Shared from the 12/30/2023 The Age eEdition

Sun to power buses in small coastal towns


It’s public transport, but not as we know it.

The small towns of Sandy Point and Venus Bay on the South Gippsland coast have no public transport, but a new trial will bring buses – powered by volunteers and the sun – to their streets.

The new electric minibuses were delivered to both towns earlier this month. Now it is up to the respective communities to decide where and when they will operate. They may travel on set routes, employ an on-demand model or even combine the two.

Sandy Point resident Frank Schrever, who is helping to run the Gippsland E-Bus trial, said his town’s bus would probably make regular trips to Fish Creek, where there is a V/Line bus connection, and the nearby town of Foster, which has a hospital.

‘‘Ideally, we want something like an Uber app where you can see where the bus is, and it can see where you are,’’ he said.

The pilot program will receive support from La Trobe University, which will study the project’s success and provide a support worker for one day a week in each town to keep the trial moving for the first two years.

Residents in Sandy Point have set up a bus management committee made up of local groups, including the town’s lifesaving club, community hall and Sandy Point Power, which works on renewable energy. The Venus Bay Community Centre will manage its bus trial.

Schrever said the drivers would need working-with-children checks and a standard licence. He hoped the project would create a transport model that could be extended to other small towns.

‘‘This is the test case,’’ he said.

He said the project would need to generate enough income to cover insurance, registration and maintenance to become sustainable. ‘‘We’ll be asking for donations. If you can’t afford it, you can ride for free.’’

The project received almost $250,000 from the Department of Transport and Planning to buy the buses and run the trial. It has also received support from the iMOVE Australia Cooperative Research Centre.

Each bus has 10 seats, with space for a wheelchair and a lifting platform. The buses can travel about 350 kilometres on a full charge depending on the load and other factors, such as travelling uphill and air-conditioning use.

Similar projects have been trialled in Europe, the United Kingdom and Japan with varying degrees of success. During the pandemic, Transport for Wales introduced ‘‘demand-responsive transport’’ with small buses. It expanded the service in January.

La Trobe University’s Centre for Technology Infusion deputy director Erik van Vulpen said the trial would last three years and help determine the best way to provide transport in other small towns. He said enhancing social connections in the coastal communities was among the trial’s goals, in addition to delivering economic and environmental benefits.

‘‘They’re very small communities and far removed from public transport,’’ he said.

The latest census figures showed Sandy Point had a population of just over 310, while Venus Bay had about


Van Vulpen said community transport could become a fourth layer of commuting in Australia – building on the current system of trains and trams, buses, taxis and ride-share options. But community transport is still in its infancy.

‘‘Nobody has figured out the blueprint for that,’’ he said. ‘‘That’s what we want to do.’’

Venus Bay Community Centre board member Henry O’Clery, who is involved in running the trial, recently lost access to his car for seven weeks after it broke down. Just getting to the shops became an ordeal, and he felt isolated without his car.

‘‘I’ve got to admit it was tough,’’ he said.

The nearest taxi service to Venus Bay is in Inverloch, which is about 25 minutes by car.

‘‘The cost of that is outrageous.’’

Venus Bay Community Centre manager Alyson Skinner said her town’s new bus would be powered by solar panels mounted on the centre’s roof. The centre’s electricity system also has a battery, which provides backup when power is cut to Venus Bay.

Regional editor

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