Travel

Five Ways To Make Public Transport Work Better

Public transport is an important component of reducing our dependence on private cars and making commuting less horrific, but it’s also a massive and frequent source of complaints. Here are the five ways in which public transport can be enhanced to make it more effective.

Picture by profernity

Trainspotters aside, few people are ever truly enthusiastic about public transport. I’m always amazed by the number of Londoners I encounter who proclaim that London has “the worst public transport in the world”. These are clearly people who have never been to Darwin.

It’s understandable and inevitable; in whatever system you use regularly, the flaws will become apparent, and you won’t necessarily have a basis for comparison. But looking to other cities often provides examples of how to make public transport work better and render commuting, a process which is becoming more and more time-consuming, less stressful. Here are five examples.

1. Make it easy to interchange

Most public transport systems focus on connecting outer areas of cities to the centre. That’s a useful and necessary element, but a more flexible system also offers connections between outlying areas. That has two benefits: it removes people from the city centre who don’t actually need to be there but are simply passing through, and it creates a backup system. If there’s a problem on one train line (which will happen), it provides a means to connect to other routes heading into the city.

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2. Enable integrated ticketing

Having established connections, there’s no faster way to discourage people from using public transport than to force them to buy a new ticket every time they change transport modes. If you want to get from A to B but that requires a train and a bus, you shouldn’t need two separate tickets. Most Australian cities get this, with Sydney the most obvious hold-out. (The MyMulti Day Pass is too expensive to count.) To make this process even smoother, cities should also . . .

3. Offer a smartcard

Having a permanent ticket which you can top up and use without feeding through a gate or reader makes travel more efficient and provides better usage data as well, meaning we can develop services based on how people actually use them. With the shameful exception of Sydney, we’re getting there with this one in Australia: Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Canberra all have smartcard systems in place. Yes, myki in Victoria has lots of flaws and every second person I see boarding a bus in Perth still buys a paper ticket, but the main shift has happened. Ultimately, it would be great to drive ticketing through NFC on mobile phones — one less thing to carry around! — but we shouldn’t try to run before we can walk.

4. Timetable frequent services

I’m an obsessive timetable reader, and as a result I rarely miss a train or a bus. But even with the benefit of smartphones that can look up real-time schedules, most people don’t bother, and then get put off when they realise they have a 30-minute+ wait until the next service. Few cities in Australia have a population that makes running constant services 24 hours a day feasible, but frequency remains on the low side, which in turn provides an excuse for people to say the option isn’t “convenient”.

5. Make system data freely available

There were whoops of joy around Lifehacker HQ when Google Maps finally added Sydney public transport data earlier this year. But Brisbane and Melbourne are still waiting. This is a ridiculous situation. Data and feeds from public transport services should be freely available to any developer who wants to use them. Informed commuters makes for a better system.

How would you improve public transport? Suggestions welcome in the comments.

Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman has taken some stupidly obscure trains in major cities in his time. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.