Conjuring the future bus

As Monash University’s partnership with the bus industry starts to bear fruit, we sit down with ‘future bus’ design student Sarah Roberts to find out more about her research project

Conjuring the future bus
Monash University PhD student Sarah Roberts with public transport research supervisor Robbie Napper


ABC spoke to Sarah Roberts, whose PhD in industrial design is being sponsored by Transdev Melbourne and Monash University.

While the PhD won’t be complete until 2019, her investigation into how the physical design of buses currently used in Melbourne might not be the most conducive to attracting new users is gaining momentum.

Roberts’ research project seeks to explore what a future bus might look like for urban local bus transport within suburban Melbourne.

"New technologies and design thinking are reinventing the potential of bus design, moving away from the conventional view of the bus as a slow, boxy, impersonal shell," she says.

"I started this particular research project in April 2016 and it’s been interesting just trying to gain an understanding of what might be done from a design perspective that can help encourage more people to use Melbourne’s bus network."

The role of the bus is expected to change rapidly in the years ahead with the advent of autonomous vehicles, strengthening trends in car sharing, and the growth of on-demand services like Uber.

These ‘future buses’ must provide for the diverse travel needs of younger people as well as the ageing population, which is a challenging contrast in itself.

"The role of the bus is also changing; while they will always need to provide a fixed-route mass transit service, demand-response services which can penetrate into more confined streets and suburbs or hilly areas are also needed," Roberts explains.


Smaller buses the way forward?

"I think smaller buses could be better utilised, particularly within the outer suburbs where they are often run mostly empty during non-peak hours. This could have a positive impact on the image of bus travel because they will look fuller.

"Also, smaller buses are more suitable for hilly terrains and going through smaller and tighter streets, often present in suburban environments. Plus they are cheaper to buy and run, so larger fleet sizes are possible."

 "Operators are happy to use articulated buses for high-density routes but they don’t really go the other way for places where patronage is lower.

"Buses are boxy for a reason, but if you design it differently I think you can have an impact on public perception and hopefully encourage more people to catch the bus."

The end game is for bus operators and manufacturers to collaborate in the design of a vehicle that is more user-centric and flexible than those currently in service.

Her project is part of the Sustainable and Effective Public Transport – Graduate Research Industry Partnership (SEPT-GRIP), which is supervised by Monash University senior lecturer and long-term Volgren bus design consultant Dr Robbie Napper, and overseen by the wider Monash University Public Transport Research Group under the guidance of group director Professor Graham Currie.

Currie is a renowned international public transport research leader and policy advisor with more than 30 years’ experience.

Transdev onboard

Transdev Melbourne managing director Harry Wijers says Robert’s findings could potentially revolutionise the way public transport looks in the city over the coming years.

The company has already started future-proofing its fleet with SmartBus services (in conjunction with Public Transport Victoria) which include more modern technology, extended hours of operation and priority along certain routes.

"Transdev aspires to deliver a first class bus network and we are always open to ways to further improve our services," says Wijers.

"It’s great to have someone from outside the industry, with a fresh perspective and an understanding of design, looking at how buses can be improved.

"We are completely supportive of Sarah’s research – it’s great that Transdev Melbourne has been given this opportunity to support her.

"I sincerely hope manufacturers and planners will take some of her findings on board when they look at public transport in Melbourne into the future."

Wijers says bus is an essential part of the public transport network, often providing ‘feeder’ services to those in the wider suburbs of the city – which Robert’s PhD is based around.

"Buses are an essential part of the public transport system. It’s important we get this right so we can continue improving the public transport network as a whole."


Good design in practice

Napper is confident that the research conducted at Monash will help to inform the bus industry and steer the investments of its stakeholders in the right direction.

"I have this theory that the bus is a tool," Napper says. "And a transport planner will say ‘I just want to pick it up and use it’ – like a spanner.

"Our job as industrial designers is to say ‘we can change the design of the tool to make it suit the task even better’ and yet everybody is driving round in the same 12.5m buses.

"As a designer you soon learn that some things are disproportionately important to people, just little things like phone chargers in the seat."

SEPT-GRIP aims to create the next generation of industry leaders in the field of public transport with a deep understanding of the practical difficulties faced by industry.

In total, 16 projects like Roberts’ started in April 2016, with two more expected to join in early 2017 at Monash University as part of the Graduate Research Industry Partnership. This brings together six faculties and focuses on the topic of sustainable and effective public transport.  

Sarah says it has been very interesting to see how students from different faculties approach the issues faced by public transport providers and bus manufacturers. She is looking forward to talking to actual bus users in an attempt to gauge what people who catch the bus actually want and then using that to inform her research.


