.

The PTV call centre team can assist with updating these address details if required.

Whilst PTV can arrange to have the Myki Pass paused, if your Commuter Club card was arranged via your employer, you may need to talk them regarding any payroll deductions that you have.

If you would prefer a refund on your Myki Pass instead of a pause, PTV can also help with that. Call 1800 800 007 and the PTV call centre team can assist with providing a refund quote or advise on the best option for you.

Also note:

  • Myki Money is not affected if you do not use public transport for a period. The balance will remain in place for when you resume travel.
  • Be aware that Online topups and new Auto topups may become “dormant” if they are initiated on the Myki web site but you don’t use the Myki card for more than 90 days afterwards. This means they may not be immediately available the next time you travel.

PTUA welcomes additional services

The Public Transport Users Association (PTUA) has applauded the additional train and tram services announced on Friday by the Victorian Government.

“These changes are very welcome”, said PTUA spokesperson Daniel Bowen.

“Train service frequencies drop off outside peak hours, resulting in long wait times and – under normal circumstances – crowding.

“We have been concerned about the ability of travellers to maintain safe physical distancing on busy services, particularly outside of peak times. These additions to the timetable are a welcome step towards providing all-day frequent services on Melbourne’s public transport network.”

In addition, the Department of Transport and bus operators have announced the formal adoption of ‘all-door boarding’ for buses. This change will help reduce crowding at bus stops – another important measure to keep people safe – with the additional benefit of faster boarding.

Mr Bowen said speeding up buses would bring widespread benefits for passengers, particularly if timetables were adjusted to take advantage of the shortened dwell times, and further boosted by on-road priority and service upgrades.

“Cities around the world have seen delays at stops reduce thanks to all-door boarding[1]. Faster bus journeys is great news for passengers.

“It also will be important for authorities to properly promote and improve Myki top-up options, including Mobile Myki, to ensure that bus passengers have every opportunity to pay their fare.”

“New Transport Minister Ben Caroll has hit the ground running with these upgrades. We look forward to continued improvements to Victoria’s public transport services”, concluded Mr Bowen.


[1] North American case studies showed dwell reductions of up to 50%. https://nacto.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/NACTO_Better-Buses_Boarding.pdf

Australia must ‘move on’ from freeway fantasy, not High Speed Rail

In response to the Grattan Institute’s calls for Australia to ‘move on’ from High Speed Rail, the Public Transport Users Association notes the limitations of their analysis, and calls for urban megaroads projects to receive the same level of scrutiny.

Evidence has shown again and again that urban motorways induce more traffic, rather than “busting” it as proponents claim; that they do not stack up financially, in part because they rely on flawed “traffic busting” modelling; and that they are actively hindering our efforts to fight climate change. The North East Link’s price tag more than doubled after its benefit-cost ratio was calculated by Infrastructure Victoria, and it has not been re-assessed since; the West Gate Tunnel has completely circumvented this assessment process. And of course the East West Link, which the Victorian Opposition are inexplicably still fighting for, was a total dud at a BCR of 0.5

However these projects never attract the same scrutiny from economists that High Speed Rail projects do, despite the fact that they cumulatively cost a similar amount. As we quite rightly re-assess the merits of big government expenditure in light of COVID-19, these megaroads projects should be first under the microscope.

The report quite rightly notes many problems that any HSR project must overcome. However, it also has a number of large flaws that need to be addressed if we are to have a reasonable public debate about the merits of the project.

Population size and distribution

The report makes comparisons between the current population of Australia’s largest cities and international city pairs with HSR. However, this underplays the role that population growth will play – populations in Europe and Japan have grown very slowly since 1960 while Australia’s has more than doubled, and that growth is continuing. The Melbourne-Sydney corridor may have a much lower population than the Madrid-Barcelona corridor now, but by 2050 it will be very similar.

The overall trend towards urbanisation that is noted in the report masks considerable variation at the local level. Many rural LGAs are shrinking, or at best keeping their populations steady, but this does not just represent people moving to the capital cities, it also reflects considerable growth in regional centres. While still modest in absolute numbers, in percentage terms regional cities like Ballarat and Geelong are growing as fast or faster than Melbourne. This does not mean that regional centres are a silver bullet for the growing pains of our cities, but it does mean that claims of an inexorable flow towards the capitals are laughable. And despite claims that we have been trying to decentralise for decades, the decentralisation discussion has been long on rhetoric and short on substantive policy and investment for most of this period. The report is correct to assert that HSR would not be a silver bullet and to note other priority measures, such as internet connectivity – but the suggestion that it couldn’t form part of a decentralisation plan are more dubious.

The report makes the assertion that “to properly service regional towns, the train would need to stop in the centre of town” and notes that this does not happen in the Phase Two report, singling out the Gold Coast station in Robina as an example. This flies in the face of many international examples where a non-central station can work quite well for regional centres, where it’s part of a well-integrated transport network. Regional passengers can simply take the bus or drive to these stations; given that the Gold Coast HSR station was proposed to be adjacent to the existing conventional rail station, they already do. The report itself notes that the Gold Coast-Brisbane corridor is already the largest regional commuter corridor in the nation, despite Robina and all the other stations being inland.

