40 years on, time to scrap the 7-day Myki Pass

Fare reform needed for a post-COVID world

The Public Transport Users Association (PTUA) has called on the State Government to review public transport fares, and make adjustments to reflect expected changes to travel demand as Victoria comes out of COVID-19.

PTUA spokesperson Daniel Bowen said October 2021 marked the 40th anniversary of Melbourne’s public transport fare zones and tickets allowing travel for a specific time: 2 hours, daily, weekly, or longer.

“Zones were revolutionary, bringing Melbourne’s trams, trains and buses under a common ticket and fare system for the first time. This helped lead to higher patronage, as passengers could buy one ticket to cover a connected journey on a bus, train and tram.”

Mr Bowen said that forty years on, there had been a huge impact of COVID-19 on public transport demand. A new Monash University Public Transport Research Group paper predicts patronage will most likely return to 80% of normal.[1]

But CBD commutes are expected to remain at lower levels, with probable widespread shift to part-time Work From Home arrangements for many office workers.

Mr Bowen said the State Government should reform the fare system to make sure public transport remains attractive.

“There is a chance to make changes to ensure public transport is attractive for people as we come out of COVID, including for off-peak, non-work journeys.”

A key reform proposed by the PTUA would be removing the 7-day Myki Pass and replacing it with an automatic fare cap at a reduced cost of 4 days, or fewer.[2]

“Currently the 7-day Pass provides a week of travel for the cost of 5 days. So it can benefit some regular travellers, but only if they are using the system 6 or 7 days a week. And to get that benefit, the Pass needs to be pre-purchased and loaded onto the Myki card.

“For many people, the days of commuting 5 days a week to the office are over. A cheaper weekly cap would help improve the attractiveness of public transport for both work and non-work trips, even for passengers who are only commuting to work 3 days a week.”

Weekly fare caps are used in cities such as Sydney and London[3]. Unlike prepaid weekly Passes, they can be used by those who are not sure of their travel patterns at the start of the week.

“This change would also mean a cost saving for those who still commute 5 days a week, and it would make Myki auto-top up work better for more people.”

The PTUA also believes the 30% off-peak discount should be returned, and made permanent. The discount was a temporary measure introduced in 2020, and ended in August.

Other fare changes worth consideration are removal of the Free Tram Zone, to relieve CBD tram crowding and delays, and either replacing the train-only Earlybird fare with the off-peak discount, or making it multi-modal.

V/Line fares should also be reviewed to remove discrepancies with metropolitan fares such as the big price jump when travelling from Melbourne to outside Zone 2.

“Melbourne’s zone system now spreads well into regional Victoria, and has served us well. But as we recover from the pandemic, the fare system must be revamped to ensure public transport is still a competitive, viable option for more Victorians”, concluded Mr Bowen.


[1] Graham Currie et al, Evidence of a post-COVID change in travel behaviour – Self-reported expectations of commuting in Melbourne https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0965856421002391

[2] Automatic fare capping was built into the Myki system, but is currently only used for daily fare caps.

Currently under Myki, a 7-Day Pass must be preloaded onto the Myki card. It is priced at 5 x the Daily fare. Prior to Myki, a weekly ticket was about 4.3 x the Daily fare.

[3] Many cities including Melbourne use a daily cap system. Cities with longer fare caps include:

Coverage of this story: Herald Sun 28/10/2021: Fares cap urged for myki users

PTUA welcomes Auditor-General’s report into Transport Planning

The Public Transport Users Association (PTUA) has welcomed the Victorian Auditor-General`s report into Integrated Transport Planning.[1]

The Auditor-General found that while the Department Of Transport has more than 40 separate plans and strategies, this does not constitute an integrated transport plan, as required by the Transport Integration Act.

PTUA spokesman Daniel Bowen said the PTUA supports the Auditor-General’s calls for the State Government to ensure that an integrated transport plan is prepared and made public, as soon as possible.

“With the huge government investment in transport at the moment, it’s crucial that it’s all working towards a clear, shared goal. For example, given the enduring view that we should move towards zero emissions, and become less dependent on private car travel, a proper transport plan would consider whether widening the Eastern Freeway to 20 lanes actually contributes to that goal.

“Likewise, we should have a public transport system where all the different modes connect with each other seamlessly to get people where they need to go. This means an easy and accessible walk to the bus stop, a bus that’s timetabled to connect with the local train, and level boarding at the tram stop.

