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Media Botch

Jun 22, 2017


This self-selecting survey of Herald-Sun readers reveals surprisingly high support for congestion charging (source: Herald Sun)

Life in rapidly-growing Melbourne is going to get a lot worse for commuters over the next fifteen years according to a report in the Herald Sun on Monday:

Motorists could spend an extra hour a day commuting to work by 2030 if nothing is done to combat road congestion, experts warn. Data from the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics shows the average commute time in Melbourne in 2011 was just over 35 minutes — or 7.5 working weeks a year.

Projections by PwC reveal that by 2030, average commute times could increase to 63 minutes under a worst-case scenario — or an extra 56 minutes a day. PwC Director of Economics and Policy, Rob Tyson, said that would mean people spending almost 13.5 working weeks in the car.

An extra 28 minutes one-way to travel to work? That’d make the average commute to work 63 minutes in total; and the same for the journey home. That’s longer than the average commute in Shanghai. What’s scary is 2030’s only thirteen years away. Sounds like Armageddon. No wonder Herald-Sun readers tend to be anti-population growth when they’re regularly served up  seemingly authoritative stuff like this.

But hang on, hang on. It’s dramatic but it’s grossly misleading. Consider that the average one-way journey to work in Sydney is 35 minutes, up by two minutes from 33 minutes ten years ago. That’s an annual average increase of 12 seconds in Australia’s largest city; it hardly suggests an extra 28 minutes one-way by 2030 is likely to happen in Melbourne.

Consider also that cities much larger than Sydney and Melbourne have comparable average journey to work times. According to this comparison, the average one-way commute in London is 37 minutes. It’s 35 minutes in New York and in Tokyo, which is the world’s largest city with around 33 million residents, it’s 34 minutes.

The obvious reason the apocalypse won’t happen is because the “if nothing is done” condition quietly inserted in the article is unrealistic. This qualification enables the usual media histrionics, but it’s inevitable that something will get done. That’s why the average commute in Los Angeles is 28 minutes.

One way cities adapt as they grow in population is to spread further at the fringe, but they also tend to get a lot denser, making origins and destinations closer on average. Angel and Blei found that when population doubles, the area of US cities increases on average by only 70% (see Will Sydney and Melbourne implode as they get bigger and bigger?).

Another way is governments and private investors respond by building more infrastructure. For example, there’s a raft of infrastructure projects underway in Melbourne, including Melbourne Metro, Mernda rail extension, level crossing removals, and various public/private motorway projects.

The most important factor, though, is that both workers and employers adapt to increasing commute times by changing location, consistent with the idea of a travel time budget. Many stay put but many also change address to be closer to work or, in the case of businesses, to be closer to workers. Some workers simply shift to a job that’s closer to home.

The process of adaptation seems to happen with or without active government intervention, but there are ways governments could facilitate the process. For example, they could make redevelopment at higher population and employment densities easier; they could reduce stamp duty and other constraints on relocation; and they could build more and better transport infrastructure.

The biggest bang-for-the buck, though, would probably come from managing existing assets better; in particular, by rationing access to road space through, for example, some form of pricing in congested traffic conditions. That should reduce the economic costs associated with congestion as well as provide more priority road space for buses, trams and trucks.

The duration of the average journey to work is remarkably stable over time. Moreover, it’s much the same in Melbourne in the inner, middle and outer rings. There’s a definite possibility it could increase modestly by 2030 depending on policy settings, but it’s not going to nearly double in duration like the scary numbers promoted by the Herald Sun suggest.


Jul 2, 2014


Percentage of drivers passing within 100 cm, 75 cm and 50 cm when overtaking a cyclist who presents a range of images through clothing (source data from Walker et al)

News Ltd reporter Susie O’Brien wrote an article yesterday for the Herald-Sun about the perennial differences between motorists and cyclists when it comes to sharing road space (Curbing the road wars between motorists and cyclists).

She avoids the hysterical tone all too common with News publications and tries to be reasonable and even-handed:

I welcome the fact that commuter cycling has increased by 35 per cent in the past five years. This is a good thing. But cyclists — and not just drivers — need to do more to make the roads safe for all of us.

