Will providing better transit be enough to cope with city growth?

Policies on Public Transport and Private Transport - you can't have one without the other

It might seem counter-intuitive, but you can’t increase public transport’s share of travel significantly unless you simultaneously do something about cars. Yet this simple relationship is usually ignored by governments and lobbyists alike.

Back on 23 August I looked at the question of how our cities could grow larger but still be liveable. Public transport has a vital role in meeting this challenge, but the task is daunting. Notwithstanding current overcrowding on the train system, public transport’s share of all motorised travel is only around 11% in Melbourne and a little higher in Sydney.

The standard recipe for increasing transit’s share of travel is to offer a better product. This is popularly thought of as more trains and more light rail (only occasionally more buses).

It usually involves providing some combination of greater route coverage, higher frequencies, longer operating hours, faster speeds, better connections, more information and higher levels of comfort and security.

Improving quality seems a self-evident solution. After all, the area of the city with the best public transport offering – the CBD – is also the area where public transport scores best against the car. For example, 43% of all motorised work trips to the inner city in Melbourne are made by public transport and this study suggests the figure for the CBD is probably upwards of 65%.

This strategy works – but only up to a point. Consider, for example, the Melbourne inner city municipality of Yarra. It has a pretty high standard of train and tram services, yet 86% of all motorised weekday travel by residents of Yarra is still made by car (or 74% when walking and cycling are also included).

The fact is a high standard of public transport provision is not enough by itself to drive really serious mode shift. The missing factor is suppressing the car. Public transport only has a high share of work travel to the CBD because factors like high levels of traffic congestion and high parking charges nullify the car’s inherent advantages.

This is a critical insight. It tells us that in almost all cases travellers who have the option of driving will only prefer public transport when (a) the level of public transport service is high, and in addition (b), the advantages of the car are neutralised. It means that policies directed at increasing public transport’s share of travel won’t be successful unless they also embrace ways of making car travel less attractive.

This should be intuitively obvious. Absent factors like congestion, cars are almost always faster and more convenient than public transport. They offer greater privacy, security and the ability to carry belongings. Even the marginal cost of a trip is usually perceived to be lower by car than by public transport.

In the case of the CBD, high levels of congestion and high parking costs derive from the very high density of activities in the central area, especially employment. But density is not an essential condition for suppressing car travel. Market changes like higher petrol prices can also make driving less competitive.

Or deliberate interventions like road pricing, tax increases and regulatory changes can increase the cost of operating a car relative to the cost of public transport. This is an important point because it means that even in a relatively low density city like Melbourne (at least by European standards), it is possible to suppress car travel intentionally and thereby increase public transport’s mode share.

Of course deliberately increasing the cost of car travel is politically fraught. There are virtually no policies at either State of Federal level in Australia aimed at increasing the cost of driving. Even the report of the Independent Public Inquiry into a Long Term Public Transport Plan for Sydney gives little prominence to road pricing, treating it primarily as a means of raising revenue rather than as an essential step in attracting patronage to transit.

Traffic congestion is therefore the default way that public transport demand is supported at present (not that policy-makers do this consciously). But it is a very inefficient way. Congestion is associated with higher emissions and petrol consumption and does not discriminate between the importance or value of trips.

It is also commonly (and usually implicitly) assumed that substantially higher future prices for petrol and/or carbon will suppress car travel and hence drive demand for public transport. However this is an uncertain strategy. We don’t, for example, know the timing or the extent of future price changes. As I’ve noted before, even a $40/tonne price on carbon will only increase the price of petrol by 10c/litre (the carbon price currently advocated by the Greens is around $25/tonne). Nor do we know how easily or quickly drivers will be able to switch to substitutes like more petrol-efficient cars or electric vehicles.

So other than in places like the CBD, something considerably more deliberate, like road pricing, will very probably be required to suppress the attractiveness of cars sufficiently to force really serious uptake of public transport.

The key message is that it is not enough simply to have a Public Transport policy. It must be accompanied by a Private Transport policy. And it can’t just be a roads policy – it has to address action on the range of factors that determine the relative attractiveness of cars as against other modes.


9 Comments on “Will providing better transit be enough to cope with city growth?”

  1. Matthew says:

    Nice post Alan.

    Judging by the dearth of places on this list http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_car-free_places and the fact that it seems only historic districts of cities are car-free the only real way to discourage cars is to make the streets narrower than the width of a car.

    That’s my best suggestion.