The analysis suggesting Australia is more comparable to the USA than Europe or Japan may have merit on the grounds of population distribution, but it makes the untenable assumption that the USA has no HSR for purely economic reasons, completely ignoring the political environment. There is a well-documented history of vested interests advancing ideological political agendas against rail projects and in favour of road projects, and America’s political and funding landscape reflect this. The Californian HSR project mentioned in the report was hamstrung from the beginning due to political interference in the choice of route and staging, and the eventual decision to scale back the project is equally political. Similarly, the Texas Central project has “struggled to acquire land for the project”, but this is not due to the merits of the project, it is because vested interests have been doing their utmost to prevent the project from going ahead, leading to extensive legal battles. Clearly these political struggles do not have any bearing on the viability of the project in any objective economic sense.

Decarbonising long-distance travel

The report makes the valid point that a large-scale HSR project like this would be a very expensive and slow way to reduce emissions, compared to other emissions reduction measures in other sectors of the economy. The project would generate emissions during construction, and would take time to “pay back” these emissions through operation – this is a serious problem that environmental advocates for HSR must deal with.

However, it is also true that viable ways to decarbonise our interstate travel are thin on the ground – options like battery electric, biofuel or hydrogen planes may show promise but are currently unproven. Given that we’re now in the endgame of the climate crisis and must completely decarbonise all aspects of our economy – not just the cheapest and easiest aspects – analysts must compare apples to apples, and compare HSR against its direct alternatives for decarbonising interstate travel. It may be that one of these alternatives would be quicker and cheaper – but if not, it may be a case of building HSR and taking direct action to offset its construction emissions, such as through reforestation.

The PTUA certainly recognises that, on almost all measures, more modest improvements to public transport – whether within Melbourne or more conventional rail proposals for regional Victoria – are a higher priority, and our campaigning has always reflected this. However, the urgent need to address the climate crisis means that governments must do both – build the intra-city public transport networks we need while seriously addressing long-distance transport as well.

To help ease pressures on the budget, governments should be cancelling white elephant urban megaroads projects like North East Link, the West Gate Tunnel and the Monash Freeway Upgrade. None of these megaroads projects stack up financially, they all induce more traffic rather than “busting” it, and they all increase carbon emissions at a time when we need to be reducing them – if Australia needs to “move on” from a transport fantasy, it’s that these urban motorways are a good idea.

Transport for Everyone: Post COVID-19 Recovery – New vision for buses

(Media release from Transport For Everyone)

Key transport professionals have jointly written to the Victorian Premier urging the Government’s Building Victoria’s Recovery Taskforce to focus on upgrading bus services and active transport through a 5-point plan to improve mobility for Melbourne and build jobs as part of recovery from COVID-19.

The 5-point plan seeks a new vision for buses: fast tracking local bus reviews, delivering bus priority and enhanced Smart Bus top-10 corridors planned for future rail upgrade. Also sought, is boosting domestic jobs in bus building including electric buses to replace polluting diesel fleets.

The joint representations including by Monash Professor of Public Transport Graham Currie, University of Sydney Business School Adjunct Professor John Stanley, and transport groups across Melbourne, emphasise that “bus and active transport upgrades are quick to implement for immediate impact at a fraction of the cost of large scale infrastructure projects.”

They join the Eastern Transport Coalition (ETC), Public Transport Users Association, (PTUA), Transport for Everyone (T4e), Transport for Melbourne (T4M), Victorian Transport Action Group (VTAG) and others to urge that “The massive economic impact on budgets of the COVID-19 emergency necessitates more expedient transport outcomes in advance of longer term projects.”

T4e President, Cr Jackie Fristacky points out that “Public transport is an essential service”, yet “70% of Melbourne is beyond the effective reach of trams or trains and rely on buses. Despite this, many metropolitan bus services are underutilised due to infrequent, indirect services and which miss good catchments. This has led to high car dependency and travel cost burdens on households.”

“And it is many of these areas of Melbourne that have been most adversely impacted by COVID-19”, said Cr Fristacky.

The transport groups are united in the view that “The current period of reduced patronage due to COVID-19 provides the opportunity to revise poorly performing bus routes to work the bus fleet harder to make it more useful, more productive and efficient.”

Successes of frequent and regular direct Smart Bus services and University bus shuttles demonstrate the potential to substantially upgrade poorly performing bus routes to improve access and efficiency in services, build patronage and create jobs.

Infrastructure Victoria misses the bus on public transport pricing

A report on transport pricing by Infrastructure Victoria contains some potentially valuable suggestions on pricing of roads and parking, but is breathtakingly naive in its approach to public transport fares.

As part of a comprehensive suite of measures to ‘rationalise’ the pricing of transport in Victoria, the IV report proposes scrapping the Myki zone system in favour of distance-based charging akin to taxi fares. It also proposes different fares depending on the type of vehicle: for example $1.70 plus 8c per kilometre for trains and $0.90 plus 6c per kilometre for buses. All fares would drop by one-third to two-thirds outside peak periods.