She doesn’t avoid the usual tropes though: cyclists who don’t own a car don’t pay for roads; bicycles should be registered; giving cyclists one metre puts drivers at greater risk. There are also some errors of fact, and some doubtful propositions too. (1)

This is stuff I’ve discussed before so I won’t go into it again now. What I’m interested in now is what happened when Ms O’Brien took to Twitter to publicise her story:

Cyclists need to do more to be safe on the road. When did you last see a rider in a high-vis vest?

Someone on Twitter told her pretty quickly she “should stop making stuff up”; new research shows her claim about the usefulness of high-visibility clothing is “incorrect”. He referred her to an article in the Canberra Times under the heading, High-visibility clothing won’t help cyclists.

The newspaper cited a recent University of Bath study that found “high-visibility clothing does not deter drivers from dangerously overtaking cyclists on shared roadways”. One of the researchers is quoted as saying:

Many people have theories to say that cyclists can make themselves safer if they wear this or that. Our study suggests that, no matter what you wear, it will do nothing to prevent a small minority of people from getting dangerously close when they overtake you.

This is an important and for most probably a surprising finding. As is so often the case though, the reality is not as black and white as either Ms O’Brien or those who took her to task on Twitter believe.

You can read the paper here: Walker I, Garrard I, Jowitt F, The influence of a bicycle commuter’s appearance on drivers’ overtaking proximities. Or you can read the University’s press release: Cyclists cannot stop drivers overtaking dangerously, research suggests.

The researchers measured the distance that motorists allowed when they overtook a cyclist. They hypothesised that what a cyclist wore proxied for the cyclist’s level of experience, inducing motorists to leave more space for riders they judged to be less skilled.

Five outfits were tested, ranging from a stereotypical sport rider’s outfit, portraying high experience and skill, to a vest with ‘novice cyclist’ printed on the back, portraying low experience. A high-visibility bicycling jacket was also used, as were two commercially available safety vests, one featuring a prominent mention of the word ‘police’ and a warning that the rider was video-recording their journey, and one modelled after a police officer’s jacket but with a letter changed so it read ‘POLITE’.

An ultrasonic distance sensor was used to measure the distance between vehicles and one of the researchers on his daily bicycle commute. In total, 5,690 data points fulfilled the criteria for the study and were included in the analysis. (2)

The headline finding is that, except in the case of the ‘police’ vest, there was no significant relationship between what the cyclist wore and the average amount of space left by overtaking motorists. In the former case the mean overtaking distance was 1.22 metres but in the others it varied between 1.14 and 1.18 metres.

However there’s more to it. The researchers defined a “close” pass as less than one metre; that’s consistent with the “a metre matters” campaign. They found the proportion of overtakes closer than one metre was correlated significantly with the way the cyclist dressed.

As the exhibit shows, more motorists (43.1%) passed within a metre of cyclists dressed in ‘polite’ attire, than those dressed in ‘police’ attire (24.5%) or those wearing high visibility clothing (29.6%). This relationship also remained significant for overtakes of less than 0.75 metres.

They found 1 – 2% of motorists passed “extremely close” (within <0.5 metre) when overtaking. However the distance they left did not vary significantly as a function of how the cyclist was dressed.

This is the group the researcher was referring to when he told the Canberra Times “no matter what you wear, it will do nothing to prevent a small minority of people from getting dangerously close when they overtake you”.

So how a cyclist dresses won’t protect them against this very small group of motorists; they’re the ones who’re blind to high-visibility clothing. I suspect they’re a group that cyclists can do little about. It seems reasonable to assume they’d be over-represented in collisions with cyclists.

But there are a couple of other important points. First, motorists who pass within less than one metre when overtaking are also likely to be over-represented in crashes; they’re also likely to discourage cyclists by undermining feelings of subjective safety.

As the exhibit shows, high-visibility clothing confers a protective effect against them as well as against drivers who pass within less than 0.75 metres. And importantly, there’re many more motorists in these two groups than in the group who overtake within 0.5 metres.

