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Public transport

Sep 3, 2012

How important is public transport?

We know from travel surveys that public transport only accounts for a small proportion - around 10% - of all trips in Australia’s capital cities. Doesn’t sound like much. But

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The proportion of Melbourne adults who use public transport, by frequency and fare zone (Source: ABS)

We know from travel surveys that public transport only accounts for a small proportion – around 10% – of all trips in Australia’s capital cities. Doesn’t sound like much.

But, as a new survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) shows, there’s more to how much we use public transport than is evident at first glance. There’s a big difference between what share of travel it captures and how many people use and rely on it.

What the ABS found is that while we mostly drive, many of us still use public transport for some of our travel. There are some places – most especially the city centre – where public transport is a much more attractive option than driving.

In a survey of adults in Melbourne, the Bureau found 38% said they had used public transport in the preceding month. Of this group, 24% say they use public transport at least once a week and 33% use it once a month or more (see exhibit).

The residents of inner and middle ring suburbs are even bigger users. In their case, 40% of the 1 million adults living within an 11-18 km radius around the CBD (Zone 1 in the fare structure) use public transport at least once a week and 53% at least once a month.

So while it’s correct to say that cars dominate travel in our capital cities, public transport is still used by a significant proportion of the population for certain kinds of trips.

The ABS didn’t ask what they use public transport for or where they were going, but we can be confident many commute regularly to work, mostly in the city centre. The figures indicate daily commuters aren’t the majority, though.

Most adults who travel by public transport use it for non-work trips. I expect most of it is trips to the centre or nearby – for example, to go to nightclubs, concerts, football matches, galleries, universities and restaurants. They use public transport for good reason.

Consider that nowadays the only AFL matches in Melbourne are played either at the MCG or Etihad Stadium in Docklands*. Around 80% of MCG patrons arrive and leave by public transport and I expect it’s similar, perhaps higher, at Etihad.

These patrons don’t leave their cars at home because they don’t like driving. They do it because traffic congestion, high parking costs and good match-day train and tram services make public transport a more attractive option than cars.

Drink driving laws probably help too, but the point is public transport is most times the better way to get to activities in the centre. Indeed, it’s often the only realistic option, even at night and on weekends.

The CBD and near-CBD are extremely important locations in Australian cities. Government planning policy in Victoria – which reinforces the primacy of the centre – is making the CBD and surrounds more and more important.

Travel surveys tell us what share of all trips is captured by each mode. They establish that public transport’s share is small relative to other modes (essentially cars) in Australian cities. This is useful and important information. However as the ABS survey shows, a large proportion of people use public transport on a reasonably frequent basis.

Public transport is needed by lots of people not just those who use it Monday to Friday. And it’s needed even though those same travellers make the majority of their other trips by car.

There are important implications in the findings of the ABS survey. One is obvious – governments need to invest more financial and political capital in improving public transport.

The other is less obvious – advocates shouldn’t limit themselves to presenting public transport solely as a replacement for cars. In the medium term at least, it’s much more likely to be an alternative for some trips and a complement for others (e.g. ‘kiss-and-ride’).

There are other interesting aspects of the ABS survey –  like who uses public transport and why – I’ll come back to shortly.

* When I attended my first and last full AFL game in 1985 at Western Oval, there were five active suburban grounds at the time.

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

The Urbanist is edited by Dr Alan Davies, a principal of Melbourne-based economic and planning consultancy, Pollard Davies Consulting.

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19 thoughts on “How important is public transport?

  1. michael r james

    “more direct buses”

    No, that is a recipe for a dysfunctional system. Witness Brisbane’s nonsense in trying to run buses from outer suburban Siberias all the way into the CBD, where they clog several bottlenecks into standstill (Google buses and Victoria Bridge) with often nearly-empty buses and make the larger bus stations a nightmare to use.

