Share of all weekday trips in Melbourne metropolitan area by Mode (Source: VISTA 2012-13)
Share of all weekday trips in Melbourne metropolitan area by Mode (Source: VISTA 2012-13)

The latest phase of the Victorian Integrated Survey of Travel and Activity (VISTA) provides useful information on the way public transport is currently used in Australia’s larger cities.

VISTA is a household travel survey of 14,250 people in Melbourne and some regional centres. The numbers I discuss below are specific to Melbourne so other cities will be somewhat different e.g. public transport use is higher in Sydney and lower in the other capitals.

However I expect the broad patterns it shows reflect a lot about the way public transport is currently used elsewhere in Australia. Note that the data I’m discussing refers to all-day travel on a weekday.

Where is public transport used?

Public transport is sometimes portrayed as an inner city amenity that offers little for the rest of the city, but that’s misleading. The majority of weekday public transport trips (61.2%) originate in the middle and outer ring suburbs. The inner ring suburbs account for 38.8% of trips (see map of rings at bottom).

How much do we use public transport?

Public transport’s mode share is relatively small. Trips made by train, bus and tram together account for 8.7% of all weekday trips in metropolitan Melbourne, compared to 72.1% made by private vehicles.

Public transport does a lot better in the inner suburbs where its mode share is 12.8%. It also does better in the morning peak when it accounts for 13.6% of all trips (20.2% in the inner suburbs in the morning peak).

Why do we use public transport?

Public transport is a very singular mode; it is mainly used for just two purposes – work-related trips and education trips – reflecting its key role in servicing city centre commutes and secondary and tertiary education trips.

Together, these purposes account for 69.5% of all public transport trips, compared to 34.5% for all modes and 33.2% for cars.

How far do we go on public transport?

The average one-way public transport trip in Melbourne is 16.3 km. This is considerably longer than the 9.9 km average for private vehicles and is mostly due to big differences between the modes in the middle ring and outer ring suburbs.

The average trips distances for public transport vs private transport are 17.1 km vs 8.5 km in the middle ring suburbs and 25.0 km vs 9.9 km in the outer ring. The difference is much lower in the inner suburbs; 9.5 km for public transport and 7.4 km for private vehicles.

How much time do we spend on public transport?

At 58 minutes, the average duration of a one-way trip by public transport in Melbourne is much longer than the average 20 minutes by private vehicle; that holds for all trip purposes.

As with distance, trips originating further from the centre take longer – 41 minutes on average in the inner ring suburbs, 61 minutes in the middle ring and 68 minutes in the outer ring. This contrasts with private vehicles, where the average duration is close to constant across the rings i.e. 19 minutes in the inner ring, 19 minutes in the middle ring and 21 minutes in the outer ring.

What might it mean?

At present, public transport does best in situations where private vehicles are least competitive i.e. long journeys to work in dense locations (principally the city centre) where congestion and parking costs are high; and secondary and tertiary education trips where there’s a high proportion of travellers who don’t drive.

This “commuter” or “suburban” orientation reflects the physical and operational design of the system, although whether the system characteristics reflect the intrinsic nature of demand, or whether they shape and limit that demand, is less clear.

Consecutive state governments say they want to re-engineer the system to operate more like a European-style metro. That’s a challenging task given the much lower densities of Australian cities and the stupendous costs of retrofitting transport infrastructure in established areas (e.g. see Can we build a metro just like the one Paris’s got?).

There’s nevertheless scope to improve the usefulness of public transport substantially (e.g. see How can public transport work better in cities?) but that simply won’t happen unless driving becomes a lot less attractive.

Inner, middle and outer suburban rings used by VISTA (source: VISTA 2012-13)
Inner, middle and outer suburban rings used by VISTA (source: VISTA 2012-13)