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Buses versus trams

by Dave Riley

I have written in the past on traffic, transport and urban development issues for Green Left Weekly especially as they impact here in South East Queensland.
Here's a few samples:
The tragedy is that since I last wrote journalism on the topic, back in 2004, conditions have got worse. (What,does no one listen to me?) They've got worse even though we have creepy Climate Change bearing down on us.

At present here in town, Brisbane is experiencing a council election.

Brisbane is a big city in that it is a very large municipality which runs many important utilities such as water and a major bus service(still, fortunately, in public hands).

At this election we are being prevailed upon to vote for a perspective that registers support for 350 new buses(promising more frequent bus services of course) and "tunnels" -- tunnels under the CBD and the Brisbane River being the preferred fix it for the city's traffic congestion problems.

Nowadays buses are sold as environmental goodies -- but really, have you ridden in a suburban bus? The problem with a bus is that its a very big car. Maybe a big car with lots of passengers -- but a thing with wheels and an internal combustion engine nonetheless.

And this big car travels on the road like any other car. This means that your everyday bus is held hostage to the same traffic congestion as the family sedan.While there have been a few initiatives with transit lanes on some major routes (for buses as well as cars with passengers) the bus is still being engineered as something that shares the road and used the same bitumen grid as any other thing on pneumatic tires. In practice that means that buses will never run to a consistent schedule because they are a victim to the same traffic conditions that impacts everything else on the road.

I think that's absurd. Granted that a bus carries more commuters than a car, what are supposed to be the advantages of traveling by bus over the same route you could travel by car?
You get to listen to your iPod
You can read the latest pulp fiction or the daily news.
You can talk on your mobile phone.
You don't have to find a place to park at the other end....
We could list myriad reasons that make a lot of sense in a subjective sort of way but ultimately a bus is still a big car that won't get you from A to B with any more speed or any more convenience than the standard sedan.

And that's the core problem.

As petrol prices go up -- the bus looks a better option assuming ticket prices are low (or as the Socialist Alliance demands, lets' make travel free). People can do the maths.

But will I get to work or school or whatever any more conveniently?...And the answer is likely to be no.

Buses are useful as feeders over short distances -- to the railhead for instance -- but if we are going to bus it up in any big way buses have to be allocated their own dedicated traffic lanes. There is simply no other way to proceed. Thats' what getting serious about public transport and greenhouse gas emissions requires.

But here's the rub: if you are going to dedicate lanes absolutely to buses -- then bring back the trams. A tram line is a dedicated bus lane run by electricity and trams carry more passengers than buses.

Brisbane did away with its trams in the 1960s.
Myth: Trams are inflexible and hold up traffic, and should be replaced with buses.
Fact: The main thing holding up traffic is other traffic, not trams. Wherever buses have replaced trams patronage has dwindled, putting more cars on the roads and adding to traffic congestion. Read more...
My point you see, is that buses are a "lesser evil" they do not address the core problem much at all.Bus travel is merely a means to pass in the left lane under the presumption that you'll get there by some other means (for reasons best known to yourself). You may be moving 30-35 people on that bus but are they going to always choose that route as the preferred transit between A and B?

Therefore, "public transport" may be all well and good as a sort of generic slogan but I think the ready deference to bus transit is a mistake. If we are comparing buses to trams (or comparing buses to trams and trains) we are referring to different animals with very different impacts on this road traffic beastie. The main game has to be about getting cars off the road in the massive percentiles required. And "more buses" -- even "350 more buses" -- is a coward's journey which won't get us anywhere near our preferred destination.

4 Com:

Myrtone | May 15, 2008

You compare busses and trams, and suggest return of trams to Brisbane. What about Monorails?

"But here's the rub: if you are going to dedicate lanes absolutely to buses -- then bring back the trams. A tram line is a dedicated bus lane run by electricity and trams carry more passengers than buses."

No, here's the rub (accoding to Robert Mcjanett anyway). If you are going to dedicate lanes to busses and trams aboslutely, how about modes such as underground railways and monorails. n underground railway runs beneath the city streets, taking traffic off the surface, reducing congestion much more tham trams.

