As some of you will know, my first forays into blogging here on the ATB came by way of several “postcards” from afar, in which I ranted about my travels in Amsterdam, Norway, and Greece. It was the appreciative and insightful tone of your responses to these postcards that got me enthused about blogging in the first instance.

And postcards are suddenly cool again – mainly because I have been transplanted across the Tasman once more for work. So here follows the first of what I hope will be several postcards from Brisbane. The reason I will need several posts, I think, is because Brisbane is so bloody interesting.

Not in an “oh my gosh” isn’t everything wonderful”, but in an “oh my let’s spend money on transport but I’m not sure in a good way.” Basically, Brisbane is interesting because it does so much that is right, while at the same time wasting obscene amounts of money on terribly expensive infrastructure projects.

Before we get into the serious nitty grit-picky, let’s start with a picture postcard perfect transport photo. The one below shows me sweating profusely having cycled 200m along the recently flooded but soon to be fixed cycleway, which ran just above the surface of the river. While it looks like I’m smiling, I’m actually grimacing in response to 30+ degree heat (NB: Brisbane does not suit delicate little red-headed fairies such as myself).

Photo credit: Julie-Anne Genter

In the background of the photo above you can see the construction of one of Brisbane’s most recent pedestrian and cycle only bridges. But enough of the transport eye candy; it’s now time to get down and dirty with some numbers (NB: Data sourced from here and here):

  • Population: 2.15 million, area: 6,000 sqkm, average density: 346 people/sqkm
  • PT patronage: 180 million, or 82 trips per capita p.a. of which:
    • Bus – 120.3 million
    • Train – 52.8 million
    • Ferry – 5.2 million
  • PT operating budget AU $1.5 billion p.a. (NB: This includes some minor capital spend on bus stops and driver facilities, but not for corridors, as well as organisational overheads), which was spent as follows:
    • Bus – $503.9 million ($4.19 per trip)
    • Rail – $835.5 million ($15.82 per trip)
    • Ferry – $19.1 million ($3.67 per trip)
  • System-wide cost recovery 23.6% and smartcard market share 81.6%

So how does Brisbane compare to Auckland? Well, in terms of what they do well:

  • PT infrastructure – Brisbane has a relatively extensive rail and busway network which together form the “rapid transit” heart of the wider network. In the city centre this culminates in two underground bus tunnels supported by dedicated surface bus lanes from most directions. In terms of their rail networkthe network is electrified and operates at reasonable frequencies, although I understand further frequency improvements are not possible because the network capacity is constrained downtown. With so much rapid transit infrastructure the services are fast and reliable and attract considerable patronage.
  • Smartcard uptake – Brisbane really was the poster child of integrated ticketing; they made an early push for integrated fares and ticketing (tag on/off) and the GoCard is now used for over 80% of all trips. The discount for using a GoCard is at least 30% of the standard fare, which is quite an incentive (by contrast HOP is only 10%). The high update has a noticeable effect on bus dwell times at stops. TransLink also offers a 30% discount for travelling at off-peak times, as well as fare caps that kick in beyond a certain point. The off-peak discount, in particular, is something Auckland should consider, when marginal willingness-to-pay and marginal costs of supply and both low.

Now let’s consider the not so good news:

  • Costs – Brisbane’s public transport network seems relatively costly, with an overall cost recovery of only 24%. That’s only half of what Auckland achieves – and we’re headed for 50% in the near future. Reasons for Brisbane’s high costs are many and varied. Cost recovery, however, ultimately boils down to a) operating costs and/or b) patronage and/or c) fare revenue. Given that Brisbane’s patronage is relatively high, as are fares, then a process of elimination would suggest that Brisbane’s lower cost recovery is attributable to higher operating costs. One of the reason Brisbane’s operating costs may be higher is their issues with sprawl (see below), which in turn results in people traveling long distances. It may also reflect generally higher wages in Australia, especially for highly unionised public sector workforces.
  • Sprawl – It’s not immediately obvious from the statistics presented above, but Brisbane sprawls in all sorts of directions and all sorts of strange ways. The city has chronic issues with what I think is technically knows as “leapfrog” sprawl, whereby poorly connected blocks of land beyond the urban fringe are developed in isolation, thereby fragmenting the urban edge and making it extremely difficult to deliver efficient public services after the fact. Take a look at the image below to see an example, but to gain a true appreciation for the beast you’d be best to jump on Google Earth and have a zoom.