Second, overtaking isn’t the only or the most important situation in which high-visibility clothing might provide a real safety benefit for cyclists. It’s also important for being seen, especially at dusk or night  i.e. for avoiding the “sorry, I didn’t see you” excuse from motorists. As the researchers acknowledge:

(High-visibility) clothing is intended primarily to make riders less likely to be overlooked, rather than influence the behaviour of people who have already seen them.

What constitutes “high-visibility” is a complicated area: it doesn’t necessarily mean bright and reflective. The researchers suggest that ‘high-contrast’ rather than ‘high-reflectively’ is more important in daylight. They say it might be that dark clothing impairs conspicuity more than bright clothing enhances it.

I think the researchers are probably right to conclude that on average cyclists’ attire won’t do much to change the behavior of the 1 – 2% who overtake extremely closely. It’s likely they’re a potential danger to cyclists in other ways too.

I also expect some cyclists have an inflated idea of the degree of protection higher visibility offers. However I wouldn’t conclude from this study that “high-visibility clothing won’t help cyclists” when it comes to other risks like simply being seen, or the large proportion of drivers who overtake within the sub one metre range.


  1. Motorists are responsible for 79% of crashes between cyclists and motorists according to an Adelaide study (not 90%); and the speed limit in Melbourne’s Hoddle grid is already 40 km/hr. Doubtful proposition: “Cyclists should be required to work harder to match the speed of the majority of road users — the cars around them”. How could that possibly work?
  2. Bear in mind this is only one study. It’s done by a single researcher cycling over a period of months (on his regular commute) on the same route in another country. I’ve discussed some of these limitations in a similar study done by the same lead researcher (see Do motorists drive closer to cyclists wearing helmets?)


Mar 26, 2013


Princes Bridge - showing exising on-road cycle lane and footpath cycle lane

The Herald-Sun is so upset by the City of Melbourne’s plan to replace a traffic lane on Princes Bridge with bicycle lanes, it wrote a damning editorial in yesterday’s issue, Bridge bike lane a blunder.

The paper says it will lead to “car chaos” and “gridlock” and cause “clashes between drivers and cyclists to become even more heated.” It also says cars and cyclists don’t mix well:

While cars can be a lethal weapon when drivers are impatient and frustrated in traffic, cyclists are often to blame by shouting abuse at drivers and banging on car doors.

The RACV doesn’t like it either. A spokesman said removing a traffic lane “appeared to be a cheap option.” He said it would worsen both traffic congestion and safety.

At present, cyclists on Princes Bridge nominally share half the footpath with pedestrians or use a very narrow on-road lane (see exhibit).

The RACV suggests an alternative: footpath space should be reconfigured to provide a clearly separated, dedicated path for cyclists.

Together with the Herald-Sun, the RACV also proposes another possibility: Council should construct a dedicated bicycle crossing over the Yarra beside Princes Bridge.

It could finance construction, they say, by reallocating the $5.6 million budget Council has for improving cycling infrastructure within the municipality.

I think there are a number of points to consider in looking at the arguments advanced by these two organisations.

First, taking space away from the footpath for a dedicated bicycle lane would be a poor choice.

Princes Bridge is a premier location for walking – it’s arguably the most important in the city. It provides a vital civic connection between the Arts Precinct and Botanical Gardens on one side of the river; and Flinders St Station, Federation Square and the rest of the CBD, on the other side.

On Saturday 16 February, 28,528 pedestrians crossed Princes Bridge, peaking at 2,450 between 9pm-10pm. That’s busy! (it was 37,941 the following Saturday, with an hourly peak of 4,595, when White Night Melbourne was on).

Princes Bridge needs all the footpath its got for visitors and residents who walk. People might drive to a destination, but when they get there, they usually want to walk!

Pedestrians should have enough space to linger, meet-up, chat, take photos, and more.

It’s also important from a design perspective that the scale of this key civic “entrance” is maintained. The width of the footpath is a significant part of the composition.

Second, a dedicated bicycle bridge is a bad idea too. It would cost much more than $5.6 million, probably at least $15 million and more likely $25 million plus.

