Transport - general

Jan 30, 2017

Can we have a mature discussion about the future of urban transport?

With 90% of motorised travel in capital cities currently undertaken by private transport it’s time for a grown-up assessment of where to go with urban transport policy

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Mode shares of motorised passenger travel (kms), 1976/77 to 2014/15; private transport vs public transport; four largest capital cities (source data: BITRE)

The start of the year is a good time to stop and reflect on where we’re going with transport in Australia’s largest cities. It’s clear from the exhibit that private transport continues to dominate motorised passenger travel. It currently accounts for 94% of total kilometres travelled in Adelaide, marginally ahead of Perth (93%), Brisbane (92%) and Melbourne (89%).

Public transport does best in Sydney – Australia’s densest city by far – but even there its share of motorised passenger travel is only 14% compared to private transport’s 86%. Apart from small ripples in Melbourne and Perth, the pattern over the last 39 years was flat.

The exhibit draws on the latest updated data prepared by the Bureau of Transport, Infrastructure and Regional Economics. It shows mode share based on annual total kilometres of passenger travel by private transport (cars, vans, motorcycles) versus public transport (trains, buses, trams, ferries) in Australia’s five largest cities.


Looking forward, the reality is the outlook for the car isn’t anywhere near as dismal as most assume.

Much attention is given to the passing of “peak car” around 2005, but that refers to the change in per capita car use. However car use continues to increase in absolute terms despite rising traffic congestion. For example, annual travel by Sydneysiders using private modes increased by 3.1 Billion kilometres over the last five years (public transport travel increased by 0.7 Billion kilometres over the same period).

Travel by private modes could increase significantly when autonomous vehicles establish a sizeable presence in the vehicle fleet; that’s because they make time spent travelling less “costly” by ennabling passengers to engage in other activities while in-vehicle. Fully electric vehicles could encourage more travel too because of their lower fuel cost.

The dominance of private transport in Australian cities is in stark contrast to European cities. For example, private transport’s share of motorised travel in central Paris is only 25% while public transport’s is a whopping 75% (yet cities like Paris and London still suffer from traffic congestion and transport-related air pollution!).


Given this data, it’s imperative we start to have a mature discussion about transport policy that recognises the history of our cities and where residents are plausibly prepared to go from here. Private transport dominates because Australian travellers see it as much superior to other modes even though it’s expensive. Policy-makers mostly reflect the public mood, of course, but they also understand most of the financial costs of driving are paid by motorists rather than by tax-payers generally (see What costs society more: cars or trains?).

It’s evident the standard “solutions” – more density and more public transport – haven’t done much to change motorised mode share up to this point, but it’s critical to understand that by themselves they won’t have a big impact in the future either.

The density of all Australian capitals has increased significantly over past decades despite the NIMBY effect, but the impact of density on mode share at the metropolitan level is modest. For example, Sydney’s average weighted population density increased 24% over the 21 years from 1991 to 2012, but mode share didn’t change. Sydney is twice as dense as Brisbane yet the respective mode shares of private vehicles in the two cities are both high; 92% and 86% respectively (see Are Australian cities sprawling at ever lower densities and Managing excessive car use; what’s the low hanging fruit?).

The scope for better public transport to significantly change mode share is likewise very limited. All the improvements in recent decades in factors like frequencies and ticketing have had little impact. New investment in public transport won’t help much either because in most cases it doesn’t lead to significant mode shift; for example, the 9 km Melbourne Metro rail project is costing $10.1 Billion, but will only provide capacity for an extra 39,000 passengers in the peak; pretty modest considering there are 8.5 million private vehicle trips per day in Melbourne (see Will building more public transport seriously suppress car use?).

There are good reasons why Australia’s cities should facilitate higher densities and provide better public transport, but they’re not going to have a big impact on reducing private transport. They’re likely to have most impact in the inner city, but we need to understand it accounts for less than 10% of the population in each capital city (see Where are cities growing?). Even then, the ambition of approaching something like Parisian mode share in the inner cities of Australia’s capitals looks fanciful (see How dense are our cities compared to Paris? and Can we build a Metro just like the one Paris’s got?).


The important message is we need to stop chasing chimeras and start tackling the issue of private transport head-on. We need to take our collective heads out of the sand and recognise that private modes account for the vast bulk of motorised passenger travel in our capital cities and it’s likely to stay that way in the forseeable future.