There’s a lot more to talk about so let me know what you’re most interested in and I’ll make an effort to get some thoughts down. Some possible topics that spring to mind:

  1. Central city access/mobility – pedestrianised main street, walking/cycle acces points, rail station locatons, bus stops and key corridors, one way street system, signal cycle times  …
  2. Busway infrastructure and service patterns – these really are quite spectacular. Brisbane has not only two radial busways (South-east and Inner Northern) but also a crosstown busway (Eastern). These are serviced by a network of high frequency bus routes.
  3. Highway infrastructure , tunnels, and PPPs – Far and away the worst thing about Brisbane is the mega-billions they’ve squandered creating massive amounts of highway infrastructure, in the process cutting the city off from the river and many of its surrounding suburbs.

I will say that in general I find Brisbane to be a wonderful peer city for Auckland – it’s bigger and richer, so tends to do things earlier and spend more money in the process. We’d be silly not to learn as much as we can from their many successes, and failures.

On that cliched note, here’s another vacuous photo of me – this time standing on the platform at central station as the train arrives to whizz me home. Looking forward to that soon enough!

Self-indulgent transport blogger waiting to board train
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    1. Yes it was very very warm today. I was up at 5am and got to work by 7am just to escape the heat. The good news is I survived :).

      1. I really miss Brisbane when I lived there for two years and survived 42C heat pretty well.

        Going back there for a holiday in March so hopefully just out of the heat.

        And as we both know, no A/C in Brisy means fry 😮

  1. an ironic note for NZ is that the South East Busway was the result of an election promise to add two lanes to the adjacent freeway, post election they became busway lanes, sigh

    1. I don’t have a good feel for these things and it’s hard to say – it’s such a sprawling beast north and south. But the general message is that it’s considerably less dense than Auckland, aside from the city centre.

  2. I think it is also pointing out that the average density probably doesn’t give a good indication, weighted density is often better in that regard. This post shows that Brisbanes average density is 16.6 people per hectare however weighted density is 22.6 per ha. Kent did some work recently and worked out that as a comparison, Auckland’s average is 25 but weighted density is 40.

  3. Never been to Brisbane but wonder what effect their heritage protection on pre-war buildings has had on intenisifcation. I hear they are going to scrap it while we consider adopting it.

    1. I would say that it’s had a suffocating effect on intensification – a lot of over-sized, run down heritage buildings on large sites in locations that are ideal for intensification. But that’s just a simple economist’s view ;).

    2. They are proposing the idea of scrapping it. Judging by the reactions in the Courier Mail- I don’t think they will…

      I think the;r heritage suburbs are 800m2 blocks, ours are 20–400m2.

      Quite a difference in density!

  4. One interesting point is the very different governance structure in place in Brisbane, and actually in all of Australias Big 5 State Capitals.
    They are each the centre of their state governments, and the State Government controls Public Transport (Translink), as well as being responsible for the Department of Main Roads (NZTA equivalent). In 2009 the PT arm and Roads arm were even merged.
    In Queensland the State Agency Translink performs many of the functions of Auckland Transport. The Brisbane City Council is largely an operator of buses.
    This is important for several reasons .First the political centre of gravity is also the main city, so all politicians have to understand transport issues, and consequently they feature a big role in State elections. Secondly Public Transport operations are much more heavily integrated into the NZTA, and have strong voice at state government level. Here PT is knowledge very weak at govt level.
    All of this helps Public Transport not only in Brisbane, but across all major Aussie cities.

    1. “First the political centre of gravity is also the main city, so all politicians have to understand transport issues, and consequently they feature a big role in State elections.”

      I don’t understand why the location of the state capital has anything to do with this. Why would an independent MP in Mt Isa need to know anything about transport in Brisbane? If a Queensland political party needs to understand Brisbane transport issues, then surely that is because Brisbane is a city of 2million people… not because Brisbane is the state capital.

      New York isn’t a state capital. Chicago isn’t a state capital. Los Angeles isn’t a state capital. I suspect state legislators in all three states have an understanding of transport (and other) issues in these three international mega-cities. They’re not neglected just because the state capitals are in Albany, Springfield, and Sacramento.

      1. It matters not so much because politicians understand PT issues as because the budget for Brisbane’s transport is controlled by the state government that has to live with the consequences of its PT decisions. Auckland’s PT budget is controlled by people in Wellington who don’t need to care about the consequences of not funding Auckland PT. My guess is that if NZTA bureaucrats had to deal everyday with their crappy decisions about Auckland’s transport infrastructure, then we’d see much more rapid change.

