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Sep 8, 2015


Melbourne City Council's 2014 - 2017 Walking Plan cites this scene as an example of pedestrian crowding that needs to be addressed by policy makers

In their 20102 analysis of the journey to work, Transport Policy at the Crossroads: Travel to work in Australian capital cities 1976-2011, Paul Mees and Lucy Groenhart noted that “cycling is of negligible importance” for commuting and “higher cycling rates are usually accompanied by lower walking rates”.

They went on to say:

Cycling receives much more attention from policy makers than walking, even though it plays a much smaller role in the journey to work: one possible reason is that cycling is by far the most male-dominated transport mode, reflecting the gender composition of the transport planning profession.

I agree that cycling currently gets more policy and media focus than walking when it comes to commuting. But I think there are more straightforward explanations than the one advanced by the authors.

The key one is Australian cities already have a massive historical legacy of segregated walking infrastructure – primarily footpaths or nature strips – so the “catch up” we’re seeing with cycling infrastructure isn’t anywhere near as pressing. (1)

Moreover new suburbs in Australia are constructed with dedicated footpaths on both sides of streets as a matter of course. Commuters can walk to the bus stop or station without sharing road space; at busy intersections they have access to specialised crossings and/or traffic signals. (2)

With only a few exceptions, our footpaths also have a lot of capacity. They were sized with other attributes in mind besides walking; like separation between buildings and room for landscaping.

When it comes to walking we’re a bit like Amsterdam is to cycling; there’s room for improvement at the margin – particularly in how we manage what we’ve got – but the basic infrastructure and policy commitment is already there.

Another explanation is walking simply doesn’t demand as much of infrastructure as more specialised, mechanised forms of transport like cycling do.

For one thing pedestrians move slowly. Another is the human body is enormously flexible and nimble. Pedestrians can instantly and unconsciously calculate efficient paths through moving objects, around obstacles, and over changing terrain.

We’ve had millennia of experience of walking in crowds or at least in groups. A large crowd dispersing from an event is a wonder of efficient shifting and sorting; it’s what the most optimistic boosters imagine driverless cars will be able to achieve.

Another part of the explanation could be that cycling is commonly seen as a potential substitute for driving to work in Australia’s relatively dispersed cities whereas walking – other than in the dense centre – mostly isn’t. (3)

Underlying all this is probably the simple fact that cycling is seen as “new” and exciting (the Scandis are doing it!), while walking is old and reliable; it doesn’t need a special skill or even money.

None of this means there isn’t a need to improve walking for the journey to work and more generally, particularly in relation to safety. Regrettably, 83 pedestrians died on Australian roads in the first six months of this year.

The speed of walking is also a problem in some places. For example, in dense locations the priority given to vehicles over pedestrians at traffic lights often doesn’t reflect the relative number of travellers using the two modes.

There are also instances of pedestrian congestion during peak periods and before and after major events; but we need to be very careful when looking at these sorts of cases to avoid falling into the trap of treating walking like driving.

What Melbourne City Council calls pedestrian “crowding” (see exhibit) in it’s Walking Plan 2014-17 would certainly constitute congestion if all those people were cars, but for walkers that level of “crowding” isn’t within cooee of being a problem. That’s the advantage of walking.

Both modes need more attention from policy-makers than they’re getting, but it’s neither a surprise nor a problem that cycling is getting more than walking.


  1. There’s also an extensive network of privately provided walking infrastructure built for public use e.g. Emporium Melbourne, Myer.
  2. Indeed, the level of public and private investment in walking infrastructure in publicly accessible spaces, even just for the journey to work, surely exceeds that for cycling by a considerable margin.
  3. For example, only 5% of commutes to workplaces in the City of Melbourne are made by walking (only).

Transport - general

Feb 6, 2014


Historic shares (%) of work trips by mode in Australia's capital cities (excluding Darwin). Source: Data from Mees & Groenhart

The first exhibit shows the share of journey-to-work trips by mode in Australia’s capital cities. The data is from a paper by Paul Mees and Lucy Groenhart, Transport policy at the crossroads, published in December 2012.

