The proportion of Melbourne adults who say they used public transport in the last month, by fare zone (Source: ABS)
The percentage of Melbourne adults who say they used public transport in the last month, by fare zone (Source: ABS)

One of the mysteries of life is that surveys keep saying Australians living in the capital cities would prefer to see more investment in public transport ahead of roads.

It’s a mystery because cars dominate urban travel. In Melbourne, for example, they account for 89% of motorised trips on a weekday compared to just 11% taken by public transport.

Much of the explanation might lie in the fact that a much larger proportion of the urban population use public transport occasionally and therefore are aware of both its deficiencies and its advantages.

A survey by the ABS I cited a few years ago found that 38% of Melburnians reported they had used public transport in the preceding month (see How important is public transport?).

My reading is that people who would otherwise drive everywhere find public transport is by far the best way of getting to some activities e.g. sporting events, concerts, night clubs.

For example, major sporting events like AFL, soccer and rugby are mostly held in or close to the centres of Australian cities. In Melbourne’s case, along with the Australian Open, they’re all played within a stone’s throw of the CBD.

Traffic congestion and high parking costs on game day make driving a much less competitive option than taking public transport, particularly trains.

This is probably the only experience of public transport that these occasional users have. While it might alert them to the system’s failings, it’s just as likely to make them realise that public transport is a useful and efficient way of travelling to key destinations.

The interesting thing is if they’re counted as unique individuals, these occasional users might over the course of a year collectively approach, or perhaps even exceed, the number of unique individuals who are regular users of public transport.

That doesn’t matter much in terms of economic metrics but it’s very powerful in political terms. The key implication is that improving the experience of these users will help broaden and deepen community support for improving and expanding public transport.

That suggests a number of possible actions.

  • Improve public transport in the off-peak, particularly on weekends e.g. frequencies, operating hours, safety, comfort.
  • Improve the way major events are managed e.g. capacity, crowd control.
  • Make driving a less attractive way of getting to the city centre, particularly in the off-peak when it’s still got a relatively big mode share e.g. parking, pedestrianisation, road pricing.