Modal shares for urban passenger transport 1900–2011

Prior to the pandemic, it was pretty much taken for granted by most of those interested in cities that the long-term future of Australia’s capitals would be public transport. But now the great advantage of public transport – shifting large numbers of people in a small space – looks like it could be a serious weakness.

Absent a vaccine or breakthrough therapies, will Australia’s capital cities grind to a halt, choked by endless streams of dirty, dangerous and noisy cars? As travellers seek an alternative to trains, buses and trams, will traffic congestion spread across most of the day and across more and more streets?

Perhaps, but if so it won’t be because public transport became less attractive. Public transport has a critical role in cities and likely will have a much bigger role in the years to come, but even before the pandemic it was never going to be the way of the future. The key challenge was always to find ways to improve private transport and, in particular, to civilise cars.

There’s a number of reasons why public transport was never likely to replace cars as the dominant mode in Australia’s major metropolitan areas.

Unsympathetic cities

Australia’s low density cities aren’t friendly to public transport. High capacity public transport needs concentrated destinations and/or origins, whereas Australia’s capital cities are mostly dispersed; that’s true for jobs as well as residences.

Consider that even in inner city Melbourne, there’re only circa 350,000 residents living within approx 5 km radius of the CBD, compared to 2.2 million residents in the comparable area of transit-oriented Paris. There’re also around 36 million visitors annually overnighting in Paris.

Appeal of private transport

Private transport – mostly cars – out-competes public transport in Australian cities for the great bulk of trips in terms of travelling time, convenience, privacy and comfort. Private transport accounts for 84% of all motorised travel in metropolitan Sydney and 89% across all capital cities.

Travellers value the attributes of private transport highly and they’re prepared to pay a lot for them e.g. the average motorist pays over $10,000 p.a. to own and operate a car, rather than the circa $2,000 p.a. it costs for an annual unlimited public transport pass.

Public transport was once the dominant urban mode in Australia, supported by a huge network of publicly provided train and tram infrastructure. It was effectively annihilated by the car in a handful of decades. Its (mode) share of urban transport collapsed from 90% of motorised passenger kms in 1920 to 25% by 1960.

Prohibitive cost

The cost of retro-fitting a mass transit system that could out-compete cars and become the majority mode is prohibitive. Public transport is by far the largest mode in central Paris, but the Metro has 15 underground lines and 303 stations within a 5-6 km radius of the city centre. In contrast, Melbourne and Sydney both have around 30 stations within a comparable area (see Can we build a Metro just like the one Paris’s got? and Is Paris the right model for the Sydney of 2050?).

Consider that Melbourne Metro now looks likely to cost around $15 billion for nine-kilometres of tunnel and five stations. It will provide capacity for an extra 39,000 passengers in the peak; that’s quite small considering there are 8.5 million private vehicle trips per day in Melbourne (see Will building more public transport seriously suppress car use?).

Another example is the Melbourne underground suburban rail loop promised at last November’s election. The Victorian government claims it will shift 200,000 passengers p.a. from cars by 2050, but even that politically motivated guess represents less than one percentage point of mode shift at a claimed cost of $50 billion (the real cost of the government’s proposal is likely to be twice as high).

Social costs can be addressed

While the social costs of private transport are very high compared to public transport, most of them can be mitigated. Emissions and pollution from passenger vehicles can largely be eliminated by transitioning to electricity generated from clean sources. Traffic congestion can be managed by pricing policies and by prioritising more space-efficient private modes like two-wheelers.

Autonomous vehicles

Driverless vehicles appear likely to increase the appeal of motoring relative to public transport over coming decades e.g. enabling passengers to use in-vehicle time for a wider range of activities; providing mobility for the very young and disabled; increasing road safety and personal security.


Let me emphasise that our major cities need more investment in public transport, but it was never going to be the main game. Notwithstanding the pandemic, I expect it’ll have a key role in serving dense centres and the inner city. Most importantly, it will continue to dominate city centre travel because the CBD is the hub of the legacy rail system and also the densest concentration of activities by far in the metropolitan area.

But the CBD only has a modest share of metropolitan employment; in Melbourne, for example, the CBD accommodates 15% of all jobs. In any event, the journey to work only accounts for around a fifth of all trips.

A successful strategy for the future of our cities must envision a bigger role for public transport – it’s an important part of the solution – but it must also recognise that the great bulk of travel in the metropolitan area will continue to be by private modes. That means policy should prioritise initiatives like (see What should we do to civilise driving?):

  • Making cars smaller, slower, quieter, cleaner, and safer.
  • Accelerating the transition to clean electricity.
  • Rationing access to road space e.g. congestion pricing.
  • Increasing the responsibility of drivers for the welfare of vulnerable road users.
  • Encouraging uptake of space-efficient private modes e.g. two-wheelers, walking.
  • Discouraging low-value travel e.g. facilitating trip chaining.
  • Mandating driverless vehicles operate like taxis i.e. rented plus pay per km.

The pandemic has made things harder for public transport because it’s probably reduced its competitiveness, but it hasn’t changed the main game – that still remains civilising cars

Follow The Urbanist on Twitter: @MelbUrbanist