“We all rely on the transport system for access to jobs, education, services and a myriad of other journeys. Better public transport services and effective transport planning are key to achieving sustainability and continued prosperity for Melbourne and Victoria.”

[1] https://www.audit.vic.gov.au/report/integrated-transport-planning

Bus performance data welcomed – and highlights the need for improvements

The PTUA has applauded the State government’s release of bus network performance data for the first time.[1]

PTUA spokesperson Daniel Bowen said the organisation had been asking for years for the data to be published, to help transparency and accountability around the bus network.

“Detailed train and tram performance data has been published for decades now. Buses have yet again been the poor cousin, despite upgrades to realtime tracking equipment some years ago.

“We’re very pleased to see the government finally release this information, to drive discussion and debate about how to improve bus services.”

Mr Bowen said that PTV/DOT should continue to release transport network performance data, including punctuality information for regional buses where available, and that it would be preferable to allow users to export and filter the data more effectively, to aid transparency and analysis.

As expected, the bus performance data showed that punctuality improved during 2020 as COVID-19 took hold, with fewer passengers using the service, the removal of on-board payments, and less traffic.

However the data also showed that some routes have ongoing poor punctuality problems. The routes with the lowest ontime performance from January 2019 to June 2021 were:

Route Ontime*
Jan 2019-Jun 2021
Ontime
Jan-Dec 2020
Highest ontime month
2020
606Elsternwick to Fishermans Bend70.7%78.9%91.6% (Sep 2020)
182Werribee to Tarneit70.9%NANA (Route started 30/5/2021)
417Laverton to Laverton North72.3%77.8%91.5% (Sep 2020)
538Broadmeadows to Somerset Estate77.5%82.6%93.5% (Aug 2020)
795Warneet to Cranbourne79.0%79.5%89.0% (Aug 2020)
400Sunshine to Laverton80.0%77.7%87.0% (Apr 2020)
745Knox to Bayswater80.0%82.9%89.5% (Sep 2020)
693Belgrave to Oakleigh81.0%89.1%96.7% (Aug 2020)
414Laverton to Footscray81.5%85.9%95.0% (Sep 2020)
303Ringwood North to City81.6%84.2%86.5% (Oct and Nov 2020)
NETWORK WIDE AVERAGE90.4%92.9%96.7% (Aug 2020)

*PTV defines ontime as no more than 4 minutes 59 seconds late, and no more than 59 seconds early

Surprisingly, routes 795, 400, 745 and 303 were unable to achieve 90% punctuality (within five minutes) at any time during 2020, despite few passengers and little traffic during COVID-19 lockdowns.

Mr Bowen said that if people couldn’t rely on bus services, they wouldn’t use them.

“Logical routes, good timetables and frequent services are all important. But if buses are rarely on time, even when there’s no traffic on the roads, how can passengers rely on them?”

The PTUA believes the newly released data should help the State government prioritise improvements to bus services, including on-road priority.

“Buses are vital for serving journeys not possible by train and tram. The government’s recent release of a high level plan[2] for improvements to bus services is very welcome. This data helps show which routes need immediate attention.

“While it might be justified in some cases to adjust timetables to better match traffic delays, a better outcome is improved on-road priority: smarter traffic light priority, removal of indented bus stops, and bus lanes and queue jump lanes at intersections where possible.

“Other measures such as ‘Rapid Running’ on frequent routes[3] and all-door boarding can also help cut delays.

“Of course, the most punctual bus service won’t get passengers if the route is indirect and the buses don’t come frequently. Most Melbourne buses don’t provide the service level needed to attract people out of their cars – and town buses in regional Victoria are even worse.

“Priority measures must be matched by commitments to boost services and provide a bus network that meets the 21st century travel needs of Victorians”, concluded Mr Bowen.

* * *

[1] https://www.premier.vic.gov.au/new-public-data-reveals-high-performing-bus-network 

Data is published at https://www.ptv.vic.gov.au/footer/data-and-reporting/network-performance/monthly-performance/
– and follow the link to the Power BI App.