    I hate a system that relies too much on buses but acknowledge they are a necessary component but they need to be used in an intelligent network (just like Metro systems):

    Interchange the ticket to ending bus nightmare
    Jacob Saulwick, January 4, 2012

    (Jarrett Walker:) ”With Taylor Square and Newtown . . . I was just stunned to think of how difficult it was to travel between two such incredibly high demand, busy, public transport oriented places,”
    But the solution, from Walker’s perspective, is not to do the obvious thing and put on more direct buses connecting the two points, or more 352s. This is how governments have tended to solve transport problems in Sydney. As demand has grown, governments have met the need by adding extra bus routes through the suburbs.
    Most of these routes run from their suburban origins right into the CBD.
    But what this bias towards a radial bus network has left us with is the sorry irony we have at the moment: the city centre is teeming with public transport – all those buses – but they are so clogged they are of little use to anyone.
    Walker’s solution is for governments to embrace what they have often been loathe to touch: encouraging connections, or compelling passengers to change from one bus or train to another. This is where the logic becomes counter-intuitive. If you want to build good public transport links between two locations, the solution is not necessarily to put on more direct links between the two locations.
    In Sydney, this would mean a limited number of extremely high frequency bus routes travelling along roads like Anzac Parade and Parramatta Road, fed by services from adjoining suburbs that do not make it all the way into the city.]

    That is just an extract but the concept is a no-brainer. Hubs linked with hi-frequency services. Feeder routes would be shorter and thus could run at higher frequency, fewer buses and no additional cost (or lower cost). And it goes without saying, a sensible and simple e-ticketing system.

  2. Tom the first and best


    Park Rd to Bay Rd (an approximation of the distance between Southland and Cheltenham) along the railway is over 1 km and the pedestrian and road routes are longer and more complicated.

    Highett-Cheltenham is nearly 2.4km and that is the longest gap between stations between Richmond and Mordialloc by about 500m.


    Southland is next to the railway line and would add significant patronage to the line, including lots of inter-peak and counter-peak patronage that would use existing services with plenty of space. It would attract thousands and thousands of passengers per day and be in the top 20 patronage stations on weekdays and probably the top 10 on weekends.

    Better buses are needed but where a major patronage generator is next to a railway line then it should have a station to serve the rail corridor directly.

  3. Steve777

    I think when it is argued that public transport is cheaper than driving, this is based on a comparison with the total cost of owning and running a car, i.e. including the purchase price of the vehicle, registration, insurance, servicing as well as petrol. Add to this road tolls and parking costs. However, the majority of the costs of running a car are essentially fixed, including purchase, registration and insurance. So if you buy a car for $30,000, which will be worth effectively nothing after 10 years, and pay $3,000 p.a in other fixed costs like insurance, a car is costing you about $120 per week even if you leave it in the garage (another fixed cost). So I think it would be an uphill battle to prise many more people out of their cars unless they can be convinced that it is not worth owning one. Few people are yet persuaded to this view, although in the inner suburbs of Sydney at any rate, driving is becoming less and less viable because of congestion and the lack of / cost of parking. But then public transport even in inner suburbs is not that crash hot for reasons outlined in my previous post. Cycling has its benefits but it’s not for everyone. You have to be fit, the weather has to be not too inclement, and Sydney is pretty hilly, warm, humid and wet so you probably need to shower and change clothes at your destination. I think that imaginative public transport solutions, including cross-suburban services between radial hubs, possibly using mini buses, plus improved availability of taxis, would go a long way to making public transport more viable for more people.

  4. Steve777

    Public transport is the only viable option for most people if you are going into the centre of Sydney at any time of day or night, and I expect the same is true for Melbourne and Brisbane, given traffic congestion and high parking charges. It is also an attractive option if you live close to public transport and your destination is also close to transport and on a direct route to the centre. But if you are travelling across suburbs, even within the inner and middle rings of suburbs, the appeal of public transport rapidly diminishes. The reasons for this are: the need to change between poorly coordinated (or uncoordinated) services; circuitous bus routes that explore every byway, especially outside the peak periods; infrequent and frequently late-running services; lack of parking near service hubs, leaving you with a long walk or a long wait for a taxi at the start of your journey; and the radial nature of the transport network – you often need to travel most of the way into the City then back out to your destination. Another problem is the scarcity of taxis, which would be useful to fill in public transport gaps on your route. If your stuck with a 3 km walk or a one hour wait at the end of your journey, you’ll use your car for the whole journey.

    Indeed, the time taken for a cross-suburban trip can be barely faster than walking. Improved planning of public transport, especially coordination of services and more cross-suburban services, plus improvement in the availability of taxis, might persuade more people to leave their cars at home.

  5. Wiz Aus

    “I would think that those who cited reduced travel time were those living in zone 2, where the train could be far faster than the car.”

