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Should we expect public transport to perform like a car?

Public transport provides significant social benefits. But we shouldn’t expect it to be as convenient or as fast as a car. It’s not private transport; it’s public (i.e. shared) transport

Public transport's mode share for work trips to the CBD compared to the rest of the metropolitan area, Melbourne

John Quiggin posted an interesting article on his blog on Thursday, Who should be licensed to use the road?, that in part addresses some of the same themes I’ve discussed this week i.e. elderly drivers and Qld’s proposed one metre overtaking rule.

He goes on though to discuss another important issue: what to do about motorists who habitually drive aggressively. The current points system (in Qld), he says, is absurdly lenient on drivers who have a long record of traffic violations and at-fault involvement in crashes.

The 12 point allowance lets drivers be convicted over a serious offence (running stop lights, speeding in a school zone etc) every year without any restriction on driving, and the suspension period for violators is only a few months.

Professor Quiggin argues that irrespective of age, the right to drive should not be regarded as “a natural right…to be withdrawn only in extreme circumstances.” Aggressive drivers, he says, should be taken off the road.

I’d suggest a lifetime allowance of 24 points, with permanent restrictions thereafter, as well as reducing the three year allowance to 8 points, and increasing suspension periods.

I agree with his general sentiment. It’s ridiculous that the penalty for a motorist who habitually drives in a way the law thinks poses a high risk of killing or seriously injuring others only provides a limited restriction on driving.

There’s a good discussion in the comments section, but the issue I want to address is the idea that the right of offenders to drive shouldn’t be withdrawn by the Courts because the car-oriented design of Australian cities makes life without wheels too onerous.

Public transport in metropolitan areas is too poor, the reasoning goes, to expect anyone, even proven dangerous drivers, to be denied access to their car for a lengthy period.

I think that’s a dubious proposition, at least in cities. Public transport is available in almost all parts of metropolitan areas, even in the outer suburbs.

Yes, in most areas the service frequency and span of operating hours is much lower than in the inner suburbs and travelling time from many origins to many destinations is much longer than it is by car.

It’s true public transport is in most cases not as convenient as a car. Of course it’s not – trains and buses aren’t cars!

By definition, public transport carries a range of unrelated people to a range of destinations, so it necessarily involves compromises that cars don’t e.g. walking, waiting, transferring.

Travellers don’t pay any of the capital costs and only around a third of the operating costs, so it isn’t politically feasible to provide car-like trip times from every origin to every destination at all times of the day.

In my view it’s reasonable to expect someone who’s been convicted of a serious driving offence to organise their lives around a walk of up to 800 metres to get to a stop or station; to deal with a one hour frequency and services that cease at 10 pm; and negotiate travel times that might be up to two or three times longer than driving the same trip.

After all, members of the population who don’t drive at all – they’re mostly young, disabled, elderly or poor – routinely organise their lives around the limitations of public transport.

There’s a general point here too: it’s unreasonable to expect public transport to deliver the same benefits as cars while simultaneously providing greater sustainability and supporting high employment and population densities.

It can do it in the city centre because of the massive legacy of ‘spoke and hub’ rail infrastructure and because cars are rendered less competitive by congestion and parking costs (1).

But the centre only accounts for a small proportion of all metropolitan trips. The great bulk of travel is between dispersed origins and dispersed destinations in the suburbs. Most of it is for non-work purposes.

Even with the sort of high frequency ‘grid’ many transport planners aspire to (e.g. see How can public transport work better in our cities?), driving will in most cases still be faster and more convenient than public transport.

We need better public transport in our cities because it provides significant social benefits. But we shouldn’t make the mistake of expecting it to behave like a car. It’s not private transport; it’s public (i.e. shared) transport.


  1. Cars can be made less competitive relative to public transport by policy e.g. permitting congestion to increase; increasing taxes/charges on drivers

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  • 1
    Posted December 6, 2013 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    In Australian cities, planners have made little effort to encourage public transport use outside peak hour or for trips that don’t have one end in the CBD. If you plan public transport around the idea that it’s merely a supplementary mode for people who should be made to rely on private cars wherever possible, that’s what you get.

