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How has city travel changed over the last century?

The long view of travel in Australian cities shows the rapid decline of public transport and the remarkable ascendancy of cars. The latter still overwhelmingly dominates urban travel

Aggregate mode share for main types of metropolitan travel in Australia, 1900-2010 (source: Cosgrove)

I haven’t seen much detailed and reasonably reliable data before showing how transport within Australia’s major cities evolved over long periods of time.

So the first exhibit, which shows historical changes in the percentage shares of the three main modes of travel in Australian cities between 1900 and 2010, is enormously interesting.

It’s from a paper by David Cosgrove of the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics (BITRE). It’s titled Long-term patterns of Australian public transport use.

The data offers some interesting insights. Most notable is the spectacular fall in the share of travel by public transport and walking in Australian cities from after WW2 (travel is passenger kms).

The growth in private transport (cars, vans, motorcycles, horses) over the same period is even more spectacular. It increased from zero in 1910 (excluding horses) to well over 80% at present.

Probably less well known is that the decline in public transport’s share began in earnest from around 1925. It was slowed, although not turned around, by the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The introduction of petrol rationing during WW2 reversed the fall temporarily. Yet the relentless decline resumed immediately after 1945.

At present, 10% of passenger travel in Australia’s major cities is by public transport, down from the peak of over 60% in the early 1920s. It’s mode share is considerably higher for work journeys, but since they account for less than a fifth of all travel in Australia’s cities, it’s not enough to boost the overall figure beyond the first decile.

While there’s been an increase in public transport’s share in recent years in some cities, that wasn’t at the tail-end of a continuing decline. As the exhibit shows, public transport has consistently maintained a one tenth share of urban travel for the last 30 years.

Patronage has in fact grown strongly in absolute terms since 1980, but until recently the underlying driver was population growth, not a shift in mode toward transit. The State of Australian Cities 2012 report notes that on average Australians living in major cities made 108 trips per capita by public transport in 1980 and 105 in 2012 i.e. much the same.

The trends in mode share show what an extraordinarily attractive proposition private vehicles evidently were for urban Australians, even well before construction of the first freeways started. Their share of all urban travel jumped from just over 20% at the end of WW2 to around 75% by 1970.

It’s even more remarkable considering their high private and social costs. Private vehicles were very expensive to purchase and operate relative to incomes, they required huge public investment in specialised infrastructure (e.g. traffic lights), and they produced multiple negative externalities (e.g. noise, pollution, pedestrian injuries and fatalities).

Private transport’s mode share reached 85% by 1980 but, like public transport, it has been relatively flat for the last 30 years (with a small decline in recent years). Up to then it grew as people consumed more travel (mainly longer trips), but subsequent growth was in line with the increase in population.

The second exhibit breaks the data down into more specific modes (note that the light rail curve is actually dashed). There are some interesting historical insights here, too.

Walking was the majority mode in 1900 when cities had a substantially smaller footprint. Horses were expensive so they were only ever a minority mode and by the end of the 1920s their share was insignificant.

Other than for an increase during the Depression, walking’s share fell consistently over the period. Surprisingly, WW2 provided only a modest boost for walking compared to its impact on private vehicles and public transport.

Trams and trains were at their peak in the 1920s, but other than for the war period, continuously lost share until the 1980s.

Trams in particular were devastated by the closure of entire metropolitan systems from the 1960s onwards (except in Melbourne) and their replacement with buses. It’s ironic the O’Farrell Government has just committed to replacing buses in George St, Sydney, with light rail.

Most Australian cities have experienced significant increases in public transport patronage over the last five years or so. However when looked at in terms of mode share, it’s clear cars still overwhelmingly dominate travel.

The direction of change is of course important, but much of the low-hanging fruit in urban transit has already been picked (exemplified by current crowding levels).

Converting that up-tick into an accelerating and self-sustaining trend will require most of the following: a massive investment in improving and expanding infrastructure; major improvements in the way transit’s managed; a profound rearrangement of land uses (especially employment); and a significant increase in the relative cost of travel by car.

Note: Keep in mind that harmonising data from different sources and eras is bound to involve compromises in accuracy, especially in earlier periods.