The weight of attention and effort from politicians and lobbyists needs to shift decisively toward managing private transport better rather than wishing it away. After all, that’s how 90% of motorised travel in Australia’s capital cities is taking place. The fact that Sydney and Melbourne are projected to double in size around 2050 is a compelling reason to come to grips with the reality of how Australians travel.

The problem with policy blindness is we pursue politically convenient but imaginary solutions while the problems associated with private transport fester. The opposition by the Greens and Labor to restoration of fuel excise indexation was a recent telling example of the triumph of fashion over substance  (see What’s going on with indexation of the fuel excise?).


Since we’ve been conspicuously unsuccessful at assuming cars away, what should we do? Unfortunately, this is a neglected topic that demands a lot more discussion, research and thought than it’s gotten to date. Here’re some possible ideas (not exhaustive):

  • Increase fuel efficiency standards, upgrade pollution standards, and increase the minimum octane rating of petrol. Restore the fuel excise to the level it would’ve been if indexation hadn’t been abolished by John Howard in 2001.
  • Accelerate the introduction of lower speed limits. Introduce stronger regulation and enforcement of noise and driving behaviour. Increase the points penalties attached to serious driving offences.
  • Introduce congestion pricing, probably beginning with central city cordons (see Are motorways the only answer to traffic congestion?).
  • Prioritise the replacement of carbon-derived electricity by renewable sources and facilitate the replacement of the existing vehicle fleet with electrically powered vehicles (see Are electric vehicles a game-changer?). Progressively replace the fuel excise with a tax on the level of car use.
  • Separate higher speed traffic from vulnerable travellers and sensitive land uses (see Do motorways help make cycling safer?). Ensure new and existing motorways are priced to manage congestion (operators will probably need to be subsidised).
  • Regulate introduction of autonomous vehicles so they’re only permitted to operate as shared vehicles i.e. like driverless taxis (see What should we be doing now to prepare for driverless cars?).

Let me reiterate that we still need big increases in density and big improvements in public transport, cycling and walking, but it’s time to recognise that by themselves they’re not going to magically make a big impact on the level of car use in our metropolitan areas. It’s time to put much more effort into “taming” private transport.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

12 thoughts on “Can we have a mature discussion about the future of urban transport?

  1. Socrates

    I would agree we must do all those things to reduce the impacts of the car usage that does and will still occur. Yet I think that raising examples like Paris is a straw man. Are there any smaller cities with density more like Australian ones that still do much better on car mode share? Answer: yes! Look at places like Nantes or Bordeaux in France, or most Canadian cities. They run tram services every four to six minutes. They also get more people to bike, walk and ride PT. The culmulative difference is large. They do not simply build PT infrastructure, they actually run services on it.

    Also I do not agree that PT services have been increased. It has been a roller coaster ride, increasing and decreasing as governments come and go, or get short of cash. Here in Adelaide if I dare work too late to catch the 6pm bus home I must wait 40 minutes for the next one. No wonder patronage is languishing. Brisbane has recently slashed train services thanks to a farcical driver shortage.

    A recent report showed we have spent more on infrastructure as a % of GDP than any nation in the OECD, but we have spent it badly. Too many big freeways, and not enough local bottlenecks fixed, or more bus services run. So yes we must manage car travel demand much better, but we still fail to provide adequate alternatives. And, since our urban density has increased as you say, we are running out of excuses for not doing so.

    1. Alan Davies

      Socrates, I disagree with you re Paris. I think it’s relevant because Australian tourists visit European cities like old Paris and see how well public transport works there; they conclude they could very easily live a car-free life in Australia if the alternative worked as well as it does in Paris. We can of course get a much better public transport system in Australian cities but it won’t win a really big increase in mode share unless cars are markedly less competitive. Paris does it via ultra-high density; narrow streets; limited parking; high vehicle taxes; and the sort of metro system we can only dream about (300 stations in the same small inner city area where Melbourne has just 28!).

      Nantes and Bordeaux don’t look like relevant comparators with Australian cities; they’re populations are much smaller at the metro level. Like many Euro cities there’s sprawl in the parts developed in the car era, but the centres of both are still pretty dense. Anyway, where’s the data for mode share in these two? As for Canadian cities, the picture isn’t always so rosy when a fair comparison is made. Public transport and active modes combined do very well in Sydney compared to Vancouver e.g. see How does Sydney compare to Vancouver on travel?