The analysis by Mccrindle Research I cited last time showed only 10% of Australian commuters use public transport. However Mccrindle’s work covered the entire nation; the Mees and Groenhart analysis is just for capital cities (excluding Darwin).

Their work shows the mode share of public transport for work trips, aggregated across the capitals, is a much healthier 16.8% (1).

In fact the share of commutes made by public transport, walking and cycling increased over the last 15 years. Back in 1996 15% of trips to work were made by public transport; by 2011 the share had increased to 17% (2).

Conversely, the share of work trips by car declined steadily over the last fifteen years. Cars accounted for 78% of journeys to work in 1996 but only 75% in 2011.

Since they’re moving in opposite directions, it’s tempting to assume that commuters are swapping their petrol guzzlers for trains, trams and buses. While that happens to some extent, the numbers don’t suggest it’s the primary explanation for the change in the pattern of mode shares.

Notwithstanding that cars lost share over 1996-2011, the second exhibit shows that the absolute number of car commutes in the capitals increased substantially over the same period, growing by 1,039,009 trips.

This is 2.2 times larger than the combined increase in public transport work trips (354,419), walking work trips (75,235) and bicycle work trips (36,181) over the same 15 years. The latter three are growing decidedly faster than driving, but from a much smaller base.

Driving isn’t losing popularity as a means of getting to work. For example, the number of car-based commutes grew by 12.8% over the most recent five year inter-census period (2006-11). That’s well short of the growth in public transport over the same period (26.8%) but considerably higher than the 8.3% growth in population.

In fact it was the highest inter-census increase for cars for the entire 1976-2011 period examined by Mees and Groenhart. Indeed, the number of car commutes increased on average by 9.8% between each Census over 1996-2011, compared to an average of 7.3% for each Census period over 1976-1996.

The gap between the mode shares of cars and public transport is closing very slowly. Even in the (admittedly unrealistic) event all modes were to sustain into the future the growth rates they experienced between 1996 and 2011, it would take until around the turn of the next century for public transport to get to even a 33% mode share.

What these numbers suggest to my mind is that it’s not enough for policy-makers to focus primarily on public transport and land-use changes in the planning of our cities. Effective policy can’t be confined to opposing occasional new freeways and supporting occasional new rail lines.

Most of what’s needed doesn’t involve new infrastructure; we’ve already got a lot of that (see Is more transport infrastructure all our cities need?). The problem is city managers aren’t managing it effectively. They’re not pricing and regulating it properly because it’s politically harder to do that than promise big-ticket items.

Of course there’s a need for incremental improvements to support public transport, walking and cycling; but it’s not enough. It’s a virtual certainty road-based transport will remain the dominant mode for many decades to come. Action is needed to reduce the negative impacts of cars on urban amenity, personal safety, and sustainability while optimising  their benefits e.g. by managing congestion better through road pricing.


  1. It’s important to appreciate that the journey-to-work is a minor mode; it only accounts for around a fifth of all trips. However it’s important because work trips are longest; they’re the least discretionary trip; they’re the purpose where public transport does best; and, because they’re subject to peaking, they determine the maximum capacity of transport infrastructure.
  2. Over 1996-2011, walking’s mode share increased from 3.5% to 3.8%; cycling’s from 0.9% to 1.3%; and trips in the Other purpose, which includes motorcycles, taxis and trucks, from 3.1% to 3.5%.
Number of work trips by mode in Australia's capital cities (excluding Darwin). Source: data from Mees & Groenhart

Transport - general

Jun 20, 2013


Vale Paul Mees

Public transport thinker, researcher, educator and advocate Paul Mees died yesterday from cancer, aged 52. He made a major contribution to international understanding of transport.

Paul Mees in 1995

Paul Mees was best known publicly for his high-profile and tireless advocacy of public transport as president of the Public Transport Users Association (PTUA) in Melbourne from 1993 to 2001. He was also familiar to many as a teacher and researcher at Melbourne University and subsequently at RMIT.

Less well known is his role as one of the world’s leading transport intellectuals and policy thinkers. He made his mark through numerous papers and presentations and two internationally influential books, A Very Public Solution: Transport in the Dispersed City (2000) and Transport for Suburbia: Beyond the Automobile Age (2010).