A cheapskate bridge wouldn’t be acceptable in a high-profile location like this. Note that Brisbane’s pedestrian and cyclist river crossing, Kurilpa Bridge, cost $63 million in 2009.

There would also be serious heritage issues in locating it close to Princes Bridge (or worse, hanging it off the side). Providing access points at either end would add to the degree of difficulty and cost.

Council’s estimate for the proposed Princes Bridge bicycle lanes, in contrast, is just $0.15 million. The $5.9 million is in any event required for the many other cycling improvements needed across the municipality.

Third, this is the CBD – it’s a location where the case for driving is very weak and the case for other modes is compelling.

Accessibility to the CBD by public transport is outstanding. Accessibility by car, particularly in the peak, is grossly inferior.

The CBD is also the location where the downsides of the car – pollution, noise, safety, severance – have the biggest negative impact.

They’re amplified by the very high density of activity; by the high levels of pedestrian movement; by the growing importance of the CBD as a consumption centre; and by the reliance of key economic activities like tourism on the centre.

The CBD is, in short, the last place where cars are either necessary or desirable. Apart from taxis and service vehicles, cars should be the first mode in the queue to have to yield street space.

The existing arrangements for cycling across Princes Bridge are untenable for the 1,864 cyclists counted on the bridge between 7am-9am one weekday earlier this month by Bicycle Network Victoria.

The existing painted bicycle lane on the footpath is largely ignored by pedestrians and is a recipe for conflict between mounted cyclists and the much larger number of walkers.

As shown in the exhibit, the on-road lane is ludicrously narrow. It’s a puzzle how the RACV spokesman could see that and yet describe Council’s proposal as presenting “safety” issues.

What Council’s proposing isn’t anti-car. It still leaves three lanes for motorists, not to mention all the other road and parking space in the rest of the CBD available for drivers. There’s still much more public space in the CBD provided for cars than for pedestrians.

Indeed, one worry I have is that Council might be too timid. It hasn’t stated in any detail what it plans to do, but I hope the intention isn’t to provide a two-way bicycle “road” within one traffic lane. That would be a lost opportunity – a well-sized segregated lane on each side of St Kilda Rd is what’s required.

I don’t want to let that passage from the Herald-Sun’s editorial I quoted at the start pass without comment. I find it extraordinary that the writer has effectively equated “lethal weapon” with “shouting abuse at drivers”, as if use of the former would be a proportionate response to the latter.

Public transport

Feb 21, 2013


Sydney's CityRail performs poorly on % operating costs recovered from fares compared to other metro rail operators (source RailCorp)

In a story titled Public transport costs race past inflation for Melbourne commuters, The Herald Sun reported yesterday that “fares have risen twice as fast as inflation since public transport was privatised”.

The paper says that since 1999, the cost of commuting has increased by up to $1200 per year.

Yearly tickets have doubled in price. Monthly and weekly tickets have also risen by more than double the 41 per cent rise in inflation in this period. Rises for daily and two-hour tickets have been less steep but still outpaced inflation, jumping 52 to 80 per cent

As usual, I’m gob-smacked at how the mainstream media selectively mix up dollar and percentage figures; blithely show increases but not the starting or ending figures; and don’t show inflation over the period until near the end of the story (it was 48.5%).

I don’t believe for a moment that “fares have risen twice as fast as inflation” as the paper implies i.e. that the average fare has increased in real terms by 100% over the last 14 years (that’d be a 7% per year real increase on average!).

In these sorts of cases, the taboid approach is to identify one ticket type that’s increased significantly in price and then slyly infer the increase applies across the board.

Average fares were increased in real terms this year (6.8% nominal) but, according to this December 2011 report, train and tram fares have only previously risen faster than the rate of inflation on two occasions since privatisation back in 1999 – in 2004 and 2012.

The Public Transport Users Association took the numbers at face value. The President, Tony Morton, is reported in the Herald Sun saying:

Public transport users aren’t getting value for money….We’re now paying twice as much for a system that is by no means twice as good as it was in the 90s, and in some ways worse.

Putting aside the question of  the size of the increase, I haven’t seen any objective data that shows by how much the system is better or worse now than it was in the 90s. It would be an interesting exercise to devise a fair and balanced methodology for assessing the proposition.

