Public transport

Feb 4, 2014

How easy would it be to shift commuters out of their cars?

New research finds over half of Australian workers say they'd likely use public transport if it were better. But is it just a simple matter of spending more to improve trains, trams and buses?

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Analysis of the journey to work in Australia - Mccrindle Research

Mccrindle Research released an analysis of national journey to work data yesterday. The headline finding is just 10% of commuters across Australia travel to work by public transport (1).

Most of the findings are familiar but one is especially interesting. The researchers say they found that “more than half of Australians (54 per cent) state that the reason that they don’t use public transport is that there is no service or none at the right time for them.”

The implication is that given a higher level of service, over half of workers who currently drive would use trains, buses and trams instead. Add that to those who already use public transport and potentially nearly two thirds of the workforce could commute by transit.

While it needs to be borne in mind that the journey to work only accounts for around a fifth of all trips, that’s nevertheless an enormous opportunity. All it seemingly needs is better public transport.

But unfortunately it’s not that simple. When respondents say they don’t use public transport because it isn’t good enough, they’re implying they’d use it if only it were better. So what they mean by “better” is a crucial issue.

I think they implicitly mean it has to be better than their current choice i.e. driving. I think they also implicitly assume they’d have to have the same level of service – or better – that’s currently provided for work trips to the Central Business District (CBD) by public transport.

Moreover I expect most subliminally assume a train or light rail service operating in its own dedicated right-of-way.

That’s not surprising because CBD trips account for a very high proportion of all public transport work trips in Australia’s capitals and most of them are made by train. The reasons for that are straightforward; in Australia’s largest cities:

  • The CBD is the singular focus of the entire radial metropolitan transit system. In most cities trains carry the largest number of passengers.
  • The CBD is far and away the largest and densest single concentration of jobs and other activities in the metropolitan area.
  • The attractiveness of commuting by car to the CBD is reduced dramatically by traffic congestion and high parking costs; these are largely a direct consequence of the sheer density of the CBD.

Because the CBDs in Australian cities cover such a small area (around one square mile) it’s feasible to provide services at relatively high frequencies. For example, a number of rail lines to Melbourne’s CBD now operate at 10 minute frequencies for much of the day.

The problem for policy-makers though is that reproducing elsewhere in the metropolitan area the transit-friendly conditions that apply in the CBD is very, very difficult.

Obviously no other location has every metropolitan rail line converging on it. No other location has as many jobs either.

While the great majority of jobs in Australian cities aren’t located in the CBD, they’re mostly dispersed across the suburbs. Most aren’t in major centres but in a multiplicity of smaller centres. These are the jobs that workers overwhelmingly choose to drive to.

Given current land use patterns, providing public transport for the journey to work that would be attractive enough to tempt 54% of drivers out of their cars would be extraordinarily expensive to build and operate.

For example, although likely to cost around $4 billion, modelling for Melbourne’s proposed 12 km Rowville rail line indicates it would only increase public transport’s mode share at the metropolitan scale by 0.1% in 2046 (see Is one boondoggle as good as another?).

But cost isn’t the only barrier. A key reason CBD workers choose to take public transport is because it’s one of the few places where trains, buses and ferries are competitive with cars. That’s primarily because congestion and parking costs reduce the attractiveness of driving.

In a big place like Sydney only 17.8% of CBD commuters drive to work. In Melbourne’s somewhat smaller CBD the proportion is bigger (25.8%). But in smaller metros many more CBD workers drive – 46.7% in Perth and 54.4% in Adelaide (see Does Sydney’s CBD need another freeway?).

Generating wholesale mode shift on the scale implied by the Mccrindle study requires more than better public transport. It also requires reducing the attractiveness of driving relative to transit.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t scope to increase incrementally the share of commutes captured by public transport through appropriately targeted policies (e.g. see How can public transport work better in cities?).

But it highlights a number of important points. First, the scale of the task of providing public transport attractive enough to win large numbers of commuters away from their cars is immense. Second, it won’t happen on any sort of scale unless cars are made less competitive vis a vis other modes e.g. by congestion pricing.

The most important point though – and one that’s too often neglected – is that cars will continue to be the main way commuters get to work for many decades to come. That’s true even if the prospects of autonomous vehicles are ignored.

Finding ways to manage driving better than we do now has to be one of the top immediate priorities of city managers. Pricing road use should be at the top of their list.


  1. It depends how the numbers are constructed but I think 10% is a little low. Note that public transport’s share of work trips is almost 17% when averaged across just the capital cities – see Is public transport winning the battle for commuters?
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6 thoughts on “How easy would it be to shift commuters out of their cars?