"Myth: Trams are inflexible and hold up traffic, and should be replaced with buses.
Fact: The main thing holding up traffic is other traffic, not trams. Wherever buses have replaced trams patronage has dwindled, putting more cars on the roads and adding to traffic congestion." Coming from the PTUA? So, while car traffic might drop when trams return, would mass trasit monorails do the same. As Robert puts it on his website there is not a single mass transit monorail here in Australia, however there are some elesewhere in the world such as the Tokyo Hanada Monorail, one of many in Japan. Another is the Kuala Lumpa Monorail Aisa's largest (outside Japan). If monorails can lure people from their cars, then they could take some traffic off the surface without the need for tunnels or viaducts. We could also remove the bus lanes, but instead of trams taking their place the space could be used for other things.

Brisbane Party Buses Hire | June 05, 2008

Brisbane buses for the win! I think it's completely unfeasible to bring trams back.

Anonymous | September 18, 2008

In Toronto the problem isn't that trams get in the way of traffic--it's that traffic (and worse) gets in the way of trams. They are never on time.

About a million people take public transit every day here, mostly buses and subway. We love our streetcars (trams) but we get exasperated too. While in Vancouver the cliches are all about rain, in Toronto the cliche is, "You wait 45 minutes for a streetcar, then five show up one behind the other."

They get stuck. Cars and bikes cross their paths. Junk gets stuck in the rails. The overhead trolley harness comes undone.

Or, as I've seen, the streetcar passes a big church wedding and the groom decides to hold us up by opening the limo door for his bride. Fifteen minutes of fame. Or some drunk that has been escorted off the streetcar goes and lies down on the tracks, beaming.

All these little events add up to big delays further down the line. There are so few sidings and rail loops in the Toronto system, the streetcar driver is stuck on his or her rail and unable to evade or overtake. Sometimes buses are sent to the rescue (as they do after a subway breakdown) but not often enough.

I'd be interested to know why Brisbane buses have resulted in lower patronage. If pollution is a concern, we have a lot of hybrid electric buses now and I'd even be prepared to vote for slowpoke plug-in electric buses-- if I could count on their regular arrival.

Anonymous | July 29, 2009

I don't have a blog, but my name is Lloyd Jenkins. I live in Sydney (possibly the worst tansport sect in Australia) and I can safely say that public transport is certainly the way to go to reduce congestion and state costs.

One issue with most the above arguments: CO2 has been successfully proven to be the wrong variable in the "Greenhouse Effect's impact on Global Warming." (I'll lead to public transport in a few statements) 70% of the Earth's surface is covered in water; and according to Le Chatelier's Principle (taught in schools accross NSW) the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is a RESULT of higher temperatures and lesser air pressures. Just confused variables really.

Now to transport.
Public transport is like a refiler in a library, it takes books (people) from shelf to customer and from customer to shelf, bringing in some money for the library (economy).

To widen roads means less space for filing. To build underground tunnels means more running costs on ventilation and up-keep (for roads and rail).

The answer is to use the space we already have for travel (looking at roads here) and converting one out of 2 - 3 lanes for buses or trams (depending on the amound of people traveling on the route and it's perminancy long term).

The only right set up most Australian cities have at the moment is that all transport systems lead to the city (the working hub, interchange).

In highly congested areas, trams could safely replace buses and all private cars could be charged a fair wack for driving along these corridors (to promote public transport while demoting private transport).

Monorails are very dependant on the economy of the city. They can't carry the capacity of fewer carriages of trams or trains, and their infrastructure costs a motzer to up-keep.

All of the states currently have an issue with public transport because they have extravagant plans that require enough money to go around the world in a lifetime on a 1st class luxury cruise liner. They should instead look at cheaper options like the (admittedly idealist) options I have listed above.

I welcome any debate on the topic so as I can develope my opinion and help develope yours. My e-mail is:


I also need the practice for English for my pending HSC.

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