Proportion of households with 2 or more cars in outer vs middle/inner suburbs of Melbourne, 2011 (data source: Currie and Delbosc)

One good thing to come out of Joe Hockey’s recent public gaffe on indexation of fuel excise (see here and here) is the attention it gave to the neglected issue of transport affordability in the outer suburbs of Australia’s capital cities.

One of the key concerns around transport disadvantage is the idea of ‘forced car ownership’; the contention that low income households in outer suburbs have no choice, due to poor public transport service, than to incur the considerable standing and operating costs of owning multiple cars.

In a recent study, Professor Graham Currie and Dr Alexa Delbosc from Monash University used 2011 Census data to estimate that 40,116 households in Melbourne suffer forced car ownership (Exploring trends in forced car ownership in Melbourne).

These are households who (a) live in outer suburbs, (b) own two or more cars and (c) are in the lowest income quartile (earning less than $800 per week in 2011). They make up 8% of all households in the outer suburbs and 3% of all households in metropolitan Melbourne.

The received wisdom is that forced car ownership is a consequence of the lack of alternative transport options in fringe areas. The appropriate solution is therefore to improve the access of poor households to good public transport.

Since it’s much cheaper to travel by train or bus than to own a car once standing costs like depreciation, registration, maintenance and insurance are taken into account, these households would be much better off financially if public transport services offered them an alternative means of transport.

I think that view is wrong-headed and is symptomatic of a lot of the paternalistic nonsense that gets passed off as “helping the poor”.

It seems to me that a genuinely progressive analysis would inevitably lead to the view that the best way of addressing forced car ownership in the outer suburbs is by lowering the cost of car ownership for low income travellers.

Most low income outer suburban households own multiple cars for the same reason their higher income neighbours do; because cars offer enormous advantages in terms of speed and convenience in low density environments.

The nub of the problem is that providing public transport that’s even semi-competitive with a car is extraordinarily hard in the suburbs. Even very good public transport would take a long time to implement and necessarily entails a big penalty in time and convenience compared to making the same journey by car.

I suspect many who advocate public transport instead of cars for the outer suburban poor form their view on the basis of their own experiences with public transport. For them, public transport usually is a better option than driving for certain trips.

Many work in the city centre or attend recreational and cultural activities there. They travel by train because the city centre is the hub of the entire metropolitan public transport system; the spokes serving the hub are trunk routes able to support frequent services (e.g. every 10 minutes) and extended hours of operation at night and on weekends.

Just as importantly, driving to the centre isn’t a realistic option. Heavy traffic congestion and high parking charges make it uncompetitive, either in terms of cost or travel time (or both), relative to using public transport.

But there’s no equivalent in the outer suburbs of the dense concentration of jobs and activities in the city centre. The great majority of outer suburban workers don’t commute to the centre; they work in dispersed locations in the suburbs. For example, only 5% of workers in outer suburban Casey commute to the CBD (see The jobs are already in the suburbs).

These scattered suburban activities are much easier to get to by driving than even by very good public transport because there’s no walking, waiting, transfers, or bad weather. Critically, free parking is ubiquitous and the level of traffic congestion is much lower than it is in the city centre and inner city.

Public transport’s traditional strength is in work trips, but many low income outer suburban residents don’t have a job; they’re unemployed or they’re not in the workforce. Most of their trips are local and much more easily and quickly accomplished by driving than by public transport.

It’s instructive that 94% of households earning more than $800 per week who live in the middle and inner suburbs of Melbourne, where public transport is better than in the outer suburbs, nevertheless own at least one car and 59% own two or more (see exhibit).

In fact even in the inner city suburb of Clifton Hill, 88% of all households have at least one car and 37% have two or more. In middle ring Rosanna, 94% have at least one car and 52% have at least two (13% have three or more). Members of these households might use public transport to get to the city centre, but they much prefer driving for the much larger number of local trips they make.

Cars are expensive to own and operate but they offer advantages that travellers living in almost all parts of Australian cities and of all incomes value very highly.

Direct financial assistance to low income outer suburban households to help meet the costs of driving would offer them a much better outcome in terms of convenience and travel time, than trying to convince them they should do the shopping by bus while their better-off neighbours drive.

It would cost government a lot less than trying to provide and sustain a level of public transport that’s so useful it could attract low income drivers out of their cars. All the households in Melbourne that meet Currie and Delbosc’s definition of forced car ownership could be provided with $2,500 p.a. to assist with the costs of car ownership for an all-up cost of $100 million annually. (1)

Driving has environmental negatives that public transport doesn’t; but most of these – like emissions, pollution, noise and excessive speed – can be addressed at the level of the vehicle through regulation and taxation. The burden of dealing with the negative externalities associated with driving should be carried by all motorists not just the poorest ones.

None of this means though that there isn’t a continuing need to improve public transport in the outer suburbs for low income travellers (and others) who don’t have access to a car. Currie and Delbosc also found 18,864 low income households living in the outer suburbs without a car; that’s 4% of all outer suburban households and 1% of all Melbourne households. (2)

Progressives concerned about social justice should embrace the idea that the best way of improving the mobility of low income outer suburban residents is by increasing their incomes.


  1. Providing public transport that offers travellers a more attractive option than driving requires more than just good service e.g. high frequencies; it also requires conditions where the inherent advantage of driving is reduced in some way e.g. by congestion or by charges. That combination is why public transport has high mode share in the CBD.
  2. In an earlier paper (see Transport disadvantage in the suburbs) Currie and Delbosc found this group is typically comprised of older, retired pensioners living alone, and unemployed single mothers in rented accommodation. They tend to live within walking distance of activity centres with good public transport relative to the rest of the outer suburbs. There’s a role for demand responsive systems (e.g. subsidised taxis) to play a part in improving their mobility.