23 October, 2018
Over the last year or so, a lot of people have asked me what my views are on the Brisbane Metro. Generally, my answer has been that I don’t have a strong view because there has been so little detailed information made available to the public. How can you have an opinion on a project when the LNP won’t tell you anything about it?
In the last few weeks though, a little more detail has been released, assuaging some of my concerns and reinforcing others, so I thought I’d outline where I stand at the moment, remaining open to changing my mind as more information becomes available. The following write-up tends to focus more closely on the Metro’s implications for the inner-south side, but a lot of it is relevant to the wider city.
Overall, I’ve come to the view that Brisbane Metro will, on balance, be a positive project for Brisbane, but it probably doesn’t represent the best value for money, and is making some significant compromises that mean it will yield small improvements to the transport network, but won’t be the massive transformative game-changer that the LNP is trying to portray it as.
The total budget for the project according to the LNP is $944 million. Once you take into account ancillary projects that might not have been included in that figure (such as intersection upgrades to accommodate changed traffic flow patterns), I expect this will blow out to $1 billion because of the usual flaws of outsourcing to the private sector.
Unsurprisingly, the breakdown of this budget has changed a bit from time to time. The LNP have said that of that $944 million, a whopping $315 million is going towards the new Cultural Centre station and the associated tunnel extension.
The other major costs are:
- Roughly $142 million expected to be spent on the new Adelaide St tunnel to connect to the King George Square bus station, and on converting Victoria Bridge to a green bridge
- $113 million on upgrading and redesigning other stations
- $189 million towards the 60 new Metro vehicles and building a depot for them
Again, I expect these figures will change a lot over the course of the project. There are many other smaller costs adding up to the $944 million. You can find a lot more detail in the business case and other project documents online.
Questionable consultation and decision-making process
It’s fair to say that the average resident’s response to the Brisbane Metro has been “meh, I guess that looks ok.” This lack of excitement is probably part of the reason that the LNP continues to spend tens of thousands of dollars advertising and promoting it. It also reflects the fact that the vast majority of Brisbanites still don’t have a clear idea of what the Brisbane Metro actually is, which is hardly surprising considering the way it was announced, scaled back substantially, then scaled up again a little bit.
One of the most telling aspects of this whole project is the first part of the project’s ‘Key Milestones’ timeline (you can see it on page 4 of the Draft Design Consultation Outcomes report). The project concept was ‘announced’ as an LNP policy commitment in the March 2016 election, which was followed by a first round of public consultation. But it wasn’t until early 2017 that the council undertook an ‘options analysis’ to see what the best way forward was. I would’ve thought that it would make more sense to first identify all the different options for improving Brisbane’s public transport network, then commit to a specific project. The full list of alternative options that the LNP considered has never been publicly released, so we don’t actually know for sure whether there might have been other better ways to spend $1 billion on improving public transport. This process of firmly committing to a project, and then conducting an options analysis and then releasing a business case seemed very backwards, and gave the public the impression that all the key decisions were being made behind closed doors.
The lack of project detail, combined with the public’s increasing scepticism that council doesn’t really care what ordinary residents think, is apparent in the extremely low level of engagement with the 5-week consultation on the Draft Design report, with only 240 formal submissions and only 300 people attending information sessions. Personally, I didn’t bother making a submission because I believed the project scope was already decided and I didn’t think the LNP would listen. In a city of over 2 million residents, the fact that so few people gave feedback on a major $1 billion transport project is a bit embarrassing for the LNP. I literally get more engagement with local decisions about where to install a basketball half-court.
The concern with such a weak consultation process is that significant flaws or opportunities for improvement might be overlooked, because the council hasn’t done a good enough job of drawing on the valuable insights of the people who will actually use this service. It also tends to give disproportionate weight to well-organised lobby groups and business stakeholders, and less weight to the most marginalised residents. For example, while there has been relatively little meaningful input from ordinary residents, the council is also regularly seeking input from major corporate and government stakeholders, including the commercial operators of for-profit carparks in the area. Naturally, such stakeholders are more likely to resist proposals to reduce car access, even though reducing car access might be the best way to improve convenience and travel times for tens of thousands of public transport users. More on that further down.
