I’m disappointed The Age ran a story this week with the lede: “After almost 10 years in the role, Melbourne’s chief complainer about public transport has finally had enough.” The headline was just as rude: “Transport mouthpiece to step down.”

Exhibit: You’d think these would be everywhere in a UNESCO City of Literature (photo by Stan Alcorn)

The “chief complainer” and “mouthpiece” is Daniel Bowen, current President of Victoria’s Public Transport Users Association (PTUA), who’s just announced he won’t stand for re-election next month. Since The Age and the PTUA have pretty well been singing from the same hymn sheet in recent years, I can only hope it’s an attempt at humour that doesn’t come off.

The PTUA started 36 years ago as the Trains Travellers Association, changing its name in 1984 to its present decidedly prosaic incarnation. It’s a small, lean and hungry group of volunteers that punches well above its weight in shaping discussion of public transport, particularly in Melbourne.

It’s had some extraordinarily able spokespersons in recent years like Paul Mees and Daniel Bowen. What’s marked them out is their in-depth understanding of the technical aspects of public transport planning and operations.

What’s mattered most though is they’re good media performers and have worked hard, making themselves very accessible to the media. The laziness of the press and TV has doubtless helped here, but they’ve also shown an imaginative and proactive approach to using it.

Daniel Bowen has been particularly impressive. He brought a measure of reasonableness and maturity to the PTUA’s media profile. It’s fair to say, I think, that the public like him – if he were inclined to, I reckon he’d be successful in politics.

With the change of President after nine years, though, it would be timely for the PTUA to reflect on its role and future direction. To my mind, there are a couple of key issues to think about.

The first is tactical and relates to the PTUA’s self-defined role as an advocacy group. It’s an essentially political organisation with a line to sell and its been very forceful in selling that line.

It’s not afraid to massage and spin to maximise the impact of issues it holds to be important. Its defining focus is the media and that’s meant it has tended at times to take a populist position.

Its also elected on occasions to ignore the real-life constraints on constructing and managing transport systems. For example, it’s advocated virtually every major rail proposal that’s been touted, without showing much concern for their merits or for prioritising them within the constraint of scarce resources.

I’d like to see the PTUA take a more considered approach on some issues. For example, rather than offering unreserved support, it should be advocating against the likes of marginal projects such as the proposed Rowville rail line, on the basis that there are far higher priorities for the transport dollar.

The PTUA seems to prefer to take the simplistic, but easy to sell, line that all public transport’s equally good if it involves rails. In a world of unlimited resources that might be fair enough, but not in the real world. I think this is one area where the organisation could really improve its relevance.

The second issue concerns whether making the media your defining strategy is the best approach for an organisation like the PTUA. It necessarily involves bucketing various other parties on a consistent basis so it has its risks.

Members should think very carefully about whether success in garnering media attention is really the same thing as success in achieving better public transport outcomes. They also need to consider if the PTUA might be more effective if it adopted a different strategy.

Those ostensibly similar organisations, the RACV and Bicycle Network Vicoria (BNV), tend to work more with Government (although that’s not to say they’re never openly critical). They even run programs on behalf of government – for example, Melbourne Bikeshare is managed by the RACV.

They doubtless think that’s a more effective way of advancing the welfare of their members than relying primarily on managing the media. In my view that approach comes with its own risks (some of which I’ve discussed before).

I tend to the view that the PTUA’s arms-length approach is probably the right one. Partly that’s because it doesn’t have the option of “working with” other stakeholders like government, at least in part because it doesn’t have a large membership base.

Both the RACV and BNV have “killer apps” that attract members – roadside service and cyclist insurance, respectively. Moreover many members find driving and cycling intrinsically interesting, whereas public transport users treat the experience like washing clothes – necessary but inherently boring.

Without a large membership base, the PTUA’s scope to influence from “inside the tent” is limited. So I suspect the media strategy probably is the right approach for the PTUA. But it certainly warrants further reflection.

The third issue concerns who the PTUA speaks for. It’s run by a small group of dedicated and passionate enthusiasts (actually, seems to be a dynastic club!). They have a demonstrably green agenda that includes a huge expansion in public transport’s mode share and restrictions on driving.

Most readers of The Urbanist will be sympathetic to that objective. However it’s very unlikely that all of their agenda (and the implicit values underlying it) reflects the concerns, much less the political orientation, of most public transport users.

As I noted recently, 38% of Melburnians use public transport at least once a month. I imagine they overwhelmingly share the PTUA’s frustrations with the inefficiency of the overall system, but I expect only a small minority share the same ideological position on issues like freeways.

It’s testimony to the media smarts of the organisation that it’s nevertheless managed to position itself so effectively as the key consumer voice – in fact the only one – on public transport in Melbourne.

The critical question here is whether the PTUA wants to be an organisation representative of the narrow concerns and views of all public transport users (similar to RACV and BNV); or whether it wants to be a ginger group promoting a broader but largely non-mainstream view.

For the same reasons mentioned above in relation to membership, I don’t think it can ever be broad-based. If the media treat it as representative that’s more the media’s fault than the PTUA’s. Personally, I’d like to see it continue to push a “radical” agenda.

Even if the PTUA were to conclude, like me, that its strategic direction is pretty much right, it should still use this opportunity to stop and have a good hard think. I hope though that it decides to be more discerning about priorities. And well done to Daniel Bowen – he’s a very hard act to follow.