    But what this leads to is an awful lot of idle capacity: infrastructure is underutilised outside peak hour, and even within peak hour the outer sections of radial train lines operate with empty seats that could be filled with suburb-to-suburb commuters. Cost recovery runs at one-third because we are paying for this waste of capacity.

    No-one suggests public transport should be in every way like a private car or taxi service, but it should be capable, within built-up urban areas, of carrying people from point A to point B in a time-competitive manner allowing for a 500 metre walk at each end and one or two changes of service.

    Running a bus once an hour in a city like Melbourne, where the potential passenger catchment is rarely below 1,000 people per route kilometre, is a false economy. You wind up running most of these buses nearly empty most of the time because even sitting in chronic congestion for half an hour in a car beats waiting 55 minutes for the next bus. Boosting the frequency to every 15 minutes or better would in almost every instance pay for itself in increased revenue: the only problem is governments are too timid to cough up the upfront funds required.

  • 2
    Noah McDonald
    Posted December 6, 2013 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    I think that a tougher stance on aggressive driving would be a good way to go. It would have the dual benefits of reducing the number of aggressive drivers on the road through either loss of licence or deterrence, and it would provide a bit of extra patronage for PT services which in turn bolsters the case for improved PT services.


    ‘the idea that the right of offenders to drive shouldn’t be withdrawn by the Courts because the car-oriented design of Australian cities makes life without wheels too onerous’

    This statement is very true and is a very important/sad reminder of how far PT still has to go in Australia

  • 3
    Tom the first and best
    Posted December 6, 2013 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    Would psychological testing as part of the licence getting process (or renewal in the case of existing drivers) be of use?

  • 4
    Tom the first and best
    Posted December 6, 2013 at 1:53 pm | Permalink


    More effort is needed to provide PT for non-CBD trips. An example of this in Melbourne is the promised Southland Station. The government has been dragging its heels on this, despite it being a very good idea. It would fill up both underused peak direction capacity south of Southland and counter-peak capacity north of Southland, not to mention all the underused inter-peak and weekend daytime capacity it will use.

    Extending the Alamein line to Oakleigh via East Malvern and Chadstone is another big mode shift option (all be it far more expensive).

    Another option is a Dandenong South station, probably at Greens Rd, for all those workers in that industrial area there.

  • 5
    Austin M
    Posted December 6, 2013 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

    4 I agree extending the Alamein line is long overdue but I think to Caulfield is actually a better transit terminus (another advantage is you could potentially cut n cover under Waverley Road with a similar distance to a bored tunnel to Oakleigh). Id rather service Chadstone via extending the number 3 tram to east Malvern running along edge of the freeway reserve and then running down Chadstone/Poath Roads to a terminus at Hughsdale Station.
    Regarding demerits I don’t necessarily believe people should have a lifetime limit. A long term professional driver that has racked up twenty points in small offences in a lifetime of driving is not as dangerous as an inexperienced, multiple re-license or aggressive teenager or similar. Also people have a right not to have minor driving offences hanging over them for a life time. A minor fine incurred as a teenager has no place being held over a person 30-40 years down the track.
    I do believe however infringements should better account for recent driving performance. For example if you had no demerits the fine would cost you $50 with say $100 times the demerit added to each point increment up the scale so 1 points $150 = $50 + 1x$100 where 3 points is $650 = 50 + (1×100)+ (2×100) + (3×100) and 10 points is all the way up at $5550.
    This would mean a $650 for a first 3 point offence but if you have already got 4 points on your license its $1800 = $2850 – $1050 (you paid last time). If you then get another 2 points its $1600 = $4450 – $2850 (you paid last time).
    0 50
    1 150
    2 350
    3 650
    4 1050
    5 1550
    6 2150
    7 2850
    8 3650
    9 4550
    10 5550
    11 6650
    12 7850

    I realise this is not going to help much with the problem of people driving unlicensed, the wealthy, or the load on sheriff collection officers but for the majority it would make them have a major reflection on their actions as they go. It may also provide some deterrent to points selling.

