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Public transport

Sep 3, 2012

How important is public transport?

We know from travel surveys that public transport only accounts for a small proportion - around 10% - of all trips in Australia’s capital cities. Doesn’t sound like much. But


The proportion of Melbourne adults who use public transport, by frequency and fare zone (Source: ABS)

We know from travel surveys that public transport only accounts for a small proportion – around 10% – of all trips in Australia’s capital cities. Doesn’t sound like much.

But, as a new survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) shows, there’s more to how much we use public transport than is evident at first glance. There’s a big difference between what share of travel it captures and how many people use and rely on it.

What the ABS found is that while we mostly drive, many of us still use public transport for some of our travel. There are some places – most especially the city centre – where public transport is a much more attractive option than driving.

In a survey of adults in Melbourne, the Bureau found 38% said they had used public transport in the preceding month. Of this group, 24% say they use public transport at least once a week and 33% use it once a month or more (see exhibit).

The residents of inner and middle ring suburbs are even bigger users. In their case, 40% of the 1 million adults living within an 11-18 km radius around the CBD (Zone 1 in the fare structure) use public transport at least once a week and 53% at least once a month.

So while it’s correct to say that cars dominate travel in our capital cities, public transport is still used by a significant proportion of the population for certain kinds of trips.

The ABS didn’t ask what they use public transport for or where they were going, but we can be confident many commute regularly to work, mostly in the city centre. The figures indicate daily commuters aren’t the majority, though.

Most adults who travel by public transport use it for non-work trips. I expect most of it is trips to the centre or nearby – for example, to go to nightclubs, concerts, football matches, galleries, universities and restaurants. They use public transport for good reason.

Consider that nowadays the only AFL matches in Melbourne are played either at the MCG or Etihad Stadium in Docklands*. Around 80% of MCG patrons arrive and leave by public transport and I expect it’s similar, perhaps higher, at Etihad.

These patrons don’t leave their cars at home because they don’t like driving. They do it because traffic congestion, high parking costs and good match-day train and tram services make public transport a more attractive option than cars.

Drink driving laws probably help too, but the point is public transport is most times the better way to get to activities in the centre. Indeed, it’s often the only realistic option, even at night and on weekends.

The CBD and near-CBD are extremely important locations in Australian cities. Government planning policy in Victoria – which reinforces the primacy of the centre – is making the CBD and surrounds more and more important.

Travel surveys tell us what share of all trips is captured by each mode. They establish that public transport’s share is small relative to other modes (essentially cars) in Australian cities. This is useful and important information. However as the ABS survey shows, a large proportion of people use public transport on a reasonably frequent basis.

Public transport is needed by lots of people not just those who use it Monday to Friday. And it’s needed even though those same travellers make the majority of their other trips by car.

There are important implications in the findings of the ABS survey. One is obvious – governments need to invest more financial and political capital in improving public transport.

The other is less obvious – advocates shouldn’t limit themselves to presenting public transport solely as a replacement for cars. In the medium term at least, it’s much more likely to be an alternative for some trips and a complement for others (e.g. ‘kiss-and-ride’).

There are other interesting aspects of the ABS survey –  like who uses public transport and why – I’ll come back to shortly.

* When I attended my first and last full AFL game in 1985 at Western Oval, there were five active suburban grounds at the time.


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19 thoughts on “How important is public transport?

  1. Scott Grant

    Correction: it might have been the time of the suspected gas leak at Town Hall station. I can’t remember the precise details, just the ginormous traffic jam which resulted.

  2. Scott Grant

    A couple of comments: Public transport is cheaper for me than owning a car. I have not owned a car for more than 10 years, now. My basic transport needs are taken care of by a weekly rail ticket, the cost of which is considerably less than I would spend on petrol alone if I drove to work. My workplace provides parking, but charge for it. So I save that as well.

    Another benefit of public transport that is rarely mentioned, although I saw it get a guernsey in one earlier post, is the effect it has in reducing congestion on the roads. This was brought home to me, in dramatic fashion, a number of years ago, now, when a train got stuck on the harbour bridge, causing much of the network to shut down for several hours. The Sydney CBD and surrounding suburbs became virtually gridlocked as friends and relatives drove their cars into the city to pick up stranded commuters. I got a lift with a colleague heading from the inner city to Parramatta, and this trip took several hours! I have sometimes thought that they should shut down the rail more often, just to remind people of the service it provides to everyone, even those who don’t use it.

  3. Tom the first and best


    Correct. Buses that travel along the more major roads instead of slow windy tours through the back streets. Buses going to the CBD instead of the local station is usually a waste.