        This doesn’t apply to the US state case because city governments like LA or NY have much more considerable revenue raising powers.

      2. Well the independent MP probably isn’t in Government! And I don’t mean all, just more than in NZ. Brisbane is about half the population of Queensland, and nearly another million is within 100km as that includes Sunshine Coast and the Gold Coast (so thats 75% in an hour). Australian capitals are more dominant in their states than Auckland in NZ. Populations geographically concentrated, so a very high percentage of state populations (and thus MP’s) have regularly dealings with transport and traffic issues in day to day lives.
        I think an issue in NZ is that baby boomer politicians have only experienced dire PT in NZ over their lives. That explains initial reluctance of former Labour Ministers and current Nat ones. The latest generation of Labour has definitely changed, so hopefully the next generation of National will…..

      3. Bad comparison to US cities, as in the US the city level of government has much more power than the cities in Australia and New Zealand. For example, in NYC it is the city and NOT the state that deals with police, education, transport, housing etc, where as in Australia/New Zealand these are largely the domain of the state/central government. So the US state governments don’t have as much direct influence in most cases, especially with regards to transport.

  5. Writing this from Brisbane, it is very interesting to hear that you have observed the same things as me (and some others).

    The $465m spent on 1km of Eastern Busway: Buranda to Coorparoo is eye watering, and 90% of the benefit came from a queue jump for buses. Northern Busway’s last phase from Windsor to Kedron also seems quite wasteful because it left a gap in the busway at Windsor. Would have been better to retain/extend/upgrade the old T3 transit lane.

    The original “Eastern Busway” wasn’t eastern at all, but I think what was previously called the “Boggo Rd busway” was renamed as it had been successful to help justify the Eastern Busway being built.

    Most trains only come at 30 minute frequency, so I’m not sure why you are saying frequent. Darra to Northgate sees 15 minute frequency due to multiple lines. Similar to Park Rd. Ferny Grove has recently been upgraded to 15 minute frequency weekday daytimes only due to a political promise.

    As for their smart cards, hardly the first such implementation. There is some momentum to remove paper tickets completely.

    Bus lanes? There are hardly any of them. They’ve removed most of the bus and transit lanes they had, but one remains on Ann St (CBD) and Mains Rd (~10km out).

    1. Hi SimonL – Generally agree, with two exceptions:

      1. Rail frequencies – Not sure what your point is here: I described the frequencies as “reasonable”, which seems fair in light of demands. Yes branching does certainly dissipate frequencies on outlying lines, which is actually why the Doomben line should be shut down. But from what I can tell most of the inner-city network seems to have ~20 minute frequencies. As you note the Ferny Grove line runs at 15 minutes frequencies all day as you note, with a good number continuing through to Beenleigh.
      2. Smart cards – in the Australasian context Brisbane is an undeniable leader in integrated ticketing and fares, which was implemented here well before the much larger cities in Sydney and Brisbane. In fact, I remember as a teenager reading documents arguing for integrated ticketing in Auckland that leaned on Brisbane’s experience to highlight the positive impacts of integrated ticketing. So I think you’re possibly under-estimating the degree to which Brisbane has “lead” other cities in this area.

      And yes, I just found out that most of the bus lanes have been removed by the new Liberal-National Government. Aside from motorways the worst thing about Brisbane is the destructive political climate; NZ does not know how lucky we are.

      1. There are no 20 minute frequencies – except perhaps at peak times when the timetable does strange things on some lines. 30 minutes for all lines, except Ferny Grove, which is not 15 minutes all day, interpeak only. Then 30 minutes, later 60 minutes on most lines.

        WA is also good regarding fares, I’d say better than QLD because it hasn’t been damaged by politics – introducing 9 then free leaving loopholes wide open. SA has had integrated fares since the 1960s apparently.

        Oh and a couple of other points from the OP. Off peak discount is 20%, not 30%. And your point about rail frequencies not being able to be increased only applies in peak hour, and then only arguably. The capacity through Central has been deemed 19tph on the “mains” and 23-25tph on the “suburbans”. But there would need to be more trains or faster trains.

        1. The outer lines converge between Northgate to Park Rd which provides much higher than 15 minute frequency through that (reasonably important) segment.

