Better bus networks for fairer suburbs can cut emissions

Zero-emission buses are important but we also need to redesign suburban networks to get people out of their cars

Dr John Stone, University of Melbourne

Dr John Stone

Published 23 July 2022

Greenhouse gas emissions from transport have grown faster than any other sector of the economy – it is time to finally put the brakes on.

Despite all the clamour for greater incentives for us to drive electric cars, the surest way to meet our climate targets is to find ways for us to drive less.

While moving to electric cars will help reduce emissions, we really need less people driving. Picture: Shutterstock

Offering alternatives to driving is also essential for many living in Melbourne’s car-dependent suburbs, where a second or third car is an increasing burden for households squeezed by higher interest rates and fuel prices.

The quickest and easiest way to address both rising transport emissions and living costs is to re-invent Melbourne’s broken bus system for the 21st century.

Our recently completed and externally reviewed research – Better Buses for Melbourne’s West and Melbourne’s Zero Emission Bus Transition, produced through the Melbourne Centre for Cities, shows how we can, within only a few years, transition to clean electric buses operating on a fast, frequent, connected network that gets us where we want to go across Melbourne’s suburbs.

The Victorian Government’s recently released Zero Emissions Vehicle Roadmap is moving in the right direction, with subsidies for zero emissions vehicles (ZEV), new charging infrastructure and a ZEV bus trial.

But the growing public appetite for climate action and rapid increases in the cost of living mean we must be more ambitious. So far, there are firm commitments from the Victorian government for only 341 new electric buses to be in service by 2030. This is less than 20 per cent of Melbourne’s current route-bus fleet.

Our work with industry insiders shows how we can do better.

Melbourne could readily transition to a zero emissions bus network. Picture: Charging points for the Ecolink zero emissions buses in a bus depot in Nottingham, United Kingdom. Andrew Aitchison/Getty Images

We know that electrification changes just about every aspect of bus operations, from depot layouts to maintenance techniques and the way power is delivered and paid for. We will need strong government leadership to manage costs and risks across multiple industries and strict rules about what happens to the diesel fleet, with clear timelines for them to be off the road, not just sold on for other uses.

Battery-electric buses are already operating in many international jurisdictions. The state government could make an informed call now on technical specifications for vehicles and charging infrastructure, and use its buying power to establish the necessary supply chains and performance regulations. This is possible because the state ultimately foots the bill for the capital and operating costs of Melbourne’s buses.

But there is a catch. Melbourne’s buses run under 28 separate contracts with 14 private operators – some big multinationals, others small family businesses delivering only a few services. Many operators have, over decades, developed a sense of ownership of ‘their’ routes and resisted efforts to simplify the system.

This model cannot accommodate the transition to electric buses. So, the expiry of most of the smaller contracts in mid-2025 is an important deadline for finding new ways for government and contractors to collaboratively manage the transition.

This transition to cleaner buses is only the first step. It won’t help the climate or ease suburban transport woes if we run clean buses on today’s convoluted routes and unreliable timetables, which very few Melburnians use. We need more Melburnians using buses.

Fortunately, there is a proven approach to bus service design, articulated by University of Melbourne researcher Paul Mees in the 1990s, that can help us get the most value from a new electric bus fleet.

Getting more people on to buses requires the existing bus routes to be redesigned as a more effective network. Picture: Getty Images

Paul’s work showed how some cities, by exploiting what he called the ‘network effect’, attract drivers onto public transport even at residential densities comparable to suburban Melbourne.

They do this by operating fast and frequent services connected in a grid that makes it easy to travel to many destinations. Effectively, the convenience that travellers find so appealing in the London Underground and Paris Metro can be reproduced in the suburbs using electric buses.

This approach underpins Victoria’s 2021 Bus Plan. This plan is a great first step, but it is more of a mud map than the detailed blueprint we need for the next term of state government.

In , we use the Remix transit planning tool to show how a modern bus network would give communities in Melbourne’s west an alternative to driving.

We started by drawing a grid network on key arterial roads at a 10-minute frequency all day (including weekends) and assuming an average speed of 25 km/h (like Melbourne’s SmartBus services).

We were surprised to find that a new network could be delivered using existing operational budgets for buses in the west, plus a modest top up to keep pace with population growth.

Capital costs, for this first stage, are also low, with upgrades only needed at bus stops and at key intersections to give buses priority.

The bus network in Melbourne’s west could be redesigned so that most households have a bus stop within 800m. Picture: Getty Images

Once it’s up and running, we could super-charge the network, making it even faster and cheaper to run by investing in internationally proven techniques to isolate buses from other road traffic.

Our modelling also showed that, on average, more than three times more people could reach shops, services and opportunities for social interaction at their local activity centre within 30 minutes on a weekday morning. For Hoppers Crossing, the increase is more than tenfold!

And, these new services would be within an 800m walk of most households in the west. This would be easily accessible for most people and, if linked to affordable on-demand services, would leave no one behind.

Our research shows we can be optimistic about finding alternatives to driving in the suburbs. The task now is for government agencies to refine a new network through careful planning and community consultation, and for all of us to build political support to make a world-class system of clean electric buses a reality in Melbourne before 2030.

A version of this article appears in The Age.

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