Here’s a fulsome profile of Paul written by Farah Farouque and published in The Age in 2008, Public provocateur. One of his successors as President of the PTUA, Daniel Bowen, posted a heart-felt tribute today on his blog. Update: more recent tributes at bottom.

There’ll be time later for a discussion about the immense contribution Paul made to the international discussion of transport and cities generally. For now, here’re some of the tributes posted on Twitter (latest first) that were in my feed. I think they convey the high esteem in which Paul was held and his valuable role in public life:

Taras Grescoe RIP Paul Mees, Melbourne transportation authority, and straight-talking transit guru, after a battle with cancer

Paula Gerber ‏Vale Paul Mees, Australia’s leading public transport & land use researcher. We have lost a brilliant mind.

Metro Trains Our condolences to family and friends of Paul Mees, former President PTUA, who died yesterday. A fierce advocate for public transport.

Lindy Burns RIP Paul Mees. Articulate, informed, unafraid. Grateful for all our conversations.

Paul Barter: ‏Paul Mees, Melbourne’s feistiest public transport advocate and academic died yesterday. Will be sorely missed.

Yarra Trams: ‏Condolences to the family of Dr Paul Mees. Thank you for being a strong advocate for public transport in Melbourne.

Andrew Lund: Sad to hear about Paul Mees’ death. A champion for public transport in Melbourne.

MaribTruckActionGrp: ‏Vale Paul Mees, a huge loss: A sane voice in a culture of hopeless myopia around transport policy in this city.

Greg Barber: ‏Paul Mees: a crusader who followed where the facts led & wouldn’t stop speaking the truth once he found it.

Scott Martin: I saw both sides of Paul Mees: the combatative side holding Spring St to account, but also the generous educator w/ rapier wit.

Leslie Cannold: ‏RIP Transport activist and RMIT academic Paul Mees. Dead from cancer at age 52.

MatthewGuyMP: ‏Sad news about the passing of Paul Mees. A warrior for public transport issues in Victoria for many years.

Yarra Council: ‏Vale Paul Mees, PTUA Secretary 1987-91, and President 1993-2001. You will be greatly missed.

MsKatieKatieKay: ‏Gutted to hear of Paul Mees’ passing. On transport, he was the voice of reason in an often crazy world. Vale.

Saint Star: ‏Farewell Dr Paul Mees. Uncompromising public transport advocate & Melbourne legend. Let’s win this one for Paul.

Geoff Barbaro: ‏Sometimes he ripped apart my crafted media releases, sometimes he was a colleague, always he was passionate & generous RIP Paul Mees.

Brian Wilson: sad to hear – I often copped his wrath in getting Eastlink up -but his logic, passion and commitment always commanded respect.

Rose Iser: ‏I’ll always remember the passion with which he spoke about train lines. He could have built a great city.

Kathleen Maltzahn: So so sad to hear that Paul Mees has died. An important, funny, visionary and fiercely intelligent man. Too young.

The Myki User: ‏Wow. Never met Paul Mees but as a fellow traveller I’m sure he’s standing under some clocks somewhere. Too young.

Julius Flywheel: ‏Vale Paul Mees, a great Melburnian. He Rode Chariots with Fire With respect from RMIT TRC alums.

Tony Morton: ‏Vale, Prof Paul Mees. An inspiration to a generation of sustainable transport advocates and a downright decent bloke. RIP.

Vaughan Williams: ‏Vale Dr Paul Andrew Mees 1961 – 2013. An intellectual powerhouse who taught me a lot & championed the cause to the last. RIP, Comrade.

Daniel Bowen: ‏Vale Paul Mees. RIP, comrade 🙁

Dr Matthew Burke: ‏We just lost one of the greats. Paul Mees was imperious. Terribly sad day.

Jago Dodson: Vale Paul Mees, a dear friend & co-author. Australian urban planning has lost one of its most provocative and critical thinkers.

Chris Loader: ‏Vale Paul Mees, a fearless and passionate campaigner who inspired and challenged many.

PTUA: Word has reached us tonight of the passing of Paul Mees, PTUA Secretary 1987-91, President 1993-2001. A big loss. Paul you will be missed.

