Canberra: “They Only Refer to Buses”

Transit debates often get stuck because the word we need doesn’t exist.  As longtime readers of this blog will know, I’d really like there to be a word that means “transit vehicle, maybe on rails and maybe on tires” or “clearly a bus right now, but with the possibility of growing rails in the future.”

Local 4 blogBut there isn’t such a word.  So when I’m working in a city where the short-term reality is an all-bus system, and I talk about that system and our short-term plans for it, well, it’s really hard not to use the word bus.  When I want to help people visualize it, it’s hard not to draw a picture of a bus.

When I do, rail advocates assume that means I’m expressing an opposition to rail, or perhaps just pandering to such feelings in my clients.  Here, for example, the latest blast from the head of the main light rail lobby group in Australia’s capital city, Canberra, in a comment on the Canberra news blog RiotACT:

Although Mr Walker proclaims transport mode agnosticism, he is being paid by a pro-bus department … . What do you think would happen to future work for his firm if he came out and said, replace buses with light rail on the rapid route where the demand warrants this modal change.

I have heard the [local government] policy people report on their long term plans based on the ‘Canberra Transport Plan’. They only refer to buses.

Actually, I’m being paid (and modestly) by a department that’s trying to plot a rational course into a sustainable transport future, for a city of 345,000 people who live mostly at low densities with an abundant road network.  The transit system is not yet at a scale or intensity where it needs the capacity that light rail would offer, nor is there much near-term prospect of funding for it.  Light rail could happen, and I certainly don’t oppose it, but as I said over and over in Canberra’s Strategic Plan process, if you wait for light rail, you will miss a lot of other opportunities to improve transit mobility, and to encourage more transit-friendly urban form.

So to improve public transit in Canberra, the government is moving forward with a plan to improve the buses.   Not because they love buses, but because (a) they have buses and (b) they need to move forward.

And so, to talk about that, they need to say the word “bus” a lot, and even draw pictures of buses.  Yes, if your conception of transit begins with an absolute division between a bus world and a rail world, then officials who do that are going to sound to you like bus advocates.

But if you call them that, you’re projecting your scheme onto them.  Not everyone lives in a bus-vs-rail world.  The experts and officials who say bus a lot may well be true bus enthusiasts, but they may also be people like me who just want to get on with the work of developing good transit, and who therefore reach for whatever tool will best do the job at hand.

47 Responses to Canberra: “They Only Refer to Buses”

  1. bill September 28, 2010 at 4:40 am #

    Bus + Rail: BRAIL.

  2. Felix the Cassowary September 28, 2010 at 4:53 am #

    “they need to move forward”
    And here was me thinking Julia Gillard was in charge of the country, not the city 🙂

  3. Tom West September 28, 2010 at 6:10 am #

    “Moving forward” is a horrible phrase – no-one ever talks about “moving backward”.

  4. David in Ottawa September 28, 2010 at 7:01 am #

    So long as you’re talking about rapid transit, you could use the acronym I just made up: ‘RTV’ – Rapid Transit Vehicle.
    Of course chances are I’m not the first person to have had such an idea, so naturally I did a Google search.
    That turns up results with that term’s usage as part of the longer term “StreetCar Rapid Transit Vehicle”, which just happens to be a bus.

  5. oscary September 28, 2010 at 7:16 am #

    buses will always be something one “has to take” as opposed to something one “wants to take”

  6. Jehiah September 28, 2010 at 7:19 am #

    My fiance works in aviation and although my passion is rail, i’m amazed at how much “Mass Transportation” leaves out Aviation. The federal/state funding for aviation dwarfs anything related to rail or bus.
    (It also is similar to “Green Energy” being about wind and solar, when there is much more energy to be harnessed in hydroelectrics, which we have been doing so for decades.)
    I know of no good solution to help guide people that keeps them from forgetting pieces of the puzzle.

  7. M1EK September 28, 2010 at 10:42 am #

    Of course, you handwaved away volumes of counterarguments that rest on the (quite likely) contention that even in Australia, there are a lot of people who drive today who might take a train tomorrow but will likely never ride your buses.

  8. ant6n September 28, 2010 at 11:19 am #

    I guess the biggest advantage over rail that buses have, and will always have, is that transit improvements are possible _today_, rather than in 5 years maybe.

  9. Pete (UK) September 28, 2010 at 11:45 am #

    I think the negative images asociated with buses are based on traditional services in mixed traffic with no priority. There was a similar attitude towards trams in the final years of the first generation tram networks in the UK and Europe. As we know, European trams systems were in the main transformed in the post war years leading to a rennaissance in tram and light rail systems. The same thing needs to happen with the bus to make it a more effective tool to deliver attractive urban transport that motorists will choose to use. And as ant6n says, it can be done quickly (compared to rail), plus the advantages of open BRT systems advocated by Jarrett mean the benefits can cover a wider area than a rail solution.