      The key point of the article is urban transport requires working on multiple fronts; as clearly stated, that includes improving public transport, cycling and walking, but it also includes addressing the mode that currently accounts for 90% of capital city travel. And no, we don’t have to provide alternatives for all private travel; there’s a significant % that’s low value.

  2. Roger Clifton

    Yes, we must “replace”, not “reduce” our reliance on fossil fuels. That is a serious issue that must be faced up to by those who can find the courage to do so. However, we must not acquiesce to reassurances of renewable energy, because wind (or solar) inevitably involves fossil backup, and we could only ever make token reductions to our emissions.

    Yes, it is possible to convert atmospheric CO2 back into transport fuels. Conversion requires that we resort to every possible source of non-carbon baseload power. If that requirement causes the reader to choke on the word, “nuclear”, buck up. We will all have to face those fears one day, the alternative is much worse.

    1. Tony Morton

      Roger, the world isn’t exactly rushing to build new fossil or nuclear plants in order to ‘back up’ renewable energy sources – quite the contrary. Investment in renewable energy capacity is still running far ahead of any other category.

      The essential point is that the high variability of individual wind or solar plants matters less when you connect a great number of them into a large, geographically dispersed transmission network. Of course the sun doesn’t shine at night and you can get low winds over an entire large region, but it’s increasingly practical to build in enough storage to ride through these events on a whole-system scale. We’re a long long way from having to ‘back up’ every MW of renewable generation with 1MW of fossil or storage plant.

      Before long, it’s going to cost less to install renewables plus the modest storage required than it is to build an equivalent size coal or nuclear power station. (Actually, it’s already cheaper if you omit the storage.) A shame our Federal government is doing its best to delay the future. As in the USA we may have to rely on state-level efforts for the time being.

      1. Alan Davies

        Actually, it’s already cheaper if you omit the storage.

        Not to mention if you omit the cost of rehabilitating the coal mine or securing the nuclear power station at end-of- life.

      2. Roger Clifton

        Tony, each one of the successes you claim for renewables is either token reductions so far, or salesmen’s empty promises about giant leaps forward in the future.

        Decarbonising or defossilising transport is a major challenge ahead. Short of token reductions by electrifying city vehicles, it is going to take a complete replacement of the fuel itself. But synthesising fuel by re-energising carbon captured from the air is going to require serious baseload electricity.

        We will be judged by our grandchildren. We will be judged by how much we have emitted, not by how much we have reduced.

        1. Tony Morton

          I think what you’re trying to say Roger is that renewables haven’t actually led to the wholesale shutdown of fossil-fuel plants thus far. We’re going to see a lot more of that happen as those plants reach the end of their useful life (as Hazelwood has now done after more than 50 years) – as long as there’s still life left in them, their operators aren’t going to voluntarily shut them down without strong inducements. Unfortunately too, some of the biggest fossil plants are still only 20 years old.

          Meanwhile, producing liquid fuel from carbon dioxide? CO2 has no energy value: photosynthesis doesn’t run on CO2 so much as on sunlight. On the other hand, the nice thing about producing fuel is it’s a form of storage – you don’t have to do it at the instant the fuel is used. You could have solar plants or wind turbines electrolysing water into hydrogen and just turn the process off when the sun goes down or the wind drops.

          I think you might be confusing ‘baseload’ with ‘plentiful’ – there’s heaps of renewable energy out there, it’s just available in different degrees at different times.

  3. Tony Morton

    Question for you Alan: just where is this huge effort at increasing public transport mode share that’s supposed to have already been tried and failed?

    We’ve done a bit of tinkering around the edges, sure – Melbourne now runs two entire train lines every 10 minutes in the middle of the day and has 15 minute frequencies on a handful of orbital bus routes on weekdays – but these are isolated cases with little relevance to more than a fraction of travellers. Meanwhile, the tram that runs up and down Sydney Rd in Brunswick – that supremely PT-rich hipster haven – still reverts to 3 trams an hour after 8pm, just like it did in 1980. Those flagship orbital ‘Smart’ buses run every half hour on weekends. We’ve spent $4 billion on a Regional Rail Link but haven’t put in the extra suburban trains to make use of the added capacity. And in 2017 you still can’t travel by public transport from Parkville to Collingwood without a detour into the city and out again!

