Aggregate mode share for main types of metropolitan travel in Australia, 1900-2010 (source: Cosgrove)

I haven’t seen much detailed and reasonably reliable data before showing how transport within Australia’s major cities evolved over long periods of time.

So the first exhibit, which shows historical changes in the percentage shares of the three main modes of travel in Australian cities between 1900 and 2010, is enormously interesting.

It’s from a paper by David Cosgrove of the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics (BITRE). It’s titled Long-term patterns of Australian public transport use.

The data offers some interesting insights. Most notable is the spectacular fall in the share of travel by public transport and walking in Australian cities from after WW2 (travel is passenger kms).

The growth in private transport (cars, vans, motorcycles, horses) over the same period is even more spectacular. It increased from zero in 1910 (excluding horses) to well over 80% at present.

Probably less well known is that the decline in public transport’s share began in earnest from around 1925. It was slowed, although not turned around, by the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The introduction of petrol rationing during WW2 reversed the fall temporarily. Yet the relentless decline resumed immediately after 1945.

At present, 10% of passenger travel in Australia’s major cities is by public transport, down from the peak of over 60% in the early 1920s. It’s mode share is considerably higher for work journeys, but since they account for less than a fifth of all travel in Australia’s cities, it’s not enough to boost the overall figure beyond the first decile.

While there’s been an increase in public transport’s share in recent years in some cities, that wasn’t at the tail-end of a continuing decline. As the exhibit shows, public transport has consistently maintained a one tenth share of urban travel for the last 30 years.

Patronage has in fact grown strongly in absolute terms since 1980, but until recently the underlying driver was population growth, not a shift in mode toward transit. The State of Australian Cities 2012 report notes that on average Australians living in major cities made 108 trips per capita by public transport in 1980 and 105 in 2012 i.e. much the same.

The trends in mode share show what an extraordinarily attractive proposition private vehicles evidently were for urban Australians, even well before construction of the first freeways started. Their share of all urban travel jumped from just over 20% at the end of WW2 to around 75% by 1970.

It’s even more remarkable considering their high private and social costs. Private vehicles were very expensive to purchase and operate relative to incomes, they required huge public investment in specialised infrastructure (e.g. traffic lights), and they produced multiple negative externalities (e.g. noise, pollution, pedestrian injuries and fatalities).

Private transport’s mode share reached 85% by 1980 but, like public transport, it has been relatively flat for the last 30 years (with a small decline in recent years). Up to then it grew as people consumed more travel (mainly longer trips), but subsequent growth was in line with the increase in population.

The second exhibit breaks the data down into more specific modes (note that the light rail curve is actually dashed). There are some interesting historical insights here, too.

Walking was the majority mode in 1900 when cities had a substantially smaller footprint. Horses were expensive so they were only ever a minority mode and by the end of the 1920s their share was insignificant.

Other than for an increase during the Depression, walking’s share fell consistently over the period. Surprisingly, WW2 provided only a modest boost for walking compared to its impact on private vehicles and public transport.

Trams and trains were at their peak in the 1920s, but other than for the war period, continuously lost share until the 1980s.

Trams in particular were devastated by the closure of entire metropolitan systems from the 1960s onwards (except in Melbourne) and their replacement with buses. It’s ironic the O’Farrell Government has just committed to replacing buses in George St, Sydney, with light rail.

Most Australian cities have experienced significant increases in public transport patronage over the last five years or so. However when looked at in terms of mode share, it’s clear cars still overwhelmingly dominate travel.

The direction of change is of course important, but much of the low-hanging fruit in urban transit has already been picked (exemplified by current crowding levels).

Converting that up-tick into an accelerating and self-sustaining trend will require most of the following: a massive investment in improving and expanding infrastructure; major improvements in the way transit’s managed; a profound rearrangement of land uses (especially employment); and a significant increase in the relative cost of travel by car.

Note: Keep in mind that harmonising data from different sources and eras is bound to involve compromises in accuracy, especially in earlier periods.


Modal share for major urban travel choices, 1900–2010 (Source: Cosgrove)