Increasing capacity and making embarking and disembarking more efficient
A key advantage of the Metro over Brisbane’s existing bus network is that commuters swipe their GoCards or buy tickets when they get onto the station platform, rather than when they get onto the vehicle itself. This is a no-brainer that will speed up boarding significantly, helping reduce journey times.
Council says the new fleet of 60 Metro vehicles will each have a capacity of up to 150 people. Currently, the largest articulated buses in council’s fleet have a maximum capacity of 116 passengers. Obviously it makes sense to have higher-capacity vehicles running along the busiest busway routes. Council claims there will be a Metro service every three minutes in peak periods, so it’ll be a proper turn-up-and-go service.
Reduced boarding times and increased vehicle capacity are obviously two of the biggest benefits of the Brisbane Metro. The devil is obviously in the detail in terms of understanding whether these improved travel times will justify the $944 million price tag.
I should note that some critics have said the capacity improvements and travel time improvements are not really that significant in the grand scheme of things. If you compare the number of people currently transported via the busway to the number of people that the new Metro vehicles can theoretically move, the Metro doesn’t actually look that flash. But it’s important to remember that the BCC is planning to keep some existing bus services running along the busway too (they just haven’t confirmed which ones yet). So simply comparing the frequency and capacity of existing busway services to the frequency and capacity of the proposed metro vehicles doesn’t paint the full picture.
Greening Victoria Bridge
One of the biggest and most significant impacts of the Metro is of course closing Victoria Bridge to cars to free up more space for buses. This was first proposed by the Greens before the 2016 council election and the other parties jumped on board too. Later, when council announced it would significantly reduce bicycle access over the bridge, there was strong public pushback, and more recently the LNP have reversed their position and confirmed that there will indeed be separated bike lanes on the bridge.
Requiring cars to instead travel via the William Jolly Bridge or otherwise stick to the Motorway and the Captain Cook Bridge is a logical and straightforward step that will greatly reduce the backlog of buses that builds up on the bridge during peak-hour. Some motorists who are accustomed to using this bridge will resent having to make the detour via the William Jolly and North Quay, which adds 2 to 3 minutes to a journey outside of peak periods. My response to such concerns is simply to remind drivers that taking cars off the bridge will allow it to carry literally thousands of additional public transport passengers (either by bus or Metro). Any driver who argues that it’s unfair to make them detour via William Jolly is essentially stating that they would rather slow down and delay literally dozens or even hundreds of people using public transport, rather than drive the long way round, which strikes me as an indefensibly selfish position.
Intersection upgrades around South Brisbane
In order to offset the broader traffic impacts from closing Victoria Bridge to cars, the council is allocating a few million dollars to redesign other nearby intersections, particularly the main intersections along Peel Street and also the intersection of Vulture and Stanley Streets further to the east.
If the goal of these ‘redesigns’ is to increase the capacity of these intersections to carry more cars, that’s not necessarily a good use of money. Reducing car access in the inner-city is an important and necessary step in the transition to a network that revolves around public transport and active transport. So adding lanes or slip lanes to carry more motor vehicles directly conflicts with the core principles of BCC’s own ‘Transport Plan for Brisbane’. However, now that redesigning these intersections is part of the plan, well-applied pressure from local community groups might actually be able to shift the project brief and achieve some design improvements for pedestrians and cyclists.
Fixing up the Melbourne St busway portal
One of the biggest bottlenecks in our whole transport network is on Melbourne St, just south of Grey St, where buses turn in and out of the Southeast busway tunnel opening. This awkward intersection is extremely inefficient, causing long queues inside the tunnel and slowing down the whole network. The current intersection arrangement here is also dangerous for cyclists, and slow and inconvenient for pedestrians.
The Metro project largely fixes all this by extending the underground busway so that both buses and Metro vehicles using the busway don’t pop up to ground-level until just before crossing the Victoria Bridge, on the northern side of Grey Street.
Pros and Cons of Cultural Centre Station Relocation
Many residents don’t realise that the entire Cultural Centre station is being relocated underground, to the south-west corner of the Melbourne St-Grey St intersection. This means the station will be approximately 100 metres further away from the city and 100m closer to West End, right next to the South Brisbane train station.