[2] https://transport.vic.gov.au/getting-around/public-transport/buses 

[3] https://www.ptua.org.au/2021/06/15/rapid-running/ 

Why ignoring the timetable might be good for passengers

The release of the Victorian government’s bus plan has highlighted many planned initiatives, but one that got some attention is ‘rapid running’. This article from the PTUA’s June member newsletter explains what it means.

If you’ve ever been on a bus that sat waiting at a time point for its scheduled departure time, a new Department of Transport trial might be of interest.

Since March, route 246 has been testing ‘rapid running’. This means that during frequent times (when buses are every 10 minutes) buses will depart from the terminus on time, but then not stop and wait for the schedule along the length of the route.

Instead of using printed timetables, passengers are encouraged to use real-time information on their mobile phone via the PTV or other apps, and of course the high frequency means waiting times don’t normally exceed 10 minutes.

The immediate benefit to passengers is a faster ride once on the bus.

Longer term benefits include that authorities may be able to run additional services without needing extra funding.

We’re also told it can ease the case for on-road priority, as any measures taken to speed up buses are certain to be useful, rather than simply resulting in even longer waits at time points.

So far the feedback on route 246 from local passengers has been mostly positive, in part because the route punctuality is normally so poor due to traffic that the timetables were rarely accurate!

DOT are looking at expanding the trial to other routes, including testing the concept with slightly less frequent routes running at a 15 minute frequency.

PTUA has been consulted on the trial. While we agree that a 10 minute service can work well with this arrangement, we’re not sure if 15 minutes is frequent enough. There are also concerns about passengers without smartphones. That said, we are keen to see what the trial finds.

Since Tram Tracker was introduced more than a decade ago, many tram users have switched to using real-time information instead of timetables.

The provision of real-time information for buses and trains has followed, but some passengers still unaware of it.

Whether ‘rapid running’ ends up on more routes or not, better promotion of real-time information would make a lot of sense.

And certainly on routes with 10 minute services, ‘rapid running’ seems to have a lot of merit.

And of course, Victoria’s public transport network could do with a lot more routes running every 10 minutes.

This article is from the PTUA’s June member newsletter. To get regular news from the PTUA, and support our campaign for better public transport, join as a member.

A steady-as-she-goes transport budget for COVID recovery

The Victorian Government’s 2021-22 budget reflects its cautious approach to post-COVID economic recovery but is building steadily on its previous commitments for public transport and rail freight, according to the Public Transport Users Association.

New commitments in the budget are a healthy reassertion of the need to compensate for the three decades of disinvestment in public transport infrastructure and services prior to 2010. New expenditure on public and active transport initiatives totals $2.9 billion in this budget, accompanied by $741 million in new expenditure on initiatives supporting roads and private car travel.* This, however, comes on top of prior spending that on the whole has favoured roads over public transport.

“On the whole, these new initiatives in both public transport and roads are sensible, pragmatic commitments to ensure our existing transport networks operate well into the future,” said PTUA President Dr Tony Morton.

The largest single item of new transport expenditure is the purchase of new suburban train rolling stock, which is budgeted at around $1 billion but with few details yet disclosed regarding timelines. “This is a welcome and necessary investment but the details are still vague, in particular how much of the expenditure is to take place beyond the forward estimates,” Dr Morton said. “We trust that by next year there will be clear targets for how much is to be spent and what year we can realistically expect all these new trains to be on the tracks – particularly given the delays in the earlier Evolution train order.”

Other initiatives include a programme of improvements and increased maintenance on the regional train network, improvements to tram infrastructure including additional separation from cars, new work at Caulfield station to speed up trains and improve interchange with Metro Tunnel services, and a catalogue of minor bus service improvements.

“We commend the government in particular for including new bus routes in growth areas and investing in the sustainability of the suburban bus network,” Dr Morton said. He pointed to the introduction of new or more frequent bus services in Clyde, Tarneit, Yarra Ranges and Fishermans Bend. “At the same time, it’s only hinting at the kind of reform that’s needed in order to support new home-based travel patterns in our suburbs post COVID.”

“The entire package of bus improvements amounts to an extra $15 million a year. That’s less than what is typically spent expanding one railway station car park catering for a fraction of the patronage.”

“Overall we see the government building on its solid infrastructure credentials in this budget,” said Dr Morton. “But we also look forward to seeing a more transformative approach to bus and tram services in particular, as our new post-COVID travel patterns become permanent.”

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  • This offer is for a limited time only.

