Sydney moves to ‘on demand’ small scale public transit. But will it work?


Uber style mini buses for the suburbs are just the start of Sydney’s looming public transport shake-up.

Massive spending on once-in-a-century transport infrastructure has been the hallmark of the New South Wales government for the last five years, but there’s also a small-scale transit revolution afoot in Sydney’s car-centric suburbs that could soon be as tectonic as Uber.

The humble minibus is making a big comeback in public transit after the state’s innovation obsessed Transport Minister, Andrew Constance, revealed a swag of new ‘on demand’ services that will make house calls, all summoned by passengers using an online app.

It’s a solution that’s squarely aimed at bridging an enduring disconnect between key transit hubs in Sydney’s sprawling suburbs where people actually live and the commercial and industrial areas where they work.

Forget parking

For at least the last 50 years, as Sydney has grown, the theory has been that commuters in the ‘burbs could drive their car to a railway station, park for free and then travel to work on the train.

Try that today and you’ll need to arrive before dawn to score a parking spot at many stations. As rail patronage and population density has increased, taking the car to the station has become an exercise in frustration, with available parking now well beyond capacity.

At the same time, there’s a growing recognition at the policy level that existing large timetabled bus services simply can’t fill the frequency gap for relatively small numbers of passengers making short trips.

So Constance is applying a hybrid model that sits somewhere between regular busses and Uber ride sharing, with passengers still paying regular public transit fares.

“We have on demand movies, on demand food and finally NSW will have on demand transport,” Constance said.

Big city problem, small town solution

Few contest that Sydney’s rapid growth and densification in parts has placed massive pressure on its public transport network, but it’s increasingly the interconnections as much as the capacity that’s starting to matter.

At peak hour some of Sydney’s buses fill to capacity well before they make it even half way down their route, requiring extra services to be rolled to absorb stranded passengers.

In some areas, like Sydney’s Inner West and North Shore, the sheer number of buses crammed into dedicated lanes creates miniature traffic jams as vehicles ‘bunch’ as they queue for places at stops.

One of the lesser known causes of Sydney’s curious and sometimes frustrating routing and scheduling is that many ‘runs’ simply replicated the trams they replaced in the 1960s – a system that had distinct limitations, especially when it came to hills.

The latest trial program using privately operated smaller ‘on-demand’ buses will essentially try to shift people to heavier capacity fast corridors – rail and express routes – but also restore short hop capacity for community activities like visiting the shops, health facilities or sports and recreation grounds.

Importantly, private operators have been brought into the mix to test whether the new and more flexible services will succeed.

“This trial is just the start of our transport future in NSW. Imagine not having to check a timetable because you know your service will be there when and where you need it,” Constance said.

Eight pilots of the “On Demand Transport” services will be rolled out from October and will cover Sydney’s North West, South West, West, Eastern Suburbs, Northern Beaches, Sutherland Shire and Central Coast.

Payments will be cashless, processed by the private operators and initially outside the current Opal Card system. If successful, the services will be integrated into the electronic ticketing system at a later point.

Franchised future?

The move to use on demand private operators to supplement and augment existing public transport coincides with the NSW government seeking to get private operators to run and manage parts of its existing bus operation run by the State Transit Authority

Known as franchising, the contracting of services from specialised transport providers like Keolis Downer is part of a wider trend to use expert operators with international experience in integrated transit.

Transport for NSW already uses Transport for London’s smarts for its Opal Card ticketing system, with payments made direct from phones and tap-and-go cards common in the UK expected to be rolled out here soon.

While sometimes construed as ‘privatisation’, there’s a bigger dimension to franchising transit operations, especially on the integration side.

It’s understood that prospective bidders for the STA’s inner west bus contract in Sydney, which is now in the expression of interest phase are expected to be able to put forward their capacity to deliver ‘on-demand’ style services lime those now being trialled.

That indicates a wider rethink of how the total transport network interoperates, not just between modes but with employers and community facilities.

Keolis Downer’s on demand trial in Sydney’s rapidly expanding Maquarie Park — which is also getting a new Metro station — will extend to the surrounding 15km with fares ranging from $2.60 to $5.60 and use a fleet of eight mini vans, six mini buses and one wheelchair accessible vehicle during weekday peaks and shoulders.

The area’s local member, not to mention state Finance Minister, Victor Dominello wasn’t about to let the announcement of the new service escape without personal celebration.

“This will encourage more people out of their cars and onto public transport, and will bring extra services to this rapidly growing employment precinct,” Dominello said.

Where Sydney’s the on-demand public transport trials are happening:

  • Bankstown: An on demand bus service for visitors, patients and employees of Bankstown Hospital that operates 18 hours a day. Starts in October. Standard fare of $4. (Punchbowl Bus Company, 1 bus)
  • Edmondson Park: A service to pick customers up from home or nearby location and drop them at the train station. Starts in early 2018. Standard fare of $3.10. (Interline, 2 mini buses)
  • Northern Beaches: A service that connects customers from  Palm Beach to North Narrabeen to bus stops on the Northern Beaches B-Line. Starts late 2017. Standard fare of $3.10. (Keolis Downer, 8 vehicles)
  • Sutherland Shire: A service to pick customers up from home or a nearby location in Jannali West, Sylvania, Caringbah and Gymea and take them to transport hubs or local shops. Starts November. Standard fare of $2.60. (Transdev, 5 mini buses)
  • Manly and Eastern Suburbs: A service to pick customers up at home or nearby location and take them to Edgecliff and Bondi Junction stations, ferries at Manly or Rose Bay wharves. Starts November. Standard fare of $3.10. (Transdev, 6 mini buses)
  • Wetherill Park and Greystanes: A service to connect employment precincts to T-Way interchanges. Starts late 2017. Standard fare of $3.10. (Indi-Link by Transit Systems, 5 mini buses)
  • Central Coast: A service to take customers to Woy Woy station from locations on the Woy Woy peninsula. Starts early 2018. Fares start at $3.10. (Community Transport Central Coast, 5 mini buses)