  10. anonymouse September 28, 2010 at 11:53 am #

    Surprisingly frequently when I’m on a Muni Metro train in San Francisco I’ll overhear a cellphone conversation that includes the phrase “I’m on the bus”. So I guess for at least some segment of the population, “bus” is the all-encompassing term for bus, trolleybus, and streetcar/light rail, though I rather doubt they refer to BART as such (I’d guess that they just call it “the BART”). I’ve also heard the entire Los Angeles MTA system, both rail and buses, referred to as “the Metro”.

  11. Chris M September 28, 2010 at 11:54 am #

    Is there a salient point that the more planners talk about buses as a proxy for miscelaneous rapid transit vehicle they will close their minds to the possibility of other mode choices?

  12. M1EK September 28, 2010 at 11:55 am #

    Pete, except that BRT is great in theory and always subpar in practice – either overpromising and underdelivering in the First World, or serving throngs of absolutely transit-dependent commuters in the Second or Third World who had no other choice anyways.

  13. GD September 28, 2010 at 12:16 pm #

    whenever it’s not about the vehicle itself, use “line,” and “corridor” – I would hope that both imply a certain permanence that people on the rails side rather associate with vehicles on tracks.
    I guess it’s doing with words what Jarrett advocates for doing with maps.

  14. Scott September 28, 2010 at 12:31 pm #

    Here in Auckland our BRT line (the northern express) is exceeding expectations. I don’t know where you get the idea that it is always sub-par.

  15. D September 28, 2010 at 12:36 pm #

    TROT: Transit – Rail or Tire

  16. M1EK September 28, 2010 at 2:08 pm #
    Guy in Auckland making roughly the same argument (linked to from a post that talks about how some people won’t ride buses).

  17. Jonathan September 28, 2010 at 2:10 pm #

    I’ve read your blog for awhile, and I had a sudden realisation that might help clarify this bus-rail issue which seems to crop up often.
    Transit professionals are usually contracted by transit agencies, who mostly ask the question, ‘what’s the best service we can get for this amount of money’. And you’ve written eloquently in the past about helping those agencies refine their concept of ‘best’.
    Transit advocates (in a political sense) start with a particular service goal in mind – which for various reasons often involves rail – and attempts to answer the question ‘how much will this cost and how do we obtain that money’.
    That a transit professional might be able to obtain 80% of that service for 60% of the cost isn’t relevant to their point of view – because they’ve already made a context based value judgement that what that saving would buy elsewhere isn’t worth as much as the better transit system (if they’d made a judgement that, for example, more parks would be a better use of the money, they’d be parks advocates instead).

  18. Jarrett September 28, 2010 at 2:11 pm #

    @Tom West and Felix. Interesting point about “moving forward.” Rhetorically, though, it’s not really an alternative to “moving backward.” It’s an alternative to “moving around pointlessly, in denial about the fact that you’re conceptually stuck.”

  19. Brisbane September 28, 2010 at 2:32 pm #

    What is the density of Canberra?

  20. Felix the Cassowary September 28, 2010 at 3:23 pm #

    I think the negative images asociated with buses are based on traditional services in mixed traffic with no priority.
    Well, that sounds like trams in Melbourne until maybe five years ago. But everyone loves them, because they’re romantic. Which is a subtle way of saying, “But everyone loves them, because everyone’s told everyone else loves them.” Now that there is a form of tram priority, we’ve also got bus priority.
    The only real advantage of trams—in Melbourne, a tram city—is that they go where they go for decades at a time, and they tend to go on major roads whenever they do it. Oh, and they also go to the city, so people who need pt for work use trams, not buses. The buses here in Germany are an age ahead of buses back home in Melbourne. I think 400m rules are probably second only to purchase by car companies for preventing decent pt.

  21. Nathan Landau September 28, 2010 at 4:39 pm #

    I’ve tried saying juar plain “transit” in this situation, but it really doesn’t add clarity.
    People on BART on their cell phones most commonly say “I’m on BART,” then “I’m at X station” and third I’m on the train.

  22. Zoltán September 28, 2010 at 4:39 pm #

    “There was a similar attitude towards trams in the final years of the first generation tram networks in the UK and Europe”
    Very good point, that.

