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State Govt's own research shows why wheels fell off bus reforms

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The market research the State Government says informed their now abandoned changes to the public transport system reveals where the plans went wrong – with more than three-quarters of people happy with their access to stops and stations. What now for public transport reform?

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Transport Minister Stephan Knoll painted a sad picture of public transport during his ill-starred efforts to sell a “once-in-a-generation” change to Adelaide’s bus system – changes that were spectacularly dumped last week.

Knoll repeatedy referenced customer research which he said informed the changes, designed to provide speedier and more frequent services on busy corridors.

He insisted that the system was “not working”.

But did the Minister listen too closely to the concerns of people not using the system – rather than core customers?

“It’s very clear the stagnant growth, in fact some of the decrease in the number of people using it meant we have to look at changing the system,” he told ABC radio.

“And what we did last year and the year before is actually undertake some very in-depth, comprehensive market surveys as to why people weren’t using public transport, and what they came back with… is you need a more frequent service and by the way when we get on that bus we want to get to where we want to go more quickly, because at the moment it takes too long to get from A to B.”

However, the research, conducted by Colmar Brunton, shows that two-thirds of people are satisfied with the system – a number that’s higher among regular and occasional users and, perhaps not surprisingly, lower among non-users (a situation unlikely to be improved by Knoll repeatedly saying the system “simply wasn’t working”).

Knoll’s office released an executive summary of the research to InDaily, but refused to respond to requests to provide the full report.

While the research finds that frequency of services and value for money are the key barriers to using the services, it also shows that ease of accessing stops and stations is a top-five driver of satisfaction with the system.

In fact, 78 per cent of those surveyed were satisfied with the ease of accessing stops and stations – the stops that Knoll and his planners wanted to cut back substantially and make less convenient for many users.

In other words, the Government’s concept, to axe some 1000 general use bus stops to ensure more frequent and speedy services, would have made a massive hit to an area of strength in order to address an area of weakness.

The report also casts some doubt about whether the concern of frequency of services is accurate.

It says that South Australians’ perceptions of public transport are divided, with 22% believing that public transport is getting better and 16% feeling it getting worse. The majority – 61% – feel it is staying the same.

Tellingly, the most commonly cited reason for why the system was seen to be improving was “new infrastructure and updated stops and stations”, while “poor service frequency was the main reason why people felt it was getting worse”.

“However, those who use public transport rarely or not at all were more likely to think it is getting worse, which suggests that perceptions of service frequency may be outdated or ‘incorrect’.”

An extract from the Government-commissioned research.

University of Adelaide transport researcher Jennifer Bonham says that public transport has strong support in the community and the Government’s research shows this.

Improvements need to take into account all of the factors that influence people’s decision to use the bus system – or not.

“As the report says, people choose public transport when it is easy to do,” Bonham told InDaily. “And ‘easy’ needs to be understood in a multi-faceted sense including (but not limited to) – ease of access to stops and stations, ease of the journey itself (not being stressed by services not arriving on time or the journey taking a long time), set downs in convenient locations.”

Former Director-General of Transport in SA, Derek Scrafton, says that if the survey had told customers that the trade-off for faster, more frequent services was the loss of local of bus stops and, in some cases, an entire service, then the answers on frequency would have been different.

He said the proposed new system favoured commuters going to key centres ahead of people who don’t have access to private transport and “are captive to the public modes to due financial limitations, old, age, infirmity or who are too young to drive”.

The fact that such a profound shift was contemplated indicates to Scrafton either a misunderstanding of the role of public transport, or the dominance of rail and tram-focused planners in the bureaucracy – or maybe both.

“An essential role of government is to part-fund public transport services that provide basic accessibility in the same way it does to ensure other essential services such as shelter, health and education are available,” he said in a submission to Minister Knoll.

Scrafton also believes the proposals “have the hallmark of being thought up by planners who run (or would prefer to run) trains and trams rather than buses: end-to-end line service with few stops, no bifurcations, minimial network connectivity or local areas services”.

“This is understandable as the SA Government has owned and operated the rail system directly for over 25 years, during which the bus system has been contracted out to private companies for its operation,” he says.

“In recent years up to half the cost to the taxpayer has been spent on rail and tram services which only serve at most 25 per cent of public transport users who pay a fare. A bias, whether deliberate or unintentional, is evident in the Government’s public transport planning and administration.”

What next?

Bonham, a senior lecturer in geography, environment and population at the University of Adelaide, believes there are positive actions the Government can do in the short, medium and long-term to address the barriers to public transport identified in its research.

As a guiding principle, however, she says the Government needs to consider public transport services as an investment, because they foster social inclusion across all socio-economic categories.

In the short-term, she says, increased patronage could be encouraged by increasing the proportion of people living within 400 metres of a stop or station – both through increasing services and using land-use mechanisms.

The benefits of having more frequent services is reduced if the buses get stuck in traffic. So what’s needed is to provide more dedicated bus lanes, or high-occupancy vehicle lanes, on major cross-town routes and key reoutes into the city – such as Tea Tree Gully to Elizabeth or Mt Barker to the city.

“If our transport planners are serious about improving the reliability and timeliness of public transport then this is one of the most important measures they can introduce,” she said.

Bonham also believes the Government can use price signals to encourage patronage, by introducing weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual tickets.

“People are incentivised to use the system to maximise the return on their investment,” she said.

Increasing patronage would also improve safety, with more people providing “casual surveillance” at stops and stations.

In the medium term, better integration is Bonham’s favoured approach.

The Government says it is focusing on this as a strategy, but Bonham suggests cycle park and ride facilities would be a useful addition to the network. It’s cheaper than car park and ride and is good for commuters who live beyond comfortable walking distances from their stop, but don’t want the expense of car parking nor the hassle of congestion which is common around park and ride stations.

In the long term, Bonham wants to see regulatory mechanisms in place to make sure we design neighbourhoods where people have options for getting to the services they need – a concept sometimes called “20-minute neighbourhoods“.

At the moment, she explains, Adelaide has very little housing choice – it’s predominantly either a tower apartment in the city or a detached home in the suburbs. As a result, many people must have a private car to navigate even their own suburb.

Greater housing choice, concentrating population around key hubs, would make it more feasible for people to walk, cycle or use a mobility scooter to get to services, and it would also make public transport services more feasible.

“You start thinking much more broadly than ‘everyone needs a car and public transport is just the fill-in option’, which is what we do at the moment and pretty much have been doing since the ’60s,” she said.”

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