This should greatly improve the efficiency of transfers between busway and train services, as commuters will be able to jump off a bus on the underground busway and head straight into the above ground train station, whereas currently you have to cross Grey Street. This relocation will also slightly improve access to the busway transport corridor for people living and working along Melbourne Street. Bringing the station further to the south/west should also help bring more life to the public realm along Melbourne Street, and might help draw a little bit more commerce back towards West End.
But the redesign might mean a slight decrease in convenience for people transferring between above-ground bus services running along Melbourne St and underground services that use the busway. Currently, if I’m catching a bus from West End, it’s pretty easy to get off at the Cultural Centre and change to another service, depending on where I want to go. Under the Metro redesign, for the buses running along Melbourne Street (e.g. Blue CityGlider, 199 etc), new street-level stops will be created under the rail bridge to the west of Grey Street. For people riding the CityGlider outbound, it will be relatively easy to get down to the underground Cultural Centre Station. However commuters riding inbound on services like the Blue CityGlider would have to get off at the stop under the rail bridge and cross Melbourne St at the Melbourne-Grey intersection in order to transfer to underground Cultural Centre Station services.
This means that for commuters who catch one bus service from West End into the Cultural Centre Station and transfer to another service that uses the busway, your transfer might be longer and less convenient than it is currently. We still haven’t seen enough detail on this aspect of the project, and I’ll be asking further questions about how we can minimise transfer times for commuters who might be heading in to the Cultural Centre from West End with the intention of heading back out south along the busway.
It will be particularly important that the new Cultural Centre underground station includes an entrance portal that connects directly on to Melbourne St on the south side of the Grey St intersection, pointing back up towards West End. This should help improve access and pedestrian flow between West End and South Brisbane.
The other obvious downside of this change is that the new Cultural Centre Station will be slightly further away from the Museum, Science Centre, QPAC, South Bank and the Victoria Bridge, which brings me to one of the biggest missed opportunities of the whole project.
Missed Opportunities for New Public Space and the Failure to Close Grey Street
For years now, planners and designers have identified that preventing motor vehicles from driving along Grey St through the Melbourne Street intersection could yield massive improvements in public transport efficiency, as well as pedestrian and cyclist safety and convenience. It would also free up thousands of square metres of additional public space, some of which could be used for green space and trees in an area where more greenery is sorely needed.
As shown in the accompanying images, you could create almost 3000m2 of additional public green space by closing Grey St at either side of Melbourne St. A clear path could still be preserved through the middle of this public plaza for emergency vehicle access and for diverting buses if nearby bridges or tunnels ever need to be closed temporarily. The only driveway access that would be directly affected by turning this area into a public plaza would be the staff carpark at QPAC opposite the train station, which only holds about 25 vehicles, and still has an alternative access from the northern side of the building.
Blue shaded areas indicate possible pedestrian plazas
There are many ways such public spaces could be designed and activated. There could be a focus on pop-up markets and commercial activation, or on a quieter vegetated green corridor to counterbalance the hustle and bustle of South Bank Parklands, or even on outdoor performance spaces to leverage off the close proximity to QPAC and the Conservatorium of Music.
But the biggest value of closing off Grey Street would be in improving the efficiency of the Melbourne-Grey intersection, so that hundreds of street-level bus services and thousands of pedestrians and cyclists can freely move through this space from the train station and the new metro station without having to wait for the lights to change.
As mentioned above, one of the big downsides of the relocation of the Cultural Centre station to the south-west side of Grey Street is that thousands of commuters will be further away from South Bank, Victoria Bridge and the CBD. But closing off Grey St mitigates this problem substantially, allowing a free flow of public transport commuters towards QPAC, the Queensland Museum and South Bank Parklands.
Tunnel Openings Diminish the Public Realm
Depending on how they are designed, the entranceways to underground tunnels can have a pretty negative impact on the surrounding streetscape and public realm. The worst examples are the ones that carry multiple lanes of fast-moving traffic, such as the entrance to the Clem7 tunnel on Shaftson Avenue in Kangaroo Point.
These kinds of tunnel openings create an impassable barrier for pedestrians and a noisy, heavily concreted environment that turns a neighbourhood into a through-corridor. It’s very difficult to have activated streetscapes with shops along the footpath in such areas. The opening to the Queen St underground bus station in Reddacliff Place next to the casino has a huge negative impact on the amenity and useability of this public square, carving up the square and inconveniencing pedestrians.
