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Why do we favour investing in public transport over cars?

Even though they drive much more than they use trains or buses, Australians want better transit more than they want better roads.

As reported in the press this week, a little over half of Australians think improving public transport is the highest priority issue for transport policy in the country. This compares with just over a quarter who nominated road improvements as their priority.

Yet Australians make many more trips by car than public transport, so it seems contradictory that most accord enhancing public transport a much higher priority than roads.

These findings come from Sydney University’s Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies (ITLS). The Institute this week released its quarterly survey of the attitudes of a representative sample of 1,000 Australians aged 18 years and over towards transport.

The Institute has been running the survey since March 2010. Public transport has been the highest priority issue in all nine quarterly surveys.

In the latest survey, almost twice as many (51%) respondents nominated public transport as their highest priority for improvement, as nominated roads (27%).

Victorians are more concerned about public transport than those who live elsewhere, with 63% nominating it as their key priority compared to just 20% for roads. In Queensland only 43% nominated public transport, but this was still higher than the 33% who selected roads.

Given that travel surveys find around 90% of all trips averaged across Australia’s capitals are made by car, the priority respondents give to expenditure on public transport over roads is curious. I don’t know for sure why that’s the case but, assuming ITLS got their survey design right, it’s an interesting and important question.

Part of the reason might be that many more travellers use public transport on an occasional basis than the travel data indicates, as I discussed recently. A new ABS survey of adults in Melbourne found 38% had used public transport in the last month. Of these, 33% said they use it at least once a month and 24% at least once a week.

Thus a significant proportion of travellers are alert to the failings of public transport even if they only use it irregularly to go to a show or the football. According to the ITLS survey, one of those failings is over-crowding – 43% of train travellers feel crowding on trains is “intolerable”.

A fifth say they spend more than 80% of their time on trains during peak hour having to stand. The perception of crowding is far higher in Victoria, where 53% of train users say it’s intolerable. It’s lowest in Queensland (32%).

There’s no break-down of the time spent standing on trains by state, but overall 40% of rail users say they stand for at least 60% of the time during peak hour.

Another explanation could be most people don’t in fact experience all that much traffic congestion. In Australian cities, less than 10% of the metropolitan population live in the inner city, where traffic and parking issues are worst.

The definition of the inner city I’m using is a 5 km radius around the CBD. But using Melbourne as an example, even an approximate 15 km radius – in the north, that’s to the ring road – only captures around a third of the metropolitan population.

Suburbanites mostly make short driving trips in their local area. Perhaps they also instinctively timetable trips to minimise delay. This IBM study concludes that Melbourne has relatively low traffic congestion compared to a sample of international cities.

Or it might be that people don’t think governments can do much about traffic so they don’t hold them accountable for congestion – they let them off the hook. They might think congestion is everybody’s problem.

But not so public transport. Maybe that’s because there’s a visible operator who schedules services and collects fares and can be blamed for poor service.

Another reason why Australians favour more investment in public transport over roads could be they realise (better than politicians appreciate) that major new roads inevitably get congested. And often they get both congested and tolled, since the latter are designed to maximise revenue, not to manage congestion.

Another explanation is perhaps the obvious one. It could be many Australians have a heightened appreciation of the risks posed by climate change and peak oil. Even though they make the vast bulk of their trips by car, they’re apprehensive about the future and think it prudent that governments invest more in public transport than roads.

No doubt others can (and hopefully will) suggest other reasons. Whatever they are, the implication is obvious. Most of us want better public transport more than we want better roads.

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  • 1
    RidesToWork
    Posted September 26, 2012 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    Maybe the desire for improvements in public transport indicates some unmet demand? People think that if it were improved, they might be more likely to use it?

    Improved public transport might also help friends or relatives who don’t have access to a private vehicle, or even reduce the need to ferry kids around.

  • 2
    IkaInk
    Posted September 26, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    I wouldn’t discount the power of one of the most simplistic arguments around:
    “When I visited London* the Tube** was just so easy.”

    * Replace with whatever city you want.
    ** Replace with whatever mode/system is relevant.

  • 3
    IkaInk
    Posted September 26, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    RidesToWork has made a very good point. Are 90% of trips made by car because people want to drive or because alternatives aren’t very good? Too far to walk; to unsafe to ride; to much hassel to catch PT. Often trends exist because various factors have pushed them into play, its not just people behaving how they actually want to.