  23. Dave September 28, 2010 at 10:15 pm #

    The Canberra problem is typified by the thinking that ‘light rail’ (particularly as opposed to ‘tram’ implies a service type and frequency, ie direct and fast, typically with generally well-spaced stops.
    The popularity (from my anecdotal observations) of the year-old Redex 727* bus route (soon to be “Red Rapid… does that mean more routes/colours are coming?) of the 727 service implies that Jarret’s mantra that service quality is more important than vehicle is on the mark.
    Of course there’s the MuniPlanner example that light rail delivers extra patronage boosts above and beyond buses, but unless the Federal govt chips in for the capital funds, it ain’t happening.
    *For those not familiar with Canberra, the 727 is pretty much the first ‘frequent’ (15-min), all day, direct, limited stop service in the city. Most of the other routes meander around the suburbs hourly, or offer peak hour commuter services only.

  24. Dave September 28, 2010 at 10:23 pm #

    Oops, I thought I typed a double-t… sorry Jarrett!
    @Brisbane – Canberra is mostly low density, with 5 main town centres and a few smaller areas of higher density. You can pretty much pick these from where the “frequent network” proposed by Jarrett’s company (who are helping the transport planning for Canberra) goes on the map of the city.

  25. Jarrett at September 28, 2010 at 10:26 pm #

    Dave.  Thanks for the credit for the RedEx!  Yes, it's the first of the new Rapids proposed by our Strategic PT Network Plan.  However, it's very much inspired by the success of the 300-series corridor from Belconnen to Tuggeranong.  The busiest segment of that corridor, between Belconnen and the City, is one of the most frequent and busiest bus corridors in Australia.  Arguably it has a few too many stops, and with the new Gungahlin-Kingston RedEx we've tried to get a more regular spacing with emphasis on speed.

  26. K September 29, 2010 at 1:08 am #

    I’m coming to the bus vs rail argument late on human transit and I almost feel bad re-igniting it but here’s my two cents.
    My fundamental belief is that people do not want to drive, take a train, light rail or a bus. They want to get places. And they will take the quickest, easiest most convenient way to get there. Most people don’t seem to have a problem with this idea. But when you point out examples where buses do provide quick, easy, convenient service and reap the rewards with ridership, there’s this idea that it’s because riders live in third world countries.
    So to break that paradigm, consider this. In Amsterdam and Copenhagen, the bicycle is the dominant mode of transport. Is it because the Netherlands and Denmark are third world countries? Is it because bikes (particularly heavy steel single speeds bikes) are so much more desirable than automobiles? Or is it because the bicycle is a quick, easy and convenient way of moving around the city?
    If you make transport (in whatever physical form it takes) quick, easy and convenient, people will use it.

  27. Brisbane September 29, 2010 at 2:10 am #

    @ Dave
    Oh I know, but how low is ‘low density’ and how high is ‘high density’. How low is too low for rail, and how high is too high for bus only operation?
    It seems to be implicit here.
    and is Canberra’s density lower or higher than other cities in Australia that have rail (Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Melbourne)?

  28. Jarrett at September 29, 2010 at 2:22 am #

    Canberra is far smaller and less dense than other Aus cities with rail systems

  29. Alon Levy September 29, 2010 at 2:51 am #

    Jarrett, is there any easy reference for Australian cities’ density? The SD density figures are too coarse for this, as we’ve discussed in the previous thread, but maybe there’s a quick reference for the densities of various neighborhoods and municipalities.

  30. M1EK September 29, 2010 at 2:52 am #

    @K: “If you make transport (in whatever physical form it takes) quick, easy and convenient, people will use it.”
    That’s right. The problem is that most of us have been sold the bill of goods on buses enough times in the past to know that it’s usually not true – even in a busway – that a bus service can be quick, easy, and convenient – or at least as much so as a reserved guideway light rail line.

  31. Brisbane September 29, 2010 at 3:06 am #

    How dense does Canberra have to be (or any Australian city) before a light rail or heavy rail or grade separated busway is viable?
    In other words- is there some numerical threshold level, and if so, what are they and how were those numbers arrived at?

  32. Jarrett at September 29, 2010 at 3:10 am #

    Brisbane.  Massively complicated question, because there are so many definitions of "viable" depending on both cost and desired outcomes, and so many kinds of rail project.  Any quick answer would be misleading. 

