But there is a catch. Melbourne’s buses run under 28 separate contracts with fourteen private operators – some big multinationals, others small family businesses delivering only a few services. Many operators have, over decades, developed a sense of ownership of “their” routes and resisted efforts to simplify the system. This model cannot accommodate the transition to electric buses. So, the expiry of most of the smaller contracts in mid-2025 is an important deadline for finding new ways for government and contractors to collaboratively manage the transition.
Kinetic is trialling electric bus routes in Melbourne.Credit:Louis Trerise
This transition to cleaner buses is only the first step. It won’t help the climate or ease suburban transport woes if we run clean buses on today’s convoluted routes and unreliable timetables which only very few Melburnians use. We need more Melburnians using buses.
Fortunately, there is a proven approach to bus service design, articulated by University of Melbourne researcher Paul Mees in the 1990s, that can help us get the most value from a new electric bus fleet. Paul’s work showed how some cities, by exploiting what he called the ‘network effect’, attract drivers onto public transport even at residential densities comparable to suburban Melbourne. They do this by operating fast and frequent services connected in a grid that makes it easy to travel to many destinations. Effectively, the convenience that travellers find so appealing in London and Paris can be reproduced in the suburbs using electric buses.
This approach underpins Victoria’s 2021 Bus Plan. This plan is a great first step, but it is a more of a mud map than the detailed blueprint we need for the next term of state government.
In Better Buses for Melbourne’s West, we use the Remix transit planning tool to show how a modern bus network would give communities in Melbourne’s west an alternative to driving.
We started by drawing a grid network on key arterial roads that would run at a 10-minute frequency all day (including weekends) with an average speed of 25 km/h.
We were surprised to find that a new network could be delivered using existing operational budgets for buses in the west, plus a modest top-up to keep pace with population growth.
Capital costs, for this first stage, are also low, with upgrades only needed at bus stops and at key intersections to give buses priority.
Once it’s up and running, we could super-charge the network, making it even faster and cheaper to run by investing in internationally proven techniques to isolate buses from other road traffic.
Our modelling also showed that, on average, more than three times more people could reach shops, services, and opportunities for social interaction at their local centre within 30 minutes on a weekday morning. For Hoppers Crossing, the increase is more than tenfold! And, these new bus services would be within an 800-metre walk of most households in the west. This would be easily accessible for most people and, if linked to affordable on-demand services, would leave no one behind.
Our research shows we can be optimistic about finding alternatives to driving in the suburbs. The task now is for the government to refine a new network through careful planning and community consultation and for all of us to build political support to make a world-class system of clean electric buses a reality in Melbourne before 2030.