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Is public transport winning the battle for commuters?

New Census 2011 data released yesterday shows public transport is on the rise for commuting and driving is waning. But there’s no guarantee the change will be sustained.

Public transport's share of journey's to work, 2011 (source: Charting Transport)

The big news yesterday was the release by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) of the much anticipated journey to work data from the 2011 Census.

The headline story is public transport and cycling increased their share of work trips in all mainland capital cities over the last five years, while cars lost share. But cars still dominate travel.

The Sydney Morning Herald noted a sizeable increase in the share of commutes in Sydney taken by public transport. A key reason, it reports, was the opening of the Epping to Chatswood rail line.

The Age also noted a big jump in public transport use in Melbourne, mostly on trains. I don’t know how the figure was derived, but the paper reckons cars now have an unbelievably low 65% share of commutes (it initially reported a whopping 12.1 percentage point drop since 2006 in car’s share!).

You can easily look at the data yourself, starting with the ABS’s Community Profiles page – just input a location and download the Basic Community Profile (Table B46). Fortunately though, Charting Transport’s Chris Loader has already done the heavy lifting.

According to his calculations, the share of journeys to work by car increased marginally in Adelaide and Canberra over the last five years, but fell in other cities. It dropped 2.1 percentage points in Perth, 1.5 in Sydney and 0.7 in Brisbane.

The fall in Melbourne was 1.7 percentage points, from 76.5% to 74.8%. That’s a notable improvement by historical standards, but it’s a far cry from The Age’s figure of 65%!

Conversely, public transport’s mode share rose significantly in Melbourne (by 2.2 percentage points), Sydney (2.1) and Perth (2.1). The improvement was modest in Brisbane (1.1) and static in Adelaide (-0.1) and Canberra (-0.1).

In looking at the results, bear in mind that the Census confines itself to collecting data on the journey to work, which only accounts for around a quarter to a third of all trips. That’s an important point, because public transport wins a much bigger share of work trips than most other journey purposes.

While it’s obviously very early days, here are some initial observations.

It might be tempting to think the loss in car’s mode share represents a direct transfer to public transport, but that’s not at all clear. As appears to be the case in the US, much of it might be going to workers based at home – they comprise a significant and generally growing proportion of the workforce (e.g. 4.2% of “trips” in Melbourne in 2011).

The data indicates public transport patronage grew strongly over the last five years in the leading cities. It can’t be assumed though that the trend will automatically continue.

The success of public transport in capturing work trips is in large part due to the significant concentration of jobs and rail infrastructure in the city centre. In some cities this “market” is approaching saturation and there’s a limit to its potential size (e.g. Melbourne’s extended CBD has circa 15% of metro jobs).

Sustaining the improvement will require massive investments in well-targeted public transport infrastructure and improved operational policies. Supportive land use changes will also be required but it’s unlikely they’ll be enough.

Consider that Sydney’s population-weighted density is 52 persons per hectare and Melbourne’s is 33 (I’ve explained these numbers before). As noted, public transport’s share of work trips at the 2011 Census was 22.9% in Sydney and 15.8% in Melbourne.

That implies the density of Melbourne would have to increase by 57% in order to achieve a 7 percentage point increase in mode share. In Brisbane’s case, density would have to double to increase mode share by 8.2 percentage points.

This is of course a simplified illustration. It doesn’t, for example, account for employment-weighted density.

Nevertheless, it’s a sobering reminder of the limits of land use policy. As I’ve said many times before (e.g. see here), achieving significant mode shift will also require severe constraints on car use.

Next time I plan to take an early look at what Census 2011 tells us about cycling and walking in our major cities.

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  • 1
    Dylan Nicholson
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    Well the trend *won’t* continue unless investments are made to ensure the transport system functions well. By European or Japanese standards it doesn’t really cope even as it is (I can only really speak for Melbourne, but I assume it’s not significantly better in other cities), so I can’t see how it can sustain the sort of growth that current trends are pointing towards – though I would certainly argue it’s easier and cheaper in even the medium term to expand PT capacity than road capacity.

  • 2
    boscombe
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    Given that travel by public transport is unpleasant (crowded etc) and inflexible, I’m assuming that at least a proportion of those changing to PT did so because they were forced to: huge increase in parking costs etc

    Perhaps the important question isn’t about numbers, but whether the trend is what people want. Perhpas those new PT customers don’t see it as ‘a good thing’ at all.

  • 3
    Tom the first and best
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    Density is not the only determination of PT usage. Sydney`s ticketing mess and various other problems mean it has lower PT usage than a trend line plotted from other Australian cities would indicate it would. Melbourne or Brisbane with Sydney`s density would have higher PT usage.

  • 4
    Dylan Nicholson
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    boscombe, there’s really no excuse for travel by PT being unpleasant. Obviously it’s personal, but the occasional crowdedness is for me far less stressful and unpleasant than being stuck in heavy traffic for extended periods. The biggest problem currently is poor frequency and punctuality of services, especially for those who need to use buses.
    The point is trying to get everyone where they want to go as quickly and efficiently as possible in reasonable comfort. That was never going to be possible when mode share for car usage was 80%.

  • 5
    Last name First name
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    Parker Alan. OAM

    Thats the good news, the bad news the role of active transport, particular cycling is holding back the increase in demand. The tightening of the spending belt is now creating
    the increase in demand.

  • 6
    IkaInk
    Posted November 1, 2012 at 6:16 am | Permalink

    Given that travel by cars is unpleasant (stressful, congested, etc) and is mainly useless time, I’m assuming that at least a proportion of those driving do so because they were forced to: public transport isn’t adequate.

    Perhaps the important question isn’t about numbers, but whether the trend is what people want. Perhpas those drivers don’t see it as ‘a good thing’ at all.

    I just wanted to point out that this sort of argument can easily be turned on its head. I live where I live in a large part because I don’t want a car. I could afford one, but it would be a luxury I don’t need, or really want.

  • 7
    Steve777
    Posted November 3, 2012 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    I think that many people who use public transport feel that they have been ‘condemned’ to use it by lack of parking and/or high parking charges and traffic congestion. Using public transport is an unattractive option for most commuters. In peak hours it is crowded. It is always slow. And outside of peak hours and away from the inner core, it is infrequent. Even allowing for congestion, driving normally takes much less time, especially for journeys across town (i.e. not on the direct route to the CBD). Once you’ve paid for a car and are incurring the fixed costs associated with car ownership, you’re not going to leave it in the garage, buy a weekly ticket and spend an additional 10 to 20 days per annum of your life commuting unless you absolutely have to. I find the crowding in public transport much more unpleasant than traffic congestion. As for punctuality, Sydney trains are not too bad, but buses essentially come and go at random, meaning that you need to allow additional travel time if your time of arrival is important.

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