  • 6
    Posted December 6, 2013 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

    All in all, an interesting perspective as usual Alan. A couple of thoughts though:

    Yes, PT won’t offer the same travel time or comfort as driving your car, especially off-peak when congestion in most Aussie cities is comparatively non-existent. But it could be so much better!

    I believe most planners know exactly how better public transport would deliver benefits all around. However when pollies spend billions on roads, then there isn’t much left for buses or trains. The $500m per year or so we will spend each year paying off the East West Link in Melbourne would fund maybe 700 new buses – enough to make a major dent in improving PT in the burbs!

    Unlicensed drivers are a massive issue. The courts’ response, if they actually get caught, is generally a slap on the wrist, even for repeat offenders (presumably due to weak legislation). The penalty for driving without a license is to ban them from driving. Gee, that makes lots of sense!

    Making PT better won’t stop those idiots. Maybe we need “traffic hotels” where people who re-offend or rack up a squillion points can have a little forced holiday (at their own expense)- even if it is only on weekends.

    I had heard the Swedes have this sort of approach and WikiTravel (believe it at your own risk!) says:
    “The legal limit is .02, which is only a quarter of that in the United States, Canada and Britain. Police at any time, can take blood by force, and if you are over the limit, it’s almost automatic jail time. Also since this is Scandinavia, the fine will be based on your pretax income, and can therefore be extremely high.” So gaol and income-related fines – maybe that is the answer!

  • 7
    Alan Davies
    Posted December 7, 2013 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    Strewth #1:

    No-one suggests public transport should be in every way like a private car or taxi service, but it should be capable, within built-up urban areas, of carrying people from point A to point B in a time-competitive manner allowing for a 500 metre walk at each end and one or two changes of service.

    But what do you mean by “in a time-competitive manner”? Competitive with a car for an end-to-end trip?

    If the information were available, a test of the proposition in your last para would be Melbourne’s circumferential SmartBus services. Be useful to know the revenue and cost per pass/km (and what % of trips replace cars).

    Re “waiting 55 minutes for the next bus”, travellers stuck with infrequent services plan their life around timetables.

    Waffler #6:

    Are buses that expensive? I’d have expected $500 million p.a. would cover the annual capital and operating cost of significantly more than 700 buses.

  • 8
    Posted December 7, 2013 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    I could easily be a bit light on, as it is a long time since I was involved in bus planning. From the dim dark past I seem to recall it cost about $400k annually per bus many years ago. Assuming longer operating hours to provide minimum service levels and operating cost increases, especially fuel and wages, I guessed $600-700k.

    It is next to impossible to find out from publicly available info. The info I can find is a bit contradictory as well. The PTV annual report (p60) says it costs $950m in payments to bus operators which seems to be for a fleet of 2312 urban and rural buses. However the discussion re: expenses on p12 says payments to metro bus operators (for a fleet of 1753 buses) was 23% of $4.2B or about $960m.

    Allowing for spares and light duty buses for school bus or peak only services, the two interpretations above would give an annual cost of somewhere between $450k and $640k per bus.

    Of course those costs for extra services would hopefully be offset by a revenue increase, so in reality you could probably also squeeze in a few more!

    Happy for someone else to provide more up to date info.


  • 9
    Allen Riddoch
    Posted December 7, 2013 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    No, Public transportation is not expected to perform like a car but it should be able to provide services to the masses to reach from one point to the other easily and on time. In Australia there must be a bit of focus on PT services too.

  • 10
    Tom the first and best
    Posted December 8, 2013 at 12:34 pm | Permalink


    The justification for extending the Alamein line beyond East Malvern is Chadstone. It is a significant centre of employment, business, shopping, leisure, etc. Chadstone and the Alamein line have shared catchment and thus there would be reasonable new patronage for the existing section of the Alamein line, as well as patronage for the Glen Waverley and Dandenong lines. Caulfield has lost of existing PT.

