South Australia’s ‘Efficient’ New Buses Won’t Stop for Everybody

Stef Rozitis | 24 June 2020

Transport Minister Stephan Knoll is reported to have said that commuters will need to change their thinking to make the New Network for South Australia’s buses work. The Department of Planning, Transport and Infrastructure claim they have done extensive market research and that only 8% of people in South Australia use public transport. As someone who regularly experiences full buses it seems reasonable of them to assume that frequent services on some routes would be helpful, however it seems that the DPTI intend to achieve this at the cost of 500 bus stops and many routes (two of which I regularly use).

Pictured: Transport Minister Stephan Knoll sitting where Christopher Pyne once sat.

Bus frequency is certainly one factor in my decision to use public transport. I catch a bus to somewhere like a friend’s house or work, where I can time my leaving to fit with the timetable, it’s less convenient for shopping where I might find myself ready to go home at a time when no bus is running. Either way the beauty of a timetable is I can time when I go to the bus stop to minimise being out in bad weather. Obviously sometimes buses are frustratingly late but generally this system works. I don’t see the advantage of the new buses that are no more than 10 minutes apart but untimetabled. It seems unlikely to deliver the “better connections” DPTI wants us to believe we will get.

Another concern I have is the free buses in town some of which are being removed. The argument that the free buses double up with the trams does not account for the number of people who catch them, although it has been noted by some, that homeless people are regular users of these services and that perhaps the government is more concerned with opening the city up to tourists and other consumers than vulnerable citizens. It seems the often overcrowded trams will be more stretched and less comfortable than ever.

I am surprised that the DPTI thinks that the way to get more people to use buses is by increasing frequency on the routes already well serviced. Friends and family who don’t catch buses list different reasons than lack of frequency. Some complain that buses don’t go to the places they need to travel to. Others point out that the cost of the fare is excessive compared to the relative convenience and lesser cost of running the car. Some need the flexibility of their car all day for work. Others have a lot of stuff to carry, something buses in South Australia are not designed well for. Even a bus carrier would persuade some friends. For some the early hour at which buses stop is the issue, night services would persuade some onto the buses. Any way you look at it however, I think focussing on the number of consumers is perhaps not the point of a public service. Older people avoid buses when the bus stops are too far apart or when there is no seat or shelter at their bus stop. Either way the tone of the DPTI website with their many citations of “market research” seems to miss the point. It’s no sort of achievement to make bus catching “sexier” and to brag that we can lure more people onto buses. It’s not supposed to be a fashionable lifestyle choice it is supposed to be a public good and that’s what we lost throughout the 90s as the buses were incrementally privatised. 

On the website the DPTI talk about adding more frequent services, more this and more that and you have to read between the lines to see what is being reduced (which they airily dismiss as “doubling up”). Nowhere is there any sense that we will actually see more buses overall, and people I know who work as bus drivers seem to be looking around for new jobs which is the opposite of what we could expect if there was actually an expansion of services. If there were going to be more buses running, there would surely be more jobs.

I can’t argue against a view of progress that includes getting more people using public transport, this in fact is something I have got into many debates arguing. Improving access to places that have inadequate services and keeping fares down are among the strategies that seem most likely to do this. This particular numbers-game seems too narrowly conceived. The same government that is giving us more roads and more carparks is giving someone more buses, and it takes parsing the details before you see that as usual it is a case of taking from the (almost) have-nots and giving to the haves.

Busses “weaving through side streets”, as Mr Knoll puts it, are admittedly annoying when you just want to get home, when you are squished on an overcrowded and noisy bus after already having spent all day on your feet. I have no quarrel with ensuring that some buses take an express route and cut out detours which are pointless when the bus is at capacity already. The “couple of hundred metres” My Knoll breezily accepts people having to walk, when you look at the maps is actually in many cases a lot more. For an older person this can mean the difference between getting out of the house or remaining isolated. For someone my age, it can be an incentive to take the car. Similarly making more transitions between buses, trains and trams is likely to be a disincentive for anyone with mobility issues, small children, or who have found one of the perks of public transport is the ability to switch off and meditate or read. We don’t want a technically more efficient journey if the price of that is having to stay more alert and work at getting home. Once again sitting in peak hour traffic in your car starts to seem enticing by contrast.

500 bus stops will disappear and the word “efficiency” so beloved of razor gangs is being bandied around. This does not smell like progress.