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Improving Rural Public Transport Networks

Last week, Rod Barton, the leader of Transport Matters Party, presented a motion for inquiry to investigate how the School Bus Program can be better utilised to create more transport opportunities for regional Victoria. The motion was successful.

School buses have spare capacity and have been under-utilised for too long. Rod Barton believes it is about time we address transport disadvantage faced by regional Victorians. Using existing state-funded assets to improve the frequency and reliability of public transport, will create better educational and employment outcomes for youth and address the lack of mobility opportunities for senior citizens and low-income earners.

Rods Speech:

Mr BARTON (Eastern Metropolitan) (10:09): I am very pleased about bringing this motion today. For those of you who are unaware, I lived and owned a property in northern Victoria for many years, and I certainly understand the challenges about transport in rural and regional Victoria.

So, I move: That this house requires the Legislative Councils Economy and Infrastructure Committee  to inquire into, consider and report, within 12 months, on extending school buses to be used by the wider public to enhance the mobility of regional Victorians, and in particular, the committee should:

(1) Provide an independent analysis of the transport disadvantages experienced by regional Victorians, specifically youths, the elderly and low-income households;

(2) Investigate the potential social and community impacts of improving mobility options through opening up school buses and analyse examples and trials of where this has been done in Australia and overseas;

(3) Investigate technology and systems that would be effective in ensuring child safety on school buses; (4) Identify any existing or potential barriers to allowing public access to the school bus network; and

(5) Identify the spare capacity of existing assets in the School Bus Program that could be used to enhance public transport options.

Today I am asking that we proactively address those whose transport needs are often overlooked—Victoria’s regional and rural communities. I present this motion today because I have a sincere interest in improving public transport services across Victoria, in particular to benefit those most vulnerable. Public transport in regional Victoria is inadequate, and our regional communities need to be better connected. Trains and buses need to be more frequent and connections between transport providers need to be improved.

In 2016 Victoria’s regional network development plan was published after consultations with people, businesses, local councils and organisations across regional Victoria. This report found that many regional communities suggested using school buses to meet local travel needs by providing bus services to shopping precincts, healthcare centres, educational institutions and train stations. Using school buses outside of school times was identified as a key area for future trials to be implemented.

Despite the suggestions made in this report, limited research or studies have been undertaken since. School buses make up a large portion of transport options in regional Victoria and are largely underutilised. The school bus program consists of just over 1300 contracted school buses throughout regional Victoria. When 65 000 or so children are not being transported to school each day these buses often sit idle. If spare seats on school buses were made accessible to the wider public or school buses were used for bus route services during off-peak hours, mobility in regional Victoria could be significantly improved.

The transport needs of regional Victorians are incredibly diverse, and each community has different transport priorities. As we know, traditional public transport networks are often too expensive to introduce in many low-population towns. This establishes a need for more affordable, smaller, flexible services that can be adapted to meet the needs of local communities. School buses could be the solution to this problem. The transport disadvantages faced by many regional Victorians must be addressed if we are to protect our elderly, youth and low-income households from social exclusion. Mobility is an important aspect of social wellbeing and being active in the community.

We know that inadequate public transport services have led to dependence on private vehicles in regional areas. Regional Victorians are more likely to use their cars to travel to work and less likely to use public transport than residents of greater Melbourne. This can lead to forced car ownership, where low-income households are forced to incur the costs of owning a private vehicle as there is no viable alternative. Reliance on private vehicles is fine for many, but it disadvantages low-income households significantly. It is also more prevalent in rural areas, where there is more affordable housing. This means that those least able to afford to own and run private vehicles are households with the most limited public transport services. By creating more viable public transport options we can alleviate the financial burden on Victorians who are already doing it tough.

For young people in rural and regional areas a lack of public transport shifts that burden to their family and friends, causing greater reliance on others to meet their transport needs. This is of great concern, as it creates a lack of independence and it often becomes the responsibility of already busy parents to provide their child with transport.

Improving the educational outcomes for regional education has also been an important issue for some time. However, little has been done to address the distance and lack of public transport options that limit young people’s participation in and access to education. These barriers to education often result in either a lack of participation or relocation of young people to regional centres or cities. The same distance that prevents young people from accessing education also limits employment opportunities. Long-term unemployed youth face a higher risk of long-term poverty and social exclusion. This is a threat that is more present for young people who leave school early. They are far more likely to be unemployed as adults.

As more young people move away from small towns in pursuit of better access to education and employment prospects there becomes less and less incentive to provide high-quality service to the remaining community. These youths are the future for the regional communities, and they should be able to access higher education, apprenticeships, employment opportunities and other activities without relying on others for a lift.

Senior citizens are also highly vulnerable to experiencing transport disadvantage in regional Victoria. Senior citizens have declining sensory and cognitive abilities that result in higher rates of driving licence revocation and create difficulty in using other transport options. In an ageing population this is an issue of increasing concern, as it is expected that the number of people aged 65 and over in Victoria will triple from 2011 to 2051, becoming nearly one quarter of the population. Dependence on cars for transport with limited or no alternatives can mean that senior citizens may persist in driving beyond their abilities, putting themselves and others on the road at risk. By increasing the availability of public transport, seniors will be better equipped to remove themselves from the driving seat when the time calls. It is increasingly important at this stage of their lives that seniors have continued interactions with their family, friends and the wider community. These outings maintain their mental health and rely largely on the availability of alternative transport options.