    The no.3 should be extended to Chadstone, however the freeway reserve is not the appropriate route. The freeway will not be demolished quickly enough for the route to use the freeway land used by the freeway and still be built quickly, significant land acquisition and housing demolition would thus be required and it would take the tram line away from potential patronage.

    The far better route would be to go from East Malvern station, out through the carpark, along Waverley Rd, allong Chadstone Rd (a small mount of property acquisition may be required to get around the corner) and then into Chadstone.

  • 11
    Posted December 9, 2013 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    Driving will always be faster and more convenient, no matter how good public transport might be. The bus will never pick you up at your door just when you’re ready to leave and drop you off in the street just outside your destination. That’s a given. But within these limitations, there must be ways to better organise the public transport that is provided. For example, most most cross-suburban trips, you need to go most of the way into the city and then back out. And are the circuitous routes taken by most bus services outside of peak hours up every byway really of greatest benefit? For cross-suburban journeys, public transport is barely faster than walking.

  • 12
    Posted December 9, 2013 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    Why on earth should we regard ‘walking’ as an inconvenience?

    Honestly for me the only reason to ever use a car around the city is if you need to carry stuff, and if the weather is truly awful.

  • 13
    arnold ziffel
    Posted December 9, 2013 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    Dare I suggest that losing a licence for accumulating more than 12 points is not identical to being a dangerous driver? It might be an occupational hazard for people who drive a lot.
    But then I don’t think I’ve ever seen a taxi driver being booked for their many infractions eg stopping on clearways or on corners – my special favourites.
    Maybe the decline in young people getting licensed might also be linked to an unnecessarily heavy regulatory burden on drivers?
    Is there evidence that shows that managing driver behaviour by passive methods such as stationary speed cameras actually lowers the road toll?
    I recall a senior Victorian Police officer once commented that the thing that lowers the road toll is a visible presence on the highways ie pursuit cars, and that speed cameras were for revenue.
    Probably career-limiting for him.

  • 14
    Posted December 9, 2013 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    I agree with the comments on Australia’s protected species of homicidal (male) drivers, although the ‘hoon’ laws are something of a fightback in some states. But it’s a red herring, in the context of capital city public transit.

    My simplistic analysis is that Australia has a deliberate and reckless policy of high population growth to make the rich folks richer, and that the increasingly inadequate public transit around the margins of our bursting cities is just another outsourcing of the costs of unsustainable growth to the poorer folks.

    Car-crazy Perth, oddly enough, has bucked the trend and built two major new rail lines with great success. But you’d have to be a brave man, to back the Canberra light rail getting up.

  • 15
    Austin M
    Posted December 9, 2013 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    I think extending to Caulfield via east Malvern and allowing transfer between basically all lines (with the exception of Sandringham) on both the Burnley and Caulfield groups is more important than linking to a regional shopping centre.
    Allowing passengers from the Frankston line and regional V line passengers to easily transfer to say Glen Waverley, Ringwood or to Camberwell and vice versa is IMO a more important long-term benefit than servicing Chadstone can offer.
    Melbourne Metro 2 would have offered a further reason to connect to Caulfield and allowed Sandringham transfers also.
    I wasn’t quite clear when I said extending No3 to East Malvern, then freeway reserve, then Chadstone/Poath Roads. I actually meant from east Malvern station then along the walking track just to the south of the railway line and then turning up Chadstone Road/Poath Road (yes some property acquisition at the turn). People wanting Chadstone can either catch the tram from east Malvern and get off at a stop at the corner of Chadstone Road/Princess Highway or utilise the same stop catching a tram from Hughesdale train station. It gives users of Chadstone fantastic additional connectivity to the rail network whilst allowing fast transfers across nearly all the Caulfield/Burnley Group.
    Coincidently the No 3 tram could also be used for transfers to the Sandringham group as it runs from Caulfield to Balaclava.