If you’re going to have underground busways, obviously you need tunnel openings somewhere, but generally it’s better to avoid locating the openings right in the middle of the CBD. This is why there was a bit of criticism of the proposal to have a tunnel opening along Adelaide St in the city, immediately to the south of the George St intersection. This will probably necessitate widening Adelaide Street and might make it harder to activate the frontages of the Brisbane Square library building and the Brisbane Quarter complex across the road.
Overall, the Metro project arguably involves a few too many ups and downs. Metros will run in the aboveground busway alongside the Pacific Motorway, dropping below ground level through the inner-south side, popping up again at the Cultural Centre to cross the Victoria Bridge, then going back underground again at Adelaide Street. It probably would have been more efficient (and would have freed up more public space) to run a new tunnel under the river and keep the whole Metro separate from surface traffic from Buranda right through to Roma Street, but I’m told a tunnel under the river would have added at least $1 billion to the cost of the project (currently budgeted at $944 million), which is why the Liberals decided to just repurpose the Victoria Bridge.
Power Source for New Vehicle Fleet
It is deeply concerning that the LNP have not ruled out using fossil fuel-powered vehicles for their new Metro fleet. There are many kinds of trains and buses around the world that run on electricity from the grid rather than diesel or petrol, and overseas we’re now also seeing rapid growth in the use of battery-powered electric buses that recharge their batteries at charging stations or bus depots.
When reducing dependence on fossil fuels should be a top priority for all levels of government, it seems crazy that the LNP wouldn’t go for an electric vehicle option even if it might cost a bit extra in the short-term (but perhaps not surprising when you consider their values and priorities).
Oil prices are likely to rise long-term, so the ongoing running costs of fossil fuel-powered vehicles are likely to increase, whereas the cost of electricity via renewable sources is predicted to continue decreasing.
Are They Just Glorified Buses?
When the Liberals first announced the ‘Brisbane Metro Subway’ project shortly before the 2016 election, a lot of the messaging and media statements gave the impression it would be some kind of underground light rail system. Later, when Graham Quirk clarified that it would be a ‘trackless’ ‘rubber-tired’ system, a lot of people rightly felt a little misled.
Since then, a lot of criticism of the Metro has focussed on the fact that the vehicles are actually just long, expensive buses. This element of the project is out to tender at the moment, so we don’t yet know exactly what kind of vehicles these will be.
Putting aside the LNP’s spin and doublespeak, I do wonder whether it might actually be worth distinguishing between conventional buses, and the modern vehicles which are increasingly being used in BRT (‘bus rapid transit’) systems around the world.
BRT vehicles brake and accelerate more smoothly than older-style buses like the ones we’re accustomed to in Brisbane. They also generally have much better suspension, are easier to get on and off without climbing steps, and are a little more spacious inside. So the experience for commuters is much more like using a train or light rail service than riding a traditional bus.
Professor Peter Newman has written a lot about these kinds of vehicles, which he refers to as ‘trackless trams’ rather than ‘buses’. He used to be a strong advocate of light rail, but has shifted his position and now advocates trackless trams as a more cost-effective and less disruptive way of expanding public transport coverage.
Certainly in Brisbane’s case, the use of trackless Metro vehicles would allow the city more flexibility to expand the network in future. For example, if we had a council administration that was less car-centric, we could extend Metro services along major road corridors (e.g. Gympie Road) by taking away a lane of general traffic and replacing it with a bus-only lane. This is much cheaper and easier to do when you don’t have the massive cost and disruptive construction impacts of laying tracks all the way along the corridor.
The biggest downside of a trackless system is that it further limits the fuel source options for the vehicles. A track-based system could more easily run off electricity from the grid, whereas a trackless system will either be petrol-powered, diesel-powered or battery-powered, and if battery-powered vehicles are more expensive, I worry that the LNP will just go for the cheap and unsustainable option of vehicles that run off fossil fuel-powered combustion engines.
