With greenhouse gas emissions from transport growing faster than any other industry, it’s time to put the brakes on.
Despite all the calls for greater incentives to drive electric cars, the surest way to achieve our climate goals is to find ways in which we can drive less.
Providing alternatives to driving is also crucial for many people 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.
Reinventing Melbourne’s broken bus system for the 21st century is the quickest and easiest way to counteract both rising transport emissions and the cost of living.
Our recently completed and externally reviewed research – Better buses for Melbourne’s west and Melbourne’s transition to zero-emission busesproduced by the Melbourne Center for Cities, shows how we can transition to clean electric buses in just a few years, operating on a fast, frequent and connected network that gets us where we want to go through the Melbourne suburbs.
The Victorian Government’s recent zero-emission vehicle roadmap is a step in the right direction, with zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) subsidies, new charging infrastructure and a ZEV bus trial.
But the growing public desire for climate action and the rapid rise in the cost of living require that we must be more ambitious. So far there are firm pledges from the Victorian Government that only 341 new electric buses will be in service by 2030. That’s less than 20 percent of Melbourne’s current bus fleet.
Our work with industry insiders shows how we can do better.
We know that electrification is changing nearly every aspect of bus operations, from depot designs to maintenance techniques to the way electricity is delivered and paid for. We need strong government leadership to manage costs and risks across multiple industries, and strict rules on what happens to the diesel fleet, with clear timelines to get them off the road and not just sold for other uses.
Battery electric buses are already in use in many international jurisdictions. The state government could now expertly call for technical specifications for vehicles and charging infrastructure and use its purchasing power to establish the necessary supply chains and power regulations. This is possible because the state ultimately foots the bill for the capital and operating costs of Melbourne’s buses.
But there’s a catch. Melbourne’s buses operate under 28 separate contracts with 14 private operators – some large multinationals, others small family businesses offering few services. Over the decades, many operators have developed a sense of ownership of “their” routes and have resisted efforts to simplify the system.
This model cannot accommodate the transition to electric buses. As such, the mid-2025 expiry of most smaller contracts is an important deadline to find new ways for government and contractors to manage the transition together.
This transition to cleaner buses is just the first step. Using clean buses on today’s convoluted routes and unreliable timetables that very few Melburnans use will not help the climate or alleviate the problems of mass transit. We need more Melburnians using buses.
Fortunately, there is a proven approach to bus service design, formulated in the 1990s by Paul Mees, a University of Melbourne researcher, that can help us get the most value from a new electric bus fleet.
Paul’s work showed how, by exploiting what he calls the ‘network effect’, some cities are attracting public transport riders even with population densities comparable to Melbourne suburbs.
They do this by operating fast and frequent services connected in a network that makes it easy to travel to many destinations. In fact, the convenience that travelers find so appealing on the London Underground and Paris Metro can be replicated with electric buses in the suburbs.
This approach underpins Victoria’s 2021 bus plan. This plan is a great first step, but it’s more of a mud map than the detailed blueprint we need for the next state government term.
in the , We use the Remix transit planning tool to show how a modern bus network would provide western Melbourne communities with an alternative to driving.
We started by drawing a grid on major arterial roads every 10 minutes throughout the 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 deployed using existing bus operating budgets in the west, plus a modest increase to keep pace with population growth.
The capital cost for this first phase is also low, as upgrades are only required at bus stops and at key intersections to give priority to buses.
Once operational, we could supercharge the network and run it even faster and cheaper by investing in internationally proven techniques to isolate buses from other road traffic.
Our modeling also showed that, on average, more than three times more people could reach shops, services, and opportunities for social interaction at their local recreation center within 30 minutes on a weekday morning. For Hoppers Crossing, the increase is more than tenfold!
And these new services would be only half a mile from most homes in the west. This would be easily accessible to most people and if coupled with affordable on-demand services would leave no one behind.
Our research shows that we can be optimistic when it comes to 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 we all build political support to make a world-class clean electric bus system in Melbourne a reality before 2030.
A version of this article appears in The Age.
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