  4. Dudley Horscroft

    “In Sydney, this would mean a limited number of extremely high frequency bus routes travelling along roads like Anzac Parade and Parramatta Road, fed by services from adjoining suburbs that do not make it all the way into the city.” [Michael R James, 14]

    Not quite. In those two locations what is needed is large trams operating on their own tracks. Check on NearMap or Google and you will see that almost the whole of Parramatta Road from Norton Street in is 6 lanes, but the two kerb side lanes are bus lanes. Thus in the peak direction, buses occupy a full lane, and cars/other vehicles the other two. Put trams in the centre on their own lanes and there are still two lanes free for cars/other vehicles. Better still, the buses tend to move outside their own lane if they wish to overtake a bus at a stop, and delay other traffic. Trams can’t. But given their own lanes, and traffic light priority, they can do the trip from Norton Street to Circular Quay in 20 minutes, peak and off-peak. Buses can do it in 16, but only the first bus of the day. In the peak they take 30 minutes or more.

    Same applies, more or less, to the Randwick routes to the Uni and POW Hospital.

  5. Gobillino

    “more direct buses”

    I suspect Tom First… is referring to less circuitous, rather than more buses focussed on a single terminus

  6. michael r james

    “more direct buses”

    No, that is a recipe for a dysfunctional system. Witness Brisbane’s nonsense in trying to run buses from outer suburban Siberias all the way into the CBD, where they clog several bottlenecks into standstill (Google buses and Victoria Bridge) with often nearly-empty buses and make the larger bus stations a nightmare to use.

    I hate a system that relies too much on buses but acknowledge they are a necessary component but they need to be used in an intelligent network (just like Metro systems):

    Interchange the ticket to ending bus nightmare
    Jacob Saulwick, January 4, 2012

    (Jarrett Walker:) ”With Taylor Square and Newtown . . . I was just stunned to think of how difficult it was to travel between two such incredibly high demand, busy, public transport oriented places,”
    But the solution, from Walker’s perspective, is not to do the obvious thing and put on more direct buses connecting the two points, or more 352s. This is how governments have tended to solve transport problems in Sydney. As demand has grown, governments have met the need by adding extra bus routes through the suburbs.
    Most of these routes run from their suburban origins right into the CBD.
    But what this bias towards a radial bus network has left us with is the sorry irony we have at the moment: the city centre is teeming with public transport – all those buses – but they are so clogged they are of little use to anyone.
    Walker’s solution is for governments to embrace what they have often been loathe to touch: encouraging connections, or compelling passengers to change from one bus or train to another. This is where the logic becomes counter-intuitive. If you want to build good public transport links between two locations, the solution is not necessarily to put on more direct links between the two locations.
    In Sydney, this would mean a limited number of extremely high frequency bus routes travelling along roads like Anzac Parade and Parramatta Road, fed by services from adjoining suburbs that do not make it all the way into the city.]

    That is just an extract but the concept is a no-brainer. Hubs linked with hi-frequency services. Feeder routes would be shorter and thus could run at higher frequency, fewer buses and no additional cost (or lower cost). And it goes without saying, a sensible and simple e-ticketing system.

  7. Tom the first and best


    Park Rd to Bay Rd (an approximation of the distance between Southland and Cheltenham) along the railway is over 1 km and the pedestrian and road routes are longer and more complicated.

    Highett-Cheltenham is nearly 2.4km and that is the longest gap between stations between Richmond and Mordialloc by about 500m.


    Southland is next to the railway line and would add significant patronage to the line, including lots of inter-peak and counter-peak patronage that would use existing services with plenty of space. It would attract thousands and thousands of passengers per day and be in the top 20 patronage stations on weekdays and probably the top 10 on weekends.

    Better buses are needed but where a major patronage generator is next to a railway line then it should have a station to serve the rail corridor directly.

  8. Dylan Nicholson

    It’s only ~800 metres from Cheltenham station to Southland by my reckoning, with a bus route if walking isn’t convenient for whatever reason. I’d think Melbourne would have to increase in density significantly to justify having stops closer together than they are around that area. Having said that, I do think it’s a disgrace that if I wanted to get to Southland by PT from Hawthorn it would take me over an hour, vs less than 20 minutes by car. The same is true if I want to get to, say, Preston. Better bus routes seem to be the obvious solution.

  9. Tom the first and best

    Some important steps could be taken to increase the usefulness and thus importance on PT.

    More frequent and more direct buses with better priority.

    Tram priority and platform stops.

    A host of small measures to increase PT coverage to places important to people with non-CBD centric lives. The most obvious example of such a thing in Melbourne would be a station at Southland.