    • TomD says:

      Or we could make them even wider Matthew … and encourage the growth of commuter transit using high frequency teams of bullock drays.

      At least they would be pollution free (methane aside) and they could turn around more easily when returning home.

      • Alan Davies says:

        Maybe not entirely pollution free! 🙂

        This quote from the New Yorker:

        “One commentator predicted that by 1930 horse manure would reach the level of Manhattan’s third-story windows. New York’s troubles were not New York’s alone; in 1894, the Times of London forecast that by the middle of the following century every street in the city would be buried under nine feet of manure. It was understood that flies were a transmission vector for disease, and a public-health crisis seemed imminent”.

        Now Mercedes Benz has made an advertisement that trades on NY’s shitty past.

  2. jack horner says:

    This shows up the incoherence of most government transport policy.

    37 years after the first oil shock first brought wide attention to the problem of cars in big cities, our governments have at last got to the point where they are comfortable making motherhood statements about the need to promote public transport.

    They are willing to propose fashionable multi-billion dollar rail projects accordingly (mostly without clear justification, but that’s another story).

    They are happy to put the public transport projects up front in their glossy policy documents (the fact that road expansion is still getting three quarters of the money is held for the last chapter).

    They may even, occasionally, in a low voice, admit that building roads won’t solve traffic congestion.

    But they have *not* yet got to the point of accepting that they *also* have to stop spending so much on roads. That goes too much against the grain. There is always one more motorway needed to ‘complete’ the network. Like the addict who just needs one last drink.

    So they pursue ‘better roads *and* better public transport’ rhetoric apparently without realising that these are contradictory goals.

    PS this is a general comment on road dominated transport policy for congested big cities. Obviously some road expansion in some locations is necessary.

  3. Pat Sunter says:

    hi Alan – I agree with the basic ‘stick as well as carrot premise’ but i do notice a couple of things in the post worth raising:

    1) yarra having a ‘pretty high standard’ of PT – _relative_ perhaps to certain areas of Melb, but not globally. Eg the trams are ridiculously overcrowded throughout peak hour, and E-W connections are still poor.

    2) when you talk about the ‘inherent advantages of the car’, the unwritten assumption is ‘in a context where there has been massive institutional support and funding priority for the private car over many decades’ with freeway spending, dedication of space to parking etc.

    i am not an anti-car zealot by any means, just making the point that when assessing whether to ‘penalise driving’ in pursuit of various public goods, we should consider that the current status quo is already very much tilted in favour of the car vs bikes or public transport.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Thanks Pat. I agree Yarra’s PT services are not perfect but then neither are Manhattans! In the real world they’re approaching as good as it’s likely to get (and at least as good as Manhattan’s in my experience!). But even if you could overcome the disadvantages you mention, how much improvement is that going to give you on the current 86% share by car?

      I accept your point about funding priority for the car. All the more reason why it’s necessary to get some balance into the way cars are priced if the objective is to boost PT’s share of kms travelled.

    • Michael says:

      Not only are cars privileged over other forms of transport but there is a huge sunk cost involved with owning one. Cities in Asia where there is large public transport usage a lot of people don’t own cars. I wonder if a statistic on car ownership in the city of Yarra would show rates of car ownership much different from other parts of Melbourne? How about rates of car ownership in Manhatten? The question should be asked – can people live without a car in places like Yarra and still get around. During the day the answer is generally yes. At weekends and in the evening it is a different matter. Bus schedules in Melbourne quickly drop off after the morning peak making them almost unusable. Who is going to wait half an hour for a bus? Only the desperate. A basic level of service that means you don’t need to own a car has to be meet.

      • A very good post Alan. I agree wholeheartedly with pretty much every point in it.

        You comparison of Yarra vs. Manhatten is interesting.

        During the day City of Yarra probably is easier to get around on PT than Manhattan, however once you hit about 7pm and until about 5am when trams start back up Manhattan has a distinct advantage.

        I think the longest I waited for a train in my (brief) stay in NYC was 6 minutes and that was after midnight, after watching my train pulling out as I descended the stairs.

        Getting from platform to platform and navigating some of the maze like stations can be quite confusing though.

  4. […] A lot of the public transport discussion is focussed on management arrangements. That’s a pertinent issue but it’s not the main game. I think it’s time for a new debate about public transport that’s centred on moving toward full recovery of internal and external costs from both transit and cars. You can’t make policy on one without the other. […]


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