Due regard would have to be given to the significant increase in patronage over recent years. The Transport Minister reckons patronage grew by 200 million trips to 536 million over the 14 years. He says many more routes now have more frequent services.

What interests me most, though, is the logic that travellers can’t reasonably be expected to pay higher fares unless they’re offered a proportionate increase in service.

This is a pretty common expectation. If you read the comments on this story, you’ll see there are even users who rely on this sort of argument to justify deliberately evading fares.

The key fact, though, is that public transport passengers in Melbourne (and in Australia generally) pay only a small proportion of the real cost of their journeys.

They pay none of the capital costs and, in the case of rail (the major public transport mode), only around one third of operating costs.

As the exhibit shows, Sydney’s CityRail recovers a similarly low proportion of its operating costs. Moreover, its level of cost recovery is very low compared to its international peer group (CoMET and Nova are groups of rail operators who share benchmarking information).

The NSW Auditor General reported last year that the average subsidy for each rail journey in the state is $10.01.

Revenue from fares is important for public transport but it’s modest compared to total capital and operating costs. An increase in fares obviously can’t lead to a proportional increase in service; not even close.

Even a relatively large one-off increase in fares, like the average 8.6% (about 5% in real terms) brought in at the start of last year by the Baillieu Government, will defray total system costs by only a small amount.

Rather than opposing fare increases, those with a commitment to improving public transport should be arguing for a higher level of cost recovery from beneficiaries.

As I’ve noted before, that would provide more revenue to build a better system, lower the disincentive (i.e. of ongoing subsidy) to governments of building more transit, and be less regressive.

And as I also wrote previously, the rail system alone needs billions spent on things like improved signalling, track upgrades and duplications, more train sets, new rail lines, improved security, and much more. Patronage has grown at around 5% p.a. and that increases costs.

Spending more to improve the system is vital. Experience shows system improvements are more likely to lead to increases in patronage than lower fares.

Although it’s difficult politically, increasing fares significantly in real terms on an ongoing and systematic basis must be a key part of any strategy for improving public transport.

Advocacy groups like the Public Transport Users Association should understand the nexus between revenue and better services. They should avoid playing politics and leave the populist stuff to the Opposition!

To genuinely serve the interests of public transport users, advocacy groups should promote a sustained strategy of real increases in transit revenue, including via fares, tied to long-term operating and capital improvement plans.


Sep 19, 2011


xkcd on the value of time (the corresponding figure in Australia is circa 4 minutes)

I don’t ordinarily read annual reports but this story in Melbourne’s Herald-Sun acknowledged its source was the Victorian Department of Transport’s 2010-11 annual report. The newspaper noted a 3.4% increase in reported crime on Victoria’s public transport system in 2009-10. Much to my surprise, the paper acknowledged up front that patronage had also increased over the period, by 1.6%. That’s a pertinent qualification but it surprised me that a News-owned tabloid bothered to make it. Well done to the Hun and reporter Peter Rolfe – a big tick!

Looking at the performance outcomes section of the annual report, I see the Department’s been clever – its performance indicator for reported crime against the person is effectively the change in offences minus the change in patronage growth. Bit hard to ignore that and it certainly helps to put the crime figure in perspective.

This got me wondering what progress the Department is making in dealing with crime on public transport. What, I wondered, is the trend? How does the latest figure compare with the previous year? This was when I discovered some serious deficiencies in the way the Department reports on outcomes.

A key shortcoming is the annual report fails to give the previous year’s outcome figure. So, for example, the report tells us that the total volume of freight carried by rail in Victoria increased by 8.31 billion tonne-kilometres in the most recent year for which data is available, but provides no indication of whether that is an improvement on the trend or a deterioration. What is the reader to make of this number?

Similarly, bicycle path use increased 2.8% and rail capacity utilisation in the morning peak grew by 9.7%, but in neither case is there a figure on the previous year’s outcome. This is in stark contrast with the financials, which use the convention of showing 2011’s numbers against the previous years. The examples I’ve cited aren’t isolated cases – none of the performance outcome results show the previous year.