Update: Tributes to Paul Mees: Auckland Transport Blog; Matthew Burke; Jana at (Urban) Guerilla SemioticsClay LucasObituary in The Age; Editorial in The Age; CathNews: The socialist with rosary beads (with details of funeral); Jarrett Walker, Human Transit; Adjournment Speech by Senator Penny Wright

Cars & traffic

Nov 13, 2012


Is this the world's Most Swimmable City? (source: Mail Online)

There’s a consensus among urban policy analysts that road pricing should be introduced into our large cities as soon as possible, particularly at peak times. Yet some groups, like the Greens and the Public Transport Users Association, aren’t convinced it’s all good news.

Road pricing involves charging motorists for the use of road space. It’s usually thought of as a means of addressing traffic congestion, but in principle it can be applied at all times.

Although it depends on how it’s implemented (e.g. cordon or per km charge), the key areas where road pricing promises benefits are well established. It could potentially:

  • Reduce the pollution, emissions, fuel use and disamenity associated with congested driving conditions
  • Lower the economic cost of congestion – principally delays – which BITRE estimates will reach $20 billion p.a. nationally by 2020
  • Give priority when roads are congested to high-value trips over those of marginal value
  • Moderate popular demands to “build our way out of congestion”
  • Lower the total level of off-peak car use by making drivers more conscious of the marginal cost of driving e.g. shifting some costs from standing charges to per km charges
  • Generate surplus revenue that can be applied to other purposes e.g. public transport improvements
  • Increase the demand for public transport by raising the relative cost of driving
  • Enhance horizontal equity by requiring those who drive more to pay more.

But like everything in public policy, road pricing also has its downsides. One that looms large is it’s a hard sell politically.

The key criticism in policy terms is it’s vertically inequitable – those with fewer resources would pay a higher proportion of their income in charges.

That’s true, but it’s true for public transport and other basic services like electricity, gas and water too. In fact in these cases the marginal charge increases with consumption.

It’s not good policy to encourage excess consumption of a scarce resource in the name of a single objective. A better approach would be to compensate at-risk populations adversely affected by road pricing.

However there’s another objection that hasn’t gotten much attention. It’s most clearly articulated by Dr Paul Mees in his influential book, Transport for suburbia, and in this submission he made to Infrastructure Australia.

Dr Mees argues that congestion charging makes driving more attractive because it offers higher speeds. The inevitable consequence is that on average drivers will use the extra speed to make longer trips, using more fuel and generating more pollution and emissions in the process.

Rather than seeking to manage congestion, the alternative is to see it as a way of deterring driving and encouraging higher public transport use. In his book (p47), Dr Mees cites the experience of Vancouver, which “reduced journey times by promoting congestion.”

In its 1993 regional plan, Vancouver positively embraced congestion as “part of a package designed to promote self-containment and mode shift away from the car.” The pay-off was that despite rapid population growth over the same period:

Vancouver was the only Canadian urban region where the average time taken for the journey to work….declined, from 70 minutes in 1992 to 67 in 2005. By contrast times in Montreal jumped from 62 to 76 minutes.

I think it’s a plausible argument. Motorists would indeed be likely to drive further on average if speeds increased. That’s likely to happen whether the speed increase results from congestion pricing, road works, or some other change.

I’m not sure that it’s such a big problem, though. All the pricing proposals I’ve seen are aimed at increasing speeds enough to clear out logjams and get traffic moving at a modest speed that’s still well below the speed limit.

Moreover any increase in speeds needs to be interpreted in context. The extra travel might be offset in whole or in part by those marginal drivers discouraged by pricing.

And longer trips might also be offset by a fall in low value trips in the off-peak if the pricing regime extends beyond peak hours. Further, if levied on a per kilometre basis it could encourage shorter average trip lengths.

In any event, the benefits of longer trips have to be taken into account along with the costs. Having the choice to drive further could mean, for example, that a worker has the choice of a better job (more efficient labour and job matching).

The key benefit of road pricing relative to “promoting congestion” is it sorts the traffic according to value. Someone with an urgent business or personal meeting to get to, or a load of goods to deliver, will welcome the greater certainty provided by less congested conditions.

