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We mustn't miss this very fast bus

By David Hensher - posted Tuesday, 23 May 2006

The continuing media focus that suggests the need for greater investment in public transport is to be commended - but let's place this recognition in context.

If money were no object and the public really wanted government to significantly increase public debt, then let's invest in heavy and light rail - but would everyone be happy?

Unfortunately there are two large deficiencies in this popular perception of a solution to meet Sydney's transport needs: the huge cost (in the billions of dollars, not millions) and the inability of such a solution to deliver more than a service to specific corridors, to the neglect of the needs of the system-wide network .


There are many ways of investing in improved public transport, assuming it will substantially resolve the claims about Sydney's traffic congestion. These include heavy rail, light rail, bus rapid transit, where buses have their own roads just like trains have their own track and do not compete with cars in mixed traffic.

Globally there is growing support for delivering service capacity through bus rapid transit as a legitimate alternative to heavy and light rail within the traffic density range that Sydney experiences.

Typically, $1 billion buys 400 kilometres of dedicated bus rapid transport in contrast to 15 kilometres of elevated rail or seven kilometres of underground rail. Most importantly, this not only delivers greater network coverage but also shows the error of the accepted view of the capacity of specific public transport modes (buses up to 6,000 passengers an hour in one direction, compared with up to 15,000 for light rail/tram and more than 15,000 for heavy rail/metro). Advanced bus rapid transport systems can move 38,000 passengers an hour in each direction.

There is a growing number of examples around the world and the International Union of Public Transport in Europe stated recently that bus rapid transport is increasingly preferred over fixed-rail systems for value for money. Some will immediately ignore this argument and keep pushing fixed-corridor rail systems that are very expensive and which will fail to serve the fuller demands of the Sydney metropolitan area.

Our challenge is to get away from thinking of bus rapid transport as those awful polluting buses that get delayed because they compete with cars and occasionally are offered bits of disconnected roads in the form of bus lanes and transit lanes.

We can start the investment, as Brisbane has, in bus rapid transport with clean-fuelled buses and get away from the adage that trains are sexy and buses are boring.


There is an urgent need to set aside dedicated roads or land parcels for bus rapid transport to achieve its potential, remembering that the width of a right of way required for bus rapid transport is far less than for railways, not only in the central business district but across the Sydney network.

The announced strategic corridors outlined by NSW State Government this week are a good start provided they are fully connected and dedicated to bus rapid transport. Castlereagh Street, for example, is a good candidate for the CBD link.

But the technology must not be the driver. Rather, the way forward is to identify systems (that is, integrated vehicles and infrastructure) that will provide a high level of service capacity throughout a connected network, delivering frequency, connectivity and visibility so that we know where the services run to and from.

All of this support for public transport must be part of a large package in which we consider ways of financing improved public transport, and a good start is to learn from the experiences of London and Stockholm, where congestion charging schemes are in place.

The money raised in London and Stockholm is earmarked for investment in public transport - a sensible strategy.

Politically it has worked, which is very important. Over 30 per cent of commuters who were previously car users now use public transport, continuing car users see benefits in improved travel times and, most importantly, the politicians have earned respect for taking such an initiative. All of this seems so obvious in many ways: yet will Sydney rise to the occasion?

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First published in the Sydney Morning Herald on May 18, 2006.

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About the Author

Professor David Hensher is director of the Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies, in the Economics and Business Faculty, University of Sydney.

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