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.

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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!).

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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?).

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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?).

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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.