These transport disadvantages faced by young people, low-income earners and seniors exist alongside spare assets in the school bus program. School buses could be used to expand public transport in two ways: one, members of the general public could use spare seats on existing school routes to get to larger towns and regional centres and, two, school buses could be used in off-peak times during the day as a local bus service in the area. This motion asks the committee to investigate the potential social and community impacts of using school buses to improve transport opportunities. Improving the mobility of regional Victorians could enhance educational outcomes by making university and TAFE easier to access. Such an expansion could also connect young people with more social opportunities, improving their self-esteem and independence in the process.

By allowing post-secondary students and members of the general public to access their seats on the school bus, bullying on the school bus could decrease. The school bus is a location where many students experience bullying, and this is a problem that is often poorly addressed. Because the bus driver is often the only adult present on the school bus, they are the sole contact responsible for forwarding information regarding bullying behaviours to the school. This means that the bus driver’s responsibility is not limited solely to transporting students safely to school but also includes the monitoring of any physical or verbal aggression that could occur throughout the duration of the trip. As we know, bus drivers direct most of their attention to the road, leaving bullying behaviours unnoticed and unreported. Bullying on school buses could be alleviated with the presence of adults. Adults are more likely to intervene if they see a student is getting bullied as they have the authority and hold less fear of being victimised themselves. In 57 per cent of situations where bullying is occurring and a bystander intervenes, the bullying is brought to a halt. This suggests that by allowing the wider public onto the school buses we could prevent bullying and improve student perceptions of the school bus trip.

I have brought forth this motion for inquiry today so that we can further understand the barriers that prevent the broadening of accessibility to school buses and how to overcome them. Through my discussions with experts on this issue I have found there to be no barriers that resist a solution. My investigation revealed that a lack of deregulation to the local transport sector and the perception of stranger danger act as obstacles to widening the accessibility of school buses. Child safety is of upmost importance, though statistics have been found to indicate the perception of stranger danger is largely exaggerated. There are technologies, processes and training that can be introduced to ensure the safety of children. Research has shown that the vast majority of children who suffer physical and sexual abuse are abused by someone they know. Perpetrators are often family members, an adult close to the family or another child. In case of childhood physical abuse 97 per cent of victims knew their perpetrator and in cases of childhood sexual abuse 86 per cent of victims new the perpetrator.

This brings me to my next line of inquiry, which is to ask the committee to investigate technology and systems that would be effective in ensuring child safety on school buses. There exist processes and methods that can be introduced to ensure the safety of children on school buses. Security cameras and GPS tracking on school buses are low-cost measures of enhancing child safety, as well as bus drivers undertaking mandatory training on how to identify grooming behaviours and intervene when bullying is occurring.

Under the current school bus program guidelines, for members of the general public to use a school bus they must present either a working with children check or a criminal matters check that ensures adult passengers have no criminal history. We must remember there are many, many tens of thousands of children who travel on the public transport in metropolitan Melbourne every single day without any issues.

At present, the school bus program fails to deregulate effectively to the local transport sector. The responsibility for the program is distributed among many authorities, leaving the local transport sector with a limited contribution. This is a barrier to school buses being made accessible to the wider public, as transportation is being managed outside of the transport sector. To extract a greater value from the school bus fleet there should be a more flexible and localised approach to the use of school buses. A less restrictive program will allow bus operators the opportunity to provide place-based, adaptable and cost-effective transport in the area. This is necessary if we are to meet the varying transportation priorities of regional communities. We cannot continue to tell regional communities what is good for them. We need to listen to their ideas, understand their priorities and create innovative solutions that can be adapted to suit them.

The school bus program has many under-utilised assets, the irony of which is that these assets exist in regional communities alongside severe transport disadvantage. It seems logical that we should explore how existing assets can be adapted to solve real problems. I know of only a few trials that have been undertaken in this area, one of which was the Gippsland School Bus Flexibility project. This trial was introduced to address the transport disadvantages faced by post-compulsory students and members of the general public in the Gippsland region. The project utilised 27 school buses from the Sale school bus network. Members of the public could use the school buses as long as passengers met the application obligations of the school bus program policies and procedures. This trial has been very successful. There has been a peak usage of up to 130 passengers per day, made up mostly of post-secondary TAFE students, teachers and the general public. Not only that, but this program has been able to run without additional cost as it takes advantage of spare seats on the bus. This trial shows how a flexible and localised approach to the running of school buses can enable the local transport sector to better serve the needs of their community.

If there is any cost-effective way we can improve regional public transport networks, we should be committed to conducting more research, studies and trials. And that begins today with this motion for the inquiry. My motion asks the Legislative Council Economy and Infrastructure Committee to investigate how expanding the use of school buses can enhance mobility of regional Victorians. Transport disadvantage exists in a variety of contexts in regional Victoria. This includes remote areas, small rural towns, growth suburbs in regional centres and public housing estates. Every community is facing different challenges and every community is entitled to a flexible and place-based transport solution to meet the needs of their population.

Transport is not the entire solution to disadvantages in these areas. However, improving affordable and accessible transportation contributes to a more equitable society. The humble school bus has been under-utilised for far too long, and we should take advantage of the resource we already have. I ask you today to support the exploration of an innovative and flexible transport solution that could significantly enhance the lives of many regional Victorians. I commend this motion to the house.

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