Industry-academia join forces

The initiative is jointly funded by Monash University and industry groups including Public Transport Victoria, Metro Trains Melbourne, Yarra Trams, VicRoads, Transdev Melbourne, and the Bus Association of Victoria. It is essentially a collaborative professional development program for students focused on real solutions that the Australian public transport industry needs in order to thrive and reach its potential.

Currie believes that advanced research born out of collaboration between a number of university departments – along with the bus, rail and tram industry, is needed in order to address ‘the urban transport problem’ using public transport.

The ‘problem’ is that urban growth has generated significant transport challenges including traffic congestion and associated liveability, health, environmental and social impacts. Improving and developing new public transport systems has been widely acknowledged as a progressive solution but significant challenges remain.

Effective use of infrastructure, achieving better reliability and coordination, and funding new systems are major barriers to progress internationally, and it’s no different in Australia.

The 18 research projects are wide ranging and focus on a number of public transport improvement-related themes including personal safety, transit priority, an ageing population, new markets and behaviour change.


Volgren partnership

A decade-long partnership between Australia’s largest bus body manufacturer and Monash University’s Faculty of Art Design and Architecture is providing PhD students with industry engagement in their quest to advance the future of Australian bus design.

The Volgren PhD Scholarship in partnership with Monash has now produced two PhD students: Dr Ilya Fridman, who graduated in November last year with his research into designing a battery-electric vehicle (BEV) within an Australian context; and Dr Robbie Napper, who led the design of Volgren’s highly successful Optimus route bus in 2013.

Dr Fridman, a former digital sculptor in the design team at General Motors, was introduced to Volgren when working with Dr Napper as a freelance designer on Volgren’s Optimus bus. He credits his PhD to "real industry" input and genuine engagement from Volgren.

"If there wasn’t the level of industry engagement and real-world application I wouldn’t have done my PhD, and, if I did, I certainly wouldn’t have finished in four years," Dr Fridman says.

"Volgren's scholarship gave purpose to my PhD project. It challenged me to research complex real-world problems and deliver design solutions for local application."

Dr Fridman had a desk in Volgren’s engineering studio that he visited weekly and Volgren’s engineering manager Mick Kearney was his industry supervisor.

"It was great to be embedded as part of the business," Dr Fridman says. "It helped me understand the complexities they dealt with daily.

"I could walk around the factory floor, observe the construction process, and speak with employees or suppliers to understand their needs. I even went along on driving tests.

"Having Mick as a supervisor was particularly helpful as he provided valuable feedback during our fortnightly reviews. The final outcome would not have been as credible without his extensive knowledge and input."

His research focused on the unique functional and operational characteristics of BEV systems and how the development of BEV route bus platform required a greater understanding of battery configuration and operational strategies in an Australian context.  This work aimed to address this knowledge gap through design-led experimentation that integrated information from vehicle engineering, battery chemistry and public transport.

Volgren CEO Peter Dale says the partnership and academic collaboration with Monash was critical as his company developed the next generation of route buses.

"Monash have been great partners to work with and we’re extremely proud to have two successful PhD students complete their research projects that advance bus body design," he says.

"Both research projects have contributed world-leading ideas that have either been incorporated into current designs or, in the case of Ilya’s work in battery electric vehicles, will be studied and tested by our engineering and design teams."

Dale explains that working with academics and industrial designers at Monash has had a lasting effect on Volgren’s performance culture and ability to compete globally.

BusVic involvement

A project to investigate the road safety impacts of bus safety inspections is being undertaken by Jianrong Qiu and sponsored by BusVic.

While much is understood about the sensitivity of travel markets to changes in fares and service levels, little is known about fluctuations in the frequency of use. This project focuses on measuring significant changes in the frequency of use of individual passengers.

BusVic is also sponsoring a second PhD student Prudence Blake; who is looking into the factors that influence customer fluctuation in bus markets.

The bus industry must meet safety regulation requirements including bus safety inspections with both annual mandatory independent inspections and more regular documented self-inspection processes. This project aims to understand the road safety impacts of the Victorian bus inspection regime. A review of annual inspection results is intended to identify vulnerable vehicle groups and components and better understand what aspects of safety inspections are having greater impacts on road safety.

BusVic executive director Dr Chris Lowe says he is excited about the Monash University partnership with BusVic on these projects.

"Monash invited us to take part in this multi-disciplinary study and we are proud to be a part of it. We have had a very long association with Monash University.

"If we are going to improve our practices, behaviour and performance as an industry — then it has to be underpinned by sound knowledge and these research projects aim to give us this knowledge."

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