    Really? I would say the opposite – that reduced travel time is more likely in Zone 1, though in reality it’s where you’re going and what time you’re going that matters. If you’re travelling into the CBD at peak hour, it doesn’t really matter much where you’re coming from, unless you’re a long way from any public transport (which is only going to be true in Zone 2). OTOH, it’s hard to think of too many journeys entirely within Zone 2 that would be quicker by public transport than by car, whereas within Zone 1, even if not travelling to the CBD, if your journey starts and ends near a train station, and occurs during any sort of it’s quite likely to be faster by train than car.

    I also don’t really believe that only 9% of respondents choose P.T. consider “Cheaper than own transport” as a main factor – after all P.T. is cheaper for just about all peak hour commuters (given the cost of parking), who must make up a pretty decent percentage of all user P.T. users – but I’m guessing the survey had “more convenient” listed first, and perhaps for most respondents that seemed more suitable than “cheaper”. And of course for those without their own transport, P.T. is a lot cheaper (vs having to go out and buy/rent a car, or use a taxi). And yes, there’s definitely *room* for increasing fares, but without a consequent increase in levels of service, it would be a deservedly unpopular move (unfortunately the one other thing that might make it more justifiable – i.e., reducing the subsidisation of private transport – would be considerably more unpopular!)

  6. Dudley Horscroft

    Re ‘hk”s question, reference to the survey states that 16% of employed patrons in Zones 1 and 2 said they have no private form of transport or their own transport was unavailable. A third (35%) of unemployed persons said “Have no private form of transport/Own transport unavailable”. For patrons not in the labour force, 31% cited “Have no private form of transport/Own transport unavailable”.

    Given that persons in the labour force amount to 64% or thereabouts of the population, and the unemployed are about 5%, it would seem that the overall percentage of persons with no private form of transport or it was unavailable is rather lower than 1/3 of the adult population. Probably nearer 20 – 25%.

    To answer your question – it all depends on the location being considered. I hope to demonstrate this.

    What was surprising to me was that “55% or 657,100) cited “More convenient than own transport/Less stress/Reduced travel time” as the main reason that public transport was used. “Cheaper than own transport” was cited by less than one in ten (9% or 111,800) public transport patrons.” This indicates to me that there is plenty of room for increasing fares – particularly in peak hours where elasticity of demand against fares can be as low as -0.1. (This means that a 10% increase would lose patronage by about 1% – in off peak periods the 10% increase could easily lose 5% or more patrons. I would think that those who cited reduced travel time were those living in zone 2, where the train could be far faster than the car.

    Webb and Gaymer state “In terms of infrastructure planning, the most important trips to consider are those taking place at the most congested time and location across the whole network.” (http://www.transport.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/33893/Changes-in-travel-demand-in-Melbourne-Is-it-time-for-a-new-paradigm.pdf) If one agrees with them, the most important trips are not the 91% undertaken by car over the whole Melbourne (Victorian?) network, but that proportion “taking place between 7am and 9am and occurring at least in part within 5 km of the Central Business District (CBD).” (ibid)

    It is worth pointing out that while the W class trams in Melbourne had a capacity of 150 persons (sign on interior bulkhead) they were only 14.17 m long and had an interior width less than 8 ft. All subsequent trams are longer and wider, with the “Bumblebee trams” more than double at 32.52 m long. The new trams are to be about the same length, so their crush capacity (NOT based on 4 persons per sq m used for comparing tram capacities) is likely to be close to 400! Allowing something less, say 300, at a 6 minute interval service (10 trams per hour) one lane of tram track can be used by 3000 people in the rush hour. One road lane with only private cars, and using the recommended minimum headway of 2 seconds, can transport 1800 cars – even 2200 cars per hour with very good driver behaviour. Allowing the average urban load of about 1.2 persons, this means 2640 persons. BUT, that assumes no reduction as a result of traffic lights. As the CBD traffic lights have approximately equal green and red phases, the capacity is halved to 1320 persons per traffic lane. Possibly better in suburbs where cross streets can be give less green time, but the tram can transport double the number of people, and at a six minute interval can still leave plenty of room for cars in the same lane.

    Hence trams can markedly increase the capacity of inner city roads, and it should be noted that provision of a good tram service gives the freedom to choose the mode of travel. Given the number of people using trains and trams in Melbourne, it is obvious that people welcome the choice, and by providing much greater capacity within the available road space, the existence of trams is very important for Melbourne.

    Outside the, say, 50 km radius from Melbourne’s CBD, public transport is hardly noticed! Not important at all there.

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