  • 16
    Posted December 9, 2013 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    Stephen, I’m glad you recognise your analysis as simplistic, because every time somebody brings up the idea that high population growth is a deliberate strategy to prop up the pointy end of the economy I feel compelled to point out that as long as Australia remains a nice place to live in that provides opportunities for all, and while much of the rest of the world isn’t/doesn’t, our population growth is largely going to be factor of how many people we decide to deny a chance for a better life here. The fact is that Australia’s cities are not particularly large by global standards, and managed sensibly should be able to grow a good deal larger and even improve in the process (personally I think Melbourne is a much better place to live in now than it was 15 years ago, largely due to the influx of new arrivals). Which isn’t to say there aren’t plenty of legitimate concerns about how our population growth is managed, but governments that do am especially poor job of it aren’t ones that are going to stay in power long. Fortunately I think there is reason to hope our cities are going to end up more like London or New York than Los Angeles or Houston – it seems increasingly there’s few votes to be won by claiming that what our cities need most are more freeways.

  • 17
    Tom the first and best
    Posted December 9, 2013 at 12:59 pm | Permalink


    Hear, hear!

  • 18
    Tom the first and best
    Posted December 9, 2013 at 1:20 pm | Permalink


    You have missed my point about there being more passengers for the extension to Chadstone, than Caulfield. A cut and cover station under Waverley/Dandenong Rd would also be a bit far from Caulfield station for good transfer. It would also be more useful for Alamein line passengers transferring to trains/buses for Monash University. THat is far more passengers than would be transferring to the Frankston or Gippsland V-Line trains.

    There is not enough room between the freeway/railway and the housing for the line to be built without at least some of the line of all the houses that are beside the walking track. A tram line requires a lot more width that simple walking path. It also reduces the catchment area for the tram stops, by having the stops next to the freeway instead of between housing, compared to running along Waverley Rd.

  • 19
    Shaniq'ua Shardonn'ay
    Posted December 9, 2013 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    I agree Alan with your sentiment regarding habitually dangerous drivers. I am aware of quite a few nice middle class ladies like myself with drinking problems who have gotten off with a slap on the wrist when caught over the limit more than once. Magistrates don’t seem to realise that people who have alcohol problems drink drive as a matter of course – how else can one get to a bottle shop after hours. Most Magistrates will not even make these drivers install an interlock device.

  • 20
    Austin M
    Posted December 9, 2013 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

    15 I take your point about a station being a bit far (my thought was you could get it under the service road near to where Derby Road is and thus limit the walk (perhaps with a pedestrian connection under the princess highway). I also agree that additional acquisition is likely to be required for the tram to run in the proposed reservation but was thinking it would avoid the tight turn at Chadstone road and the problems of shared running on Waverley Road (the tram is in a tight footprint through royal park. I was also not aware there was a huge catchment of people on the Alamein line wishing to get to Monash University.
    Perhaps an alternate to my proposal is rather than largely duplicating the route of tram 3 is to extend the tram to Alamein and convert the line to light rail like Port Melbourne or StKilda with the tram terminating at Camberwell (or continuing in the old outer rail reservation if desired). I don’t see what makes Chadstone any more important and deserving of a rail line than any other busy regional shopping centres or activity districts such as Knox, Doncaster, Highpoint, the DFOs etc. (especially with the construction at potentially massive expense to the tax payer).
    IMO we should be currently focusing our rail network on improved access and connectivity to central activity districts and improvements to operational efficiency. I find some of the activity centres by comparison offer a very limited cross section of jobs and services. Chadstone IMO is a bit of a 1 trick pony compared even to centres like Fountain Gate in terms of what’s offered by the centre and their surrounds.

  • 21
    Annabelle Lewis
    Posted December 9, 2013 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

    RE Public Transport – just for interest, have a look at:

  • 22
    Posted December 9, 2013 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

    In my view it’s reasonable to expect someone who’s been convicted of a serious driving offence to organise their lives around a walk of up to 800 metres to get to a stop or station; to deal with a one hour frequency and services that cease at 10 pm

    I wish there was public transport in my area that met those parameters.

