The bus to Bondi is broken - Sydney's public transport is a shambles - Rusty Compass travel blog

The bus to Bondi is broken - Sydney's public transport is a shambles

| 26 Aug 2023
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26 Aug 2023

The 333 service to Bondi Beach is Sydney's busiest bus route. It's especially popular with international tourists. It’s in dismal shape - as is the rest of Sydney's public transport system. We know, we're aboard most days.

One of my favourite Sydney things is breaking up the work day with a dip at Bondi Beach. It’s a gift to live in a big city where clean ocean is within easy reach. In the unseasonably mild and dry 2023 winter, the swims have been a special delight.

Even more than locals, tourists appreciate the uniqueness of a city with pristine coastline.They flock to Bondi and other Sydney beaches for an experience of something truly rare in global cities. Like me, most visitors make the journey to Bondi by public transport. The famed 333 bus to Bondi is the only public transport that connects the city with its most famous stretch of beach.

Bondi winter wonder
Photo: Mark Bowyer Bondi winter wonder
Bondi Icebergs pool in winter - my therapist
Photo: Mark Bowyer Bondi Icebergs pool in winter - my therapist

On a good day, the 333 is an inexpensive, easy, 40 minute ride between downtown Sydney and the beach. In recent years, good days are rare. It looks as though transport decision-makers rarely travel on the 333.

One recent cool clear Sunday, I headed to Bondi for my regular dip. I didn’t expect much competition for a seat on the bus. But when the 333 rolled up at Hyde Park in the city centre, it was already crowded. It quickly filled. Most of the passengers were tourists.

Half-way through the journey, the driver pulled up unannounced, turned off the engine and jumped out. Most on board were bewildered. I'd been taking the 333 long enough to recognise this curious ritual. Sometimes, mid-journey, a shift change occurs. On this occasion, one shift ended but there was nobody to start the new shift. The next driver was nowhere to be found.

The passengers on the packed bus were clueless, waiting and wondering.

After a few minutes, a polite representative of the bus company boarded to assure us the replacement driver was coming.

But he didn't come.

Sydney's driverless buses don't go anywhere.... Sydney's premature experimentation with driverless buses © Mark Bowyer

After about 10 minutes, a few clever passengers figured they might be better off jumping out to another bus. Soon after, the driverless bus disgorged all its passengers. After more waiting, we all eventually squeezed onto other packed 333 buses.

This may have been rock-bottom for the 333. But it’s a long time since the Bondi bus was a pleasant experience. Even on winter afternoons - the 333 swings between packed and jam-packed. It’s not uncommon for full buses to fly past bus stops leaving big groups stranded. It’s never too long before the next bus - but sometimes it flies by full too. If you’re lucky enough to make it aboard, it too will most likely be crammed.

In early 2022, I caught COVID on a backpacker-packed Bondi bus. Anyone with a moderate public health paranoia in these pandemic times, will baulk at the prospect of a bus service so dependably crammed that viral exchanges between passengers are guaranteed.

Might be able to get in the next one... Bondi's 333 bus
Photo: Mark Bowyer Might be able to get in the next one... Bondi's 333 bus
Sydney's super-spreader Bondi bus
Sydney's super-spreader Bondi bus

On another winter weekend I watched five different family groups - mothers and their children - banked up at the front of the 333 line at Bondi Junction bus stop. They had their toddlers in strollers and waited as big crowds filed aboard, to see whether there was stroller space. They must have assumed that in Sydney in 2023, it would be feasible to travel to Bondi using public transport with your children. I have no idea how long they waited.

It feels like the Sydney's bus operators are applying a de-facto quota on visits to Bondi. Ten years of conservative loathing of public amenity and public transport in favour of private toll roads and cars, has done enormous harm. The current low-grade bus and rail experience must surely dampen demand. It also forces determined Bondi visitors into cars and on to congested roads. It may take a decade to fix - assuming the newly elected timid Labor government has the stomach to roll back the car and toll-road cult.

If you're one of those forced onto roads, you'll find them jammed and parking tight and expensive. Uber and other rideshare services must love Sydney's public transport shambles

The 333 buses still look like the old Sydney publicly operated service. But they've been privatised by stealth - retaining the livery of the old government-run service.  The dismal state of the service may simply be a private monopolist maximising returns. Why run additional services when a captive market of tourists has no choice but to squeeze onto whatever buses you serve up?

The 333 may be working well for its private operators but it's not a proud feature of Sydney's tourism economy.

It was probably easier to get from central Sydney to Bondi in 1960. That's when trams were discontinued and the lines were ripped up. Since then, Sydneysiders have mostly opted for cars when heading to Bondi.

Bondi Beach should have been added to the Eastern suburbs train line built back in the 70s. But locals have long objected to a rail connection to the city. This would, after all, open the beach up to Sydney's millions of working class, western suburbs types.

It's not just NIMBYism trashing Sydney's public transport though. For decades, neo-liberal state governments and privatisations have trashed a system that would once have ranked globally. You need only look at the enduring value of the big proud investments of the 1920s and 1930s, like the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the underground, to know that Sydney was once a city committed to the egalitarian idea of public transport. We're still benefiting from those public investments almost a century later.

As tourist numbers to Sydney continue to bounce back, pressure on the 333 bus will only increase. An interesting summer lies ahead on the bus to Bondi. It's sure to be a good one for the private operator. Passengers are likely to be less pleased.

Check out our independent travel guide to Sydney beaches here.

Click here for our independent travel guide to Sydney.

Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
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