Bus route 508, Alphington to Moonee Ponds, Melbourne
Bus route 508 running east-west from Alphington to Moonee Ponds in inner suburban Melbourne

Here’s a statistic that’s bound to surprise most readers: more trips are made on an average weekday in metropolitan Sydney by bus (6.0%) than are made by train (5.4%). If we only look at the weekday morning peak, trains edge out buses but only just – 8.0% of all AM peak trips by train vs 7.8% by bus.

Clearly buses have a hugely important role in public transport. But they’re full potential is held back by a range of factors, particularly the failure of government to provide travellers with a clear understanding of where buses can take them.

The possibilities offered by trains and trams are reasonably clear because they have visible tracks and relatively simple routes. That makes them inflexible, but it also makes their potential to get you places easy to understand. Importantly, it makes them easy to communicate on a map.

Bus routes on the other hand are often almost invisible; many travellers simply don’t know how useful buses can be. They might be standing at the side of a street that has a great bus service and be completely oblivious. Moreover, bus routes are frequently hard to understand – and to map – because they can be mind-numbingly circuitous or change route over the course of a day (see Is the Qld government missing the bus?).

While trains are legible, their disadvantage in Australian cities is the network is mostly radial; they get you from the urban fringe to the CBD but they’re much less useful for lateral or orbital trips where dispersed demand makes high-capacity transit less viable. Even a short cross-suburban trip by train in a city like Melbourne usually requires travelling to the CBD – or at least to an inner city or inner suburban junction station – and out again.

Buses however can pretty much go anywhere. They get a deservedly bad press for low frequencies, low speeds and roundabout routes, but buses nevertheless are often a surprisingly effective way of moving around cities laterally, at least compared to the train.

For example, I was talking last week with a 20-year old student who wanted to travel laterally east-west from the Melbourne inner suburb of Alphington (station) to nearby Brunswick (cnr Nicholson and Blyth), a distance of about five kilometres. He’s an inveterate train user and his default assumption was to take the (Hurstbridge) train back to the city and transfer to another line (Upfield) that travels through Brunswick.

The idea that a bus might travel directly east-west didn’t occur to him. However, a look at Google Maps newly available transit option, or PTV’s Journey Planner, showed the 508 bus runs east-west from Alphington railway station to Moonee Ponds, via Brunswick.

The 508 operates from 5:30 am to 9:30 pm at 15 minute frequencies in the peak, 20 minutes in the inter-peak, and every 30 minutes after 7:00 pm. It would get him from Alphington station to the corner of Nicholson and Blyth in 18 minutes. That compares with over an hour, with transfer time and walking, by train.

There are plenty of other examples where buses work well for some lateral trips; and sure, there’re plenty of “gaps” where they could work better, but don’t. Here are three actions that would go a long way toward capitalising on the potential of buses:

First, bus routes need to be simplified. What’s needed is a primary network of frequent, direct and fast bus services across the metropolitan area that, like the rail system, is easy to map and easy for novice users to comprehend (see How can public transport work better in cities?).

Ideally, it should be part of a ‘grid’ of routes comprised of radial train, tram and bus trunk routes criss-crossed by lateral trunk bus routes at one to two kilometres centres. The bus routes should be as straight as the road system allows with provision for easy interchange at each node (see What can Auckland tell us about doing public transport better?).

Second, bus routes need to be mapped better. On-line applications promise to overcome the shortcomings of traditional maps but they’re not there yet; they need to make the possibilities offered by the complex bus network available to non-technically inclined travellers. Smartphones should have the power to display the network simply and quickly but so far the goal of ease of use has proved elusive.

Third, the main bus trunk routes need to be easily identified by travellers ‘on the ground’ in a similar way to how a tram line signals the existence, importance and predictability of a route. Perhaps something as simple as painting the centre line a specific colour is enough; or even better, colouring a strip of the road surface as is done with transit lanes.

Existing bus networks need improvement but they can still be very useful. Capitalising on those advantages is in part a matter of making travellers aware that buses are an opportunity; they’re a valuable and functional part of the public transport system.