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Public transport

Sep 7, 2012

Why do we use public transport?

Earlier this week I looked at a new survey of public transport use by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). My interest then was in


Reasons why adult patrons say they use public transport, by fare zone (Source: ABS)

Earlier this week I looked at a new survey of public transport use by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). My interest then was in how many people use public transport.

This time I’m looking at what the ABS survey tells us about why travellers use public transport. The Bureau asked a sample of adults living in Melbourne who’d travelled by public transport at least once in the previous month to give the main reason why they used it.

The answers were classified into five categories (see exhibit). As I noted last time, it’s important to bear in mind that more than half of adult public transport patrons aren’t everyday users – in Melbourne, 59% of them use public transport two days a week or less.

The exhibit shows around a quarter are ‘committed’ public transport users. 22% say their main reason for using public transport is they “have no private form of transport; or own transport is unavailable.” A further 4% say they’re motivated by “environmental concerns.”

What stands out to me, though, is the high proportion of patrons who implicitly see driving as the default option.

The most common reason by far for using public transport – offered by 55% of patrons – is because it’s “more convenient than own transport; less stressful; or reduces travel time.” Another 9% say “it’s cheaper than own transport.”

Combined, these two reasons account for nearly two thirds (64%) of users. These patrons are ‘uncomitted’ – they only use public transport in situations where they effectively can’t drive.

The implication is public transport has to out-compete the car before this group will forego driving. It’s not sufficient to have good public transport (although that’s a necessary condition) – it has to provide a service that’s superior to the alternative.

That’s a very tall order. The only way it can happen is if driving is made more costly in dollars and minutes relative to public transport. At present, those conditions mostly only prevail in the city centre, where traffic congestion and high parking charges put cars at a disadvantage.

This goes directly to a key point I’ve made before. Achieving a really substantial mode shift requires that travel by car be made more expensive relative to public transport, either in terms of financial cost or time cost.

That might happen gradually by doing nothing e.g. as a result of increasing traffic congestion. Or it might be hastened by deliberate policy e.g. road pricing, higher parking charges, higher fuel taxes, lower fares.

In my last post on public transport I said it shouldn’t be seen solely as a replacement for cars. Rather, it should be seen as an alternative for some trips and a complement for others.

This discussion indicates it’s also important to understand that cars and public transport are two sides of the same coin. Where the goal is to significantly increase public transport’s mode share, their relative cost matters enormously and action needs to be taken on both.

So far as the other reasons given by respondents are concerned, it’s clear that only a small number of patrons (4%) say their main reason for using public transport is “environmental concerns.”

That doesn’t surprise me at all, but it’s notable because others have suggested as many as a fifth of Melburnians use public transport because it’s environmentally the right thing to do. The ABS’s findings don’t support that contention.

Geography doesn’t seem to matter much either. The proportion who offered “environmental concerns” as their main reason for using public transport is the same for patrons living in the inner-middle suburbs (Zone 1 in the fare structure) as it is for those in the outer suburbs (Zone 2).

Geography also has no impact on those patrons who use public transport because they “have no private form of transport; or own transport is unavailable.” 22.3% of patrons who live in Zone 1 offered this reason compared to 21.6% in Zone 2.

And the proportion who say their main reason for using public transport is because they “have public transport services near home” doesn’t vary geographically either. It’s 9.1% in Zone 1 and 8.7% in Zone 2.

This is surprising because public transport is a better option closer to the city centre. That would seem to be confirmed by the ABS’s finding that 57% of Zone 1 residents used public transport in the last month compared to 29% in Zone 2.

It’s possible this absence of spatial variation is a result of the ABS’s methodology – perhaps it’s an artifact of only asking patrons for a single, major reason. Maybe understanding who uses public transport will provide some clarity – I’ll look at what the survey has to say on that score shortly.



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16 thoughts on “Why do we use public transport?

  1. Alan Davies

    Siobhan Argent #13:

    Not sure I get your point, but….even if PT is very good, travellers who have access to a car will mostly choose to drive if it is faster/cheaper. That’s why taxis are so popular off-peak in Manhattan.

    Heal Roberts #14:

    Maybe the ABS got their facts wrong? Or maybe you need to be careful about interpreting the world based on a sample of one i.e. you.

    Bear in mind the caveat in para 3: the ABS survey defines a public transport user as someone who used PT at least once in the last month. The survey captures the number of people who use PT, not PT’s share of all travel.

