What other cities are doing: Brisbane

This post first appeared at TraNZport and is republished with permission.

Brisbane is a city that I am somewhat familiar with as I have had family living there since I was a kid. It isn’t necessarily a city you would equate with good transport initiatives. It’s a huge, sprawling mass of single detached homes, punctuated with giant shopping malls anchored in a  sea of car parks. Like fattened arteries, multi-laned freeways crisscross the humid cityscape, choked with traffic and bad tempers.

Brisbane has a population of around 2.4 million, making it Australia’s third largest city. However, it’s the economic hub of a conurbation that includes the Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast cities, numbering more than 3.5 million people (although for the purposes of this post I am sticking with Brisbane itself – the Gold Coast is another post altogether). It’s significantly larger than almost all New Zealand cities, although it has most in common with Auckland, or the developing Upper North Island “super region” known as the “Golden Triangle”. To a lesser degree, it also shares some commonalities with greater Christchurch, although at a much larger scale. Principally, the key features are low-density urban sprawl, relatively low public transport usage, predominance of suburban shopping centres, including lots of big box retail, and a firmly established car culture.

Transport in Brisbane

Like most Australian cities, Brisbane is highly car dependent, with around 75 percent of commuters driving, and just 10 percent taking public transport. There is a huge motorway network consisting of about 16 individual routes amounting to hundreds of kilometres.

The railway network is the fourth most used in the country, behind Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. With just over 50 million trips per annum it is used more than twice as much as Auckland’s. However, this is a little misleading. The network is utterly huge, stretching to more than 600 kilometres in route length. This means its per-kilometre use is much lower than all other Australian cities, including the poorly utilised Adelaide system, and the Auckland rail system (although it is worth noting that Brisbane’s network serves as a hybrid urban/regional system serving places as far away as the Gold Coast and the Sunshine Coast).

The city has a huge bus network, and while rail in the city is important, the city is in many respects a “bus city”, and this probably has a lot to do with the fact that the Brisbane City Council runs most of the bus services. The bus system has some oretty interesting features, such as the “BUZ” (Bus Upgrade Zones) services. These are high frequency routes operating at 15 minute off-peak frequencies or less, that run express on major trunk routes. Most of the routes stop only at select stops, so provide a combination of fast and frequent service, and incorporate targeted bus priority measures. There are also two “CityGlider” services, which provide high quality, high frequency services in the inner city area that have the added feature of prepaid ticketing and all door boarding.


Perhaps the most interesting feature of Brisbane’s bus system is the network of high-quality, (mostly) grade-separated busways. Approximately 27 kilometres of busway has been built to-date along three lines (South East, Northern, and Eastern), and each year more passengers travel on these busways than on the entire rail network.

Future project – Cross River Rail


A massive project currently underway is Cross River Rail (shown above), led by the Queensland Government. This aims to reduce the rail network bottleneck in the city centre by creating a second pathway under the city, serving new inner city areas and including four new underground stations.

Albert St Station
Albert Street Station will fulfill a similar role to City Rail Link’s Aotea Station

It is essentially Brisbane’s version of the City Rail Link, allowing increases in frequency and more of the CBD to be served by rail, except it is longer and has more stations. It is due for completion in 2024, after several iterations ping-ponging back and forwards between successive state governments. One of those earlier proposals was for a combined rail and bus tunnel, abandoned for the present project by the current administration. As I said earlier, Brisbane is a bit of a bus city, and there has been a bit of tension between the pro-bus council and pro-rail state government.

Future project – Brisbane Metro

Brisbane City Council is leading the implementation of the city’s other big public transport project to help deal with the city’s chronic bus congestion, known as “Brisbane Metro”. Originally conceived of as a “rubber tyred metro”, ostensibly similar to the Montreal Metro (but driverless), it has subsequently developed into a form of high capacity, high frequency bus rapid transit using the existing busway infrastructure and a new tunnel under Adelaide Street, and high capacity bi-articulated tram-like buses. The project will feature two “metro” lines as part of its initial implementation stage, from Eight Mile Plains to Roma Street (Metro 1), and Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital to University of Queensland (Metro 2). It will interchange with Cross River Rail at Roma Street and Boggo Road stations, thus fulfilling the integrated bus/rail solutions previously explored for central Brisbane. A second stage is proposed to expand service to the Airport, and further to the south east.

Brisbane Metro network map - June 2020 - green and blue

Brisbane Metro consists of two lines over a length of 21 kilometres, with 18 stations, operated by articulated buses that will be 24 metres long and can carry 150 passengers. They will feature battery electric operation (“flash charging” at the end of routes), feature all-door boarding and like a train or tram will have a segregated drivers compartment. Apparently, the recharging can happen in six minutes. Services will be turn-up-and-go, running every 3 minutes at peak, and will run 24 hours at weekends.

