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Public transport

Jun 13, 2017

Should Doncaster BRT be a priority?

A private proposal to build and operate a Bus Rapid Transit system in Doncaster looks promising but taxpayers will ultimately pay for it; so it's vital to make sure it's a high priority

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Transdev proposes building dedicated Bus Rapid Transit lanes in the expansive central median of the Eastern Freeway originally designed to take rail lines

The Age reported last week that global transport giant Transdev has pitched to the Andrews government a proposal to build and operate a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system connecting the Doncaster region in Melbourne’s east with the CBD.

The company submitted its proposal under the Victorian Government’s guidelines for market-led proposals; it wants to build and operate the BRT system for 30 years in return for outlaying $500 million on infrastructure. The Age tells us:

Modelling by engineering consultancy AECOM found the bus rapid transit system would provide a reliable 30-minute journey between Doncaster and Southern Cross station. Currently that journey takes 47 minutes or more in the peak due to inner-city traffic jams. 

The proposed Doncaster BRT system would effectively replace the existing Doncaster Area Rapid Transit (DART) service currently managed by Transdev. DART lacks much of the dedicated infrastructure that defines true BRT.

We don’t know the detail of Transdev’s proposal, but if the claims its making stand up to closer scrutiny it looks like an attractive idea. The Age’s leader writer certainly thinks it’s pretty good (see Eastern Freeway transport plan is a bus route to a better future for Melbourne). I even floated the idea in passing myself back in 2010 – see here (in Comments).

A cost of $0.5 Billion is a lot better than the proposed $4 – $6 Billion required to build a rail line from Doncaster Hill to Victoria Park station, not to mention the additional cost of expanding rail capacity to the CBD (see Are all new urban rail lines wise investments?). We don’t know the benefit-cost ratio for Transdev’s proposal, but it’s bound to be a lot better than the figure for rail; Infrastructure Victoria estimated the BCA for Doncaster rail is “very low, at 0.1 – 0.2 with WEBs included”.

BRT would improve the welfare of eastern suburbs residents by providing increased peak capacity for CBD trips (3,000 passengers per hour at three minute frequencies). Dedicated lanes mean it would greatly improve reliability and journey predictability, as well as significantly reduce existing average journey times. If and when a train were warranted, the freeway bus lanes could be repurposed for rail lines.

It wouldn’t be quite as good as a train on most metrics, but then it wouldn’t cost anywhere near as much either or have as appalling a ratio of benefits to costs. Because buses can start from a range of different origins within the region, BRT would also have the advantage of giving residents a single seat journey to the city centre rather than having to change from feeder buses to a train.

It’s hard to justify the expense of a train in a low density area where residents are hostile to more intensive development. As I noted here, this is not a region whose residents welcome development.

The City of Manningham’s population grew by a mere 0.3% per annum over 2006-11. In comparison, the inner municipalities of Yarra and Port Phillip grew 1.4% p.a. and 1.5% p.a. respectively over the same period; Melton and Wyndham grew by 8% p.a. and 9% p.a. respectively.

Manningham’s projected to grow by just 0.85% per annum over the period 2011 – 2031. That compares with projected growth for Greater Melbourne of 2.1% p.a. over the same period; the cities of Melbourne, Wyndham and Melton are projected to grow by over 4% p.a.

They get caught in traffic, but buses are already an important mode of transport in Australia’s major cities. In Sydney, they carry more residents than trains. In Melbourne, they account for more journeys by residents that trams. The future though is BRT; Transdev operates BRT systems in Bogotá in Columbia, and the French cities of Rouen and Nantes. Brisbane has one of the world’s notable BRT systems.

A potential issue with Transdev’s proposal is how the dedicated BRT lanes in the inner city would be provided. This is a relatively dense and transit-rich part of Melbourne; dedicated lanes can be and should be at the expense of cars, not trees. The new “continuous flow” intersection treatments in Hoddle St the Government promised at the last election might also be affected by provision of dedicated BRT lanes.