New logos on the way, as PTV and Vicroads merge

The PTUA has uncovered Department of Transport (DOT) plans to further integrate public transport and road operations, following the integration of Vicroads and Public Transport Victoria into the one broader organisation in 2019 [1].

The next stages of this integration are about to take effect, starting with the merger of the PTV and Vicroads brands into one combined entity, with a shorter simpler name and logo: PTVRds

The new logo is in line with a statutory requirement in Victoria to replace public transport system branding at least every five years.[2]

A DOT source noted that “We don’t plan or operate our road, tram, or rail systems separately – we run a transport network.”

Investment in upgrades will be put on pause for 12 months from 1st April 2021 while priority is given to replacing signage and liveries with the new the logo across the transport network.

Full operational integration for PTVrds is also on the way. Starting in April 2022, the next step in fully integrating public transport and roads will be the synchronisation of road traffic lights with public transport timetables.

This means motorists will have to wait for a green light in a similar way to public transport users waiting for a service.

Different road traffic lights will be matched to comparable public transport modes.

Typical waits for a green at traffic lights will now be as follows:

Road typePeak-hourOff-peak and weekendEveningsAfter midnight
Freeway on-ramp
5-10 mins10-20 mins30 minsNo green weeknights.
60 mins weekends
Inner-city roads
5-10 mins10-15 mins20-30 minsNo green weeknights.
A few every 30 mins weekends
Middle and outer suburban roads
20-30 mins30-60 minsNone. Don’t travel after 9pm.No green weeknights.
A few every 60 mins weekends

A DOT source said that making motorists wait longer for a green would have huge benefits cutting traffic jams as the measure would be very effective at suppressing traffic demand, helping to cut congestion.

“After all, if it’s not convenient to drive where you want, when you want, and to easily connect from one road to another, why would anybody choose that option?”

* * *

[1] https://transport.vic.gov.au/about

[2] On 27/6/2016 the Ministers for Public Transport and for Roads announced Transport For Victoria, which triggered a redesign of signage to exclude the PTV logo, which had been introduced in 2012.

PTUA welcomes rail investment, calls for more funding for services

The Public Transport Users Association (PTUA) welcomed today’s Victorian Budget, with substantial investment in rail infrastructure, as well as expansion of the accessible tram fleet.

“The planned upgrade to the Geelong line, and the long-awaited Airport rail line are very welcome”, said PTUA spokesperson Daniel Bowen. “It’s also great to see funding for regional rail upgrades and zero-emissions buses, and the Suburban Rail Loop kick-started.

“Suburban Rail Loop is the type of project that can help the shift from a car dependent to a sustainable transport community – in contrast to the government’s major motorway projects such as North East Link and West Gate Tunnel, which unfortunately are pulling Melbourne in the opposite direction.”

Mr Bowen said the investment in trams was a big step forward. “100 new low-floor trams will make a big difference, though obviously this will need to be followed-up with further investment to make the whole tram fleet accessible, and the government must work harder at accelerating the rollout of tram platform stops.”

Mr Bowen said that funding for bus and tram network planning was also welcome, and along with the infrastructure projects, planted the seeds for future service upgrades.

“The sooner service improvements such as on-road priority, bus route reform and frequency upgrades can be delivered, the better”, said Mr Bowen.

“Labor has an impressive record on infrastructure. But public transport isn’t just about infrastructure. It’s also about fast, reliable, frequent services – these are key to encouraging people to use the system, and getting the maximum return for the substantial investment in that infrastructure.”

Public transport service provision per capita has declined in recent years, according to figures compiled by Monash University[1]. Mr Bowen said that “while this budget funds some extra bus services, overall, public transport services are not keeping up with population growth.”

Mr Bowen said that as the state comes out of COVID-19, it is vital that the government supports the recovery, particularly by targeting public transport upgrades at the outer suburban and regional communities hit hardest by the economic downturn.

“Good quality public transport has a vital role to play in ensuring that people right across Melbourne and Victoria have good access to jobs, education and opportunity – without the financial burden of every adult in the household having to own and run a car.

“More frequent trams, trains and buses across the day are desperately needed to cut waiting times, improve connections, and provide a viable alternative to driving”, concluded Mr Bowen.


[1] Government News: Melbourne population boom outstrips transport

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.


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The public transport advocacy group for Victoria, Australia