Transport - general

Feb 6, 2014

Are we doing enough to address the impact of cars?

There’s a need for incremental improvements to support public transport in cities but by itself it’s not enough. We need to put much more effort into managing road-based transport better

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Historic shares (%) of work trips by mode in Australia's capital cities (excluding Darwin). Source: Data from Mees & Groenhart

The first exhibit shows the share of journey-to-work trips by mode in Australia’s capital cities. The data is from a paper by Paul Mees and Lucy Groenhart, Transport policy at the crossroads, published in December 2012.

The analysis by Mccrindle Research I cited last time showed only 10% of Australian commuters use public transport. However Mccrindle’s work covered the entire nation; the Mees and Groenhart analysis is just for capital cities (excluding Darwin).

Their work shows the mode share of public transport for work trips, aggregated across the capitals, is a much healthier 16.8% (1).

In fact the share of commutes made by public transport, walking and cycling increased over the last 15 years. Back in 1996 15% of trips to work were made by public transport; by 2011 the share had increased to 17% (2).

Conversely, the share of work trips by car declined steadily over the last fifteen years. Cars accounted for 78% of journeys to work in 1996 but only 75% in 2011.

Since they’re moving in opposite directions, it’s tempting to assume that commuters are swapping their petrol guzzlers for trains, trams and buses. While that happens to some extent, the numbers don’t suggest it’s the primary explanation for the change in the pattern of mode shares.

Notwithstanding that cars lost share over 1996-2011, the second exhibit shows that the absolute number of car commutes in the capitals increased substantially over the same period, growing by 1,039,009 trips.

This is 2.2 times larger than the combined increase in public transport work trips (354,419), walking work trips (75,235) and bicycle work trips (36,181) over the same 15 years. The latter three are growing decidedly faster than driving, but from a much smaller base.

Driving isn’t losing popularity as a means of getting to work. For example, the number of car-based commutes grew by 12.8% over the most recent five year inter-census period (2006-11). That’s well short of the growth in public transport over the same period (26.8%) but considerably higher than the 8.3% growth in population.

In fact it was the highest inter-census increase for cars for the entire 1976-2011 period examined by Mees and Groenhart. Indeed, the number of car commutes increased on average by 9.8% between each Census over 1996-2011, compared to an average of 7.3% for each Census period over 1976-1996.

The gap between the mode shares of cars and public transport is closing very slowly. Even in the (admittedly unrealistic) event all modes were to sustain into the future the growth rates they experienced between 1996 and 2011, it would take until around the turn of the next century for public transport to get to even a 33% mode share.

What these numbers suggest to my mind is that it’s not enough for policy-makers to focus primarily on public transport and land-use changes in the planning of our cities. Effective policy can’t be confined to opposing occasional new freeways and supporting occasional new rail lines.

Most of what’s needed doesn’t involve new infrastructure; we’ve already got a lot of that (see Is more transport infrastructure all our cities need?). The problem is city managers aren’t managing it effectively. They’re not pricing and regulating it properly because it’s politically harder to do that than promise big-ticket items.

Of course there’s a need for incremental improvements to support public transport, walking and cycling; but it’s not enough. It’s a virtual certainty road-based transport will remain the dominant mode for many decades to come. Action is needed to reduce the negative impacts of cars on urban amenity, personal safety, and sustainability while optimising  their benefits e.g. by managing congestion better through road pricing.


  1. It’s important to appreciate that the journey-to-work is a minor mode; it only accounts for around a fifth of all trips. However it’s important because work trips are longest; they’re the least discretionary trip; they’re the purpose where public transport does best; and, because they’re subject to peaking, they determine the maximum capacity of transport infrastructure.
  2. Over 1996-2011, walking’s mode share increased from 3.5% to 3.8%; cycling’s from 0.9% to 1.3%; and trips in the Other purpose, which includes motorcycles, taxis and trucks, from 3.1% to 3.5%.
Number of work trips by mode in Australia's capital cities (excluding Darwin). Source: data from Mees & Groenhart
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9 thoughts on “Are we doing enough to address the impact of cars?

  1. Wilke Roy

    In Brisbane, the price of public transport is ridiculously high — high enough to persuade people to keep using their cars.

    There also appears to be a philosophy in Australia that assumes all passengers are trying to rip-off the system.

  2. boscombe

    No, don’t want road pricing: can’t be bothered having to think about paying every time I want to drive somewhere, and also would rather the funding of community infrastructure was financed by progressive taxation – the wealthy putting in more, because they can afford to.

    In Perth we need more road improvements – particularly at intersections: co-ordinated traffic lights, and over/under passes. The first thing we need, as well as the train to Mirrabooka is another bridge across the Swan River between Perth and Fremantle. It’s ludicrous that you can’t cross the river anywhere between Perth and Fremantle. A new bridge would not only take pressure off the freeway and Stirling and Canning Highways, but would also be a way for cyclists to get places much faster.

  3. Alan Davies

    Austin M #6:

    70% of households in Australia have refrigerated air-conditioning? I find that hard to believe; for one thing, I suspect the numbers include the evaporative units common in Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth. Their use of electricity is an order-of-magnitude lower than refrigerated systems. Still, the proportion with refrigerated air con is undoubtedly a large number, certainly big enough to drive the large increases in power bills of recent years.

    When looking at the failure of CityLink to avoid congestion, two things need to be noted. First, it’s been open since 1999, so there’s been a lot of growth in car trips since then (see my second exhibit) i.e. demand’s gone up. Second, toll roads aren’t an ideal case study for assessing road pricing because the operaters don’t set the toll to optimise traffic flow; they set it to maximise revenue.

    I agree that road pricing is politically difficult, but not so difficult that we shouldn’t keep the debate going. We already accept that we must pay the full financial cost of power and water, so it’s not outlandish to expect we should pay the full cost of transport too.

