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Free city bus service hits potholes

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The future of the free city connector bus is in doubt, with the State Government and Adelaide City Council proposing to scale back the route or replace it with an on-demand service despite concerns from some councillors.

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The bus service, which is co-funded by the Department for Planning, Transport and Infrastructure and the Adelaide City Council, has been in question since March last year, when InDaily reported the State Government intended to half its funding contribution.

At last night’s city council committee meeting, it was revealed Transport Minister Stephan Knoll had provided notice of his intention to terminate the funding deed entirely by the end of June – three and a half years before it was set to expire.

It follows a State Government decision to reconfigure Adelaide’s metropolitan public transport network to make it more efficient, with a community consultation on the changes to begin by next month.

Knoll has previously told InDaily that a new route for the city connector bus was needed to avoid duplication with the free tram services in the CBD.

Unlike the current route, which operates on a 30-minute frequency covering all corners of the city and North Adelaide via two loops, the proposed new service would run every 20 minutes on an “out-and-back” route through the centre of North Adelaide to Victoria Square.

The suggested route, devised by DPTI, also removes sections covering Montefiore Road, Jerningham Street and King William Road, leading to less coverage around the east of North Adelaide and Morphett Street where patronage is low.

Current and proposed new city connector bus routes shown in blue compared to other bus routes (green) and the tram route (yellow). Images: Adelaide City Council

The council’s transport services manager Daniel Keller told last night’s meeting that adopting the new route would result in operational savings for the council, which currently spends in the order of $940,000 each year to run the service.

He said the council was paying significantly more to run the free bus compared to similar services in other Australian capital cities.

“We’re paying approximately $22 per kilometre that the service runs (whereas) other metropolitan cities in Australia pay less than half of that,” he said.

“The cost per passenger works out to around $7 per passenger that this state and City of Adelaide are subsidising for each trip and that’s slightly higher than other cities.”

The city connector bus provides up to 18,000 passenger trips on average per month, rising to 20,0000 passenger trips during the peak festival season.

Keller said if the council decided to retain the current route there was a risk that it would be left with a significant cost burden without State Government funding support.

He said an alternative option would be to adopt a free on-demand service, which would be “more direct and more efficient” than a timetabled bus and would “highlight Adelaide as a progressive city”.  

The idea was supported by Lord Mayor Sandy Verschoor, who said she was “really curious” about how it could work in Adelaide.

“I would love for us to do something really progressive that looks at something where we literally have a service at our fingertips as we want,” she said.

“I’d be keen to know where else that’s working and how that is working to see whether that’s something that we could also approach.”

Deputy Lord Mayor Alexander Hyde said while the on-demand service “does sound promising”, he had concerns about whether all members of the community would be able to easily access the service.

“I really wouldn’t want to disenfranchise the vulnerable in the community from being able to access this service and… by that I’m thinking about the elderly,” he said.  

“Being able to go to a bus stop and be sure that a bus is going to come as opposed to the rigmarole of dialling up or trying to work a smartphone when you’re not necessarily tech-savvy… I’m really concerned about that.

“We know that particularly in south ward there’s a lot of at-risk people and vulnerable or homeless people that use the service to get around to all the social service providers in south ward and so we wouldn’t want to disenfranchise them either by having another barrier to access the public transport.”

Area councillor Robert Simms criticised the State Government’s proposed new city connector bus route, saying the council needed to “push back on the Minister regarding plans to cut the service”.

“When we don’t have that other investment in alternative green transport options, a free, well-resourced city connector bus is really important,” he said.

But central ward councillor Jessy Khera said the cost to run the service was “extremely high” compared to other services and needed “proper rationalising”.  

“This is what our ratepayers want, in fact, it’s actually incumbent on us in the current situation to do our best to rationalise the service,” he said.

The council’s operating deficit for the next financial year is expected to rise to $21 million, up from $19.3 million this year, in part due to the economic impacts of COVID-19.

Councillors last week unanimously voted to write to Knoll requesting all public transport be free within the CBD.

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