For large swathes of outer-suburban Melbourne, buses are the only form of public transport available, and even in the middle suburbs (like where I live) buses are necessary to “plug the gaps” between railway lines, which fan out radially from the city and never intersect. So it’s unfortunate, then, that our bus network is so crappy.

Most Melburnians seem to see buses as a mode of transport suitable only for “schoolkids and deros”, where “deros” refers to those non-driving people the “sensible centre” doesn’t care about, like those on low incomes, the disabled, and the elderly. While it’s respectable to commute by train or tram, a lot of people will give you a seriously weird look if you’re an adult who says they’ll be travelling anywhere by bus. When I was at uni, I even had a series of compulsory seminars scheduled in the public transport “black hole” (i.e. poor-quality bus transport available only) that is Bentleigh East… it didn’t even occur to the organisers that anyone would not have their own private motor vehicle to drive themselves there. At any rate, because most people are dismissive of anyone who might need to rely on bus transport, most of the bus services offered are pretty dismal. And because the service offered is so dismal, the kinds of people the “sensible centre” thinks actually matter will never use them, so they’ve never seen any reason to improve the services.

It annoys me because I do make regular use of buses, and I’ve been to other cities in the world where I’ve travelled on buses, and I know that the reasons people dismiss buses – they’re slow, infrequent, hard to navigate, jolty, noisy, graffitied-on, and either irritatingly crowded or wastefully empty – are not inherent features of buses at all. While I’d never make the argument that rail-based public transport is not worth investing in because “you can just run buses instead”, I do think we could very quickly, easily and cheaply improve our bus network and reap the benefits in short order. Indeed, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a bus network that’s failed after being over-invested in. The reason bus networks tend to be under-utilised is precisely because they’re usually put in place by governments that just don’t want to invest in public transport. But there’s no reason why that should be so.

So here are some of the ways that I think we could improve bus transport in this city. A lot of the things I’m going to suggest will seem pretty expensive for bus investments, but “expensive” is relative – they’d be a lot cheaper than the proposed $50+ billion suburban rail loop, for example. And I’m certainly not against the SRL, but it does seem ludicrous to me that you’d propose that and not even consider ways to make buses more useful – it just smacks of the “buses are just charity for people I don’t care about” thinking I was talking about. Anyway, without further ado: ways to make our bus network actually good:

High frequencies

This is, undoubtedly, the most important factor. Transit activists love the slogan “frequency is freedom”, because it’s so true. Think of it like traffic lights at an intersection: if you had to sit there and wait half an hour for a green light, you would never drive through that intersection (unless you had no choice). So why would we presume that a bus service with a half-hour frequency would be used by anyone who didn’t absolutely have to?

I feel like 15-minute headways (four buses per hour) is the absolute bare minimum, but if you really wanted your bus route to look attractive to travellers, and especially at peak hour, intervals like 10 minutes (six buses), 7.5 (eight buses) or 6 minutes (ten buses) would be a massive improvement again. The most successful bus route I think I’ve ever taken was the shuttle bus between Huntingdale Station and Monash University – that thing ran every four minutes, and most of the time I took it, it was packed.

Obviously, not every route will be packed just if/because you run it every four minutes (you need an actual high demand for travel between the two points, too). However, one of the biggest deterrents to travelling by bus at the moment is that you can just be left waiting a long time – especially on the way back. After all, you can usually time your walk out the front door to line up with the bus, but you generally have a lot less control over when your shift/class/appointment/errand ends. It also means that if you miss your bus, or one just doesn’t come (having been cancelled), you can still get where you want to go without too much hassle – something that’s a lot less likely with our current 20- or 30-minute daytime frequencies.

Direct routes

Some bus routes meander and take circuitous routes around backstreets, which can bring the route into closer proximity with more residents or destinations off the main streets (like schools or community centres that might be in otherwise-residential areas), but also make routes harder to understand and slower.

Ideally, I think, you would have two classes of routes: direct routes, that stick largely to major roads, and local routes, which might be more meandering but really cater for local trips: before and after-school runs, shopper trips, evening routes to local restaurant precincts, etc. Plus a basic service level for mobility-impaired people who really need a bus route super-close to home, and can’t walk the ten minutes to a faster, higher-frequency bus.

