The report in The Age claiming a remarkable 35% of Melbourne workers commute by public transport

The Age reported this morning that cars are still the dominant mode in Melbourne for the journey to work.

Many Melburnians are continuing to hop in their cars to travel to work. Just 35 per cent use public transport, compared to 50 per cent in Sydney.

Just 35%? That looks pretty poor compared to what Sydney commuters are doing. But the numbers – which come from the State of Australian Cities 2015-15 report released yesterday – are just plain wrong when used in this way.

If it were true, a mode share of “just” 35% for the journey to work wouldn’t be cause for disappointment; it would be cause for rejoicing! A mode share that high would be a remarakable achievement.

And the 50% mode share The Age gives Sydney would have many European nations looking to the harbour city for inspiration!

However it looks like The Age has made an elementary mistake; it appears to have misinterpreted the meaning of the data in the report.

My original theory of how The Age might’ve come to attach the wrong meaning to the numbers was that it had (a) extrapolated travel behavior from a small jobs area (the inner city) to the entire metropolitan area; and (b) compared commutes by area of jobs with commutes by area of residence. (1)

However a reader points out that the second part of my theory is probably wrong. I think the simpler and more plausible explanation is that The Age has taken the mode split for commutes to the inner city and wrongly generalised it to the entire metropolitan area. (2)

Thus 50% of commutes to the centre of Sydney from elsewhere in the metropolitan area are made by public transport. The corresponding figure for Melbourne is 35%.

But these figures give a misleading impression of the actual use of public transport because the inner city is much smaller in size and very different in character from the rest of the metropolitan area. For example, its only got around 15% of metro jobs and it’s the hub of the train system.

But regardless of how The Age arrived at the headline shown above, the level of public transport use in both Sydney and Melbourne for the journey to work is unfortunately nowhere near as rosy as it says; it’s actually less than half the level cited by the newspaper; around 23% in Sydney and 16% in Melbourne (see Trends in journey to work mode shares in Australian cities to 2011). It’s considerably lower for non-work trips which account for most travel.

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  1. I’ve revised the orginal text to present the updated view (otherwise it would’ve been unfairly critical).
  2. There’s also an issue raised by the reader of whether or not the two inner regions are in any event comparable.