 

Modal share for major urban travel choices, 1900–2010 (Source: Cosgrove)

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  • 1
    Posted February 12, 2013 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    I’d also add that it will require public awareness campaigns that start as early as possible (Kindergarten right through to Secondary School) to help promote the benefits of alternative modes of transport. Ridiculous things like my son’s school’s rule of “no riding to school until grade 5″ certainly don’t help. While we do need infrastructure improvements, and especially provision-of-service improvements, the reality is people aren’t making anything like full use of what infrastructure and services are available already.

  • 2
    MarkD
    Posted February 12, 2013 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    I wonder if/how the decline of private transport will mirror its ascent over the next 100 years? It could be: a short, sharp shock; a gradual decline; or no decline at all. Do you think any of the football clubs have got any gear to get me another 100 years so I can see for myself?

  • 3
    Posted February 12, 2013 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    Nothing wrong with private transport, and I don’t expect it will decline hugely in the coming decades. I do rather hope though there will far fewer oversized, congestion-causing, pollution-spewing poor-fitness-inducing and extremely dangerous examples of it on the roads in 20 or 30 years time though.

  • 4
    Steve777
    Posted February 12, 2013 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think there’ll be a big increase in public transport usage until a significant portion of the population who can afford to buy a car decide it’s not worth it. This is the case for some people who live, work and socialise pretty much exclusively in the inner areas of our big cities, but (in Sydney) if you ever need to go West of Moore Park or the Iron Cove bridge you ‘need’ a car. You paid $30,000 plus for it plus another $3,000 per annum in fixed costs. You’re not going to leave it in the garage and take a long, slow trip by bus. And walking and cycling are only viable for short trips – no good if you have a 20 km commute, which few people had to do before WW2.

  • 5
    Posted February 12, 2013 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

    Only $3000 a year in running costs? Perhaps if don’t bother insuring it or driving it much and haven’t had to finance it all.
    But as I’ve said before, Germans love their cars equally well, and spend the same sort of (if not more) money on them, yet are sensible enough to only use them for trips that make sense.
    I’d also say if you’re not capable of cycling 20 km comfortably in a day, your fitness isn’t really at the level it should be for ideal health.

  • 6
    Tom the first and best
    Posted February 12, 2013 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

    With care share schemes allowing for part time car use, without full time car ownership, it may be a good idea to raise car registrations in the inner-city to encourage the switch to care share where there are lower costs fixed for the user and higher per use/distance costs for the user which makes PT, walking and cycling more competitive.

    Congestion charging is also useful for this kind of purpose.

  • 7
    boscombe
    Posted February 12, 2013 at 10:30 pm | Permalink

    “if you’re not capable of cycling 20 km comfortably in a day …”

    Here in Perth we’re enjoying another long string of days in the 40s …. you wouldn’t be cycling anywhere comfortably.

    Public transport will never allow us to do so much as private does. Plus look at the advertising for cars, look at the cars themselves, they speak to people of status, aesthetics, power, freedom; public transport = crowded, grubby, threatening and inconvenient.

  • 8
    Steve777
    Posted February 12, 2013 at 11:03 pm | Permalink

    Nor is cycling an attractive proposition in Sydney’s dank, humid Summers. Cycle 20 km in Sydney traffic in the rain and humidity – no thank you. And unless you work outdoors you need to shower and change when you arrive at your destination, and somewhere to leave your bike. Cycling is not a viable proposition except for a very small minority. Maybe in cool, flat Amsterdam where you can cycle to work in a business suit but not here. We need to invest in public transport and also need to look at how we can make it less of a hassle. Improve connections, improve timetables, introduce a rational timetabling system. Then we might get a few more people attracted to using public transport and deciding not to bother buying a car.

  • 9
    Steve777
    Posted February 12, 2013 at 11:15 pm | Permalink

    Sorry – I meant rational ticketing system.

    And apologies to cycling enthusiasts, but I think that talk of cycling is a distraction. It might go from about 2% to 5% of trips, but that would be about it.

