Discussion paper

The principles of public transport network planning: a review of the emerging literature with select examples

15 Mar 2011

The governance and management of public transport systems is an essential component of metropolitan planning and urban management. Most metropolitan strategies in Australia and in other jurisdictions presuppose the provision of public transport. Yet there is often a disconnection between transport plans and land-use schemes. Similarly, metropolitan land-use plans that do integrate with transport plans tend to focus on infrastructure rather than service quality and connectivity. A failure to adequately consider the quality of public transport networks in land-use planning analysis has the potential to produce poor planning outcomes in two key ways. First new land-uses may be inadequately served with public transport services, leading to dependence on alternative travel modes, such as cars. Second, the failure to recognise the significance of well-planned local public transport networks may result in the preclusion of some land-use options. This preclusion may relate to the location of land-uses or their design, such as over-provision of carparking. The continuing debate over whether to address suburban cardependence via land-use change or via transport planning is a case in point. And while the arguments in favour of and against land-use change as a means to overcome car dependence are well known in the planning literature. There is a growing if not yet widely appreciated literature that advocates improvements to public transport network planning and coordination as a means of reducing car dependence. The recognition of improved public transport network planning as a means of reducing car dependence is immensely significant because it offers planners an additional or alternative tool for managing urban transport patterns beyond land-use variation or investment in heavy infrastructure.

Urban planning practitioners are not yet well served and informed by the broader public transport planning literature on the advantages of public transport network planning. While there is an extensive literature focusing on the economics and engineering of urban public transport systems the planning literature on the practices that contribute to success in public transport network design and operations is relatively poorly documented. There is also very little literature dedicated to public transport network design within Australian cities which are distinguished by highly centralised radial heavy rail networks with bus or tram networks that are well developed in inner urban zones but less so in the outer suburbs.

The remainder of this paper has four objectives for transport planning theory and practice. First the paper reviews the literature on public transport network planning principles; next the paper attempts to formulate these principles in practical terms such that they can be applied to line and network design; third the paper considers further dimensions of network planning, including institutional arrangements and transition points in network design. The paper is intended for three audiences. The first is planning scholars who are involved in debates about public transport. The second is strategic policy officials in planning agencies who are involved in the planning and design of public transport networks. The third audience comprises those involved in development processes and who seek insights into the technical components of public transport network planning.

Some caveats are appropriate however. The paper is not seeking to justify public transport network planning. The authors consider that the case for dedicated planning is implicit in the assumption that cities should provide good quality public transport to their residents. The wider case in favour of network planning has been successfully advanced elsewhere. Conversely, the paper is not intended as a directly applicable manual of detailed transport planning practice. While it does offer some insights into the practical public transport network planning task such guidance is better provided by Nielsen et al and Vuchic. Instead the paper highlights for urban planners the key strategies and tactics for that can be deployed to improve suburban public transport networks. Understanding these principles should thus assist urban planners – and urban scholars – to better shape and evaluate urban development processes and patterns.

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