Mode of travel to work, 1976 (source data: Mees & Groenhart)

I noted last week that cars were only a minor mode for work travel in Australia in 1951; public transport was the dominant mode (How popular were trains, trams and cycling in 1951?).

What I didn’t discuss at the time was the speed with which cars appropriated the journey to work from other modes. It only took a couple of decades for private vehicles to dominate commuting.

For example, in Melbourne the share of journeys to work taken by private vehicles climbed from 19% in 1951 to 69% in 1976. That’s more than a threefold increase in share over 25 years.

In other capitals the commuting mode share of private vehicles varied between 64% in Sydney and 85% in Canberra by 1976 (see exhibit).

On the other hand, public transport’s share of work trips plummeted. It fell from 57% in Melbourne in 1951 to 24% by 1976; walking also halved, from 14% to 6%; and cycling was virtually wiped off the map, collapsing from 9% to 1%.

I’m interested in why urban travellers took to private vehicles – which in 1951 were largely confined to the relatively wealthy – with such enthusiasm over the next few decades up to 1976. In some ways it’s surprising.

After all, owning a car was a much more expensive proposition relative to wages in the early 50s than it is today. The gap between the cost of travelling by public transport and by car was wider then too.

Further, the proportion of jobs in the city centre and inner city was also much higher than it is now. That played to the strengths of the radial public transport system and the weaknesses – particularly congestion – of private vehicles.

Yet the shift to driving was fast and comprehensive. One possible explanation is the obvious one; cars offered an unprecedented bundle of advantages around flexibility, utility and privacy compared to other options.

Looked at from the point of view of a 1950s traveller, a car must’ve seemed phenomenally useful and extraordinarily desirable; if a household had one it would’ve seemed obvious to use it for all purposes, including commuting. (1)

Perhaps above all else, it was much faster than other options. It was available on demand at all times; would go direct to destinations without stopping or diverting; and would provide a much more convenient way of getting places like the country on weekends.

It would provide protection from the weather; could carry goods and the fashionably large families of the time; and offered much more privacy and comfort than public transport. For young adults it offered a venue for intimacy not easily available elsewhere.

The full employment and higher incomes of the post-war era enabled more workers to take advantage of the car. Most could now afford what hitherto was a luxury; it was costly to buy and run but the benefits were high too.

The utility of the car would’ve been greatly assisted by the relative lack of traffic congestion – at least in the early decades – compared to today. Few households had more than one car in the period up to 1976 and the great majority of children still made their own way to school.

Driving was enabled by road improvements and other than in Melbourne by the demise of trams in the late 1950s and 1960s. Freeways are sometimes cited as a key force impelling car use but there weren’t many kilometres completed by the 1950s and early 1960s; and only a handful were operating in capital cities by 1976. (2)

The immediate post-war era was also the period when decentralisation of jobs to the suburbs – especially in manufacturing but also in retailing and personal services – accelerated; cars provided an attractive option for accessing these typically low density establishments. Rising female workforce participation was another factor that increased the demand for cars. (3)

Although suburbanisation started well before mass car ownership – facilitated by trams and trains – post-war Australians had more money and more leisure time; cars offered a faster and more flexible way to travel within and across suburbs.

It’s possible the experience of WW2 had a role too. Having experienced the regimentation of military life and post-war austerity, the car must’ve seemed the epitome of freedom, modernity and flexibility compared to the inherent rigidities of public transport. (4)

Another explanation is public transport policy-makers effectively ceded urban transport to the car through poor management, especially a lack of focus on passenger needs. That neglect was supported by policy-makers who ignored rail and instead gave priority to investment in road infrastructure.

I don’t see this having any more than a marginal role. I think it’s far more plausible that the line of causation ran the other way; public transport was given lower priority because cars were seen as superior by almost everybody i.e. travellers, operators and politicians.

In the 1950s a private vehicle must’ve seemed a lot like a mobile phone does to residents of third world countries today. Extremely expensive but worth it because of the extraordinary improvement in productivity and quality of life it promises.

Of course back then there was nothing like the understanding we have today of the social downsides of the car. Yet even if there were, I suspect it would’ve been brushed aside with the same optimism and enthusiasm that Australians embraced other post-war technological advances like the pill and television (and more recently computers and mobile phones).

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  1. I expect commuting accounted for a larger proportion of all trips than it does today and that cars were bought primarily for that purpose.
  2. Australia didn’t have an Eisenhower. For example, cars accounted for 75% of work trips in Brisbane in 1976, the same year the city’s first freeway – the Riverside Expressway – opened. Sydney’s Warringah Expressway opened in 1968, although it only went 4 km from the CBD to Cammeray in 1976. Melbourne had the Tullamarine and Westgate freeways but these were mostly completed (in stages) in the ten years prior to 1976. There was no Westgate bridge or Eastern freeway at that time and only the first two stages of the Monash freeway were operating (opened in 1972 and 1974).
  3. Although in the period covered here it wasn’t as large a factor as in later decades; in 1966 the participation rate of women aged 25-34 years in the full-time workforce was about half what it was in 2011.
  4. The war probably also equipped many former service personnel with the skills required to service and repair cheaper second-hand vehicles. It was perhaps also the first time most had anything to do with elaborate machines.Cooperation between immediate neighbours in those times, like sharing tools and skills, helped keep the cost of running a car down too.