    In relative terms, Perth has actually done the best of all our State capitals in boosting mode share over the past 20 years. Unfortunately, because it started from the worst possible position – extreme sprawl by Australian standards with an enormous investment in roads – the improvement is barely discernable on the chart. Perth aside, you would not expect to see an improvement in PT mode share in any Australian city prior to this century, because until then they were still actively disinvesting in their public transport systems.

    If one were serious about a demonstration project to boost PT mode share in an Australian city, one would pick a single suburb or municipality and put a bus service in every arterial road, running every 10 minutes until 9pm and 15-20 minutes after that until midnight, 7 days a week – just like the Europeans do in their lower-density suburbs, the Canadians do in their larger cities, and even the odd Melbourne tram does in a suburb like Balwyn. Of course, we’ve never seen such an experiment in this country – government planners, who can always find money for another road, have convinced themselves it won’t work before it’s been tried.

    Indeed, what’s the Metro tunnel’s 39,000 passenger capacity to 8.5 million daily car trips in Melbourne? It helps to emphasise that 39,000 is number of people per hour per direction, and that is equivalent to four West Gate Bridges. How would mode share for cars and public transport be affected if there were no West Gate, with its mere 8000 per hour capacity? Hypothetically, suppose we decided tomorrow to run every public transport service at the frequency it now operates in peak hour, and at the same time decided _not_ to build a Western Distributor or North East Link to make driving more attractive?

    Surely, questions like these can also be an important part of a mature discussion about urban transport.

    1. Alan Davies

      Of course the questions you raise can and should be part of a mature discussion about urban transportation! Neither I nor anyone else that I’m aware of argues against the need for more investment in public transport (even the RACV says it’s pro public transport and cycling). The problem is the too-common idea that it’s the only solution and so we don’t even have to think about private transport (other than to oppose every motorway proposal no matter what)!

      I think the results of your proposed experiment would be disappointing and poor tactics for public transport advocacy. Increases in off-peak public transport frequencies in low density suburbs will not lead to big shifts in mode share because that’s the period when traffic is less congested and hence driving is most competitive.

      Re what’s been done to date in terms of public transport investment, I’ll be publishing something on that in the near future.

      1. Tony Morton

        This is the point Alan – you appear to be prejudging any effort to get big improvements in PT mode share as futile, and you’re framing this as a call for an objective value-free debate. Road lobbyists have relied on this strategy for decades to assert that “there is no alternative” to massive road building.

        I guess we should walk back again to those Toronto case studies from the early 1990s, when the TTC had in place exactly the kind of comprehensive, frequent suburban bus network we’re talking about. Of course, they had been doing this for years previously – they never allowed public transport use to collapse to nearly the extent it had in Melbourne by 1980, and so they weren’t trying to work in an environment of such low expectations as we have of bus services. (That came to Toronto later, when a hostile provincial government cut their funding – in the end politics is supreme, for good or ill.)

        People from Australia who went to Toronto to examine their public transport planning remarked on how surprising it was to see two dozen people queueing up at every bus stop – often people who’d just got off an intersecting bus route – in suburbs that look just like mid-suburban Melbourne or western Sydney. It wasn’t at all difficult to drive in these Toronto suburbs.

        All of Paul Mees’ work over a quarter century was based on explaining why we should not simply give up on the idea of big modal shifts away from car travel in ‘New World’ cities, and why strong interventions like 10-minute bus networks in our suburbs are important. Sorry, but calling this ‘poor tactics’ isn’t really working in favour of a mature conversation.

        1. M Bourne

          Hopefully the moment hasn’t passed (late post), but a missed argument for regular inter peak PT is that it means people don’t have to worry that an unplanned early finish (need to go home early, eg, pick up sick kids from school) will require a long wait or expensive taxi ride. Having to leave early doesn’t happen often, but for a lot of people the probability of it is high enough that they don’t want to risk being stuck at work without their car.

          Another is that more regular PT removes a lot of the imagined and real inconvenience of requiring a transfer.

          I doubt the one suburb/municipality trial would be very successful though, I doubt many people would have enough of their destinations (work and non-work) that close to either home or destinations well served by PT, especially if they’re used to having a car! Your description of Toronto does sound like a good argument for what regular and comprehensive PT can do, even in a lower density metro area.

  4. Jason Murphy

    Charging for vehicle miles travelled might be a good idea too.
    e-tags that bill you differentially for using different roads at different times, including for leaving your car parked on the street, could be the ultimate solution.

Share this article with a friend

Just fill out the fields below and we'll send your friend a link to this article along with a message from you.

Your details

Your friend's details