Myth: Public transport can’t be improved until there’s demand for it

Fact: Public transport can be improved whenever those in charge feel like it. ‘Lack of demand’ is just a convenient excuse favoured by lazy bureaucrats; there can never be any evidence for demand when services don’t exist, or run at such low frequencies that no-one uses them by choice.

In planning for the provision of public services such as schools, hospitals, utilities, and transport systems, there are two fundamental approaches one can take. The ‘supply-led’ approach says “if you build it, they will come”: the service is regarded as an intrinsic good, and supply is expanded in anticipation of future demand. The ‘demand-led’ approach says “better not enough than too much”; services are provided at levels that are just adequate for present needs, and expanded only when demand increases enough to overcrowd the existing services.

For the last half-century the supply-led approach has dominated in road planning, where it is also referred to as the ‘predict and provide‘ approach. This stems from the early postwar period, when the motor car was seen as a panacea for moving people around cities. On the principle that you couldn’t have too much of a good thing, planners pursued the goal of more roads and more cars as an end in itself, and continue to do so to this day. That the inevitable end result of this process is a city as car-choked and socially dysfunctional as Los Angeles does not deter the road planners; the supply-led approach to road-building has held sway in Victoria for so long that it now proceeds according to its own institutional logic, which only top-level political intervention can resist.

Meanwhile, public transport planning has proceeded on the opposite approach. Despite the former Bracks/Brumby Government having a stated objective to increase public transport patronage to 20 per cent of all trips by 2020, few significant expansions of services were ever planned before that government lost office in 2010. Instead, patronage was expected to just materialise as if by magic, and only afterwards would services be expanded to be adequate to carry the extra passengers. Within the bureaucracy, it is still taken as a matter of principle that underused services should not be improved (lest they become attractive to people?).

Coburg resident Denise Turner said she wanted trains more frequent than every 20 minutes [but] spokeswoman for Transport Minister Peter Batchelor, Louise Perry, said an extra Upfield train was not needed, with patronage surveys showing overcrowding was “not a serious issue” on the line.

Moreland Leader, 10 October 2005

Humans might be living on the moon before Melbourne’s rail network is expanded, according to the timetable of the State Government’s public transport chief. Director of Public Transport Jim Betts told stunned audience members at a transport forum recently that the Government planned no major train or tram extensions during the next 15 to 20 years.

Mr Betts’ revelation, which is a blow for supporters of rail extensions and new lines to places such as South Morang, Epping North, Cranbourne East, Doncaster and Rowville, came as Transport Minister Peter Batchelor confirmed that extending the rail system was no longer a high priority.

State trains running decades late, The Age, 24 October 2005

Any extensions to these services in the future will need to be argued on the basis of demonstrated need. For example, if the people of Rowville don’t use the new Wellington Rd SmartBus service once it is operating next year, it will be difficult to ever justify a tram or train service in the future.

—Ferntree Gully MP Anne Eckstein, Knox Leader, 29 November 2005

A BUS route extension to Casey Fields looks doomed. The Leader has seen a letter sent last week from the Department of Infrastructure…. [which] says there is not a strong case for introducing additional bus services in Cranbourne East. The letter, sent by the department’s bus and regional services manager Brian Negus on behalf of Transport Minister Peter Batchelor, states that the majority of sportspeople and spectators at Casey Fields would prefer to travel by car. Very small numbers of athletes, players and spectators choose to use the available public transport to travel to these venues, the letter said. Mr Negus said the nearest bus service…. which stops about a kilometre from Casey Fields, was adequate.

Bus extension unlikely, Cranbourne Leader, 6 September 2006

MORDIALLOC commuters are waiting up to 45 minutes for overcrowded weekend buses…. But Department of Transport spokeswoman Kirsten Taylor said weekend services already reflected demand. Our patronage data shows that about half as many people catch SmartBus route 903 on Saturday and Sunday as on weekdays, and so we currently run about half as many services, Ms Taylor said.

Still waiting for buses, Mordialloc Chelsea Leader, 18 August 2010

GETTING to work is a challenge in itself for a growing number of people having to turn down jobs in Dandenong South…. Reed in Partnership job placement co-ordinator Debbie Clark said: The main issue is buses not going into the industrial estates. Employers are screaming out for workers, but people can’t get to and from work…. But a spokeswoman for the Department of Transport said bus route improvements in Dandenong South were not a priority. The Department of Transport will continue to monitor demand….

Turning down jobs due to lack of public transport, Dandenong Leader, 20 September 2011

But whatever the government’s policy toward public transport, the predict-and-provide approach to roads has never wavered.

The Whittlesea Strategic Infrastructure Study….lists the South Morang extension as the number one priority for the area. The number three priority – a new bus/tram interchange at the area’s RMIT campus – has also not been funded.