          I’m staring at the Ferny Grove timetable now and it’s pretty much 15 minutes all day – at least in the peak direction. Yes there’s a couple of ~20 minute gaps and a couple of expresses that come through breaking the pattern, but not too bad.

          Anyway, I guess it comes down to what you think is “reasonable”. Given the fragmented network it seems reasonable to me – can’t see what much else they could do, aside from shutting some branches (although they seem keen to build more).

          Yes my mistake off-peak discount is 20%.

      2. Brisbane has been a relative late comer to integrated ticketing (2004) with the current smart card system introduced from 2008. Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne and Hobart all beat it off the block by a long shot integration happening generally between the 70’s and 80’s although Adelaide may have been earlier.

        Sounds like you really need to make a visit to Perth before getting too excited about Brisbane’s ticketing and urban railways. Although to be fair if you have only seen Auckland Brisbane probably would seem pretty amazing.

        1. I was under the impression that neither Melbourne nor Adelaide had smart card ticketing until this year? MyKi etc.

          And I think people have gotten the wrong end of the stick: I’m certainly not that excited by Brisbane’s rail system. I simply described it as “reasonable”, which I think is appropriate. And for the record, I’ve visited and live in many cities aside from Auckland and Brisbane ;).

          Never to Perth, but maybe one day.

          1. Melbourne is actually completely removing Metcard for it’s smartcard system this month, called “myki”. It’s been a disaster though.

            Adelaide has Metrocard, launched early last month. However, Adelaide has had an integrated fare system since the 1960s apparently. I can remember using it myself around 1980. Just a paper ticket with some holes punched to show validity.

            Perth’s Smartrider was launched in 2007.

            Let us not speak of Sydney.

            Even “reasonable” is not a word I’d use to describe Brisbane’s rail system, although it has improved in the last 2 years. No, I don’t like it too much.

          2. “I was under the impression that neither Melbourne nor Adelaide had smart card ticketing until this year? MyKi etc.”

            I picked up a Myki card when I was in Melbs a couple of weeks ago. Generally I don’t need transport during the week since work put me up in a hotel within walking distance of the office. But I like to go out at the weekend. I usually buy an all-day Sunday ticket from Flinders Street Station, but they don’t sell them any more. It was either buy one on the tram and arse around with notes and coins. Or spend $6 (?) and get a Myki. I’m glad I did… It looks cool and works well. Except for one occasion when I tried to tag on to a tram using my hotel door card.

            Lessons: 1. Make the cards cheap. 2. Make it difficult to buy old tickets. 3. Inconvenience people who don’t use a card, so that they’ll give in and do the sensible thing.

  6. Even though Brisbane has per pay, I saw a carriage inspector walking through carriage accompanied with security guard acting as body guard. Bit of a double up and it is some thing I have not seen on other public transport, May explain high operating cost.

    1. Have not seen that – although I am aware that there are a few “Guardian trains” that have onboard security. These mainly run on Friday and Saturday nights.

  7. I’d like to know what you think of their pedestrianised main street? similarly its on a slope like Auckland’s Queen St, so could be a good comparison.

    And ferries seem to be a key transport area there, handy with a river running right through the city. How much load do the ferries take off the whole transport system, what could Auckland be doing better in terms of ferries?

    1. The short answers:
      – Brisbane’s pedestrianised main street is wonderful and an example that Auckland should imitate, at least up to Mayoral Drive. One of the fantastic things it does is provide an urban meeting space right in the heart of the city.
      – The ferries are good at what they do, but I don’t think they warrant major expansion. The curviness of the river makes it difficult for ferries to compete with longer distance trips. I think the main thing they could do is better integrate land use with ferry terminals, because the latter are typically located in pleasant river-side environments with urban intensification should be possible. I believe that is exactly the strategy being following in the urban redevelopment area to the east of the city, where the cruise ships currently dock and berth.

  8. I suppose to answer your point directly, I would not call 30 minute frequencies “reasonable” at places like the Airport, Dutton Park, Buranda, Virginia or after 7pm at Windsor.

    1. I take it you don’t like Brisbane’s PT system?

      Nor do I in many respects, but I have to disagree with you on some points.

      For starters, the AirTrain is privately operated, so not just a matter of flicking the frequency switch. Second, it carries hardly any people – so even if TransLink were running it I’m not sure it’d be in line for a frequency upgrade. Third, you’re under-representing the frequencies; the service runs every 15 minutes in peak periods (

      And with regards to Windsor – what a waste of a station, why would you want higher frequencies there? I’m staying at Wilston (next station out) and I can’t say that the trains are that full, nor do many people board/alight at Windsor. Anecdotal evidence, I’ll give you that.