Broader Network Review
One flow-on positive impact of the Metro project is that it will catalyse a proper rethink of the bus network throughout Brisbane. Over the past decade, network reviews have been repeatedly postponed or scaled back in scope, so it’s been years and years since significant changes have been made to the network. Putting 60 new Metro vehicles on the busway will free up existing buses for use on other routes around the city, and will help short-circuit the usual political games between Labor and the Liberals at both council and state government levels.
One volunteer who has spent a lot of time following Brisbane’s public transport policy debates commented that the entire Brisbane Metro project may actually just be a backdoor into forcing the state government to support a broader network review, which might have a grain of truth to it.
My main disappointment on this front is that the LNP seem to want to wait until after all the details of the Metro have been finalised (which probably won’t be until 2021 or 2022) before planning any new services or making major changes. I would rather see essential new bus services (such as the proposed City Glider between Woolloongabba, Kangaroo Point and Fortitude Valley) introduced now, so that they are up and running before the Metro project is completed.
At this stage, there’s still not really enough detail to evaluate how the Metro might positively or negatively impact other suburbs and bus routes (particularly the routes coming in and out of West End at street level) beyond the main busway corridor. Hopefully an overall increase to the number of vehicles in council’s fleet will also mean higher frequencies and later operating hours for the CityGliders, Buz Routes and other services around the city, but it’s hard to know for sure.
Currently, the operating hours of the Metro are still intended to stop at midnight most nights of the week, with all-night services on Fridays and Saturdays. This is a positive step, but long-term it would be good to see later services on weeknights as well.
What else could we spend the money on?
As highlighted above, there has been no public disclosure regarding what alternatives to the Metro were seriously considered by the LNP. This project largely just uses the existing busway infrastructure, and is trying to increase the capacity and efficiency of the public transport network without taking any space away from cars. It does not create major new public transport hubs in under-served parts of the city, or improve inter-suburban connectivity outside the existing busway corridor.
In many respects, Brisbane Metro reinforces rather than challenges the fact that Brissie’s PT network remains heavily focussed on moving commuters in and out of the inner-city. Almost all bus routes from the south side go through the Cultural Centre, creating bottlenecks that are much more severe than they should be considering our city’s current population and the low proportion of people who currently use the public transport network.
But there might have been other, cheaper ways to fix the Victoria Bridge and Melbourne Street bottlenecks without spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a new Cultural Centre station and a short extension to the busway tunnel.
The Victoria Bridge isn’t the only route across the river. The reason council’s bus planners don’t run more routes over the Story Bridge, Captain Cook Bridge and William Jolly Bridge is that the buses get caught up in general traffic, and unfortunately the Liberal councillors are very resistant to turning car lanes into bus-priority lanes.
Currently no high-frequency bus routes run across the William Jolly or Story Bridges, and only one high-frequency route – the 340 – uses the Captain Cook Bridge. Creating dedicated bus lanes or transit lanes on the other major bridges (and the main roads that connect to them) would open up a range of possibilities to rethink the network, addressing the Cultural Centre bottlenecks without having to spend big on tunnel portals. Running more bus routes up Ipswich Rd/Main St and over the Story Bridge would also help reinvigorate parts of Kangaroo Point that currently feel a bit dead.
The broader point here is simply that other cheaper options to address the Cultural Centre bottlenecks don’t seem to have been seriously considered, because the LNP has an irrational ideological objection to taking road space away from cars.
I can’t help but wonder whether instead of sinking two thirds of the project budget into tunnels and station redesigns, the money could have been put into paying for many more new vehicles, and installing bus lanes on all major road corridors to massively expand the coverage of high-frequency bus or Metro services throughout Brisbane.
Creating new transport corridors (largely via tunnels) is much more expensive than simply repurposing existing corridors for more efficient uses. If we are willing to prioritise buses over cars on existing surface roads, massive improvements to the transport network are possible at relatively low cost, which would free up more revenue for subsidising bus fares, and get us a lot closer to that holy grail of free public transport.
You could write all day about a project as big as the Metro. I still have a lot of unanswered questions and will be following the project closely over the next few years. Although $944 million sounds like a lot of money, this compares poorly to the hundreds of millions of dollars that BCC spends every single year on road projects that prioritise and encourage private motor vehicle transport. Sadly, we’re still a long way away from the public transport revolution that so many Brisbanites are craving.