  1. Tom the first and best


    The problem buses have with getting passengers in suburbia are largely not about block size, they are about walking unfriendly streets, no through roads and windy streets reducing the number of houses a bus stop serves and similar problems.

  2. Strewth

    Monicas Wicked Stepmother #4: Perth’s buses certainly come across as disappointing after experiencing its train services. But which came first, the chicken or the egg? Does lack of patronage cause the poor service, or does the poor service cause the lack of patronage?

    Avoiding infrequent public transport is a rational response to the poor level of service. But this also means ‘demand responsive’ transport authorities will never improve the service, because demand will not spontaneously materialise. You actually have to bite the bullet, improve the frequencies and straighten out the routes before you will see the patronage to retrospectively justify what you are doing.

    And that’s hard for many of our planning officials to get their head around. It shouldn’t be quite as hard in Perth as they have a solid record of being proactive on public transport improvements, trusting the evidence from elsewhere that this drives patronage growth. They just have to apply their train planning ethos to feeder buses.

  3. Monicas Wicked Stepmother

    Perth has a number of major rail lines that meet in the CBD. Unfortunately, the car parks at suburban stations fill up very early in the morning, and stay full until the commuters finish work in the afternoon. The lack of parking at train stations “encourages” drivers to drive to the city and park there. It is sad that there is more parking around a CBD than there is at train stations!

    I know that the obvious answer is to catch a bus to the train station. But many people won’t use buses. Trains are OK, but buses are not. The lack of patronage means that feeder bus services are infrequent, which makes them less desirable, because nobody wants to be stuck at a bus stop for an hour waiting for transport.

    Part of this problem of decent public transport can be sheeted home to our liking for living on large blocks in suburbia. Buses have to travel a long way, to pass enough passengers to make the service pay.

    A further problem is that most of the cost of a car (depreciation, insurance, licence, maintenance etc) is fixed – it doesn’t matter how little you drive it. So after investing in a car (because you will need to have one sometimes (eg as public transport is woeful on weekends), it makes sense to use it as much as possible.

  4. Strewth

    Sue B at #2 hits the nail on the head. If we can first stop making policy decisions that are clearly effective at promoting traffic congestion by shifting commuters off public transport and into cars, then we can have a sensible conversation about what might or might not be effective in shifting people in the opposite direction.

  5. Sue B

    It’s ironic that the above poster mentions the 246 bus route down Punt Rd. In peak hour, there used to be a bus every ten minutes. About 2 years ago, this changed to 5 per hour. May not sound like much, but when you take into account the additional number of people that now have to squeeze into less buses and the bus timetable no longer connecting up with the trains through the area, it’s really reduced the utility of the service. (the 401 I have used twice is incredible in comparison – every few minutes and the bus never even close to full)

    This combined with changes to the train timetable mean that my simple train-bus commute (max 10 mins wait for bus, usually much less) that used to take 50 mins has become a train-train-bus commute with sometimes 10 mins on the first change and 15-20 on the second, because of the vagaries of peak hour traffic. This means I have to leave home fully 30mins earlier for the same journey.

    I stopped taking the train and now am one of the hundreds of thousands adding to congestion in my car. Parking is cheap near my work, I always get a seat and nobody’s talking loudly on their phone next to me.

    Until the timetable is fixed (or we move) I won’t be taking the train to work, despite our proximity to the train station.

  6. Strewth

    Let’s not overlook the fact that the same data for capital cities were analysed a year ago by the late Paul Mees with Lucy Groenhart at RMIT: Their analysis actually goes back to 1976, so one can get an idea of the longer term trends.

    The most significant trend is one not highlighted by the McCrindle folks: that the mode share for car travel since the turn of the century has been noticeably declining in Melbourne and Perth and stationary elsewhere, after having risen strongly over the latter part of the twentieth century. The mode share for public transport has likewise increased in those cities (and is now above 15% in Melbourne), though the increases are largely confined to trains.

    As for the likely persistence of this trend, it’s quite true that the CBD travel market is now saturated in the larger capital cities. But it’s simplistic just to classify work locations as either ‘CBD’ or ‘dispersed suburban’. If one considers the inner-Melbourne area covered by the tram network, this still accounts for around 40% of the work destinations in metropolitan Melbourne. Public transport could be made more attractive for these journeys to work if we got serious about traffic priority to make trams run faster, and completed the network with more frequent bus routes like the 401 in North Melbourne and the 246 in Punt Road.

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