If peak oil theories prove correct, and all signs are that they will, access to shrinking amounts of oil is the likelihood we must all face over coming decades. Yet what is really being done locally to prepare us for that eventuality?
Brisbane is Australia’s fastest-growing capital city and there are noises about lifting public transport patronage. Yet our public transport and our town planning efforts are dismal by comparison to those in most other Australian capitals, let alone world’s best practice.
With an under-utilised rail system , an over-utilised, predominantly radial bus network – that not only replicates many rail services but also contributes to congestion and unnecessary extra pollution by pointing most of its services inwards to an already busy city centre – as well as limited cross-modal co-ordination, it is time to ask at least three tough questions.
Why do Brisbane’s buses not run shorter, mostly intra-suburban circuits that ultimately carry passengers not only to and from more local destinations, but also to more efficient, less-polluting train or ferry services that deliver them to the city and other distant destinations much faster than by meandering bus routes using clogged city streets?
Keep buying additional buses by all means and retain high-speed corridors that are already in existence, but use most of the growing fleet to give passengers more local options and more flexibility so they can opt for well-integrated services that cover more areas of the city more efficiently and more often.
When it takes an hour or more – and sometimes two or more bus changes – just to travel 10-12km into the city on an infrequent and/or overcrowded bus service, there is little incentive for private transport users to convert to public transport.
Why, in a mature city with potential passenger movements from early morning until midnight or later, are services designed more around moving the mythical nine-to-fiver with no other commitments?
Increasingly fragmented start and finish times – thanks to increased part-time or casual employment plus more flexible working hours for full-time public and private sector employees – often sees commuters opt for private transport because public transport scheduling seems to be predicated on assumptions about the work day beginning at 9am and ending at 5pm.
Want to stay in town to shop or study, for dinner or a few drinks after work? Forget public transport, it still pretty much dies after 6pm. You’ll probably have to wait up to an hour just to get any rail service that’s heading your way. Then it would likely deposit you where you could not get a bus or taxi if you needed it to get home safely.
Parents with children know their ability to rely on public transport is hampered by the lack of slick intra-urban connections. Sure, they can get to/from work reasonably well, but throw in a deviation of any sort for a pick-up at a childcare or after-school care centre and things get too tricky.
Tens of thousands of tertiary students and staff attend more than a dozen campuses of Brisbane’s universities and TAFE colleges each weekday. Classes begin as early as 8am and end as late as 10pm. Yet many of these potential public transport users opt to drive because of poor access to public transport – usually meaning unsustainable travel times or unsafe options – and high costs.
Why do the bulk of Brisbane’s transport options follow existing main roads or rail corridors when, increasingly, key activities are located elsewhere?
One key problem, of course, is the disappointing lack of foresight with town-planning that has seen development approvals for large health, educational and other community facilities mostly on unused/unwanted parcels of land not particularly close to existing public transport.
That, coupled with a reluctance – even unwillingness – to create adequate services for those facilities, means private transport is too often the only solution.
One northside private school that opened in 1960 today has more than 1600 students from pre-school to Year 12. Visit it morning and evening and you’ll see the vast majority of students being dropped off and picked up by car – not because of affluence or laziness but because of the lack of available, reliable public transport options and interconnections.
At this one school alone, as school begins each year, students of all ages pile onto dangerously overcrowded buses. It’s not uncommon that some are left standing at their home or school stop because buses are too full or simply don’t turn up. Sometimes there have been ridiculous situations where students can get to school by bus but not home again because there were no return services on that route.
Requests by parents and this school over the years for extra services to cater for students coming from a wider catchment area – or to accommodate extracurricular commitments before and after school – have, mostly, fallen on deaf ears.
Eventually these youngsters and their parents give up and find a private alternative, sending a powerfully negative message to current and potential public transport users and consigning them to less-active options.
Part of the price of growth for any capital city must be attention to public transport frequency, reliability and economy.
In Tokyo and New York, for example, trains come every few minutes during peak periods and off-peak at least every 10 minutes. In Sydney, Melbourne and Perth at least, one can already pretty much survive without a car at all or with one per household at most.
Yes, all but Perth are much larger cities, but we need to move towards those levels of service and planning if we are to drive public transport use upwards and reduce our reliance on dwindling oil reserves.
Unless and until Brisbane’s transport system is efficient, effective, relatively inexpensive and responsive to a broader range of passengers and their needs, its residents will be forced to choose private transport at an increasingly expensive cost to themselves and society.
Written by Trina McLellan originally in September, 2007