Adelaide: The good and the bad of Adelaide’s public transport

Adelaide's light rail system has seen significant investment and expansion recently, but what about the rest of the public transport network?

The bus was 20 minutes late today. The train never turned up. This service is so slow. My bus driver was abusing an elderly lady. Someone left rubbish all over the back seat. There are hundreds of different reasons why people hate the Adelaide public transport system but all of them really come down to two reasons: a lack of proper investment and a lack of care.

Adelaide’s public transport system was of a great standard prior to World War II. Trams served most of the inner suburbs and trains served the areas located further from central Adelaide that existing at the time. It was a well maintained system that adequately served the needs of the city of its day. So what changed?

Several changes have occurred since World War II that have resulted in the dismal public transport system we have today and this also affected every other major Australian city. The biggest impact was that of the car, which became more affordable for families during the 1950s and saw the beginning of a shift from public to private transport.

The second was the change in attitudes towards urban planning. The car was seen as the way of the future, and so urban planning followed accordingly. Roads became of primary importance, new suburbs miles from anywhere were built and many of the train and tram lines were ripped out to make way for roads. The combined effects of the outward growth of the urban area with the removal of key public transport corridors saw a great decline in the quality of the public transport system, a state that it has never truly recovered from.

As a city, we are now paying the price for allowing rapid outward growth combined with a lack of public transport investment on social and environmental grounds. Travel times are on the rise and people are wasting more time in traffic, time that could have been spent doing other things of value. Also, increasing levels of congestion are never great for air quality. Whilst Adelaide’s congestion is mostly localised and nowhere near as bad as it is in other larger cities, this is still no excuse for complacency and inaction as traffic volumes will continue to rise.

So what is currently wrong with Adelaide’s public transport system? It hasn’t really expanded sufficiently at all to cope with the increasing transport demands of its citizens. Since 1950, Adelaide has more than doubled in population from 500,000 to nearly 1.3 million people today. The structure of the network is too centralised on one location: the central business district. In the part of Adelaide where I currently live, I am located 3km from the central business district as the crow flies, yet I only have one bus route (two if you’re really pedantic, but the second route is exactly the same as the first) within a 10 minute walk of my house. In addition to this, I am located near the terminus of this very short route which only runs to the central business district (every 30 min off peak, 15 minutes during peak) before running to suburbs on the opposite side of the city. Because of this, it is quicker for me to get to suburbs far away on the opposite side of the city than it is to travel to neighbouring suburbs by bus. This is not so bad for me because I can walk easily to nearby areas and to the city, but there are many unfortunate people who cannot drive and are forced to find a lift (by car) or take multiple long routes in order to reach a destination that is closer than the total distance travelled.

Most routes do not run very frequently with some that only run during certain periods of the day. The best public transport systems I have seen are the ones where services come so frequently that public timetables don’t need to be published – the most incredible example is Moscow where trains run at headway times as short as 90 seconds in peak hours. There is one corridor in Adelaide that is almost like this, the O-Bahn, but it is many different routes converging on a corridor with only 3 stops along it. On other routes, services run every 15 minutes at most during the day, and every 7-8 minutes in peak hour which is not frequent enough to provide much of an incentive to get bums on seats. The lack of density across most of the city with a lacking diversity of land use in most areas often means it is not practical to run more services on many routes as they end up being rather empty vehicles on our roads and rails.

Other issues include the following:

  • The majority of train stations and some bus stops have shelters that are hardly adequate.
  • Many routes do not have adequate passive surveillance, which gives the impression that they are relatively unsafe at night when there are few to no commuters.
  • Poorly planned timetables often result in late-running or a lot of dawdling (On my bus route the timetable is so slack in the offpeak that buses can wait up to 5 minutes before leaving a scheduled stop). Relating to this is the lack of coordination between connecting services such as when buses are scheduled to arrive at a train station.

In a nutshell, there are three key factors that will encourage people to use public transport, even in a city where people are often addicted to their cars – sometimes that just happens to be the case because they have only ever known bad public transport. They are:

  • Convenience – It needs to be easy to use and serve the places people want to go frequently enough.
  • Flexibility – It needs to run to where we want to go when we want to travel.
  • Security – The system should be safe to use.

Although the public transport system has taken a major step backwards since 1950 there have been a few positive highlights since then. In 1979, the Noarlunga train line between Seacliff and Noarlunga replaced the old windy Willunga Line. In 1986, the O-Bahn provided rapid service by bus between central Adelaide and the northeastern suburbs for the first time. In October 2007, the first new extension to the existing Glenelg tram line was made between Victoria Square and City West with a second extension from City West to Bowden completed in March 2010. Finally, the first extension to the suburban rail network in over 30 years is currently underway between Noarlunga and Seaford.

In the 30 Year Plan for Adelaide that was launched in February 2010 (, the SA Government outlines a vision in which most of Adelaide’s population growth – 70% of it – will occur within the existing urban footprint, much of it accommodated into transit-oriented developments (TODs) located on existing rail corridors that will be upgraded to replace diesel trains with either trams or electric trains. The first of these TODs at Bowden is currently well into the planning stage and these involve making better use of existing land within the urban boundary. Other proposed TODs include Woodville, Mawson Lakes and Noarlunga. The TODs are intended to be walkable higher density communities that provide a mixture of residential, commercial and recreational land uses with good accessibility to public transport.

The major corridors for public transport and TODs as recognised under the 30 Year Plan for Adelaide. (Source: Plan for Greater Adelaide)

The 30 Year Plan is a good start for public transport and the future shape and function of Adelaide, but it is simply not enough. The plan still does not address the issue of the public transport system being centrally focused on the central business district. As seen in the map above, all of the outlined major public transport corridors still run to and from the one location. While the government recognises that there is a need for better connections at major hubs along these corridors, it still fails to recognise that many trips are not made to the central business district, and are made between adjacent residential and commercial centres or between two commercial centres outside the central business district. The best public transport systems recognise this and have implemented major corridors between locations outside the city centre, often with a large loop service. Good examples of this are Singapore’s Circle Line and Tokyo’s Yamanote Line, which provide a bypass around their city centres. Adelaide does have a bus line which performs this task, but it is not well defined, nor does it come frequently enough. Also, the issue of service frequency is not addressed well in the report.

There are other issues with accommodating population growth under the 30 Year Plan such as secure water supplies and the environment, but these will be addressed in future posts. Also, I will post ideas for structural improvements to the shape and function of the public transport system at a later date.


Plan for Greater Adelaide


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One Response to “Adelaide: The good and the bad of Adelaide’s public transport”

  1. Tokyo: Damn, I missed the train… oh wait, here’s the next one! « Urban Rediscovery: Creating Better Communities Says:

    […] few days ago, I wrote a post about how Adelaide’s (Australia) public transport system still has a long way to go and a lot of investment required before the people of Adelaide can […]

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