    A big drawback of public transport is the need to change modes and the need to buy a ticket at each change. OK if you’re a regular commuter using a periodical ticket but the way the system works, e.g. pre-pay, virtually drives away casual users. Who knows where to buy a ticket if you’re not a regular user? You should be able to buy a ticket from point A to point B at the station / stop or on the bus at your starting point regardless of how many changes of trains / buses needed.

  • 10
    Tom the first and best
    Posted February 12, 2013 at 11:48 pm | Permalink

    9

    Sydney does need a proper multi-modial ticketing system that does not penalise transfers, like the other state capitals have. Sydney`s PT share would then go up.

  • 11
    Posted February 13, 2013 at 5:36 am | Permalink

    Heat and humidity don’t seem to bother Darwinites, where cycling has been growing hugely in popularity over the last 10-15 years. You don’t have to ride at breakneck pace!
    As far cars “speak[ing]to people of status, aesthetics, power, freedom” – thankfully the current generation don’t seem to see cars as the status symbols they once were. Aesthetically, you can get a downright gorgeous bicycle for $2000 – but for 10 times that a car isn’t likely to turn many heads. ‘Power’ might be a motivation for a segment of the population, but is hardly a dominant one. And as for freedom, I’m certainly not the only one who has never felt freer since I ditched the car and built up my fitness to a decent level.
    And Steve, I agree, without proper support, it probably won’t grow much above 5% in the next few decades. If it we get the support, I don’t see any reason why we can’t match the levels of bicycle usage seen in most European cities, nearly all of which have climates *less* conducive to cycling than Australian cities.

  • 12
    pedals
    Posted February 13, 2013 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    would be interesting to see the data expressed in terms of number of trips and not km’s.

    I ride my bike everyday of the week, but then make the occasional longer trip in the car. Say I make 9 cycle trips totalling 60km, these are extinguished by one 60km trip in the car. The mode share for me is 50/50, but by trips it’s 90/10.

    Does it matter?

  • 13
    IkaInk
    Posted February 13, 2013 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    @Pedals – A very relevant point pedals. Different modes will always be conducive to different distances. I walk to my job around the corner and catch the train to my other job in the city. In this context it makes much more sense to break down mode share into journey type rather than distances, i.e. how many people get to work by mode a, b, c; how many people travel to the shops by mode a, b, c.

    @Steve777 – Does this weather look more appealing for cycling? Guess what city that is! The weather argument is often sprouted, but in most cities that have a decent bicycle mode-share the mode share doesn’t actually deviate much over the year. I’ve witnessed bicycles by the hundreds locked up getting snowed on in droves outside of Nagano Train Station and no, this was no long-term storage area. Get people into the habit of cycling and en-mass at least they’re not frequently put off by the weather.

    @Dylan – I get your point Dylan, but a 20km commute doesn’t equate to 20km in a day, it equates to 40km. I’m certainly capable of riding 20km twice a day, but I also can’t be bothered doing it every day!

    @Alan – I think there’s still plenty of low hanging fruit to be picked. In the past you’ve discussed the importance of coordinating different modes to work better together and I would stress its the sole biggest problem in our two biggest cities, especially Sydney. A decent multi-modal ticketing system isn’t that hard for most the world (although Sydney and Melbourne both seem to have been spectacularly bad in recent attempts!), and should be an no-brainer for Sydney to adopt. Melbourne is making some ground by implementing the PTV who at least are in charge of attempting to coordinate services. Perth has set great a great example with their bus-train interchanges on the Mandurah line. Finally despite being greatly underwhelmed with the overall quality of Toronto’s transit network, the most obvious advantage it had over Australian cities that I saw in the few months I was living there recently was their superior interchanges; both trams and buses terminated inside the ticketed area of the subway stations allowing passengers to avoid the worst of the weather and simply board a different vehicle without so much as having to show a ticket or go through a gate.

  • 14
    Posted February 13, 2013 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    @IkaInk, obviously there’s always going to be a considerable percentage of the population in a city like Sydney or Melbourne that for one reason or another aren’t able to live close enough to their jobs to cycle the whole way every day. But there’s certainly plenty of people that could use cycling for at least part of the route, or a few days a week, etc. etc., but don’t largely because cycling seems like such a fringe activity and is outside their comfort zone.

