Baby buses and baby boomers

There is a growing problem in Perth and elsewhere in the Western world, largely ignored to date by planners and politicians, and that is how we deal with the impact of the baby boomer generation.

Over the next two decades, almost 6 million Australian baby boomers (generally regarded as those born between 1946 and 1964) will enter into retirement and old age; living longer often with inadequate pension or superannuation, with increasing health problems including a lack of mobility. By 2050 the population of Australia will be around 36 million, with 2.7 working people for each retired person compared to a ratio of five to one now. The impact of this cohort of old folk will surely skew the economy – not forgetting that they will still be able to vote and, as a sizeable minority (with plenty of time on their hands to agitate), will demand their needs be met. Where will these old people live, how will they be looked after and how will they get around, are all questions to be resolved now.

A seminar and workshop organised by the W.A. Division of the Planning Institute of Australia ‘Planning for the Post-Employment Population: Planning for an ageing community’ addressEd several of these issues. The feedback will make a contribution to the Institute’s advocacy program; a program that takes the planning argument to government agencies for policy reviews. While the thrust of the Seminar was on the provision of land and buildings for the old aged persons housing, another major concern is provision of public transport for those unable to drive.

What we have in Australian capital cities are outer suburbs with low density residential – spread out dwellings – and, by and large, inadequate public transport. We are told higher density housing is a pre-requisite before public transport becomes viable. That elderly people are being encouraged by Government to remain in their homes for as long as possible will only compound the problem.

In a typical outer Perth suburb, single and articulated (link) 60/80 seat buses are currently used, and the bus routes usually run between rail stations. Outside of peak commuting times, it is unusual to see more than a handful of patrons on buses; buses are infrequent and bus stops are generally on major roads, which could be half a kilometre or more from people’s houses.

Many daytime and still mobile patrons would happily drive to rail stations, except that parking bays are usually all taken on weekdays before 7.00AM. For the elderly and infirm living some distance from a bus stop, often the only solution is an expensive taxi. Are we in danger of creating a situation where many old people will be unable to leave their homes, except for the kindness of family, friends or volunteer drivers?

Could smaller buses (hybrids between buses and taxis) running on a larger network of suburban streets provide a better solution? Surely smaller buses servicing more streets make more economic (and environmental) sense?) Well they don’t economically, as the most costly item in the public transport budget is the wage bill for drivers. Fuel costs apart, it costs no more to run an 80 seat bus than a 5 seat people carrier. And, in fact, Transperth’s Euro 4/5 compressed natural gas or diesel buses are designed for continuous running and longevity, making maintenance costs per passenger seat far cheaper than smaller mini-buses.

Obviously reducing the driver cost is required to make the use of minibuses viable. Could one problem (unsuitable public transport) be solved to some degree by another? (keeping retirees in productive work). We are told by the Grattan Institute and others that the retirement age needs to be raised or there will be an unfair tax burden in the future on the proportionally smaller numbers of working people. What we need is a number of part-time jobs for retirees, particularly jobs where old people service the needs of their less mobile peers, freeing the younger brigade for more economically essential roles (politician speak for paying more tax). Driving a passenger minibus for pay, or as a volunteer, may be one possible occupation.

Which routes should the minibuses take?  While set routes are ideal (the same as today’s buses), perhaps a system of booking minibuses by phone or through a mobile phone app is feasible, alerting minibus drivers to deviate from set routes to pick up passengers. Possibly using an extension to the technology used by Perth CAT buses where, at present, pressing a button at bus stops lets you know when the next bus is due. There is already the existing technology of booking taxis in Melbourne (13 Cabs App). The dangers of driver distraction are lessened if the app is a combined navigation (satnav) and passenger alert system dash mounted and hands free. Passengers waiting at bus stops can alert minibus drivers they are there, or drivers could be summoned electronically to deviate from set routes to pick up passengers from their own homes. Using locals who know the area and get to know their elderly patrons will only help in widening social interaction; driver changeover may be as simple as driver A taking the bus to the house of driver B, whose first trip includes delivering driver A home.

Hong Kong with its 7 million population at a density of over 6000 per square kilometre and a myriad of transport options, does not appear to be any sort of model for Perth to copy but minibuses are used there to provide services to areas where patronage would not support higher capacity carriers – exactly the situation we have in Perth’s outer suburbs.

Hong Kong has a scheduled green minibus service, which is part of the Octopus Card multi-travel stored value pass system (their version of SmartRider) and a red minibus unscheduled service, which has no scheduled route and can adjust fares and services to suit demand. The Perth counterpart would see the same set up – green minibuses along scheduled routes with SmartRider/Transperth fare rates; red minibuses travelling set routes but available to deviate from set routes for ‘hire’ at less than taxi rates. This minibus or maxi-taxi system solves another problem here in Perth – the shortage of taxis and the reluctance of State Government to grant too many new taxi licences (recently State Government raised the number of multi-purpose taxis from 100 to 150 – still a small number servicing the Metropolitan area).

Environmentally there are advantages. Compressed natural gas (CNG) powered Toyota Coasters have proved ideal for the Hong Kong market as they reduce pollution, and emit less hydrocarbon and nitrogen oxide compared to the traditional diesel bus, as well as being much quieter both inside and outside the cabin. Another interesting development is the Hong Kong Government incentive for minibus operators to convert to electric powered or hybrid powered vehicles.

And instead of exporting our CNG to China and Japan at cheap rates, perhaps we should keep more of it here at the negotiated preferential rates to help subsidise the additional cost of a minibus based public transport system.

Alternatively we could (like Hong Kong) think about electric powered vehicles with charging points at strategic locations, such as rail stations, using quick-charge systems. One early drawback to the adoption of electric powered vehicles was the need for 8 hours of charging. Fine for overnight charging of the family car for tomorrow’s 100km commute but not particularly suited to minibuses or buses operating all day. Quick charging, however, can take a vehicle from dead to 80% charged in under 30 minutes.

As for suitable vehicles, there is a range of available minibuses already on the market here in Australia, so the choice depends on particular routes and likely patronage.  There are, for example, 15 to 19 seater Euro 2’s, 17 to 21 seater Toyota Coasters and smaller 12 to 14 seater Toyota Hiace Commuters. Two versions of the Coaster are one with two wheelchair spaces and 14 seats plus driver and another with 20 seats plus driver,both ideally suited for the maxi-taxi or multi-purpose taxi roles.

Minibuses are also ideal for common destinations or servicing a range of small group activities: clubs and pubs collecting and taking home their patrons, weekly trips to shopping centres for a group of neighbours, kindergarten excursions to the Zoo or that trip to Burswood Casino for a group of friends.

One drawback to be considered is that large buses will still be required at peak commuting times and we already have an extensive fleet of efficient low sulphur diesel and natural gas buses. Between the peak periods, large buses would still be used on the busier routes and also perform the school outing and other large passenger capacity roles between peak times. Gradually most of the larger buses are then phased out to leave us with a much more flexible public transport system better suited to a spread out city.

Perhaps trials could be run to see if the minibus proposal has merit.

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