  2. Steve777

    I think that my pattern of public transport use would be typical of many who live in the inner parts of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. I live about 10km from the Sydney CBD, within walking distance of a railway station. I use or have used public transport for the following purposes:
    1. Five days a week to go to work when I worked in the Sydney CBD. Driving wasn’t a sensible option.
    2. Occasionally (several times a year) to go into the CBD or a nearby car-unfriendly location like North Sydney to attend a function.
    3. Sometimes to go to shopping – driving and parking at places like Chatswood or Bondi Junction is a real hassle.
    4. Occasionally to socialise at a pub or club (Gina would not approve) or go to dinner and have a couple of drinks. If the venue is not handy to public transport then I drive and don’t drink. In either case, taxis are too scarce to be an option.

  3. Heal Robert

    I am dubious about this on so many grounds. If I was asked in this survey, I would not be able to give one of those answers, it would be several. And it would depend on the journey being contemplated.
    Secondly, I am very dubious about the claim that 60% of users only use it 2 days a week or less. That seems implausible. All the people I know, either use PT 5 days a week to go to work, or else they drive to work and use PT literally once in a blue moon to go downtown for some specific social purpose. I don’t believe that part-time workers or students or pensioners who catch the tram to the shops twice a week form 60% of the public transport user base.
    I guess if 700,000 Melbournians used PT every day, and 800,000 Melbournians used it once a year to go to Flemington, you’d contrive a statistic like that. But then the second group would be a trivial component ( something like 0.5% ) of the total number of trips.
    Then with your comments about the car being the default options, and the necessity of people being “forced” out of their cars, well you are looking at the world through the deforming prism of your own ideology.

  4. Siobhan Argent

    Hi Alan,

    I find it really interesting that you assume it’s a ‘very tall order’ for (Melbourne) public transport to out-compete cars in order to make PT more appealing to people. Of course I don’t have any stats, but in high-density cities (which Melbourne might eventually become) cars are a pain in the butt to use and PT is pretty superb (trains every five minutes or less). Obviously Melbourne is not the most high density of cities, but I think the PT system is significantly sub-par in comparison to other cities.

    Hence, rather than suggesting those surveyed were not realistically considering PT options, I think this survey is an indication of how little the current PT system in Melbourne is up to scratch.

  5. Gobillino

    Alan – # 6

    But I don’t have a car because I use public transport, rather than use public transport because I don’t have a car. I think that’s an important distinction. The reason I don’t have private transport is BECAUSE I find PT more convenient than my own transport would be. Your argument is that people in the ‘uncommited’ categories regard driving as their default mode of choice, and only choose PT begrudgingly. As you point out, I was in your ‘uncomitted’ group when I owned a car, and still chose public transport more often than not in spite of the fact that it didn’t offer time savings.

  6. Steve777

    IkaInk – you’ve got it in one there – the cost of using public transport is time. Public transport is no good for the ‘time poor’. If you live, say, 10km from your work, it’s probably a 20 minute drive in the middle or outer suburbs of a city against an hour by public transport. In the outer suburbs you’re likely to have a choice of being 30 minutes early for work or 5 minutes late if you take the bus, so if you have to be on time and don’t have flexible work hours it’s even worse. But even just an extra 40 minutes a day means 13 days a year or 18 months over a 40 year working life lost to to commuting. And you’ve probably already paid tens of thousands of dollars for a car and thousands of dollars each year in other fixed costs associated with owning a car. Most people won’t use public transport as it now exists in Australian cities unless there is no other choice.

  7. IkaInk

    e.g. road pricing, higher parking charges, higher fuel taxes, lower fares.

    Reduced road space, reduced parking space, increased right of way for public transit vehicles, better timed connections… not all policies to increase the competitiveness of public transport requires financial levers.

    As you’ve argued before, reducing fares won’t suddenly grow PT patronage because the major cost associated with public transport is time. I’m still baffled as to why you believe adding extra financial costs to driving will cause people to change modes any faster.