  • 15
    drsmithy
    Posted February 13, 2013 at 10:39 pm | Permalink

    I’d also say if you’re not capable of cycling 20 km comfortably in a day, your fitness isn’t really at the level it should be for ideal health.

    Fitness is a relatively minor issue. It’s the extra time involved, needing somewhere to put the bike when you arrive, needing access to showers when you arrive, the added complication of either keeping clothes at work, or transporting them, if how you look is an important part of your job, etc.

  • 16
    Posted February 14, 2013 at 7:15 am | Permalink

    drsmithy, all those are minor issues once you’re used to them, as is occasional less-than-ideal weather. Hence the ‘comfort zone’ comment.
    As for ‘extra time’ required, there’s a huge number of current car-commuters that could save considerable amounts of time by combining their daily exercise with their commute, even if the commute itself was slightly longer door-to-desk.

  • 17
    drsmithy
    Posted February 14, 2013 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

    drsmithy, all those are minor issues once you’re used to them, as is occasional less-than-ideal weather. Hence the ‘comfort zone’ comment.

    No, they’re really not.

    I ride to work most days and have for the better part of ten years. I know what things are major roadblocks to doing it, and the shower + clothes thing is probably the biggest, particularly for people who have customer facing roles and need to look well groomed.

    As for ‘extra time’ required, there’s a huge number of current car-commuters that could save considerable amounts of time by combining their daily exercise with their commute, even if the commute itself was slightly longer door-to-desk.

    A rather large proportion of people don’t exercise every day, and losing twice as much time to a commute, even if it has the bonus of being exercise as well, is unacceptable.

  • 18
    Posted February 14, 2013 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

    As I’ve suggested repeatedly – next time you’re in a European city or large town, you’d notice any number of very well groomed business people and the like riding around on bicycles. In much worse weather than we ever have here.

    Anyone that doesn’t have/make time for regular exercise needs to talk to their doctor about the likely consequences. Unless of course constant health issues and likely premature death are somehow more ‘acceptable’?

  • 19
    drsmithy
    Posted February 15, 2013 at 12:26 am | Permalink

    As I’ve suggested repeatedly – next time you’re in a European city or large town, you’d notice any number of very well groomed business people and the like riding around on bicycles. In much worse weather than we ever have here.

    I lived in Zurich for two years and got around Europe a reasonable amount.

    I don’t recall seeing many businesspeople riding their bikes around in snow, pouring rain, or 30+ degree high humidity heat. Additionally, most people there I knew who did ride bikes to work (note: a different thing to just general transport around on weekends, or after work), only rode fairly short distances (a few kilometres at most, generally over fairly flat terrain).

    Anyone that doesn’t have/make time for regular exercise needs to talk to their doctor about the likely consequences. Unless of course constant health issues and likely premature death are somehow more ‘acceptable’?

    Don’t waste your time with straw man arguments.

  • 20
    Posted February 15, 2013 at 7:07 am | Permalink

    If the only times people weren’t riding to work because they had no way of avoiding getting their suits messed up, we’d have much much higher mode share of cyclists than we do now, and I’d happily accept we’d reached something close to saturation level. Note Copenhagen is still aiming for 50% by 2015 – for us to even get to 10% would be a major milestone.

    And I’m sorry, it’s not a strawman argument – your claim that spending extra time commuting when it gets you exercise would be ‘unacceptable’ may well reflect what many people think, but it’s exactly that sort of thinking that needs to change for any number of reasons. But honestly, we could get to 10% easily just by getting all the people that would get to work *faster* by bicycle vs driving out of their cars. I’d even be willing to bet there’s full 20% of current commuters that could easily decrease their commute time by a combination of driving or PT + bicycling for the final few kilometres.

  • 21
    Smith John
    Posted February 15, 2013 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    The biggest psychological hurdle is between using public transport ‘never’ and ‘occasionally’. I recall a friend who was having great trouble arranging the logistics of a certain trip – how to get the car to the start point, or back from the finish point. I said, ‘look , here’s the train timetable. Perfect!’ (It really was ). No dice. Public transport had not been part of her upbringing, so she just couldn’t see herself on a train.