  9. Windsor might be a waste in the sense that buses serve it better, but I didn’t mean just Windsor, more like the entire line starting with Windsor.

    You can’t say that the Caboolture line doesn’t carry many people. Ferny Grove carries less but got the upgrade first. Politics.

    They do some good stuff in Brisbane, but they should be doing far better for the amount of $ employed.

    1. I’m really confused by your comments:
      1. I never mentioned Caboolture, so am not taking a position on whether its loadingsut you comment sugests I am? All I really pushed back on was the suggestion the AirportLine needs more frequency, which is does not; and
      2. Windor Station is on the Ferny Grove line – so that entire line has already had a frequency upgrade. No more frequency needed there either, from what I can tell.

      1. Even the Ferny Grove line drops back to 30 minute frequencies 6-7pm and 60 minute frequencies after 10pm. 30 minutes on weekends too.

        As for the Airport Line, don’t you think that the poor operating hours and frequency could be affecting the patronage, together with the high fares? It only recently extended to 10pm rather than 8pm.

        1. I’d have to look at the numbers off-peak to see whether services justify being more frequent. I did catch a train home from the city to Wilston tonight at 7pm (i.e. primary direction at that time of day) and the carriage had maybe 20 people in it. So not much need from what I can tell – although it’s not exactly the busiest time of the year, with unis out etc.

          Re: Airport line, it’s a tough one. I’m not sure the fares are that high: $15 each way compares pretty well with most cities I’ve been in for a rapid rail connection. Main exception is Amsterdam, where Schipol forms a hub in their heavy rail network and thus is accessible by normal trains for about 2.50 euro. I’m not even sure Sydney’s airport line runs at 15 minute frequencies all day?

          The main problem with Brisbane’s rail network, I think, is the lack of land use integration around stations. Aside from perhaps Indooroopilly none of the stations outside of the city centre sit on major town centres. Chermside, Garden City etc are all way back from the rail lines, while the central stations are somewhat remote from the heart of the city centre.

          I’ve also just noticed that the Darra to Caboolture line now has more than 15 minute frequencies at peak times, which I think addresses perhaps the busiest line in the network.

          1. Interesting comment about land use and Indooroopilly. The latter is indeed the busiest station on the network outside of the core Park Rd-Bowen Hills section. Toowong is next best, perhaps with the next best land use.

            Ipswich, Richlands and Caboolture have an adequate peak direction service, even if it could be better. Counter peak and off peak is a bit lax.

            Sydney’s airport line generally has 6tph but with 15 minute gaps out of peak. As for fares, Heathrow Connect, Airtrain JFK, Adelaide’s J1 bus, Wellington and Queenstown buses are all far cheaper than the $15. Buses in Melbourne (which travels quite a distance), Hobart, Auckland, Christchurch are relatively expensive.

  10. I lived in Brisbane for a little while.

    I found the train system punctual and reliable, but with terrible frequencies. They need to all be 15 mins all day and evening to attract more users. Stations were dingy and dodgy too.

  11. how old is that first photo? wasn’t that bridge behind you completed ages ago?

    personally what surprised (pleased) me most was the number of apartment buidlings spreading along the river front (and other sensible locations) benefitting from high amenity but also good transport links (river boat).

    I still think a huge challenge for Auckland is getting density where it actually wants to go…so much of our water-front real estate is taken up by huge single homes that will never let any apartments near the water’s edge. good to see Brisbane has somehow overcome this, either by accident or design.

    1. Yes, that photo by the river is probably 4-5 years old. In the time since the photo was taken the bridge has been completed, the cycleway washed away in the floods, and the photographer has been elected to parliament :).

      1. That spiky bridge (Kurilpa Bridge) in the background cost the equivalent of $80 million NZD, and it’s for cyclists and pedestrians only. You think the nzta would do that, blow that much on peds?? I think it is a bit over the top… for that kind of money you could have cycleways all over Auckland.

  12. Regarding frequencies, this would be an excellent opportunity to introduce automated services. With a strong LNP dominance of state and city, they’d be the right people to do it, since the ALP would have issues with the unions. Of course, doing so requires spending in the the first instance… And being a major project, they’ll be sensitive about failure, since massive transport failures have frequently been an incentive to de-elect state and local goverment.

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