  8. Margo

    I’ve been wondering about the extent to which public transport does not acknowledge the complexities of many people’s lives (especially requirements for what I now know as ‘trip-chains’) and also about public transport and gender (my Sociology-degree son maintains that males of certain ages have strong masculinity links to their cars and don’t do public transport) since observing some distinct demographic patterns on buses in Canberra. I was therefore pleased to have found this article: http://www.theatlanticcities.com/commute/2012/02/public-transportations-hidden-gender-imbalance/1107/

  9. michael r james

    AD, nowhere in the US has density remotely like NYC’s (by factors of ten or twenty; though SF city is actually one of the highest density US cities and has one of the best PTs and is a cycling city–and a great walking city too).
    My point is that the same factors are driving PT there. The fact that it is so geographically constrained has meant no new roads since ….hmm, well since I have known it, say 33 years. Quite a lot of people commute across the Bay which is ridiculous and unsustainable (literally, I’ve known people who did for a while but it is too exhausting and they eventually move elsewhere).

    In fact San Jose has a Light Rail system that services Mountain View, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale and the edge of Los Altos and Cupertino though not into old SV itself (southern Palo Alto). Cycling is pretty popular in this area, not least because it is mostly very flat and the weather is mild all year round (in fact the mildest weather in the entire USA, not sweltering like the SunBelt and very mild winters, usually no snow–in fact many Americans will not believe me when I tell them it happened to snow the first time I went to Stanford!). There is no Velib cycle system there (yet?) but the Caltrain stations have lockers for individual bikes (ie. narrow steel lockers, I forget if you pay, presumably)–this is for those who take the train into SF or between the various stretched out bits of the peninsula.

    But take a look at the ambitious SF Transbay Transit Centre project (transbaycenter.org/project/program-overview). These places are changing, even if it is always slower than need be because of the road lobby etc, but OTOH I think we can be confident they will get better PT sooner than Sydney does!

  10. michael r james

    AD at 2.37pm and Gobillino at 10:19 am

    No, I’m in the same situation–no car but not an issue of economics, so, like Gobilino, I would find answering “no private transport” is misleading; it is NOT the reason I use PT (and actually there are yet other options: I avoid PT as much as I can too. Walking is the thing. Seriously.)
    London, Paris and NYC developed their Metros before cars but for exactly the same reasons: private transport was clogging the streets and making mobility impossible. This coincided with the growth of the city (including inner core) to a size that walking was also no longer as practical as it had been. If these cities had not developed such effective PT (which by default means Metro not buses) they would not have continued to be the magnet to be creative hubs.
    The only true creative hubs outside of large cities with Metro that I can think of, are the SF peninsula and Research Triangle Park (N Carolina), possibly the Houston-DFW triangle. BART was planned to circumnavigate the SF Bay to service all those hi-tech spots and eventually will (because commuting there is terrible); of course this is also the first/most probable site of America’s first HST. No accident that there is also a HST plan to link Houston-DFW-San Antonio.

    Essentially the fact that these places are low(ish) density and mostly car-based is what is pushing these developments because the regions will falter without them–there is only so much awful commuting and outrageous rents people will tolerate. I can tell you that of all the people I worked with at UCSF not a single one stayed there (except one has returned after becoming a biotech deca-millionaire he now owns a bloody Napa vineyard the swine!).

    michael r james:

    That’s your individual situation, but I very much doubt you’re the average person (or even close!). Like any place where development is highly constrained, SV will become unsustainable under the present model. However it’s been the world’s pre-eminent hi-tech hub for many decades with a density not even remotely close to NYC. AD

  11. Alan Davies

    Gobillino #1:

    But since you don’t have a car, wouldn’t you answer “No private transport” rather than “More convenient than own transport etc”? Sounds like when you had a car your choices were consistent with my “uncommitted” category – though you had the option of driving, you preferred PT because it offered an advantage over driving i.e. less stressful.

    Tom the first and best #5:

    NY and London were PT cities before the advent of mass car ownership. Silicon Valley however is low density and car-based. It’s access to large numbers of the right people that seems to matter for creative hubs and in some cases that can be achieved as easily by car as by walking. There are also differences by industry.

  12. Tom the first and best


    Public transport in not quite as much like that anymore. In fact, 51% of Melbourne PT users come from the wealthier 40% of households (although the poorer members of those households like children and students would be a greater users than the main income sources). Houses closer to PT are more valuable because they have PT services that allow money to be invested away from private transport and into housing.


    PT gets stolen far less often and has fewer accidents than cars and when it is it is, the passengers only have to wait for other vehicles to provide the service rather than having to deal with the police and insurance provider. Cars are only fun if you enjoy driving and not everyone does. They are also, generally, far less enjoyable in traffic than on the open road. PT is bad for transporting large goods loads (on a private rather than rail freight level) but with shopping jeeps and home delivery a car is not needed that often for moving things. Practicality is often prioritised over fun.

