Secondary school
Distribution of one-way secondary school trips by duration and mode, Melbourne (source data: VISTA 2012/13)

I’ve discussed the Prime Minister’s 30-minute city idea before in terms of trips to primary school (see Surely the 30-minute city makes sense for primary school trips?); this time I’m looking at trips to secondary school, using recently released data for Melbourne from the Victorian Integrated Survey of Travel and Activity (VISTA) .

Straight off, there’s bad news for Mr Turnbull’s idea that one-way trips shouldn’t have to exceed 30 minutes. In Melbourne, VISTA data shows 39% of high school students travel for 30 minutes or more one-way to get to high school; a quarter take 40 minutes or more.

There are enormous differences by mode bearing in mind 47% of high school students get to school by car, 35% by public transport, and 18% by active modes (walking and cycling). Those who walk average 17 minutes and so do those who travel by car. However the more than a third who get to school by public transport average 42 minutes. That breaks down to an average of 51 minutes for train , 41 minutes by tram, and 38 minutes by bus. (1)

Those are averages; the key statistic is 84% of secondary students who travel by public transport take 30 minutes or more to get to school. In fact 59% travel for 40 minutes or longer, and 31% for 50 minutes or more. In contrast, only 14% of those who travel by car and 17% of those who use active modes take 30 minutes or longer.

That doesn’t look promising in terms of Mr Turnbull’s ambition that all students ought to be able to get to school within 30 minutes. He’s agnostic about what mode students use, so perhaps the obvious solution from his point of view would be to get them off time-consuming public transport and either get them walking or into speedy cars.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has an even bigger challenge. He’s also advocating the 30-minute city idea but his conception is that it must be achievable by walking, cycling, or public transport i.e. cars don’t count.

Neither approach comes even close to recognising the reality of existing travel behaviour. The time penalty associated with public transport is in large part down to the distance covered. While the average high school trip is a mere 1.1 km on foot, it’s a substantial 6.6 km by car. By public transport it’s a whopping 11.2 km; that’s 13.3 km by train, 11.3 km by bus, and 7.4 km by tram.

The reality is a very large proportion of high school students in Melbourne – and undoubtedly this also holds for other major Australian cities – don’t live close to their school. I suspect that’s always been the case but the proportion has probably increased significantly in recent decades with the drift to private schools and specialist/larger state high schools.

That’s not automatically a problem. It reflects the importance parents place on choice and the advantages of scale e.g. more courses, better facilities, more diverse student population. For example, with 1,100 pupils, Kambrya College in the outer Melbourne suburb of Berwick boasts:

A modern three court gymnasium together with an irrigated soccer pitch, a two hundred seat lecture theatre, a full fitted Science centre, a VCE study centre, Automotive Centre, Food Technology Centre, Plumbing Centre , a fully furbished Hair and Beauty salon, and an expansive library.

The 30-minute city is a marketing trick (see Is Turnbull’s ’30-minute city’ a serious election issue?). What’s important is action to reduce the proportion of students who travel by car. It’s extraordinary that nearly half of Melbourne’s secondary students travel to school by car, even though hardly any have driving licences and they’re old enough to use public transport or walk unaccompanied.

But they’re young and healthy and can cycle long distances if safe routes are provided (see Should cycling get a huge increase in funding? and Is it time our cities got Cycle Superhighways?). That’ll help take cars off the road but it’s not going to make a 30-minute city. Very few high schools students cycle at present (1.4%), but they’re average travel time is long i.e. 28 minutes for an average 4.5 km trip length. (2)

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  1. Bus is by far the most important public transport mode; of all one-way trips to high school by public transport, bus accounts for 56%, train for 27% and tram for 17%
  2. Cycling accounts for 1.9% of high school trips in inner ring suburbs and 2.7% in middle ring suburbs. Cycling to high school is negligible in outer ring suburbs.