The touted cost should be treated with caution. Early estimates are almost always too optimistic. Constructing lanes and ramps in existing carriageways is difficult. I doubt it would approach the cost of light rail though, which would likely be in the order of $1.5 – $2 Billion to construct. Light rail has advantages relative to BRT but they’re routinely exaggerated (see Should light rail to Doncaster be a key priority for Melbourne?).

The key question, though, is how Transdev would make money from the proposal. Public transport isn’t profitable; so ultimately the Government will have to pay the company for building and operating the infrastructure. But as the history of infrastructure privatisations in Australia shows, governments are notoriously weak at negotiating with the private sector.

Some think there’s scope to sell development air rights at stops on the Eastern Freeway but that’s highly unlikely; other than in a handful of cases, suburban property values simply aren’t high enough to justify the substantial extra cost of building over operating roads and railways. Anyway, it’s not clear the likely patronage for BRT platforms isolated in the middle of the freeway (e.g. see herehere and here) would justify the cost of provision.

If it proceeds, Transdev’s proposal won’t come free; taxpayers will ultimately pay for it. So, one issue is whether or not it could be done as well, or better, by the Government directly.

Another important issue is whether, even if Doncaster BRT has a favourable benefit-cost ratio, there are nevertheless better projects the Government should do ahead of it; for example, improving public transport in established suburbs with greater redevelopment potential, or in fringe suburbs with limited local job opportunities. Indeed, it’s reasonable to ask why the Government wouldn’t simply improve the existing DART service by providing  more dedicated roadspace, especially in the inner city, and more frequent services.

If the stated claims stack up, Transdev’s proposal should improve the wellbeing of Doncaster area residents. But until we have better information, we should treat the company’s assertions with caution. Most of all though, we need to be especially wary of the idea that the Doncaster area is somehow “owed” priority over the rest of Melbourne because it didn’t inherit a rail line. DART isn’t perfect but that doesn’t mean Doncaster is the most pressing public transport priority for scarce dollars in Melbourne.

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7 thoughts on “Should Doncaster BRT be a priority?

  1. Craig Simpson

    Correcting the point about buses in Sydney.
    Buses in Sydney move 240 million people a year. (about 660,000 a day)
    Trains in Sydney move nearly 360 million people a year. (about 1 million a day)
    The new metro’s will increase this to well over 400 million a year.

    1. Alan Davies

      Craig, see the Sydney Household Travel Survey published by the NSW Bureau of Transport Statistics. Table 4.3.2 shows trains account for 5.4% of trips by Sydneysiders on an average weekday, whereas private and public buses account for 5.9%. You’ll note that in the article I specifically referred to trips by residents; the difference relative to the patronage figures you cite is probably mostly due to trips by non-residents e.g. tourists.

  2. Chris Goodman

    Ten reasons the proposed Doncaster busway is a dudway
    1. The extra bus lane is physically accessible to all vehicles. This means the bus will be restricted to the same 100km speed limit leading to a longer trip than necessary.
    2. Motorists will not be enticed to change to the bus if it is a lot slower than driving.
    3. The extra bus lane will preclude the possibility to build a heavy or even a light rail.
    4. The bus lane reservation on the freeway should be taken from existing vehicle lanes, otherwise the capacity on the eastern freeway will continue to fill leading to no net traffic reduction.
    5. Freeway congestion does not affect the bus service today. It is the city street congestion that causes the delays. The freeway reservation does not not address the real issue.
    6. The bus will be diesel powered. Bringing large numbers of engines that emit a class 1 carcinogen into highly populated city streets is madness.
    7. The bus will be fossil fuel powered. All new infrastructure should be based on renewable electricity.
    8. Trains are already massively overcrowded. How is the bus service going to cope with a population target of 10 million?
    9. This is a sell off of public land that was reserved for a railway, not a private bus operator. Keep public land in public hands.
    10. Cofevee. Don’t be fooled by this weak attempt at placating the electorate. Demand real action on public transport.

    1. Itsumishi

      Decent article Alan.
      I can’t find anything in the public domain about this, but it is my understanding that the proposed BRT isn’t planned to serve single-seat journeys. As I understand Transdev intends to have only fully electric double-articulated buses using the lanes and wants to build transfer points connecting the system to the local bus routes in Doncaster.