    With smart phones, social networking and some social changes, cars are less popular as they are less necessary and divert money that could be spent on other things. The increase in inner-city living is another result driving factor in a decline in the popularity of driving among the young and in general as there is better non-driving access (walking and cycling as well as PT) to employment, provisioning (shopping) and recreational opportunities.

    It is getting easier to have younger children on PT because low floor trams and buses are useful for prams. Older children (especially) can use PT by themselves and this in fact helps teach them independence.

    There are also carshare schemes that help with non-car owning and reduced car owing like PT does. These carshare schemes also transfer many of the costs from fixed costs like registration, insurance and purchase to per trip costs and this makes PT more cost competitive on a per trip basis.

    Cities with higher density are better creative hubs and PT is a significant helper in that. Creative hubs are better at generating higher income jobs. Creative hubs also have to compete internationally for creative hub types who tend to like dense urban lifestyles. PT helps create high income jobs. It is no accident that New York and London are major creative hubs and have lots of PT. It also helps with office scalling.

  13. Tom the first and best


    Agreed. Decisions do tend to be more complicated than simple “choose one option” surveys capture. The most obvious is the cost issue is a major cause of the no private transport or not available category.

  14. Steve777

    No matter how good public transport becomes, it will never pick you up at your home when you’re ready to go and drop you off right at you’re destination. Once you’ve paid $30,000+ for a car and $3,000 p.a in insurance, rego and so forth, you’ll use it if you can. I got the train to work when I worked in the Sydney CBD because driving wasn’t practical – it would have taken just as long or longer and cost $100+ a week from after tax income to park. I drove to work when I worked in Parramata. Commuting by train was a practical option – about 70 minutes door to door each way, but it took 40 minutes by car, including a 5 minute walk from free parking. I found the drive a relaxing part of the day, alone in my air-conditioned bubble with Radio National or ABC Newsradio. Much better than an often packed, often late-running train. I was concerned about the environment but it would have taken a stronger dedication for me to have spent an additional 10 days of my life each year commuting.

    Over the years, this changed, with parking restrictions and parking charges introduced in Parramatta and increasing congestion on the way. When it took 45 to 50 minutes to drive plus a 15-20 minute walk from free parking (or $50 a week to park closer), I switched to using the train.

    Driving is becoming only marginally viable within 12 to 15 km of the Sydney CBD, mainly because of parking cost/restrictions but also increasing congestion, ably assisted by apparently random road closures and turn restrictions introduced by local councils. If your home and destination are close to a railway station, public transport is a viable option, but if they are not, you may have a long walk or a long wait at the beginning and end of your journey and it will take an awful lot to get you out of your car.

  15. Scott

    Public Transport is an example of an inferior good or service (i.e demand reduces as income goes up)

    This is because a better, more expensive substitute is available…i.e The car. There are non-monetary advantages to cars; Cars are convenient (they take you exactly where you want to go…i.e Beach, parks etc), they are more secure, they operate on your time line, allow you to transport stuff, and more importantly are fun to drive; five advantages that public transport does not provide. This is why cars will always be superior, even if public transport becomes cheaper.

    The only real non-monetary advantages public transport can offer is no driving required (so you can do other things on the commute), no alcohol testing and no traffic issues (i.e traffic, parking). That is why the vast majority of people only use public transport for commuting to work, going out and getting to crowded inner city areas.

    Also, don’t forget the life cycle affects on car ownership. When you have kids, there is really no substitute for a car. You caould have a free public transport service, but most parents would still own at least one car.

    The main problem with Public transport (especially heavy rail) is that it uses up an awful lot of capital (both financial and political) for an inferior good. In my opinion, it is better to focus on buses and taxis (and light rail) as they are more cost effective when governments are trying to grow real incomes (so ultimately create a reduction in demand for public transport, and as cars become cheaper to own and run)

  16. Gobillino

    I’m not entirely sure I fully agree with your interpretation of those responses Alan. I’m well and truly a committed public transport user who has the means to own and run a car but choose not to. If I were posed with those options, I too would probably choose “more convenient than own transport; less stressful; or reduces travel time.” as my number one option (although each of the five is of some influence to my decision) as my interpretation of ‘convenience and stress’ isn’t solely related to cost or travel time. When I had a car, I still chose to use public transport where it clearly wasn’t the quickest way to travel, because I genuinely found it less stressful than driving. But I certainly was never a captive public transport patron.


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