  10. Dylan Nicholson

    Steve, re public transport being cheaper – it wouldn’t seem that hard to convince families that they don’t need 2 or 3 cars, if decent public transport was available. But there’s much that could be done to reduce the ‘sunk cost’ problem for car ownership – e.g. scrap registration/fixed CTP insurance, reduce other one-time on-road costs where possible, notch up the fuel excise, introduce congestion charging and encourage pay-per-km insurance to become the norm (e.g. via tax incentives). However…I’d also point out that in most European countries the same sunk-cost issues apply, but in Germany, e.g. while almost every family owns a car, public transport (and of course bicycling) is still much more widely used than Australia, despite the fact that public transport between cities in Germany is not particularly cheap, there are excellent roads (none of which are tolled!), and for much of the year the weather is not particularly conducive to any form of travel that involves not being protected from the elements (P.T. of course invariably involves some amount of this).

  11. Steve777

    I think when it is argued that public transport is cheaper than driving, this is based on a comparison with the total cost of owning and running a car, i.e. including the purchase price of the vehicle, registration, insurance, servicing as well as petrol. Add to this road tolls and parking costs. However, the majority of the costs of running a car are essentially fixed, including purchase, registration and insurance. So if you buy a car for $30,000, which will be worth effectively nothing after 10 years, and pay $3,000 p.a in other fixed costs like insurance, a car is costing you about $120 per week even if you leave it in the garage (another fixed cost). So I think it would be an uphill battle to prise many more people out of their cars unless they can be convinced that it is not worth owning one. Few people are yet persuaded to this view, although in the inner suburbs of Sydney at any rate, driving is becoming less and less viable because of congestion and the lack of / cost of parking. But then public transport even in inner suburbs is not that crash hot for reasons outlined in my previous post. Cycling has its benefits but it’s not for everyone. You have to be fit, the weather has to be not too inclement, and Sydney is pretty hilly, warm, humid and wet so you probably need to shower and change clothes at your destination. I think that imaginative public transport solutions, including cross-suburban services between radial hubs, possibly using mini buses, plus improved availability of taxis, would go a long way to making public transport more viable for more people.

  12. Russ

    Wiz Aus, “not having own transport” is listed as a separate category. They asked for the main reason, which creates its own distortions. For people taking p/t 3-7 days per week cost or not having own transport was the main factor 40% of the time, similarly for 1-2 days per week in zone 1. It is certainly a factor for city commutes.

    It is worth noting though, that if you don’t have a weekly/monthly ticket, off-peak visits to the city with more than 1 person in the vehicle are roughly the same cost (or possibly cheaper for the outer suburbs) than driving. Similarly, as I’m in the habit of walking or riding as often as possible, the cost of single trips on public transport is a reason I don’t use it unless forced. If my partner (who drives day to day, by necessity) and I are travelling further afield then driving is significantly cheaper.

  13. Dylan Nicholson

    “the time taken for a cross-suburban trip can be barely faster than walking”

    OTOH, cycling is virtually always the cheapest and most convenient way possible of travelling any distance under 20km in an urban area (providing you don’t have too much stuff to carry), and quite often the fastest.
    And providing the weather’s good and you’re fit and have a half-decent bike, I’d also consider it the most comfortable.
    Plus…you can always take them on the train with you if you can’t manage the whole distance.

  14. Steve777

    Public transport is the only viable option for most people if you are going into the centre of Sydney at any time of day or night, and I expect the same is true for Melbourne and Brisbane, given traffic congestion and high parking charges. It is also an attractive option if you live close to public transport and your destination is also close to transport and on a direct route to the centre. But if you are travelling across suburbs, even within the inner and middle rings of suburbs, the appeal of public transport rapidly diminishes. The reasons for this are: the need to change between poorly coordinated (or uncoordinated) services; circuitous bus routes that explore every byway, especially outside the peak periods; infrequent and frequently late-running services; lack of parking near service hubs, leaving you with a long walk or a long wait for a taxi at the start of your journey; and the radial nature of the transport network – you often need to travel most of the way into the City then back out to your destination. Another problem is the scarcity of taxis, which would be useful to fill in public transport gaps on your route. If your stuck with a 3 km walk or a one hour wait at the end of your journey, you’ll use your car for the whole journey.

    Indeed, the time taken for a cross-suburban trip can be barely faster than walking. Improved planning of public transport, especially coordination of services and more cross-suburban services, plus improvement in the availability of taxis, might persuade more people to leave their cars at home.

  15. Smith John

    This sort of discussion points up the fact that it is politically important to maximise the proportion of people who have some exposure to public transport, to increase the constituency who recognise that it is a good thing (even if they don’t use it often themselves).

    This means due attention to:
    – good special events services;
    – good off peak services to encourage occasional users (who are more likely to be offpeak);
    – a legible network and good information services to encourage non expert users.

    The alternative is a dominant rhetoric that public transport is only significant for peak period commuters, to reduce traffic congestion. This is a narrow and regrettable view, but is unfortunately still strong in many quarters, particularly where the system has been optimised for the journey to work at the expense of all day quality service.

  16. Wiz Aus

    “I would think that those who cited reduced travel time were those living in zone 2, where the train could be far faster than the car.”