The implementation of direct routes generally goes hand-in-hand with network simplification. That is, you shouldn’t expect to be able to go everywhere from anywhere in a one-seat journey, but you should expect that some journeys will require you to make a connection once or even twice. Now obviously, if the buses only run every half-hour you do not want to undertake a journey that’ll require you to change buses. But the better the frequencies are (see my previous point), the less painful connections are to make.

I know that real-life geography is not as neat as this, but we do live in a broadly grid-based city here in Melbourne, so it’d seem to make sense to have high-frequency N-S and E-W routes, ideally no further than 1.6km apart (so even if you live at the exact midpoint, you’re no further than 800m away from the closest route), that run straight down major roads. That’d be a starting point, at least.

Bus lanes

A direct route doesn’t mean much if the bus spends the whole journey clogged in heavy traffic. The only real solution to this is to give buses a way to bypass other traffic: dedicated bus lanes. Considering that a single bus could easily be carrying the same number of passengers as dozens of cars, if the route is high-quality, it should be clear that this is a great way to increase the number of passengers you can move per hour, too. Bus routes are never going to have the carrying capacity of heavy rail, of course, but that’s not where we want to use them: it’s those suburban main roads, the ones where people currently feel the only sane option is to drive, that we want to cover. And as they get more and more congested, the only solution is to take more cars off the roads – by giving passengers a more attractive way to travel (a faster way!) instead. And that requires bus lanes.

And if you’re going to have them, don’t half-ass them. None of these “bus or taxi or carpool” lanes, which are so watered-down as to be absolutely useless. I think emergency vehicles can fairly share the lanes but otherwise they should be preserved for buses. Camera enforcement, like we currently have for speeding, would be totally appropriate and even required to make the system work. And I’d also note, while I think there also need to be dedicated cycling lanes, it makes no sense to have a combined “bus and cycling lane”, either (and I’ve seen at least one of these in Melbourne). You don’t want cyclists having to divert out into traffic to overtake a stopped bus, nor for the bus to have to change lanes into traffic to overtake the cyclist once it’s on the move again. Different movement needs = different lanes required, OK.

In fact, if the road space is available and traffic is really thick, I think that bus lanes would ideally run down the middle of the road, in the same way that some inner-suburban tram routes do. This would prevent buses from getting stuck behind vehicles turning left, slowing down to turn into a driveway, stopping to drop off a passenger, etc..

If bus lanes were moved to the middle of the road, then the bus stops would have to be situated on a median between the bus lanes and the car lanes. To ensure easy access, there should be signalised pedestrian crossings between the curb and the stop, and ideally they’d be programmed to allow a super-fast crossing if they can detect a bus (on either side of the road) is less than a couple of minutes away. (Our buses do have GPS, and we have live tracking apps for them, so I feel like this should be possible.) There’s nothing worse than watching your bus arrive and depart because you were standing helplessly on the wrong side of a busy road, unable to cross…

Bus stops

Regardless of whether the stops are on a median or on the curb, there are some things that they should all have as standard, in my opinion. A big one would be a live-updating display, telling you when the next bus is (and the next train or tram, for stops that connect with one of those modes) and informing you if there are any cancellations or delays. Before I owned a smartphone, I really appreciated the SmartBus stops that had those displays. They should have prominent signage and high-quality network maps, highlighting what destinations you can access from that stop’s routes. They should also be well-lit at night, with shelter from the elements, and the shelter should not be plastered with advertising that means you can’t keep an eye on your surroundings (including whether your bus is coming!) while you’re inside. At some (busy) stops, it might even make sense to install ticket machines and those myki touch-on/touch-off points – like when you take the light rail in Sydney, and are supposed to touch on or off at the stop instead of on the vehicle – to speed up boarding and alighting. This is a feature of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), generally.

Also important is access to the stops. In outer suburban areas, especially, Melbourne currently has loads of curbside bus stops with no pedestrian crossings anywhere in sight. I’ve had to make use of bus stops on Centre Dandenong Rd, for example, and that is nightmarish. It’s an extremely busy, multi-lane road with a speed limit of something like 70km/hr. So let’s say my destination is to the north – I can get off the bus and walk through the side streets there safely. To get home, though, I need to walk back to Centre Dandenong Rd, run across the major road when there is finally a gap in all four lanes of free-flowing traffic at the same time, then wait at the bus stop which faces directly onto one of those busy lanes, inhaling car fumes for up to 20 minutes until the bus comes. This is not acceptable and TBH I stopped accepting work anywhere that required me to do this.

