International lessons to make Melbourne buses fairer and easier to use

Overseas trams Photo by Sam bhattacharyya

They may not fight crime, leap buildings in a single bound or wear underwear on the outside, but buses are the unsung heroes of transport systems around the world.

 In Singapore, public buses double as moving gardens with ‘green roofs’ full of plants helping to cool the city and combat the urban island heat effect.

Seoul has ‘smart’ bus shelters with heating, air-conditioning, free Wi-Fi and air filters – all powered by solar panels. They recently introduced self-driving buses, with commuters able to use an app on their smartphone to hop on and off.

But where the bus really earns its super-hero cape is in delivering safer, affordable and accessible transport for communities.

Well-designed bus networks offer an affordable, cost-effective and increasingly environmentally friendly mode of motorised travel. They allow people to get to where they need to go, while minimising road congestion.

Putting buses at the heart of the transport system

According to the World Bank, buses are the most important form of urban transport around the world. In developing countries, they are the heart of the transport system; providing access to jobs, education and services that may otherwise be out of reach. Many cities across the globe have made improvements to their bus networks in recent years. While different cities have different public transport needs, there are some commonalities. 

In Toronto, which has similar low-density suburbs to Melbourne, bus services are a competitive alternative to car travel. Toronto buses have priority in designated areas across the city which has reduced travel times, increased capacity on bus routes and improved access to jobs and services. 

San Francisco specialises in the electric trolley bus – rubber-tired vehicles with motors that are more energy efficient, quiet and reduce pollution. 

Tokyo has real-time information on bus arrivals, departures and delays available on smartphones, websites and electronic displays at bus stops. This helps people better plan their journeys and reduces waiting times. Many buses also have multilingual announcements on board, including English and other languages, making information accessible for more people. 

Melbourne is expecting one million new residents in the next decade and the city is growing and changing rapidly, including the outer and growth suburbs. A lot more can be made of the city’s 400-plus bus routes to help our growing population move around faster and easier. 

Doing more with our bus routes

Our discussion paper Get on board: making the most of Melbourne’s buses [in text link] shows that there is a big opportunity for reform founded on good route design, cheaper fares and more frequent services. We found challenges with the existing network that make it difficult for buses to compete with cars and other transport. Low frequency, limited operating hours, and indirect routes can make buses a less attractive transport option.

Bus stops generally have fewer features than other modes of transport – such as real-time information on arrival times – which impacts people’s decision to use the bus. Physical access to buses and bus stop infrastructure like kerbs and pedestrian crossings could be improved, especially for those with mobility challenges.

The existing bus network is inequitable, particularly for Melbourne’s growing outer suburbs which are not well-serviced by buses. People living in those suburbs may generally have greater difficulty accessing jobs and services and getting where they need to go.

Melbourne needs a faster and more frequent bus system

As part of our research program, we recently surveyed 4,000 Melburnians about what would move them to get on board Melbourne’s buses. Next stop: community insights into Melbourne’s buses [In text link] shows Melburnians would be more likely to travel on the city’s under-utilised bus network if services were faster, cheaper and more frequent.

Around 82% of Melburnians live within a 5-minute walk of a bus stop, yet only 1 in 3 consider occasionally travelling by bus. 

Many Melburnians say they are dependent on their cars. Our research shows speed and frequency are the 2 most important factors to making buses a more attractive transport option. 

Commuters are willing to make trade-offs in exchange for a better bus service. For example, people are willing to walk 10 minutes instead of 5 minutes to a bus stop if their trip is around 10% faster, or if the bus comes every 20 minutes instead of every 30. 

Incentivising commuters with cheaper bus fares

Combined with improved services, cheaper bus fares can be a powerful tool to incentivise bus travel. We found that every $1 in reduction in fares could increase patronage by up to 19%. 

Currently, the price for a metropolitan, zone 1 or zone 1 and 2 fare is $5 for a two hour-full-fare ticket regardless of mode, distance or trip purpose. The same fare is charged for short bus trips to the local shops and long distance train commutes during peak hour. 

As Victoria’s independent infrastructure advisory body, our work advises the Victorian Government on making the best use of the state’s existing infrastructure. 

In Victoria’s infrastructure strategy 2021-2051 [in text link], we recommended introducing off-peak fares and cheaper bus fares in Melbourne to make our transport system safer, fairer and more reliable.

Our research Fair move: better public transport fares for Melbourne shows that reduced bus fares could encourage an extra 93,000 people to take the bus each day.

The Victorian Government is taking steps towards fare reform. Fares in regional Victoria are now capped at $9.20 for a full daily fare and $6.70 on a weekend or public holiday, with discounts for concession holders.

Over the next 2 years, Victoria will transition to a new ticketing system which will make it easier for people to access, use and pay for public transport. This will allow Victorian passengers to pay for bus, tram and train fares with a credit or debit card, smartphone or watch, with trials to begin in 2024. 

The new system opens new possibilities for reforms like lower fares for buses and trams or discounts for off-peak travel and could enable on-demand transport access (also known as Mobility as a Service). 

Delivering a better bus network

The Victorian Government has a long-term strategy to deliver network reform to the state’s bus network through Victoria’s Bus Plan . The plan sets out how to deliver a more modern, productive and environmentally sustainable bus network. This includes a trial of zero emissions buses now underway, with all new metro buses to be zero emissions by 2025. 

This year’s Victorian Budget provides $36 million to improve local bus services in growth and outer areas. Planning has begun for a new cross-peninsula bus link between Hastings and Mornington and improved bus services in growth areas like Casey and Wyndham.

The Department of Transport and Planning recently asked communities in Mildura and Melbourne’s north what they want from their local bus network. Consistent with our community research, people said they want faster, and more frequent services with better connections to other suburbs, trains and activity centres. 

Infrastructure Victoria’s final report on opportunities to make the most of Melbourne’s buses includes recommendations to the Victorian Government based on community insights, the latest evidence, modelling and accessibility analysis.

Read the report