What does world-class public transport look like?

Victorians deserve world-class public transport and we have some great examples from North American and European cities to draw upon. Here are a couple of key features of a world-class public transport system.

We need the ‘network effect’…

A good public transport system is based on the ‘network effect’. This is an interconnecting train, tram and bus system, where timetables and interchanges correspond and interlock allowing ‘anywhere-to-anywhere’ travel across a city.

A good public transport system has a network of public transport lines where the structure is simple and the timetable is stable, making it easy for users to learn and understand. This means that public transport lines follow ‘direct routes that can support fast operating speeds with clear nodal points at intersections with other lines. Straighter, in most circumstances, also implies faster.’

…and easy ‘transfers’

Transfers are an essential part of a good public transport network. Travellers need to be able to transfer easily between different transport modes and lines to reach their destination. To reduce waiting times, it is crucial that timetables at transfer points are coordinated.

This is particularly important in sprawling cities—such as Melbourne—where workplaces, schools and housing are widely dispersed.

World-class maps

A map of the entire network, which covers all transport modes, is needed so that passengers can understand their journey options. The maps must be up-to-date, and accessible to people with diverse language and literacy skills.

But what about density?

While public transport detractors often claim that public transport only works in populations with very high density, the evidence shows otherwise. For example, Toronto, Vancouver and Zurich all have areas with lower densities than Melbourne, but quality public transport networks have been successfully introduced to these cities.

Australian urban areas have bigger central business districts (CBDs), more extensive railway systems and similar densities to many other cities which successfully run high quality public transport systems.

Some examples of world-class public transport


Zurich is considered 'the benchmark city of urban public transport in the western world’. It has an excellent network which includes railways, trams, buses, cable cars and boats. This means passengers can get from ‘anywhere-to-anywhere’ at almost any time of the day throughout the year.

The backbone of the network is the radial train and tram lines which are connected by circular bus routes. This means each rail, tram or bus line is intersected by multiple lines creating a ‘web of multi-directional transfers’.


More than half of the tram and bus lines run every six minutes, which means short waiting-times at most interchanges. During periods where demand is too low to support high frequency services, the network operates on a ‘pulse timetable’, where timetables are coordinated to minimise waiting times.

Thanks to the high-quality public transport system, people living in the central city make more than two public transport journeys per day, and people in the outer suburbs make more than 500 journeys per year. Despite having a lower population density than many other European cities, Zürich has the world’s second highest rate of public transport usage.


Vancouver’s density is about the same as Melbourne’s. Prior to 2001, Vancouver had a large number of low-frequency routes, many operating in peak periods only, which ran from different points across the main suburbs to the CBD, with express sections in the inner city. It also had one Skytrain line constructed in 1986.

Work was begun in 2001 to create a better public transport network. Bus routes were altered to either become high-frequency, full-time express services (such as the famous #98 B-Line) or feeder services and cross-suburban links that connected with routes such as #98 or other modes and routes. Two more Skytrain routes were completed in 2002 and 2009 and now form the spine of the public transport system.


There was also a dramatic increase in the number of services to the Vancouver Airport. For example, the airport line which previously operated at 30–60 minute intervals now operates every 7–15 minutes.

These changes have lead to far greater coverage of the metropolitan area, improved frequency and better connections. As a result, Vancouver has seen a dramatic increase in patronage of the public transport system, of 64% between 1993 and 2011.


Despite Perth’s population density being significantly lower than Melbourne’s, we can learn from the city’s dramatic transport improvements in the last decade. Consistent patronage growth has come about because of a centrally planned network. With the new 72km Mandurah line and its associated bus services more growth is expected.

Lower costs, less stress by avoiding traffic and no need to find parking were cited as some of the many benefits of using Perth’s public transport network. The southern and northern rail lines were conceived as an integrated ‘rail-bus’ link and regional bus services were completely redesigned ‘to complement and not compete with the new rail services’.

On all lines, trains now run at least every 15 minutes until 7 pm every day of the year with 30 minute evening services. A report found ‘the structure of the bus lines to the stations supports fast transfers between modes. At Murdoch Station, orbital buses arrive and depart approximately every eight minutes during much of the day and thus connect conveniently to the high frequency radial trains’.

At Mandurah, buses enter the station precinct on a parallel dedicated roadway over the station platform, collecting and setting down passengers at the top of the escalators serving the platform. Transfers can take place under cover and walking is minimised.

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