The future of public transport in Melbourne

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Traffic and headlights are projected on a model

For most of us, the question of how public transport might look in 25 years is no more complicated than whether the trains will be running on time in 2042. Or if you’re a dreamer: when do I get my personal jetpack?

For the people who take a deeper interest, the term ‘public transport’ starts to change shape when they attempt to future-gaze. For example, while infrastructure development for a major city like Melbourne, such as new rail lines or freeways, best follows a very long-term plan, the actual shaping of public transport service outcomes cannot be planned for much more than a decade ahead. Everything moves too fast. Who saw Uber 10 years ago? 

Brian Negus, RACV’s general manager for public policy, takes a deep breath and thinks about all the learnings RACV can bring to any debate about the future of public transport, from its own research and community consultation, to international partnerships and dialogue, as well as to what other big cities are doing.

“Sure, with the Melbourne Metro rail tunnel, the removal of level crossings, the airport rail link and filling the last gaps in our freeway system, you need to have a 20-year plan,” Brian says. “But then you need to look at the services you will run to complete a totally integrated transport plan.

A train every five minutes

“The vision for Melbourne should be a train system that runs without a timetable, which means there will be a train along every five minutes, on every line across Melbourne. The tram system would be the same and trams need to be separated from the other traffic, which is challenging.

“We have the biggest tram system in the world. We need to achieve separation where we can by redesigning the network, such as losing on-street parking where trams run. Not every road can have all transport functions.”

So Melburnians may eventually have to confront a bottom line for the city’s public transport future in that it’s unsustainable for a tram route to have two lanes of traffic as well as parking, bicycle lanes and buses running.

When it comes to buses, the RACV would recommend a major change in emphasis to Victorian Government planners. Brian argues that meandering “grandfathered routes” where buses creep through backstreets on winding, extended journeys should be shaken up. Instead, RACV would advocate for more direct, faster bus trips, delivering customers to railway stations or other hubs. ‘Feeder’ buses could do the suburban snail trail, delivering commuters to the main bus route, and that could change the concept of a suburban bus dramatically – to a mini bus, or even an Uber-based service, car-sharing or a local bicycle share network.

Mobility as a service

And this is where the potential future of Melbourne’s public transport system gets really interesting, because suddenly it’s not a train/tram/bus system any more, but an integration of everything in the transport space, including Uber, taxis, car sharing, bikes … you name it. The international term for this is ‘mobility as a service’, which is now front and centre in planning for Melbourne, as well as cities such as Vancouver and Montreal, and maybe San Francisco. (European cities tend not to be comparable to their Australian counterparts because of their much greater population density.)

Under ‘mobility as a service’, we would all have one app on our smartphone where we would enter our starting location and destination. The trip would be booked, paid for and tracked on the app, which would plot the best route from A to B. Walk out your front door because the Uber is arriving. It will drop you at the railway station where you take the next train to an inner suburb where the app has booked you a pushbike in a bike-sharing rack. You cycle on a divided path to your destination.

RACV research has shown that there has been a 12 per cent reduction over the past decade in the number of 18 to 25-year-old Victorians getting their driver’s licence at 18, as soon as they’re allowed. Today’s young people are more willing to stay with public transport, not just leap behind the wheel of a car or ride a bike or walk, and ‘mobility as a service’ embraces that and is exploring how best to meet their needs.

RACV insights aid planning

 RACV is a key player in this planning, as it asks what RACV members would like to see in Victoria’s future transport plans. It is able to take detailed, rich data to the State Government, Public Transport Victoria and other stakeholders, which is an invaluable insight into public demands.

“We actually ask the community what they want rather than guess,” Brian says. “We have a lot of research asking people how they travel, what they do while travelling, problems they see. And about autonomous cars.”

While RACV believes transport could be faster, more regular, more connected and more streamlined, the other reality is that Melbourne needs to evolve as a city so that the majority of working people are no longer heading into the CBD or surrounding inner suburbs, sometimes stuck on 40 kilometres of clogged roads to get there.

“Future business and where we live need to be closer together,” Brian says. “Jobs need to be a lot closer to the growth areas, such as Werribee, Wyndham, Epping, Whittlesea, Casey, Cardinia and Sunshine. At the moment, most jobs are within five to seven kilometres of the city centre. That needs to change to help ease the burden on transport and reduce travel time to work.”

Self driving bus

RACV’s driverless tests

Even as public transport stakeholders gaze to the horizon, RACV is involved in four trials that could have a profound impact on our future transport.

Brian Negus, RACV’s general manager public policy, says RACV has signed memorandums of understanding for four real-time trials happening across Melbourne.

The most exciting is the unveiling of a NAVYA autonomous bus trial. An agreement with HMI Technologies means the driverless bus is being shipped to Australia for a trial in an actual city location.

At the time of going to press, planners were assessing which location with the required private roads and widespread car parks would be best for the trial, which will see the bus act as a car-park shuttle at a large site such as Melbourne Airport, La Trobe University or Monash University. (HMI Technologies is also performing a similar trial at Christchurch International Airport in New Zealand.)

“It’s an exciting project,” Brian says. “The trial will assess people’s reactions to the NAVYA bus, as well as the vehicle’s ability to navigate the existing roads, given it is autonomous.”

The aims are to consider the technology and infrastructure communication systems required for a NAVYA bus to eventually be licensed to operate safely on public roads, as well as to gauge human reactions to the bus.

Meanwhile, two autonomous vehicle trials for cars will also be conducted on Eastlink and on parts of Citylink, while the streets in a section of Fitzroy and Collingwood (between Hoddle and Nicholson streets and Alexandra and Victoria parades) are being wired with smart city technology.

Melbourne University is the entrepreneurial driver, laying out the smart city test bed in Fitzroy, so the bitumen can chat with existing semi-autonomous vehicles, such as high-end Mercedes-Benz vehicles, BMWs and Audis.

“There will be more and more vehicles, apart from the Teslas, that will be fitted with smart technology, so the whole idea of these trials is to look at vehicle-to-infrastructure communication systems but also the human interface as well,” Brian says. “What is the transition pathway?”

Written by Nick Place
July 12, 2017