The importance of context is shown by the Herald-Sun’s report. Peter Rolfe did some legwork and found reported crime dropped 10% in the previous year, while patronage grew 6%. That’s much better than the latest year’s 3.4% vs 1.6%, suggesting a marked deterioration in performance. Although he failed to acknowledge the difference between the two years might in part be due to increased policing (a cross!), he nevertheless illustrates the value of having something against which to compare performance measures.

Unfortunately, the shortcomings of the Department’s annual report get worse. While each indicator has a target “increase” or “reduction”, most of the “results” actually provide a snapshot or balance statistic – they don’t show the change. For example, one outcome indicator purports to show the increase in the proportion of trips starting or ending in Central Activities Areas (CAA). But what we’re told is that 3% of trips started or ended in CAAs in 2009-10. That’s valuable information in its own right, but it’s not telling us if the Department is succeeding on this indicator. It’s not telling us if there was an increase. It’s not telling us what the indicator says it tells us!

Another example is the target to reduce fuel consumption of petrol vehicles – the result is given as 11.4 litres per vehicle kilometre, but again there’s no indication whether things are getting better or getting worse. Likewise, the result for the car occupancy rate indicator is 1.2 persons (it’s meant to reduce); the greenhouse emissions of the vehicle fleet is 384 g/km (it’s meant to reduce); the average weight carried per freight vehicles is 4.19 tonnes (it’s meant to increase); and so on – but do these represent an improvement or a deterioration on the trend?

This is not a minor issue. Of the 34 indicators that claim to show an “increase” in good things or a “reduction” in bad things, 20 do not even attempt to show how they’ve changed. They’re all snapshots. Experts will in many cases know the context but annual reports are prepared for parliamentarians and for the people. Continue reading “Is the Transport Department coming out on outcomes?”

Media Botch

Jul 30, 2011


If the world's 6.9 billion people lived in a single city, how large would it be if it were as dense as.................................... (from Per Square Mile)

One of the more bizarre examples of ‘story manufacturing’ in the media I’ve seen for a while  – and we regularly have some doozies – went down in News Ltd papers right across Australia on Friday.

Sydney’s Daily Telegraph ran a front-page story headlined Congestion road tax on drivers is highway robbery. The lead para told us: “workers struggling with a carbon tax are about to be hit with a second wave of Greens-inspired tax pain”. This story was repeated in News Ltd papers across the country. Melbourne’s Herald-Sun was so concerned at this imminent threat it even published an editorial on the matter, No to a new Tax – “Australians do not need another new tax”, it thundered.

And what exactly is this new tax workers are about to be hit with? Well, there’s a clue in the rest of the Herald-Sun’s (short) editorial:

Even the idea of a congestion tax, put forward by the Federal Government yesterday for discussion at the tax forum, will have taxpayers shaking their heads. Fortunately, the Gillard Government will not be able to impose this tax on top of the carbon tax, and all the other taxes Labor has brought in, because it needs the agreement of the states. A congestion tax on cars was suggested by former Treasury secretary Ken Henry to help cut petrol excise, but the taxpayers can take only so much. No, no, no.

Even the idea”?! The incontrovertible fact is there is no new tax. All this supposed angst is manufactured from a handful of words in the Government’s new 36 page Discussion Paper released on Thursday in advance of October’s Tax Forum. The Forum is one of the conditions the independents set for their support of the Government.

The Discussion Paper canvasses a wide range of tax issues participants at the Forum might wish to discuss. These relate to personal tax, transfer payments, business tax, State taxes, environmental and social taxes, and tax system governance. At page 30, it notes the Henry Review recommended governments consider the introduction of variable congestion pricing and therefore poses the following question as a prompt for discussion:

Is there a case to more closely link road charging to the impact users have on the level of congestion on particular roads?

That’s it. It’s just a question. Moreover it’s one of 34 proposed for discussion. And so it should be – I’d be very upset if the most important prospective policy for improving the way we manage our cities wasn’t at least on the table. Continue reading “Is News Ltd bringing discussion about cities to a standstill?”