  • 4
    michael r james
    Posted September 26, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    Alan, the only mystery here is why you think it is a mystery! It surely reflects an increasing disaffection with driving and the cost and congestion etc associated with it. With a higher fraction of our city population residing in exurbs that force them to drive long distances to anywhere: work, school, shopping, entertainment. And remember even in the US genY is opting out of the American love affair with the car.
    With more people travelling to elsewhere they are discovering just how backward Australia is. And it is not just Europe. Most of the big Asian cities like Singapore, HK, Tokyo, Shanghai etc.. Even if they go to both NYC and LA they come away with the realization of how fab (and cheap) it is to get around the former and what a hassle it is to get around the latter (the most traffic congested city in the US).

    Here is an article in today’s age and every one of the 60 comments more or less repeats this message (and certainly not just about Switzerland).
    http://www.theage.com.au/travel/blogs/the-backpacker/the-country-where-everything-works-20120911-25q53.html

  • 5
    Dylan Nicholson
    Posted September 26, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    Are there comparable surveys for cities in Europe/Asia/North America?

  • 6
    Steve777
    Posted September 26, 2012 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

    People who work in the central CBD use public transport because it is the best option available to them. In Sydney, this is becoming increasingly true of major suburban centres like Chatswood and Parramatta. The same applies to big events like the Easter Show or major sporting events. But for most trips, acceptable public transport options are either not available or are too slow. Try visiting someone 5 km away by public transport when they and you are not near a station or transport hub along the direct route to the CBD. While it’s probably about a 10 minute drive, getting there by public transport could take an hour, involving changing buses and long walks. If better transport options were available, people would use them.

  • 7
    SBH
    Posted September 26, 2012 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

    nothing at all to do with this topic Alan but I don’t know how else to send this to you. http://policy.rutgers.edu/faculty/pucher/TRA960_01April2011.pdf

    SBH:

    Thanks for that, my e-mail address is under the About This Blog box in the right hand pane. AD

  • 8
    Scott
    Posted September 26, 2012 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

    In my opinion, this is all about control. People have a lot of control when they drive…choice of car, route, radio station, who they drive with etc. Leads to a more pleasant trip, even with congestion.
    People have limited control over their public transport experience however, which can lead to a lot of dissatisfaction.
    Also, in recent times, there has been increased investment in roads from public/private partnerships but no subsequent investment in public transport by the state governments. Hence, by comparison, public transport appears like it needs investment.

  • 9
    michael r james
    Posted September 27, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    As Exhibit A for the defense of my proposition (post #4):

    https://theconversation.edu.au/is-australia-heading-for-a-transport-infrastructure-bubble-9786?
    26 September 2012, 3.46pm AEST
    Is Australia heading for a transport infrastructure bubble?
    Nicholas Low
    .
    As just about everyone in Sydney and Melbourne knows full well, the crying need is for an immensely improved public transport network. But it is almost impossible to channel private sector funds into providing it. On the other hand, by tolling roads, money can be made to flow readily into the hands of private investors. There is an inherent bias: while we all need better public transport, we will only get bigger and better roads.
    .
    The figure of $770 billion was proposed (before the global financial crisis) by a transnational banking corporation, Citigroup. Why should we trust Citigroup to know what is good for Australians? Citigroup’s business is lending money to make money.

    The author goes on to pour cold water on all the econometric modeling by the usual suspects revealing the false and self-serving models, not to mention the fundamental insider “advise and consent” industry.

  • 10
    Julie Briggs
    Posted September 27, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    I think that people want public transport to become the best option for them.

    They may not use public transport at the moment because of lack of availability – but they would if they could.

    For instance, I live north of Newcastle and have no option other than to drive. I wish I could take a train though – so, I would respond to a questionnaire that public transport requires investment, even though I don’t regularily use trains at the moment.

  • 11
    Austin M
    Posted September 27, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    So a survey of 0.005% of Australians population is a representative sample? Maybe the sampling method was such that only people who cared about Transport answered and that largely consisted of public transport users? Maybe the survey had selection bias in the way it was worded or conducted? Universities aren’t exactly short on academics with a transit bias, is it unthinkable that this extends into survey methods/results?
    The survey also pointed that a very high % ranked transport as not there highest priority which also makes me wonder about the questions format. For example questions like “Would you rather spend 5minutes less travelling each day or your children have the highest levels of education and health care available?”
    It is easy to bias a survey such that it may not represent people’s common views (i.e. do you sit in gridlock thinking about our hospital or education system? Or do you like I suspect many think they should fix this road or the transit systems so “others” aren’t in my way?). Surely governments haven’t been investing in roads over hospitals etc. when there are no votes in it?
    It just smacks of non representative bias to me.

