One of the perennial concerns about suburban sprawl is transport disadvantage. But just how significant is the problem? Most importantly, is it a problem that can only be tackled effectively by ‘abolishing’ fringe growth and replacing it with multi unit housing within established suburbs?

Research done by Currie and Sensbergs and Currie and Delbosc on outer suburban Melbourne gives a sense of the dimensions of this issue. The data shows that 94% of outer suburban households have at least one car and 61% have at least two.

Compared to the 1970s, much of the transport disadvantage associated with outer suburban living has been mitigated by higher car ownership and to some extent by social infrastructure levies on developers.

However disadvantage is usually associated with low incomes. Currie and Sensberg found that 18% of lower income households living in the outer suburbs don’t have a car. They make up around 8% of all outer suburban households or about 1.5% of all  households in Melbourne. They are typically older, retired pensioners living alone and unemployed single mothers in rented accommodation.

However they tend to live within walking distance of activity centres with good public transport relative to the rest of the outer suburbs. Currie and Delbosc found that these households “make logical financially sustainable home location decisions to balance mobility and accessibility with limited budgets. Though most acknowledged the limitations imposed by lacking a car, most also emphasised the advantages of not having to pay for a car and said that alternative options met all of their transport needs”.

Thus low income households who live in the outer suburbs without the benefit of a car are a relatively small group, most of whom rationally cope with their circumstances by choosing to locate where they can walk and use public transport.

But there is another group of lower income households in the outer suburbs who possibly are ‘forced’ into owning two or more cars in order to negotiate living in the outer suburbs. Currie and Sensberg estimate that this group comprises 9% of all outer suburban households or 2% of all households in Melbourne.

This group travel considerably greater distances by car than comparable households in the middle suburbs. However Currie and Delbosc point out that they “are more concerned about home affordability and living in ‘greener’ areas than with transport. They emphasised the benefits of the increased mobility of owning cars and none of them regretted their home location decision. In this context it is difficult to see their car ownership as “forced” as their home location decision was quite deliberate. However a third did acknowledge that transport costs were a high proportion of their income and most adopted coping strategies to limit travel expenses such as trip linking and cost minimisation”.

This group explicitly trade off the benefits of home ownership against the extra costs of travel. Security of tenure and capital gain are expected to exceed the extra costs of transport. They are however potentially vulnerable if petrol prices rise dramatically.

Taking these two groups together (i.e. low income no car; low income with multiple cars), it seems to me that the extent of transport disadvantage, while real, does not provide sufficient warrant, by itself, for ‘banning’ fringe development.  The flaw in the extreme anti-sprawl argument is the implicit but false assumption that these households either want or can afford to live in the inner city, or alternatively that the high levels of public transport service we see in the inner city can be readily reproduced within the established suburbs.

It would be more efficient and less likely to give rise to negative unintended consequences if transport disadvantage were tackled directly rather than indirectly. For example, disadvantaged households could be given direct income support or direct transport support, say via taxi vouchers, reduced registration and insurance charges, or assistance with changing to more fuel-efficient cars

Another approach is to improve the quality of public transport in outer suburbs, particularly extending the operating hours, increasing the frequency of local services and improving coordination with the wider metropolitan public transport system. This would also benefit other travellers, like suburban teenagers who currently have limited mobility options. The Victorian Government’s initiatives to improve suburban bus services, such as the $290 million Smartbus program, are a step in the right direction.

The priority however should be on ‘social’ public transport services aimed at addressing disadvantage rather than at substituting for car travel. The sustainability of car travel in the outer suburbs will be addressed more efficiently and more effectively by initiatives to improve the fuel and emissions efficiency of cars and by pricing road space.