    So among other things it’s important for PT authorities to put their best efforts into getting people on PT to the big special events, to increase the number of ‘have done it at least once’ users.

  • 22
    Posted February 15, 2013 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    JS, perhaps, but I’d rather PT authorities focus exclusively on running the system such that trains trams and buses actually turn up on time and get to their intended destinations more or less when they’re scheduled to! I’m currently almost at the point I’m seriously considering using a car for getting to work at least a couple of days a week because I’m so fed up with the unreliability of the train service and the stress of worrying if I’ll make my connections. If I had more tolerance for being stuck in traffic (I’d have to drive from one side of the city to the other), I’d be doing it already, and I don’t blame people who prefer driving at all when that’s the alternative. Unfortunately I can’t cycle the whole way on those days because I have my 7yo son with me.

  • 23
    drsmithy
    Posted February 15, 2013 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

    If the only times people weren’t riding to work because they had no way of avoiding getting their suits messed up, we’d have much much higher mode share of cyclists than we do now, and I’d happily accept we’d reached something close to saturation level.

    Like I said, don’t waste your time on straw man arguments.

    And I’m sorry, it’s not a strawman argument – your claim that spending extra time commuting when it gets you exercise would be ‘unacceptable’ may well reflect what many people think, but it’s exactly that sort of thinking that needs to change for any number of reasons.

    The straw man, champ, is when you try to pretend I argued that “constant health issues and likely premature death” were “acceptable”.

    I see you’ve thrown in a side helping of begging the question and false dichotomy as well this time.

    But honestly, we could get to 10% easily just by getting all the people that would get to work *faster* by bicycle vs driving out of their cars. I’d even be willing to bet there’s full 20% of current commuters that could easily decrease their commute time by a combination of driving or PT + bicycling for the final few kilometres.

    I’d be surprised.

    My current commute is ~15km, from the south to the inner north of Brisbane.
    * I can drive it in 15-25 minutes, depending on traffic and whether or not I use the Clem7.
    * It’s a ~60 minute bike ride after accounting for showering & changing clothes (and I ride at a pretty decent clip).
    * It’s a (minimum) ~50 minute bus trip. This includes a 5-10 minute walk at my end to the stop and another 5-10 minute walk at the work end.
    * It’s a ~45 minute train trip. This includes a 5-10 minute drive to the station at my end and a 5-10 minute walk from the station at the work end.

    Those are door-to-desk times – ie: the elapsed time from shutting my front door to sitting down at my desk ready to work.

    Now, the actual times have varied over the years, depending on location, but the relative measures have stayed very similar.

  • 24
    Posted February 16, 2013 at 6:02 am | Permalink

    If you can drive 15km in 15-20 minutes, I’d agree – there’s not a lot of incentive to use alternative modes of transport.
    Indeed, if I were in your situation and moving houses or changing jobs was infeasible I’d almost certainly drive on the days I have to take my son with me, as it’s too hard to work on a bus, and I couldn’t afford losing that much time each day.
    Good on you for riding anyway, but you’re obviously not the initial target market of “commuters that spend most of their commute stuck in traffic and aren’t getting enough exercise”. I gather also that Brisbane generally has less problem with traffic congestion than Melbourne or Sydney. My 17km journey would take an hour minimum by car in peak hour. I can ride it in 45 minutes, and it takes me 5 minutes maximum before I’m sitting at my desk ready to work (indeed, if I drove it would probably take me longer than that to get my brain in gear!)

  • 25
    IkaInk
    Posted February 17, 2013 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

    @Drsmithy – Don’t be surprised. My work trip, door to desk used to be between 25-35 minutes via the train providing there was no cancelled services/absurd delays. Riding I could do it in 30, at a pace that wouldn’t require a shower at my destination. Driving would be a minimum of 45 minutes if I wanted to arrive at work at 9am. If I decided to get in at 8 or 10 it would probably take about 30.

    I’m now at a job near my old work where I will never need a car, and have never once contemplated driving in.

    I happen to live a short walk from a railway station. For people further from the station in my general area I’d bet a lot would be best off time-wise riding to the station then training into work.

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