  • 23
    Tom the first and best
    Posted December 9, 2013 at 9:48 pm | Permalink


    The tight curve to turn in and out of Chadstone road can be reduced with only property acquisition on the corner itself. The main problem with shared running is at traffic lights and this can be significantly reduced with tram priority at lights. The only extra lights there would be with the Waverley Rd proposal would be where the trams enter Waverley Rd at the end of the current car park.

    Converting the Alamein line to light rail is likely to fall into the same problems with capacity (which is why the 96 keeps getting the biggest trams) and speed that the St Kilda and (to a lesser extent) Port Melbourne line have.

    Chadstone is the largest shopping centre that is not on the rail system, especially once Southland station opens. THe Doncaster Shoppingtown should be on the (East) Doncaster line.

    Chadstone keeps getting bigger and thus having more transport need. In the expansion currently in the pipeline, it is to get many new shops offices and a hotel.

    It is not so much the “cross section” of jobs that matters for PT, it is the numbers and not just of jobs but activity.

  • 24
    Posted December 10, 2013 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    I lost my license at 22yo for drink driving did 10 months without a license living in Burwood East and working variously in Camberwell and Mitcham. I survived ok – but I had lost my license driving someone else’s car as I didn’t own one (or want one) at the time.
    As you say Alan you get used to checking the timetable the night before and leaving home 20 minutes earlier to fit the timetable. You also find that the PT system has a lot more utility than most people (even most transport professionals) realise – eg. if you miss bus x at a station bus y might go to the same destination by a different route or with a slightly longer walk at the other end.
    The most critical thing about that though is information and getting real time bus information would make a huge difference to the current bus network let alone one that had higher frequencies or better route structure.

    Anyway – back to the point, driving offences. I’m now 30 and my offence still hangs over me with a 10 year expiry (whereby if I reoffend drink driving I get double the penalty and automatic license loss no matter how low my reading is). I believe a lifetime points accumulation would be unfair for someone like me who has made 1 mistake and never had a speeding/red light or other fine since. It would also be unfair to professional drivers who drive 10 times more than I do each year and therefore are much more likely to accrue a number of low range offences.

    Your contention was based on those that ‘habitually drive agressively’ I would suggest that the answer would be to treat high range speeding (say 10+km/h over the limit) and red light camera offences in the same way the drink driving laws are already treated. Eg. if caught at 10+ over the limit a second time you get double penalty and automatic loss of license. If you have 10 years of good behaviour that initial 10+ over goes off your record.

  • 25
    Posted December 12, 2013 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    Maybe more people would accept some of the inconveniences of PT if they truly knew how much less it hits the hip pocket:


    (I’d say I’ve saved well over $100K over the last 5 years by not owning a car – admittedly if I did have one I’d want a pretty decent one, and I probably could have saved just as much by living much further from the city)

  • 26
    Alan Davies
    Posted December 12, 2013 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    Dylan Nicholson #25:

    What the Fairfax article doesnt’ point out is that (a) the % of outer suburban workers who commute to the CBD is small (5% in Casey LGA) and (b) of those that do, the vast majority take the train.

    I’ve had a quick look at the study and it appears that it (a) doesn’t attribute any proportion of the value of the car to non-work travel and (b) doesn’t allow for the value of time and convenience.

    It also doesn’t allow that virtually all of those who take the train nevertheless live in households who own a car or two.

    Perhaps some of these who drive to the CBD are thick, but I doubt it. They value the convenience of driving (e.g. perhaps for after-work activities) and their car, parking, petrol, etc, is probably subsidised.

    In any event, there’s not a lot of value in a study that looks only at commutes to the CBD. This study by BITRE I discussed a few year’s ago is much more useful because it accounts for all workplaces, What is the cost of commuting by car compared to public transport?

  • 27
    Posted December 12, 2013 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    I noticed your claim in that post “life in the suburbs for working families without a car is miserable”. I never found not having a car the least bit miserable personally (though I doubt I could have managed it with multiple full-time kids), but I did find “life in the suburbs” rather dull at times – largely due to the lack of (visible & active) people, not the lack of cars!

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