While the off-peak discounting proposal has merit, charging differently according to mode and route completely misses the point of having a multimodal network.

The first rule of modern multimodal network planning is that your transport system shouldn’t discriminate according to whether or not one’s local railway station is within walking distance. All well-designed transport systems have feeder bus networks to get people to trains. But as soon as this requires an additional fare for the bus, it just adds to the privilege of those lucky enough to live nearby. It could perversely also incentivise people to drive to the station and add to local congestion and parking pressure.

That’s why almost every city in the world operates a multimodal system where the technical details of the route and vehicle don’t affect what one is charged. This is generally achieved by charging based on zones rather than individual trips, or by providing free transfers. One of the minority that do not is Sydney – yet that’s the city IV singles out for admiration in its report.

Congestion promoter, not congestion buster

The real flaw with IV’s suggestion is that charging different fare rates for trains and buses won’t actually achieve the goal of reducing congestion.

The thinking here is apparently that buses and trains are substitutes for one another – that a bus is just a lower-cost way of making a journey one would otherwise make by train. So the story goes, you can reduce crowding on trains by getting people to ride buses instead.

But in real public transport systems, the different travel modes play distinct roles and are not direct substitutes. We operate different modes of transport for a reason, not just because it looks good. We don’t waste valuable bus resources on duplicating rail services. Rail is the heavy-lifting, high-capacity mode: a train line moves tens of thousands of people per hour per track, compared with 1500 per hour for a motorway lane or 6000 per hour for a busway.

By and large public transport has just one big congestion problem: into the city in the morning peak and out in the evening peak. At virtually all other times and places, public transport is well placed to absorb mode-shift from car travel. The real deterrent here at present is not the price of buses relative to trains: it’s the fact the frequency and reliability of buses (and sometimes trains) is so poor. It’s a common official mistake to assume a failure to use infrequent, unreliable services indicates a general disdain for public transport or a preference for car travel, rather than just a rational response to poor service.

Melbourne public transport reserves its better standard of service for city-focussed travel in the peaks, and this is where its genuine congestion problem lies. Planners can mitigate this by encouraging more travel to shift to peak-shoulder periods. Price incentives are one way to do this, alongside improvements in all-day service frequency. But if these options are exhausted and peak crowding remains a problem, the only way this will be solved is by sweating the rail assets – not pushing people onto lower-capacity modes, which will only exacerbate crowding and congestion.

The concern is that IV is being led into an outdated “trains for the rich, buses for the poor” narrative – one that’s reflective of underperforming transport systems in many British or US cities, and in a self-reinforcing cycle, has been the main political barrier to any substantial improvement in bus services wherever this attitude prevails. But it’s also completely at odds with the way well-planned systems work in Europe, Asia or Canada. In those places, people use their local bus to go to the shops or railway station, then catch a train to go further afield – and pay one fare to cover the trip.

Micro-charging by distance, alongside its other flaws, is also unlikely to have any marked effect on peak congestion. Peak-hour commuting trips are probably the least price sensitive of all: a couple of extra dollars a day is no incentive to anyone to move closer to their city workplace.

It probably doesn’t help that IV have relied on a simulation model for Melbourne transport in 2031 that includes a number of road projects (such as the Outer Metropolitan Ring eastern section) that government has not committed to, yet leaves out rail projects that are current government commitments such as the Airport link and Suburban Rail Loop, as well as potential future rail initiatives such as Melbourne Metro 2. This is symptomatic of a long-standing and disturbing pro-road bias in official evaluations of infrastructure initiatives.

Good in parts

There is certainly merit to introducing some form of off-peak discount on Myki fares, similar to the 30% discount that applies on V/Line.

The IV report correctly notes Melbourne had off-peak discounts in the 1970s, but it’s less well known that off-peak discount fares continued to exist right up until 2012. The real problem is they were undermined by successive, uncoordinated tweaks to the fare system over three decades. It’s quite appropriate that they be re-evaluated, in a way that also addresses the remaining anomalies in the Myki fare system.

We also agree with the need to reform user charging for roads and car parking, as fuel excise revenue is undermined by a future transition to electric vehicles. This provides, as IV argues, an opportunity to replace high fixed charges for registration and third-party insurance, which currently act as a disincentive for car owners to leave the car at home more often.

However, such pricing reform needs to be done equitably and transparently, and without introducing further perverse incentives. Where is the sense, for example, in building a motorway to ‘relieve’ arterial road congestion and then, via tolling, giving motorists an incentive to go on using those same arterial roads in preference to the new route?

But in its approach to public transport, IV needs to go back to the drawing board. The PTUA has pointed out for decades that the cost of running public transport is best recovered with a modest, fixed charge that varies ‘coarsely’ by distance – like Melbourne’s zone system used to do but without such a massive penalty for crossing a zone boundary. This also has the greatest promise of reducing congestion by shifting car trips to public transport.

The bottom line is the way to really bust congestion is always to encourage more public and active transport, and especially more rail travel. Because if we plan properly, rail is the mode best placed to absorb additional patronage.

The public transport advocacy group for Victoria, Australia