I don’t put a lot of store by the Vancouver numbers. Dr Mees elaborates on them further in this paper, but he doesn’t show a causal relationship. There might be other factors that explain the observed reduction in travel times.

I am in any event wary of relying on the experience of just one or two other cities to draw general conclusions, let alone ones that are applicable elsewhere. There’s immense variability between cities.

For example, this writer claims that the introduction of road pricing in Stockholm in 2006 had a similar outcome to that attributed to congestion in Vancouver. Commute times dropped and public transport use increased.

Yet even if it’s accepted that road pricing is as costly in terms of induced travel as Dr Mees implies, it’s not a “policy stopper”. Of course road pricing has negatives as well as positives – all policy initiatives do.

What matters is how those costs and benefits compare. On balance, I think it makes more sense to charge for road space than tolerate congestion, although it will depend ultimately on what sort of implementation is politically feasible.

It’s true congestion pricing won’t produce a wholesale reduction in car use – that’s not what it’s intended to do. It’s very likely that in some form or other cars will be with us for a long time yet so we need to find ways to manage them better. Road pricing should be one of those ways (more on road pricing here, here, here and here).

I’m disappointed The Age ran a story this week with the lede: “After almost 10 years in the role, Melbourne’s chief complainer about public transport has finally had enough.” The headline was just as rude: “Transport mouthpiece to step down.” Continue reading “What next for the Public Transport Users Association?”


May 7, 2012


How the Dutch got their cycle paths

A key reason the Netherlands has the highest level of cycling for day-to-day transport in the world is its extensive network of high quality, safe bicycle paths. But it wasn’t always like that – the key message of this video (see exhibit) is that most of the bicycle network was built from the mid-1970s onward.

The implication is there’s no special “Dutch” factor that makes the Netherlands experience unique or non-replicable. Other countries who’re prepared to follow the same strategy should also expect to generate a huge increase in the use of bicycles as a means of transport.

Up until the 1970s the Netherlands, like everywhere else in the developed world, was being re-shaped to accommodate the car. However there was a significant change in direction around that time. Cycling was prioritised over cars as a matter of conscious and deliberate policy and authorities started to build segregated bike paths.

An interesting and potentially very useful question for policy-making is why the Netherlands changed course in the mid 70s and other countries – like Australia – didn’t. The video posits three key explanations for the change in direction taken by the Dutch.

First, there was “public outrage” over the number of buildings being demolished and the amount of space given over to cars for roads and parking. Continue reading “How come the Dutch got cycle paths and not us?”

Public transport

May 8, 2011


'The Beauty of Maps' - BBC TV series

I’ve noted before that public transport patronage in Australian cities is increasing, but I didn’t realise just how dramatically it has escalated in Melbourne until I had cause to leaf through the Annual Review 2010 published by Metlink, the marketing organisation for Melbourne’s train, tram and bus operators.

This claim really caught my attention: “Metlink research shows that 74% of Melburnians use public transport to get to work, school or leisure activities”. Three quarters of Melburnians?! That’s not merely astonishing, it’s mind-boggling. It comes as quite a surprise to me, as the Department of Transport’s VISTA database says that only around 11% of all weekday travel in Melbourne is by public transport and even in the case of education, only 25% of trips to primary, secondary and tertiary education are made by public transport.

That quote can’t be dismissed as a one-off case of excessive zeal. This recent press release by Metlink also seems to strain credibility. It says Metlink has done a survey which found that “19% of Melburnians decreased their car use” in the past twelve months. It goes on to say that “62% of Melburnians (say) they will rely more on public transport than their cars” in the future. And this media statement released the same day says: “The study found that 94 per cent of Melburnians want governments to spend more on public transport……while only 68 per cent wanted taxpayer money spent on roads”.

If some of that sounds improbable, that might be because it is. One clue is in this story in The Age. The reporter, when noting the claim that 19% of Melburnians decreased their car use, also mentions that another 19% increased their car use i.e. Metlink’s survey found net car use was actually static. The reporter also asked Dr Paul Mees of RMIT for comment on another finding  – that the number of people walking more often in the past 12 months increased by 15%:

Dr Mees said he was sceptical about the dramatic jump in the number of people who claimed to be walking more, because if the 15 per cent rise were true, it would be unprecedented. ”I do feel that many people must be responding with the answer that they think the person asking the question wants to hear – it makes them feel good to answer that they are walking more,” Dr Mees said.