  • 12
    Alan Davies
    Posted September 27, 2012 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    Austin M #10:

    Surveys that don’t fully describe their methodology sh*t me too, hence my rider “assuming ITLS got their survey design right”. But what can you do? Assume they got it wrong? They’ve done nine of them now using the same approach. But all sample surveys should be treated with caution.

    michael r james:

    Oh dear! The defense has got no chance then! Sorry, but that essay is….(I don’t want to be that rude). Robert Merkel’s comment towards the end of the accompanying thread conveys the flavour.

  • 13
    wilful
    Posted September 27, 2012 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    I’m sure there’s some clever sociologist’s or political scientist’s term for what’s going on – but people want more investment in public transport to rebalance what has gone on ever since the 60s, when we started ripping up train lines and building freeways. It’s the crapness of the offering, a response to what we’ve been given. We don’t want more of the same.

  • 14
    michael r james
    Posted September 27, 2012 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    AD, #12.

    Alan, you often use your privilege of adding a comment at the bottom of reader’s comments but often merely imperialistically dismissive without any content.
    Merkel’s comments are mostly quite weak–indeed the one saying that if the car driver uses his saved 5 minutes playing videogames that is his choice but it would surely be calculated as a very low-value external saved value?
    The second point is similarly specious: “people are making journeys because the benefits to them outweigh the costs”. In exurban sprawl people are forced to make car journeys for every single thing they need to do from work, to school dropoff, shopping etc. And worse, independent/separate journeys. The definition of waste and inefficiency.
    His third point is even worse, indeed it is the mother of all non-arguments about sprawl (that AD makes all the time): the pseudo-choice of home-owners. With the actually extremely constrained “choice” available this argument is beyond defense.

    In his concluding remarks Merkel more or less admits these arguments are deeply flawed but still kind of adheres to this neo-con pseudo-reality of “free choice”. As I wrote on the same blog this kind of irrational non-logic leads to the typical “planning” in Australia: build a 100% road-based and car-dependent exurban suburb then complain that no-one makes the “free choice” of using PT, thus we can’t build it until people change their minds. (The worst version of this is to provide a shoddy bus service that runs once or twice an hour, finishes at 7pm then say that until ridership surpasses 10,000 we cannot build rail.) It is the same argument that leads to an irritating bus service to the nation’s second busiest airport and self-fulfilling arguments that a rail service is not justified.

    Michael r james

    No significance in my adding a response at the bottom of a comment (like I’m doing now). I do it so that my comments won’t clutter up the comment thread and Crikey unfortunately doesn’t have hierarchical replies. In this instance I don’t think I was “dismissive” – I referred you to Merkel’s comments because he’d already said what I would’ve said. He elaborates at his blog, A Bent Ghost.

  • 15
    michael r james
    Posted September 27, 2012 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    AD wrote: “And often they get both congested and tolled, since the latter are designed to maximise revenue, not to manage congestion.”

    Of course and exactly the point Nicholas Low makes: tolling of currently un-tolled freeways is proposed, but to fund only more (tolled) roads, not PT.

    And for comments on Low’s piece the best:

    Gavin R. Putland
    Why do we want better public transport? Largely because most of us own property, whose value will be enhanced if public transport is improved in the locality. Property investors know that they need to anticipate where the infrastructure will go. Real estate agents know that rumours of infrastructure projects cause bursts of inquiries.
    The return on investment in infrastructure - including public transport - has two components: (1) what people pay for actual USE of the infrastructure (i.e. fares, tolls, etc.), and (2) what they pay for access to LOCATIONS serviced by the infrastructure (i.e. land values).
    .
    But component (2) is overlooked because (a) private investors lack the means of clawing back uplifts in land values over a sufficiently large area, (b) governments, which are perfectly capable of clawing back the uplifts through the tax system, refuse to do so, preferring to tax us for working and creating jobs, and (c) property owners don't like to acknowledge that their business model consists chiefly in pocketing unearned uplifts in land values caused by other people's efforts.
    .
    It is only because component (2) is overlooked that Prof. Low writes: "there is absolutely no way that three quarters of a trillion dollars spent on 'infrastructure' could ever produce anything like an economic return."

    As an economist surely you cannot but agree with this?

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