  33. Jarrett at September 29, 2010 at 3:22 am #

    Alon.  Re quick references of density, I hope I explained two posts back why all quick average densities are going to be meaningless.  But prodded by your question I looked at what the  Aus Bureau of Statistics reports for the big urban Statistical Divisions.  The numbers (all in persons/sqkm) include 427.4 for Canberra and 362.5 for Sydney. I stopped there, because Sydney is so much denser than Canberra in any
    way that matters to transit that this tells me I shouldn't care about these figures.  These figures are probably being swayed by big chunks of parkland that may be arbitrarily in or out of various statistical divisions, and if that's the case they're mostly nonsense.
    Aussie experts are encouraged to weigh in with better resources.
     You can explore these numbers yourself here:[email protected]/nrpbygeogtype!OpenView&Start=1&Count=1000&Expand=1.1.1&RestrictToCategory=Main%20Areas#1.1.1
    Just click on an area of interest, clock on "Population/People" and you'll get quickly to the 2008 figures including a density figure.

  34. Brisbane September 29, 2010 at 3:49 am #

    It looks like a bit of fun! ABS even lets you zoom into local areas with the map. Wow.

  35. Jarrett at September 29, 2010 at 4:18 am #

    Yes indeed.  Sydney is less dense than Canberra because it's "Statistical Division" boundary includes the whole ring of national parks surrounding it!  So useful!

  36. Brisbane September 29, 2010 at 5:09 am #

    I’ve had a bit of a play with it- its possible to get smaller bite sized chunks “statistical local area” which roughly correspond to suburbs, but they often have park in there too.

  37. K September 29, 2010 at 4:57 pm #

    M1EK, I’m not going to argue that buses haven’t historically been used in a bone headed way. I’ve done my time waiting for a bus long enough for the batteries on my walkman go flat. I’m glad those days are over for me(and that we have iPods now). But there are plenty of examples where buses, and BRT work. The reason it works isn’t some cultural quirk. It’s fairly basic.

  38. Dave September 29, 2010 at 5:25 pm #

    This is a little offtopic, but the 300-series buses bring up an interesting question, one partially discussed in the previous series of posts on mapping transit.
    The 300, 312, 313, 314, 315, 318, 319 make up the series. The 312, 314, 315 all explore the Belconnen area after completing the intertown run, while the 318 and 319 tour Tuggeranong. The 300 runs only between the interchanges.
    In my mind, while this isn’t too bad, there’s opportunity to streamline the nomenclature or routes. No other 300-series numbers are used. This has advantages (all 3xx run the same shared corridor) but why crowd all numbers into the 31x bracket? Why not have all the Belconnen services as 30x, and the Tuggeranong as 31x? Why even run the 300+ services out into the suburbs at all – run the 300 interchange service, and the ‘extension’ components as separate routes. (How valued is the one-seat ride to other interchanges, when you have an intertown frequency of 5 mins?)
    In short – how best to optimize and communicate to customers shared service corridors that may comprise similar or disparate routes? At-stop maps? Effective route number/letter clustering? Driver announcements? I feel most shared corridors tend not to make the most of their potential, particularly for buses (although same can occur for rail, if inconsistent timings or stopping patterns are used).

  39. jack horner September 29, 2010 at 8:12 pm #

    Re density of Canberra: The vast majority of Canberra is detached dwellings on 600-1000 square metres lots.
    In most neighbourhoods here are also small amounts of what you might call ‘medium density’ close to the local shops, eg two storey duplexes or terraces, and sometimes three storey walkup flats. This was part of a deliberate policy to house the full range of socioeconomic groups within each neighbourhood.
    From a transit planning point of view the more important influences are:
    – Most suburbs have a ‘three grades of spaghetti’ street layout which makes it impossible to design an efficient bus route. Not quite culdesac hell (usually there will be a footpath from the end of the culdesac to the next street), but it still makes local buses extremely slow and devious.
    – Within the neighbourhood the public domain is generous: wide local streets (eg 20m between property boundaries for a local access street), lots of small parks and playing fields.
    – The suburbs, or groups of suburbs, are separated by large tracts of hilltop nature park and similar low usage open space.
    As a result, I suspect that the overall urban density is less than the net density (counting house lot and adjacent street only) by a greater proportion than in many other cities. For a population of about 400,000 Canberra manages to stretch 30km from north to south.
    For good comment on Canberra planning see Hugh Stretton, ‘Ideas for Australian Cities’, 1975. A classic in my view and very readable.
    As others have discussed, the distribution of people and activity centres is more important for the viability of public transport than the average density of a large metropolitan area.

  40. Brisbane September 29, 2010 at 8:49 pm #

    The reason why I ask is this:
    “for a city of 345,000 people who live mostly at low densities with an abundant road network. The transit system is not yet at a scale or intensity where it needs the capacity that light rail would offer, nor is there much near-term prospect of funding for it.”
    Which may well be true.
    But it begs the questions ‘what level of population does Canberra need for rail/light rail/busways’and questions like ‘what density, scale and intensity’ does Canberra need to be before this is justified.
    And then there is the question and complications of what is ‘low density’ which was covered well in a previous H.T. post.
    It looks like short term buses will be what Canberra uses. But isn’t planning also about long term goals too- 20, 30, 50 years as well? For example, if rail or busways may feature in the future, wouldn’t that imply the need to preserve land in key corridors now?
    In that context, it would seem such questions are important.

