Yes, in an ideal world, we would all live in walkable cities with great cycling and public transport.

But, particularly in North America, Australia, and New Zealand, we have been left with around 60 year’s worth of car dependent suburban sprawl.

In quite a few metro areas, the inner city has a great public transport network. Yet once you get out to the suburbs, you’re lucky to see a bus every half hour. Services often also start late and end early.

As a starting point, should there be more emphasis placed on upgrading suburban bus networks to a 10-minute frequency or better?

Better bus networks are less expensive upfront than large extensions to metro and heavy rail systems. And they can prove that demand exists, when it becomes available.

What are your thoughts?

  • AJ Sadauskas OP
    11 year ago

    In Australian metro areas, typically outer suburbs are poorer than the inner city.

    For example, the median price for a three-bedroom house in Surry Hills (around 1 kilometre from the Sydney Central Business District) is A$2.3 million. In Bossley Park (where the 806 bus runs), 36 kilometres west of the Sydney CBD, it’s $990,000.

    Surry Hills is also walking distance to multiple train lines, has light rail, and multiple high frequency bus lines.

    Public transport is a network. Even if I don’t live in Bossley Park, I still benefit from it having higher frequency services, because if I need to travel out there I can on the public transport network.

    In Australia, public transport is funded by state governments (rather than by local councils), and tends to be operated as a metropolitan-wide network with a single system-wide ticketing system.

    The other important point is that if the local bus there runs once every 30 minutes, there will be far fewer people who use it than if it runs every 10 minutes.

    The great thing about public transport is that it benefits from economies of scale.

    The more people that use a system, the lower the cost of that system is per passenger.

    There are overhead costs in running a depot and maintaining a fleet. The more services that run, the less these cost per service (because those fleet and depot overheads are distributed across a larger number of trips).

    The cost to run a bus (the driver’s salary, maintenance, fuel, etc) is the same whether there’s one person onboard, or 40. But the more people aboard each bus, the lower that cost is per passenger.

    Assuming a fixed fare per passenger, the more people on board, the more of that cost is covered through the fare Box.

    The cost of going from one service each half hour to three is relatively low compared to other public transport investments (such as building new metro or light rail lines).

    Yet it can generate a substantial increase in the percentage of trips taken by public transport, and the overall number of passengers.

    That leads to lower costs per passenger.

    And more passengers on local bus routes means more passengers on their connecting train services too.

    • poVoq
      21 year ago

      I don’t generally disagree, but I think you have a few blind spots in your argument.

      First of all, poorer people that subsidize these services tend to not own houses at all, but rather rent apartments.

      And secondly, sure economics of scale, but you don’t magically increase the number of riders by offering a higher frequency, at least not in the short term and especially not in areas where people already settled into a routine of using their own car. So by doubling or tripling the frequency you are effectively doubling of tripling the variable costs, without substantially increasing the income from a higher number of riders.

      In general these bus lines are already cost optimized. If a bus runs every 30 minutes, that usually means a round trip takes about 50 minutes plus a bit flexibility and a short break for the driver. This way two busses and two drivers going in opposite directions can cover the whole route. Increasing the frequency immediately doubles the costs, as buses and drivers are discrete entities, but is unlikely to double the number of passengers.

      • AJ Sadauskas OP
        11 year ago

        I know in the US, inner city areas have tended to be where poorer people lived, and the outer suburbs is where wealthier people live.

        In Australia, it tends to be the opposite. The inner city is wealthier, outer suburbs tend to be poorer.

        So the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Surry Hills is A$820 per week.

        The median rent for a three-bedroom house in Bossley Park is A$560 per week.

        So it’s around $260 per week cheaper to rent a three-bedroom house in an outer suburb in Western Sydney, such as Bossley Park, than a two-bedroom apartment that’s 1km away from Sydney Town Hall.

        So that social equity equation is the polar opposite in Australia, compared to the US.

        In terms of the costs, running four additional buses per hour to transport people from the outer suburbs by bus pales in comparison to doing it by road.

        In Sydney, the WestConnex road tunnel cost A$16.8 billion, mostly to transport people from outer Western Sydney to the CBD and the airport:

        In comparison, 10-minute bus services are a drop in the ocean.

        One more thing on costs and social equity.