If you want to see a cool video (with a dubious music choice) that explains all, then…

So what is Brisbane “Metro”, really?

Politicians delivering the project are pretty keen on not referring to it as bus rapid transit – hence the “metro” moniker- and it’s hard to look at it simply as a bus project given the length of the buses, the dedicated infrastructure, and frequency of services. However, what it really amounts to is an evolutionary upgrade of the existing busway system that will increase frequency and capacity, relieving current congestion issues.

Brisbane bus Congestion
Brisbane has become infamous for its bus congestion. Is Brisbane metro the answer?

In a sense, it is what many people are calling “trackless tram”, although really it’s just a bus (as are trackless trams). There’s nothing wrong with that, but as I’ve written previously, the term “trackless tram” is just a gimmicky label to make something appear new and ground breaking.


Why buses and not light rail?

The answer probably goes back what I said earlier about Brisbane being a “bus city”. The city has already invested in 27 kilometres of very high quality busway infrastructure, and taking advantage of that by implementing a solution that is bus-based should, theoretically, save money. Ultimately, choice seems to have been made for a number of reasons, but primarily because:

  • it allows non-metro buses to use the same infrastructure without too much complication
  • it avoids the added cost and disruption of laying tracks
  • it allows the metro to be expanded relatively easily and incrementally, potentially at little cost.

There are some downsides, however. As they are already spending $1 billion (and they could probably have cut the wildly expensive Cultural Centre Station to save money), laying tracks might not have added much in the overall scheme of things, and could have added even more capacity to the system, better future proofing it. Likewise, it also would have enabled a more reliable power source (overhead wire) that doesn’t rely on flash charging. Finally, the metro will rely on very high-quality busways, so any “cheap” extensions – while possible – will likely be of a considerably lower standard. This illustrates the impact of the sunk costs of the existing busway infrastructure quite well.

I can’t really figure out where the $1 billion is going, although the Cultural Centre Station will be undergrounded, and a tunnel built through to an upgraded King George Square Station (Brisbane’s existing underground bus station). Other investments, in addition to rolling stock, include platform extensions at existing stations, converting the existing Victoria Street Bridge to a “green bridge”, and new turnarounds and layovers. Together, these amount to over three-quarters of the project costs, so it’s fair to say most of the expenditure is going onto pretty targeted interventions.

Reflections relevant to New Zealand

The issue of bus congestion has been the driver behind light rail down Dominion Road in Auckland. As we now know, that project turned incredibly sour over the last two years because it was made unnecessarily complicated by exploration of an alternative “light metro” proposal. Brisbane Metro is an example of a project that is – at heart – sticking to its knitting. The Auckland light rail project, on the other hand, has been a victim of trying to do too much, over thinking the role it is supposed to play. Yet, the Brisbane Metro should also be taken with a heavy dose of reality. It’s effectiveness is almost entirely due to previous expensive investments in busway infrastructure, and that should sound a warning to proponents of BRT and “trackless trams” for mass rapid transit (MRT) solutions in New Zealand. For example, Wellington’s proposed MRT corridor will need to be built from scratch to have anything like the same kind of service level as Brisbane Metro. Same goes for Auckland’s Dominion Road, and Christchurch’s north-south MRT proposal. Brisbane Metro is not merely converting traffic lanes to bus lanes, its’s taking advantage of some serious pre-built bus infrastructure. Even then, it’s still costing $1 billion. There are certainly questions about its value for money, including in relation to future capacity demands. That’s not to say BRT or “trackless trams” aren’t a good idea, we should just beware of hyped claims about cost savings and ease of implementation.

In all, I think the Brisbane experience provides a mixture of useful and not so useful examples for New Zealand MRT development. However, what it illustrates most of all is that choosing the right mode is not as simple as is often portrayed; mode shouldn’t be the determinant factor for a solution, rather mode-choice should come once the objectives of the intervention are finalised. In Brisbane’s case, they chose to leverage off of existing infrastructure, and have a minimal impact on existing bus operations. I don’t think that was necessarily the right objectives, but that is what they determined was best for their city.

Where to next for Brisbane?

This will be an interesting project to watch unfold. key questions I will be looking to answer going forward are:

  • whether the new system strikes early capacity issues
  • how the electric bus technology rolls out and any issues with it
  • how regular bus services integrate and impact the metro operations
  • the way extensions will be implemented (i.e. through extending onto existing roads or by way of busway construction)
  • how Brisbane Metro and Cross River Rail operate as a single rapid transit eco-system for greater Brisbane

Just down the road Gold Coast city have implemented a altogether different solution through the G-Link light rail line. Watch out for that to be covered in a future “What other cities are doing” post.

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