  41. Jarrett at September 29, 2010 at 10:28 pm #

    Brisbane. Canberra strategic planning is definitely looking at
    preserving corridors and developing busways incrementally.

  42. Jarrett at September 29, 2010 at 10:29 pm #

    Dave. Keep an eye on upcoming Canberra network updates!

  43. Peter Parker October 1, 2010 at 8:27 pm #

    @ Dave – Canberra’s intertown route previously only ran between Belconnen and Tuggeranong centres and had the number 333. Network ’98 changed that to provide extensions at either end for most services.
    One of the criticisms of earlier Canberra networks was the extent to which people had to take 3 buses even for quite local trips and work journeys to places like Barton and Russell that were off the intertown route. Network 98’s through routing was seen as a way to reduce this.
    I know some (especially enthusiasts) dismiss this, I believe that similar numbering of related routes does help selling the higher frequency combined service. An example in Melbourne is that Routes 600/922/923 or 802/804/862 are less legible than 411/412, 216/219 or 250/251/253.
    Route 922 & 923 were originally portions of 822 and 823, and hence the planners thought that preserving this past relatinship was more important than the route that it parallels (601 and 602 were unallocated and could have been used).

  44. Matt Fisher October 6, 2010 at 11:49 am #

    Here in Ottawa, we refer to “bus pass” regularly.

  45. Martin ,ACT October 10, 2010 at 9:28 pm #

    Canberran’s like myself shouldn’t have to wait another twenty years for a frequent public transit network. Canberra led Australia with the first bus lanes, bus only streets and world class interchanges in the early 1970’s. This was part of the decentralization of the city centre into separate town centre’s.
    It has been the lack of political will particularly under self government that has seen us wait this long.
    Population or density is the constant argument for better public transport but you may like to know that Canberrans drive far less in annual per capita car km’s that other major cities like Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne. Sydney is a congested nightmare and there are more plans to build more motorways and tunnels and this is a model city for Canberra to be compared to ?
    Perth has a lower density than Canberra and has built a very successful heavy rail network, yet it does have a higher population , you could add cities in America like Houston and Phoenix which have built light rail networks recently and are lower in density and have a much higher per capita car transport use.
    On the other hand the city of Utrecht in Holland has about the same population as Canberra but has a higher density and has light rail ,Bi-articulated buses and is on the main rail link to other cities.
    The problem with our bus system is that is has been going backwards not forward in implementing new technologies and is driver intensive on the main inter-town routes because of the small capacity buses, instead of higher capacity articulated buses that we use to have.
    I hope when your next in town Mr Walker that you will advocate for an immediate build of a BRT system which the ACT can well afford right now and the start of a modest light rail link down Northbourne Ave, which will loop around the parliamentary triangle thus attracting some federal Government money as well. Anything less is a waste of ACT Taxpayers money and your time as well.

  46. Jarrett October 11, 2010 at 2:01 am #

    For reasons articulated here, densities of an entire city tell us little about public transport potential:
    However, I agree completely with your objective. ACT Government is moving forward aggressively with planning for improved Rapid bus services on the major corridors identified in the Strategic Public Transport Network Plan, including Canberra/Wentworth Avenues and Northbourne/Flemington Road. The first piece of a City-Belconnen busway is in construction near ANU and other pieces are in various stages of study.
    The general intention is to grow the Rapid bus network into “Bus Rapid Transit” through localised improvements, such as signal priority, queue jumps, and where required, pieces of separated busway.

  47. Jarrett at October 11, 2010 at 2:07 am #

    Martin.  I should add that I do disagree about the idea of starting light rail with a loop around the Parliamentary Triangle.  Most travel to the triangle is from points outside of it, so such a circulator would either (a) require unnecessarily large amounts of interchange (b) not replace much of the bus service in the Triangle.  Light rail also requires its own maintenance and operations base, and it's unlikely that the NCA would welcome such a thing in the Triangle or even within several km of it.
    I believe that when the time comes to pursue light rail, the logical focus will be on a complete Rapid corridor, such as Gungahlin – City, so that the rail service can replace Rapid Bus service instead of overlapping it.
    Our priority right now is to raise the frequency, quality and visibility of bus services in the Triangle so that both tourists and workers can find them easily.  There's actually a lot of bus service there now, and we're working on ways to present it in ways that makes its usefulness clear.