        In Glebe, an inner-city neighbourhood 3 kilometres from the centre of Sydney, the local 433 bus runs at a peak hour frequency of around one service every 10 minutes:


        Apples-to-apples comparison here: The median rental price for a 3-bed apartment in Glebe is $992 per week or $1000 per week for a 3-bed house, compared to $560 per week for a three-bedroom house in Bossley Park.

        So yes, wealthier inner-urban areas do get better bus services than outer suburbs.

        Better bus services in Australia’s poorer outer suburbs can deliver less spending on roads and better social equity.

        • poVoq
          21 year ago

          Well, I can’t comment really on the specific situation in Australia, but the examples seem a bit cherry picked for especially wealthy neighborhoods.

          Also, I suspect these richer neighborhoods get better bus service because it pays for itself, something that is far less likely in the less dense and apparently not as wealthy suburbs.

          Of course one can argue that other infrastructure investments into these suburbs are even more costly, but maybe the money is best spend on building multistory apartment buildings with cheap rent near the city center?

          • AJ Sadauskas OP
            31 year ago

            No cherry picking, and in fact if I wanted I could have picked even more stark examples.

            Here’s a heatmap of Melbourne property prices, with higher prices being in orange and lower in deep purple.

            You’ll notice that the prices are higher near the inner city, with the highest prices in a cluster of bayside and inner-eastern suburbs just near the CBD (places like Brighton and Toorak):

            Similar heatmap for Sydney. Again, highest prices in the inner city and a cluster of suburbs immediately to the east of the city, on the north side of the harbour, and the inner west. Note also that the further you go west, the more purple the suburbs tend to be:

            There’s also a well-known meme about socioeconomics in Sydney known as the “Red Rooster line”.

            Basically, the fast food chain Red Rooster tends to only operate its stores in working class outer suburbs.

            By plotting a line between the stores that are closest to the Sydney CBD, you get a good approximation of where the boundary line is between wealthier the inner suburbs and the poorer outer suburbs of Western Sydney.

            If you’re interested, here’s some analysis of the Red Rooster line from the University of NSW:

            Here’s a good YouTube explainer of it:

            From the Australian Financial Review:

            "Waterfront locations and coveted school zones dominate the country’s most expensive postcodes, new Domain data shows.

            "All the postcodes in the top-20 list were in Sydney, led by the eastern suburbs, the northern beaches and the north shore.

            “Six of the postcodes in the top 20 have a median house price higher than $5 million, and 12 have a median price above $4 million.”


            So yes, Australia hasn’t seen the same hollowing out of property prices in the inner-city and inner suburbs of our metropolitan areas as the US. Very much the opposite in fact.

            And those wealthy folks in the inner suburbs have a lot of well-resourced NIMBY groups that fight what they see as “overdevelopment”, and who get their leafy inner suburbs heritage protected, pushing more development to the outer suburban fringe. This is a serious ongoing issue:

            In principle, I completely agree that we need more density near existing rail lines, in the inner city, and the inner suburbs.

            I absolutely agree that all new development should be within walking distance of train and trams, in medium- or higher-density mixed-use higher density communities.


            That leaves a whole bunch of outer suburbs that were built in the '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, and more recently that are heavily car dependent.

            In Australia at least, these outer suburbs tend to overwhelmingly be working class.

            And in many of them, the only accessible mode of transport is the bus.

            At least in the short- and medium-term, the most cost-effective way of providing transport to these areas, and improving social equity, is by improving bus services.

            • poVoq
              21 year ago

              Thanks for the detailed reply.

              I guess it will depend on the location and the circumstances, but I remain sceptical. Here in Europe I see way too many bus lines being under-utilized in similar areas.

              I think we might have to accept that people that used cars all their life are unlikely to switch to a bus service unless forced to by economic circumstances. Maybe the next generation is willing to move back into more dense housing areas and skip cars all together.

                • Christian Kent
                  11 year ago

                  @ajsadauskas @poVoq OMG wow. It’s not like this is a Gordian knot or something. This is Solved Stuff™ in other countries, who know to use value capture and have an expectation of government services.

                  As for “more roads” … ffs

                  Never be fooled into thinking this is a diabolical paradox. Beautiful, friendly dense urbanism does exist. Just not if you’re an arch-right low-tax roads-supremicist who revels in GDP and migration while pretending to be all “sustainability”.