  4. Austin M
    This article seems to suggest it’s actually the 30% minority who are subsidising the 70% majority who have air conditioners (a substantial % change is claimed since 1999). If we provide a capacity increase that gives us 5%-10% or more increase in capacity the argument is that this is often quickly taken up (often the argument then revolves around latent demand or induced demand). Putting relatively expensive tolls on roads such as city link seems to have done little to effectively inhibit demand which is evidenced by the more recent widening and upgrade of the M1 (and what appears to be a retained latent demand IMO). Most would say that any affect is likely to be temporary and will quickly be absorbed by demand from other users. I’m still doubtful congestion tolls particularly network wide tolls will ever be set at a level which will have a meaningful impact on peoples choices above the congestion impact they already feel (they are far more likely to be frustrated at having to pay more and more to sit in ever worsening traffic).
    Politically this would appear to have 2 logical endings either a response with increasing road capacity or a reduction in congestion charge. People would likely see alternates like further investment in subsidised public transport as a diversion of their funds and a government refusing to respond to their actual needs. At the end of the day I think the majority of people have an expectation to use essential services when they like and for the costs of such choices to be such that it is of little impact to decision making.

  5. Scott Grant

    I think there could be a role for PR in convincing people to change their attitudes.

    When I moved to my current location about 14 years ago, I had a car, and continued to commute by car. But I deliberately bought a house near rail transport, as I could not afford to replace the car and wanted a plan B.

    I started traveling to work by train while I still had the car and experienced all the usual annoyances – just missed a train, train running late, missed connections, timetable changed, crowded carriage, and so forth. I would get extremely annoyed if my train journey took ten minutes or more longer than my car journey.

    But slowly I got used to it. It no longer bothers me that I might save 5 or 10 minutes by one mode or another, it really is insignificant. I usually get a seat and can read on my journey and above all I no longer have to deal with traffic and traffic lights and stupid drivers and people cutting in on me and so forth. If I miss a train or connection – so what? It no longer bothers me. I no longer feel I absolutely must get to work in the shortest time possible.

    I let the car go ten years ago and have never replaced it, although I could easily afford to, now. At times I hire a car and have to be very careful not to allow the constant annoyances build into road rage. I forget just how bad the traffic is. To some extent, I am almost glad when I take the car back and no longer have to deal with traffic.

  6. Alan Davies

    Austin M #3:

    Some things to think about re congestion pricing of roads:

    – The price only needs to be high enough to deter the last 5-10% of motorists.
    – Experience with toll roads shows motorists will go to great lengths to avoid paying even quite modest tolls.
    – Essential resources like electricity and water are charged progressively i.e. the more you use, the more you pay per unit
    – Public transport fares usually increase with distance.
    – Lower income and at-risks groups can be compensated for the higher costs e.g. via direct income supplements.

    The analogy with electricity is relevant. All users end up paying the cost of increasing capacity for the minority with refrigerated air conditioning. A more progressive tariff would almost certainly have reduced that demand

  7. Austin M

    Allan I tend to agree with the principles around road user charging but fear it will never be practical to implement it in such a way so as to have the desired effect. For example the recent hot weather has not stopped many people switching on their AC despite the costs of such action including the social possibility of throwing up a black out.
    Id hazard the price that electricity would need to be charged at on a hot day to have a meaningful effect on power consumption would need to be in a region that many would consider excessively punitive. This would offcourse hurt the frail and elderly who are at the highest risk of heat related trauma and are some of the most price sensitive. The effectiveness of a user pays system is also somewhat diminished with the time delay to receiving the bill for such actions which smart meters can only partly address also (i.e. if you had to feed coins into your power box as you went then usage could be quite different).
    The case for road user charging is no different. The level at which charges would need to be set to have a meaningful impact would be considered excessively punitive particularly by the poor socio economic users of the transport system. You would effectively have no impact on Toorak tractor mum on the school run but poor old Dorothy cant afford to go to BINGO any more and struggles to get to critical medical appointments or family events during the day because driving became just to damn expensive. The question then becomes is the collection likely to be set high enough to justify the difference between any proposed system of charging against the fees and effectiveness of the current system of charging for use and congestion (fuel tax). In a political environment where politicians of both sides don’t seem to even now consider indexing the fuel tax with inflation something like congestion charging seems like a very distant reality.

  8. Strewth

    Food for thought as usual Alan. However, I would question trying to do direct comparisons between growth in car travel for work purposes only and growth in the general population. It’s not really an apples for apples comparison. Melbourne’s PTUA has crunched the numbers themselves and found that car commuting grew more slowly than the total commuter population, which would seem a more apt comparison.

    A better figure to compare with the total population would be the growth in car travel for all purposes. But we know from BITRE figures that car vehicle-kilometres per capita have been static or falling (in cities at least) since about 2004.

    Regarding the overall mode shift trends (which as you point out are slow) there are a couple of important points to keep in mind. First, it’s not so long ago that the shift was entirely in the opposite direction: that trend only ceased around the turn of the century, so there’s been little time for any opposing trend to assert itself. Second, Perth is currently the only Australian city with any sort of political commitment to boost public transport mode share. So the mode shift we have seen outside Perth is almost entirely ‘exogenous’, occurring in spite of any policy initiatives. Even in Melbourne, improvements to transport services largely occurred after the boom in patronage rather than the other way around.

    As I’ve said before, far from doing enough to address the impact of cars, we haven’t even given up initiatives to encourage mode shift in favour of cars.

  9. Persia

    Hi Alan

    In answer to your question, hell no. I agree with you about road pricing, but the problem is that it’s easier for politicians to pretend that just one more freeway will fix everything, than it is to face the expected fury of the road priced voter.

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