Less dangerous, but also annoying: Melbourne needs to stop allowing parking immediately before bus stops. What happens here is that if you’re short (or a normal-height schoolkid younger than like, year 8), the bus driver can’t see you behind all the overgrown monster cars that motorists like driving these days, and they end up braking suddenly at late notice and parking a little way up the street, and then you have to run up the street from the bus stop to get there because you don’t want to waste the time of everyone already on the bus, and it sucks. Fix that too please.

The buses themselves

I still remember the old, dirty, non-air-conditioned buses I used to have to take when I first started high school. Buses these days are pretty decent, relatively, and I don’t think adding on-board wifi or phone charging slots or whatever will make much difference to patronage. But some assorted improvements that I do think would be good:

  • displays telling you what the next stop is. This makes it sooooo much easier to catch a bus even when you’re not familiar with the route or that part of the city – you just need to know the name of the stop where you need to get off, so you can push the “STOP” button when you see it come up on the display.
  • switching them to electric! Electric cars are a bit of a luxury purchase for the average person, but governments and bus companies that have whole fleets are the exact kinds of buyers that should be making these kinds of purchases. Not to mention: if we’re getting people out of cars and running shit-loads of buses at high frequencies to compensate, then you want them to be electric – and we need to generate our electricity from renewables.
  • as much as possible, buses should be engineered for smooth rides with minimal jolting.
  • they should not have advertising on them that blocks the windows and makes it hard to see out and determine where you are.

Marketing, information, etc.

If you want people to take the bus you need to make sure they know what they can expect, where they can go, etc.. Back when the Frankston and Pakenham/Cranbourne lines were upgraded to 10-minute frequencies on weekends, most of the people who didn’t already use trains regularly had no idea because this wasn’t communicated anywhere that non-regular train users would have seen. So, some of the things that I think are important are:

  • clear, easily intelligible maps that highlight the frequencies of the routes they show. Our current maps give equal weight to a twice-a-day fossilised relic of a route and a route that runs 10+ times an hour, which makes them really not useful to people who are not already familiar with the routes. Line thicknesses could be used to good effect for this.
  • make connections and destinations really clear. Like when you catch a modern tram, and they announce what stop is next, they’ll often add a bit afterwards telling you to alight there to connect to another tram route, a train station or a major destination (like a hospital or a university, although stops near those are usually named after the destination anyway).
  • if you do have multiple tiers of routes (like “direct routes” vs “local routes”), it makes sense to brand these differently, and not just with route numbers (like in Melbourne routes ending in “01” are usually shuttle routes, routes starting with “90” are SmartBuses… but if you’ve never considered catching a bus before how would you know that?).
  • this is an improvement Melbourne’s already made over the last decade, but… buses’ liveries should all be standardised and clearly mark them out as part of the broader public transport network, and not just part of an individual bus company’s fleet.
  • if there is a real, meaningful upgrade to the bus network, or even specific routes if significant enough, it’s worth advertising them. Let’s say you did upgrade numerous main-road routes to 10min frequencies – how would anyone who doesn’t already take that route know, if you don’t tell them?!

Dealing with disruptions

To put it this way: if a train line is suspended or a tram route temporarily out of action for maintenance works, they run bus replacements. Most of the time the bus replacements suck, for the same reasons that regular buses suck, but they exist.

If a bus route has to divert – like because of street festivals or the Melbourne Marathon or even roadworks – they usually just say, “stops will be skipped”, if they say anything at all. Except… what if you live in that zone that’s now getting skipped, does that mean you’re just denied service for the day? Or even more galling – at some point late in 2019, I saw that buses were pretty much skipping the entire suburb of St Kilda due to some St Kilda Festival. What if you wanted to catch the bus to the St Kilda Festival??? Why is this not a thing anyone considered?

What should be happening is that clear contingency plans are in place – published online, highlighted in apps, available in the APIs that sites like Google Maps draw on – for where the buses are going to go instead. Rather than skipping stops, there should be temporary stops a block away or wherever is most suitable for minimum disruption. The only reason this doesn’t happen, to be honest, is that decision-makers don’t currently give a fuck about anyone who catches buses.