But something interesting happens when you look at the other end of the priorities list. At number 11 is the duplication of Plenty Road – a project recently given the go-ahead. Number nine is the Cragieburn bypass, already completed, while number 10 is the upgrade of Cooper Street, also done.

It seems there may be one rule for public transport and another for roads.

Waiting for the train that never came, The Age, 23 October 2005

Even some public transport advocates have been persuaded that the problem is not with the quality of public transport services or the government’s contemptuous attitude, but with the failure of people to use what little exists. Their hope rests with the supposed ability of behaviour change programmes to increase patronage on substandard services, which will supposedly then persuade bureaucrats to improve them.

However, as transport planner Felix Laube explains, the real problem with demand-led planning is that however long planners wait, no-one will ever willingly queue up for services that barely exist:

The problem with demand-based scheduling is that there will be large gaps in public transport service at times when demand is low. Once these gaps exist, there is no reason other than the will of the scheduler to fill them, as there will never be any evidence of demand for services that don’t exist. When there is regular service throughout, the fluctuation in demand is constantly monitored by the patronage on the individual services, thus allowing the travel market to function without the barrier of an ‘expert’s’ wisdom….

Differences in timetabling approaches have important implications for the development of the public transport system. The demand-based systems tend to be retractive, as the market has no chance to manifest any new areas of demand, while existing services that may no longer fulfil as many demand lines as when they were introduced are cut back. Demand-based systems will therefore have a tendency towards service decline.

—Felix Laube, Optimising Urban Passenger Transport, 1998

The contrast between the effects of supply-led and demand-led service planning is evident when one compares Melbourne with outwardly similar cities like Toronto, Canada. The evidence is in keeping with Laube’s predictions. In Toronto, supply-led planning has resulted in public transport being used for one-quarter of all trips and one-third of all work trips. In Melbourne, the demand-led policies of the last half century have resulted in a vicious spiral of service contraction and patronage collapse.

This ‘retractive’ strategy is still evident in regional Victoria, even as patronage increases elsewhere. In 2008, ‘lack of demand’ was the government’s excuse for breaking a long-standing promise to reopen the Leongatha train line. Then in early 2009, the Minister announced that train services to Glenrowan would be permanently removed as part of the north-east rail ‘upgrade’. Her excuse, given to the local media, is a textbook instance of the problem identified by Laube:

The tourism figures show the bulk of people don’t use the train; they need to travel further afield to other sites and that generally means using their own car.

—Lynne Kosky, Minister for Transport, Border Mail, 14 February 2009

That ‘lack of demand’ is merely an excuse to avoid expanding services is clear from the amount of overcrowding that does exist in Melbourne’s public transport system, and not just at peak times. If there really was any planning capability in the system, demand-led or otherwise, additional services would be provided to relieve overcrowding. Instead, bureaucrats do nothing – apart from appealing to another myth, the supposed capacity shortage in the rail system.

Bus services don’t respond to demand levels either: the bureaucracy is still routinely ignoring calls to improve frequencies on busy routes – and allowing peak hour bus services to be withdrawn over the summer period due to ‘lack of demand’ – though in some cases this leaves the services so overcrowded that people are left behind at bus stops.

Connex, why do you insist on adhering to the theory that because the football has finished no one is using the trains on the weekend? If you bothered to check your own research and ticket numbers you would find that all morning and afternoon trains are full to seating capacity and all standing room is taken….I believe public transport users should be entitled to travel in comfort.

—‘Ian’, letter to MX, October 2005

There are trams due at my stop in St Kilda Road on Sunday mornings to travel to St Kilda at 8.12, 8.42, 9.12, 9.44, 10.15, 10.55 and 11.15…. Up to the 9.12 tram, things are ok, but the subsequent trams are impossible for me to board. The trams are just full! No more people can get on! Physically full! Chockers! This is not an occasional occurrence. It happens every Sunday, even in winter if the weather is mild…. This is not a new problem but it has been getting worse and Yarra Trams does nothing about it.

—Andrew of the High Riser blog, February 2007

The 400 bus, which starts in Laverton and runs to Sunshine station, is often full when it travels through Derrimut on weekday mornings. Prem Kumar….said most mornings the bus, which runs half-hourly, is too full to stop, which meant he waited another 30 minutes for the next to catch his connecting train to the city.

He said the buses that arrived at 7am and 7.30am were impossible to board. “It’s always overcrowded, and I’m often late for work,” Mr Kumar said.

Brimbank Leader, 26 June 2012

Ultimately, it is up to the planners and managers of the system what level of service is provided. Where the emphasis is on making public transport attractive, competitive with cars and well-patronised, service provision anticipates demand, and does not wait for demand that will not appear while there is no confidence in the system. But where the emphasis is on maintaining barely adequate services for a minority of the population, ‘lack of demand’ is the perfect ready-made excuse.

Last modified: 27 June 2012