      In response to some of Chris’ points above:
      1. I don’t see any evidence to support this claim, except on Hoddle Street. On the freeway its intended to build on the railway reserve, so apart from entry and exit points there is easily enough space to separate the lanes with physical barrier. On Lonsdale Street it appears the “stops” will be located between the dedicated bus lanes and traffic lanes which would require separation.
      3 & 9. It is highly unlikely the government would sell the land, therefore this proposal wouldn’t preclude rail. More likely the Government would enter a contract with Transdev to operate the system for a set time, with the land leased contracts to manage the land in place as part of the contract. The system could be decommissioned if capacity was exceeded and rail became a more attractive proposition than it is now.
      4. Somewhat valid, but a political shitfight.
      5. All evidence in the public domain seems to suggest dedicated ROW for at least the majority of the route including Hoddle Street and CBD.
      6 & 7. Word on the street is Transdev are floating electric buses for the system.

  3. James Adams

    An interesting analysis as usual, Alan. However, I do not subscribe to your opinion that the Doncaster area is not a priority for transport improvements. Indeed, as the home to two very safe seats, Manningham has seen next to no infrastructure investment over many decades, with the only significant transport investment being the new DART network eight years ago. While Manningham hasn’t got any new infrastructure in years, there have been a slew of projects in other parts of Melbourne:
    CBD and inner city: Melbourne Metro, new trams and line upgrades, separated bike lanes, etc
    South-west: Regional Rail Link
    West: Regional Rail Link, Ballarat Line Upgrade, new Caroline Springs Station, LX removals and new stations at St Albans/Ginifer, Melbourne Metro capacity improvements, WGTP veloway
    North-west: Not too much (as safe Labor seats), but Broadmeadows Station upgrade and upcoming LX removals
    North: LX removals, Mernda extension, new trams, Hurstbridge Line upgrade, station rebuilds
    East: LX removals, Box Hill interchange upgrade, new Ringwood/Heatherdale/Mitcham/Gardiner/Bayswater/etc stations
    South-east: LX removals galore, skyrail, Southland station, Melbourne Metro capacity, new trams, new trains, station rebuilds (including Frankston), Hungtingdale Station precinct, etc.

    While some areas may be experiencing high levels of growth and therefore may require more investment, that doesn’t mean other areas with capacity issues should go without new infrastructure. It’s also worth noting that pretty much all major public transport projects are train or tram related: with neither existing in Manningham, its lowly buses are often neglected by the government.

    1. Alan Davies

      James, I don’t think I’m asserting the Doncaster area should not be a priority for transport investment; rather, I’m saying the case for big projects must be made, it can’t just be assumed. There should be a more sophisticated analysis than it’s “a rail black hole”.

      Counting infrastructure dollars spent is fraught without access to objective and reliable information. More importantly, it doesn’t really answer the question because some areas have better starting points than others.

      A more useful approach would be based on performance e.g. compare Doncaster’s accessibility by mode to the rest of Melbourne with other regions competing for public funding. In arriving at investment priorities, that data should be evaluated in the light of other variables like cost, population, jobs, scope for intensification, availability of alternatives, etc.

      I expect there’s a strong case for incremental improvements to DART such as dedicated lanes in the inner city, but on the face of it, the argument for big investments (e.g. like Mernda rail, Melbourne Metro) doesn’t seem compelling compared to the claims of other areas – the Doncaster region is already built out, it’s low density, and residents make it clear they’ve limited appetite for intensification.

  4. Lesley Graham

    This has been on the cards for years. The government keeps going oh! lets do this then they do the maths & then go, oh! it’s way too hard & again drop it. You need to keep in mind the ever increasing development in Doncaster & Boxhill. There should have been light rail put in years ago, but because of the political inability to actually do anything about good public transport in this area & the short sighted approach to public transport that seems to plague all state governments, they’ve just sat on their hands. It is no wonder the lunacy that plagues commuters just trying to get anywhere in peak hour that is without a sensibly structured rail system like Doncaster has been for so many years is getting greater & far worse than it need be.

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