Average distances Melburnians walk to bus and train stops - km (data derived from VISTA)

Planners invariably work on the basis that bus and tram users will walk no more than 400 metres from home to the nearest stop. It’s known travellers will walk further to catch a train, so the maximum walk distance to a station is accordingly usually taken as 800 metres.

So it’s interesting to look at what travellers actually do. Data from the VISTA travel survey shows the median walk distance to the bus in Melbourne is 500 metres, with a quarter walking more than 800 metres. Half of Melbourne’s train travellers walk more than 800 metres and a quarter more than 1.3 kilometres! Hence bus and train users in Melbourne walk much longer distances than the standards assume.

If the VISTA methodology is right, these findings can be interpreted a number of ways. One is that travellers have to walk unreasonably long distances in Melbourne, perhaps because bus and train coverage is too sparse, or stops are poorly located. Alternatively, it could show travellers are prepared to walk much further than planners have historically assumed (I’m sure some would even argue the exercise is good for them!).

Standards like 400/800 metres are often justified on the grounds that if travellers have to walk any further, they will choose to drive instead, thus lowering the demand for public transport. It’s argued that trains can command longer walk distances because experience shows travellers will walk further if they’re taking long trips, or if the mode is fast (train trips tend to be much longer than other modes, both public and private, and also faster because they have their own dedicated right-of-way).

While that’s all fair enough, I don’t think it draws out the policy implications as clearly as it might. I think there’s another way of interpreting the data on trains in particular. Trips by train are indeed longer and faster than those by other modes, but the key reason travellers walk long distances to stations is they have to – they don’t have a choice.

That’s primarily because the key market for trains is workers travelling from the suburbs to the city centre. Driving simply isn’t a realistic option for most of these commuters – parking in or close to the centre is too expensive and the combination of distance and traffic makes driving too slow and too costly. Limited parking means it’s also hard to drive to the station. In addition, there are all those “captive” travellers who don’t have access to a car or can’t drive (e.g. students) but have high value trips to make.

In other words there are many trips where the car is simply not a realistic alternative to the train. In these cases the maximum distance people are prepared to walk (or have to walk!) is much longer than the standard 800 metre maximum. Not having an alternative, train users walk as far as they have to.

In fact the mean distance train travellers walk from home to the station in Melbourne is one kilometre. That’s a lot further than the median (800 metres) and suggests there’s a long tail of travellers who walk a very long distance from home to the station.

Accepting the legitimacy of longer walk distances could possibly have implications in a number of areas, for example in the design of feeder bus services, the spatial extent of development around stations, and in some cases even the spacing of stations. But most stations are already a considerable distance apart, so the practical implications are probably limited.

However where this way of looking at the issue might have particular relevance is in the spacing of tram stops. Unfortunately I don’t have any data to hand on actual tram walk distances in Melbourne, but my understanding is they too are longer than the 400 metre standard suggests. Further, many tram stops in Melbourne are closely spaced – for example, in the inner eastern suburbs they are every 200-300 metres.

Melbourne’s tram system is radial and, while the proportion is not as large as it is for trains, many tram travellers work in the city centre. Trip lengths are shorter than trains partly because the tram network is less extensive, and partly because, like cars, trams get delayed by congestion. Even so, most tram journeys are to the centre where congestion is at its worst and where parking costs are high.

Most tram users don’t  have the option of driving for these sorts of journeys and would be prepared to walk a lot further from home to a stop (or would effectively have no choice) than the 400 metre maximum usually assumed for trams, not to mention the even shorter distances implied by existing stop spacing.

Increasing the distance between tram stops means fewer stops and could potentially offer a number of benefits. One is increased in-vehicle speeds, although there would be longer walk times for some. Given a smaller number of stops, another possible benefit is enhanced services such as ticketing and validation facilities at every stop. A rationalisation also provides scope to re-design the location of stops – which are essentially based on historical circumstance – so they better serve existing and projected concentrations of activity.

The same thinking could be extended, if the political will existed, to rationalising the number of tram lines. Some lines are very close – in the inner eastern suburbs for example, there are nine parallel lines at an average interval of less than one kilometre. Of these, there are three spaced at approx 600 metre intervals.

Of course there are some complications with the idea of adopting longer walk distances. Some travellers actually do have a choice of driving instead of taking public transport. There are also some groups like the disabled for whom longer walk distances are a real constraint. I think there are satisfactory responses to these sorts of issues but I’ll have to leave that for another day.

However as many of our politicians are want to say, this is a conversation worth having.