Intrigued by the apparent ease with which Metlink can conjure paradigm-changing numbers, I did a bit of digging around and came up with Metlink’s media kit for the survey. As is often the case with chook food, this is mainly Powerpoint slides rather than  comprehensive details about the methodology. Even with that caveat, the material suggests a few possible explanations for Metlink’s somewhat optimistic findings.  Continue reading “Is transit patronage really growing this fast?”


Feb 5, 2011


Mode share vs density (click to enlarge)

The accompanying chart shows how public transport’s share of the journey to work varies with population density across 41 US and Australian cities.

It is taken from the same article that I mentioned in my last post. The authors, Dr John Stone and Dr Paul Mees, find there is only a modest relationship between population density and transit share (R2 = 0.229). They conclude that “higher density across the whole urban region is not the explanatory variable that many might expect”.

Los Angeles, for example, is the densest metropolitan area in the US – denser ever than New York – yet the chart shows public transport’s share of work travel in LA is much smaller than in NY.

If that seems counter-intuitive, your intuition could be right. The chart uses average population density calculated across the entire urbanised area of each city.

While that’s perfectly alright in some contexts, it doesn’t allow for the possibility that public transport’s ability to win travel away from cars is related to the morphology of density – the ‘peaks and troughs’ in the way the population is spatially distributed. It’s possible that the relative proportion of population in high density areas vs low density areas has a greater impact on mode share.

Using average density probably won’t present a serious problem with cities like Atlanta, Austin, Dallas, Phoenix and Portland where the population is overwhelmingly suburbanised at relatively uniform (low) densities. But it could have a big impact on places like New York which have an extensive ring of low density suburbs as well as a high density central region e.g. Manhattan and Brooklyn.

A way of dealing with this issue is to use weighted density rather than average density. This involves weighting the density of each suburb (or other convenient geographical unit e.g. traffic zone) by its share of the city’s total population. So a one km2 suburb with 5,000 residents (say) carries a lot more weight than another suburb of the same area that has only 1,000 residents. Continue reading “Does density matter for mode share?”


Feb 1, 2011


What's the biggest danger?

According to a report in The Age last month, new research published in the latest issue of Australian Planner shows that higher suburban densities are not a precondition for vastly better public transport. Reporter Andrew West says:

City dwellers have been presented with a false choice – live in apartments and enjoy good public transport or retain the house and land and rely on cars

The research by Dr John Stone and Dr Paul Mees contends that it is not necessary to intensify land-use across the whole city before significant improvement in both patronage and economic efficiency of public transport becomes possible.

They say the contribution made by urban consolidation “to recent public transport patronage growth is modest and makes little impact on the density of the whole urban region”. Most residents of Australian cities will continue to live in houses and suburban subdivisions that are already built so “alternatives to the car will need to be effective at existing urban residential densities”.

They argue instead for a ‘networked’ model of public transport. Improving the way existing public transport resources are managed – especially by providing higher frequencies and improving coordination between services and between modes – will yield significantly higher transit patronage in the suburbs without the need for broadbrush increases in density.

I’ve argued before that increasing residential density, by itself, will not necessarily increase public transport patronage significantly, much less shift travellers out of their cars in large numbers.

I’ve also argued that there are generally better gains to be had from using existing resources more efficiently rather than relying on strategies based around huge new infrastructure investments or massive land use changes.

And I think the idea of networking public transport is absolutely critical. By embracing transfers, networking provides faster travel paths to all parts of the metropolitan area than is possible by radial routing.

However it’s not obvious to me that ‘networked’ public transport, by itself, would have the sort of major impact on mode share in the suburbs implied by The Age’s report. I can see that it would make public transport much better for existing users and I’ve no doubt it would increase patronage, but I’m not persuaded that it would be enough to address the ‘false choice’ that The Age says Melburnites have been presented with. Continue reading “Will networking make public transport the mode of choice?”