    Really? I would say the opposite – that reduced travel time is more likely in Zone 1, though in reality it’s where you’re going and what time you’re going that matters. If you’re travelling into the CBD at peak hour, it doesn’t really matter much where you’re coming from, unless you’re a long way from any public transport (which is only going to be true in Zone 2). OTOH, it’s hard to think of too many journeys entirely within Zone 2 that would be quicker by public transport than by car, whereas within Zone 1, even if not travelling to the CBD, if your journey starts and ends near a train station, and occurs during any sort of it’s quite likely to be faster by train than car.

    I also don’t really believe that only 9% of respondents choose P.T. consider “Cheaper than own transport” as a main factor – after all P.T. is cheaper for just about all peak hour commuters (given the cost of parking), who must make up a pretty decent percentage of all user P.T. users – but I’m guessing the survey had “more convenient” listed first, and perhaps for most respondents that seemed more suitable than “cheaper”. And of course for those without their own transport, P.T. is a lot cheaper (vs having to go out and buy/rent a car, or use a taxi). And yes, there’s definitely *room* for increasing fares, but without a consequent increase in levels of service, it would be a deservedly unpopular move (unfortunately the one other thing that might make it more justifiable – i.e., reducing the subsidisation of private transport – would be considerably more unpopular!)

  17. Dudley Horscroft

    Re ‘hk”s question, reference to the survey states that 16% of employed patrons in Zones 1 and 2 said they have no private form of transport or their own transport was unavailable. A third (35%) of unemployed persons said “Have no private form of transport/Own transport unavailable”. For patrons not in the labour force, 31% cited “Have no private form of transport/Own transport unavailable”.

    Given that persons in the labour force amount to 64% or thereabouts of the population, and the unemployed are about 5%, it would seem that the overall percentage of persons with no private form of transport or it was unavailable is rather lower than 1/3 of the adult population. Probably nearer 20 – 25%.

    To answer your question – it all depends on the location being considered. I hope to demonstrate this.

    What was surprising to me was that “55% or 657,100) cited “More convenient than own transport/Less stress/Reduced travel time” as the main reason that public transport was used. “Cheaper than own transport” was cited by less than one in ten (9% or 111,800) public transport patrons.” This indicates to me that there is plenty of room for increasing fares – particularly in peak hours where elasticity of demand against fares can be as low as -0.1. (This means that a 10% increase would lose patronage by about 1% – in off peak periods the 10% increase could easily lose 5% or more patrons. I would think that those who cited reduced travel time were those living in zone 2, where the train could be far faster than the car.

    Webb and Gaymer state “In terms of infrastructure planning, the most important trips to consider are those taking place at the most congested time and location across the whole network.” (http://www.transport.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/33893/Changes-in-travel-demand-in-Melbourne-Is-it-time-for-a-new-paradigm.pdf) If one agrees with them, the most important trips are not the 91% undertaken by car over the whole Melbourne (Victorian?) network, but that proportion “taking place between 7am and 9am and occurring at least in part within 5 km of the Central Business District (CBD).” (ibid)

    It is worth pointing out that while the W class trams in Melbourne had a capacity of 150 persons (sign on interior bulkhead) they were only 14.17 m long and had an interior width less than 8 ft. All subsequent trams are longer and wider, with the “Bumblebee trams” more than double at 32.52 m long. The new trams are to be about the same length, so their crush capacity (NOT based on 4 persons per sq m used for comparing tram capacities) is likely to be close to 400! Allowing something less, say 300, at a 6 minute interval service (10 trams per hour) one lane of tram track can be used by 3000 people in the rush hour. One road lane with only private cars, and using the recommended minimum headway of 2 seconds, can transport 1800 cars – even 2200 cars per hour with very good driver behaviour. Allowing the average urban load of about 1.2 persons, this means 2640 persons. BUT, that assumes no reduction as a result of traffic lights. As the CBD traffic lights have approximately equal green and red phases, the capacity is halved to 1320 persons per traffic lane. Possibly better in suburbs where cross streets can be give less green time, but the tram can transport double the number of people, and at a six minute interval can still leave plenty of room for cars in the same lane.

    Hence trams can markedly increase the capacity of inner city roads, and it should be noted that provision of a good tram service gives the freedom to choose the mode of travel. Given the number of people using trains and trams in Melbourne, it is obvious that people welcome the choice, and by providing much greater capacity within the available road space, the existence of trams is very important for Melbourne.

    Outside the, say, 50 km radius from Melbourne’s CBD, public transport is hardly noticed! Not important at all there.

  18. melburnite

    Absolutely correct Alan – lots of people use PT sometimes, especially where car travel not a desirable option – so be good just to make it more desirable more of the time, not expect people not to want and use cars as well.

  19. hk

    Another way to pose the question is, what percentage of the population do not have travel by car as an option? The often stated portion is 1/3 of the total population.


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