Five Ways To Make Public Transport Work Better

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.

Five Ways To Make Public Transport Work Better

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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.


      • It’s called the MetroCard and it works great too. Have been using it before it went live to the public. Equipment has been on all modes of PT for months now. No problems with it, other than the fact one no longer buys 10 trips at a time (multitrip ticket) rather you pay as you go. Still cheaper than paper single trips unless you only use PT once or twice. Shame about the fact there are no long term options such as weekly/monthly options on the MetroCard though

  • I really hope they use the flood of data they’ll get from smartcard ticketing to change timetables to assist interchange.
    Or how about a smartphone app that allows you to “book” an interchange so that when one service is running late, you don’t miss the connection? As this is one of my most frustrating Public Transport grievances.
    And at the same time, the smartphone app can live-track services, so you know exactly how long the wait will be?
    Busses that deliver passengers to trains, rather than effectively duplicate train routes?

    • Oh, and shuttle trains to deliver passengers to/from “express stops”.
      This way you can maximise your rolling stock with regular express services and regular shuttle services. Express trains make only 4-5 stops along the route, the shuttles run, up/down in-between the express stops. Would involve duplicating track only at the express stops so that trains express trains can get in front of the shuttles.

    • Hahahaha. Just because your service is late, everyone on the other service have to wait for you now?

      If missing a connection is the worst thing to happen to you all day you should be thankful.

      • When the service is 10-15 minutes late (regularly.. ie once a fortnight) and it turns my normally 30 minute commute into a 90 minute commute, yeah… its a huge pain.
        How the hell does a train run so late so regularly anyway? EVERYTHING (including emergency vehicles) waits for the train!
        /End Rant

        It’s not so much that I EXPECT other services to wait just for me, but it’d be nice if timetables were arranged for connecting commuters (which at the moment they patently are not). The data from Smartcards will provide an excellent sample set of where people connect and when. Public Transport SHOULD be using this data to tweak services to make the system more passenger friendly.
        It’s a way out of the current Chicken and Egg scenario… More regular service will encourage more people to use the services more often, but there aren’t enough customers to justify putting on a more regular service.

  • Melbourne MyKi users – you DO NOT have to touch off the tram in Zone 1 – stop holding everyone else up!

    It’s not like this isn’t announced over the tram intercom at least once a week!

    • Myki does work in wallets – just don’t store it directly in front or behind other smart cards like pay wave credit cards and other contact less cards. I find it works best as the outermost card in a stacked wallet. This is not just a Myki challenge.

      • ^this
        If I put my paywave credit card right at the back of the left hand half of my wallet, and my myki at the back of the right hand side, then close my wallet, I can use my Myki without opening my wallet. Paywave is a bit more sensitive and still sees both cards, but I just flip it open and tap my wallet, good to go

    • sure my myki works fine thru my wallet. that’s not the issue; the issue is the number of broken & faulty machines @ many stations (look @ north richmond the machine there has been broken over 2 months; i’ve reported it several times & still no repair!!).

    • Without any hard stats to back this up, I’d estimate that during peak hour the vast majority of trips use SmartRider (daily 9-5ers, students etc.) while cash ticket purchases occur more during the off-peak and on weekends when DayRider and FamilyRider tickets become available (standard DayRiders are the same price on cash tickets and smartcards, though without the card fee for a cash ticket version, and there just is no smartcard FamilyRider, full stop.)

  • Perth: Not sure it’s true that every second person buys a paper ticket. I use the buses every day, and it’s more like 1 in to to 50 people who stop to interact with the driver – sometimes to top up their pass.

  • good ideas; shame our governments are sooo slow to implement (& when they do, they tend to do it very badly & spend wayy to much money; one would suspect they are just awarding contracts to their ‘mates’ & not the companies that provide the best pitch).

  • Canberra: yes we have a smart card system for the buses, however, they haven’t been able to use the data to improve the timetables/connections. Or maybe they just don’t want to.

  • After travelling to Melbourne and experiencing MyKi, I can honestly say Perth’s SmartRider system works really well. That 3 second delay for MyKi versus Smartrider’s ‘instantaneous’ tap makes the latter already way more efficient.

  • In regards to NSW/Sydney, I’ve heard murmurings of the Opal card system being rolled out from the end of this year (starting with ferries), to be fully implemented by 2014. Let’s hope it goes better than the Tcard debacle.

  • something to add, if you are going to have online topping up of your smartcards, automate the system, don’t just have it go to someones desk to be topped up manually. Canberra does this (or at least, did when I last tried it), and it takes over a day for the topping up to be applied to your card, and the low balance warning is 10 dollars, which unless you have a concession applied (or have hit the monthly maximum and the rest of your trips for the month are free), is only two days of travel (two dollars for a trip, and unless it is a short trip, you likely wont be going home before the free transfer period expires) before it is empty.

  • Why do the State Governments need to re-invent the wheel. Use something like SUICA from Tokyo – it’s been running for years and is rechargeable anywhere. You can even buy milk and bread etc from stores with it.

    The last debacle in Sydney was a result of the government insisting on complex fare structures – make it simple and the system will work

  • If you get a V/Line ticket in Victoria, changing modes of transport is simple — just jump on! Your ticket gets you tram and train access to any area within your destination zone. For example if I’m going from Zone C to Zone A, I can have free public transport in Zone A for the duration of my ticket.

    Also our small-town bus line lets you do multi-city interchange. When buying a ticket, tell ’em you’re going to a place two towns over, pay for the ticket, then get off the original, onto the connecting and flash your ticket at the driver. Simple!

    But +1 for freely available data. It may take a while to implement, but after that, you can mash the living daylights out of it or integrate it elsewhere. Just have to watch out for data update frequencies. No good having a site that organises your daily trips if the data is updated once a week and doesn’t take into account cancellations..

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