Public transport: time for a new paradigm?

Sorry for the hoary cliché but I really do think it’s time for a new way of thinking about public transport.

Much of the debate on transport in cities is too simplistic. All too frequently it’s reduced to a simple nostrum: “replace all car travel with public transport”. I think it’s more complex than that and, to use another cliché, requires a more nuanced approach.

Let me be clear from the outset that there are compelling reasons why we need to invest more in public transport – for example, to provide mobility for those without access to a car. Another reason is to provide an alternative to roads that are becoming increasingly congested.

But I’m not convinced that the reason most commonly advanced – to overcome the environmental disadvantages of cars – is all that persuasive. Here’s why.

There is considerable scope to make driving “greener”. Petrol is like water. It’s so cheap that too many of us use it profligately, but given the right behavioural incentives we could use considerably less without materially lowering our standard of living.

There’s also room to increase both the fuel efficiency of existing internal combustion engine technology and to reduce the weight and speed of cars. Then there’re alternative fuels like compressed gas and ethanol and whole new technologies like cars powered by electricity and hydrogen.

There are issues here – electricity in Australia is dirty, there are environmental issues around batteries, ethanol potentially competes with food for agricultural land and it could take considerable time to turn-over the national car fleet.

But as I’ve argued before the attractiveness of the car and the value of the existing infrastructure should not be underestimated as forces of change. The major car companies are now the world’s biggest commercial R&D spenders.

Another consideration is that public transport is not as green as it is commonly assumed. It is only fuel-efficient and emissions-efficient if it has high load factors like it does at peak hours, but the requirement to run in off peak times, especially at night and on weekends, dilutes this advantage substantially.

As Victoria’s Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability observed, modes that rely on coal-fired electricity, such as Victoria’s trams and trains, “have GHG full fuel cycle intensity levels on an average per person-kilometre basis that are comparable to motor vehicles”. As this report prepared for the 2008 Victorian Climate Change Summit shows, the GHG intensity of buses in Victoria is in fact worse than that of cars.

This would not be a problem if the vast bulk of all future trips were made by public transport. But in Melbourne the Government’s target is for public transport to capture 20% of motorised travel by 2020 and in Sydney the target set by the Independent Inquiry is 28% of motorised travel by 2036.

That’s not all though – the lion’s share of these ambitious increases would almost certainly be in peak periods rather than the off peak.

The environmental justification for public transport is captured in the commonly accepted assumption that it must be provided on a scale and of a quality that provides a viable alternative to the car i.e. it has to offer a level of service that is superior to the car. This leads to serious proposals like having a system that provides “every ten minutes to everywhere” so that residents, theoretically, never need to even own a car.

I can’t see that ten minute frequencies would be attractive enough, other than in areas like the CBD, to make many car owners leave their vehicles in the garage, but of course it would be wonderful to have. However the key issue is that these sorts of aspirational goals need to be set in the context of the enormous financial task involved not just in providing better public transport but in providing it on a scale and of a quality that can compete effectively against cars.

My view is that policy on public transport investment should stop trying to out-compete the car. This is a near impossible task in most parts of the metropolitan area and is very probably unnecessary on environmental grounds. There should instead be two key focuses.

The first should be on the highly concentrated parts of metropolitan areas like the city centre, where congestion is increasingly rendering the car uncompetitive. These are the locations where high standards of service are justified and where public transport really does out-compete the car.

But that’s still a relatively small part of our cities – in Melbourne’s case, the area within 5 km of Melbourne Town Hall accommodates less than 10% of the metropolitan population and less than 30% of jobs. And jobs in turn only account for about 30% of all travel within the metropolitan area. If cars are “green” then a large part of the warrant for public transport in non-concentrated areas is removed.

The second focus should be on providing mobility for those without access to a car. I concede I don’t know what a minimum acceptable level of public transport service is for this group – that’s an interesting question in itself. But I’m pretty confident it would cost a lot less than what would be required to make travellers who aren’t going to the city centre abandon their cars and switch to public transport.

Providing sustainable and workable transport within our major cities is going to be a long and difficult task. I think it makes more sense to recognise that we actually need the car to keep our relatively low density cities (at least by European standards) functioning for many decades to come. Yes, even green cars have negatives, but we should focus on ways of civilising the beast.

Investment in public transport needs to be strategic and targeted, not sprayed across-the-board. There are other socially worthy uses for scarce funds. The “green” argument is the weakest rationale for more public transport.

22 Comments on “Public transport: time for a new paradigm?”

  1. Ian Woodcock says:

    There is more to the way people move around cities than the sums on carbon – it’s far too reductive to focus on a single facet of the issues associated with transport in cities as though that were the only criterion.

    Even if climate change weren’t an issue, car-dependent cities have many problems associated with them that would justify a move towards massive reductions in car-use. Cars require enormous amounts of space in terms of roads and parking that lead to a type of urban design that is essentially anti-social (think: shopping malls, business parks, etc).

    Car-dependent urbanism is premised on cheap fuel – witness the switch to public transport in recent years with relatively small increases in the price of petrol – even in cities such as Melbourne where the PT services aren’t particularly good! The so-called advantages of the car seem to be very sensitive to pricing signals, suggesting that the ‘advantages’ of cars may not be so valued after all.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Thanks Ian. I agree there are more negatives to cars than just those related to climate change and peak oil (see my 2nd last para and previous posts) but the focus of this post is on these particular issues.

      Nevertheless, let me say that many of those other negatives associated with the car, like speed and noise, should and can be addressed directly with the right policies. Other than freeways, most roads are needed anyway to move freight, for emergency vehicles, etc. Even Hoddle saw the need for roads! I agree there’s too much parking – it’s over-regulated underpriced.

      But if you can remove the environmental and energy problems associated with cars then the justification for massive reductions in the number of cars is much less powerful. Even where policy is committed to massive reductions in the number of cars, I’d argue that the pace of the transition to public transport needs to be slower and more targeted.

      Re the sensitivity of motorists to petrol prices, AIUI the great bulk of increased demand for public transport in recent years is work trips to the CBD (which only has around 15% of all jobs in Melbourne). The jury is out on what the underlying cause is – petrol prices? growth in CBD jobs? immigration? congestion? etc. But AIUI demand for PT for non-work travel has not responded much.

      However I’m doubtful about the statement that cars lead to anti-social urban design – that’s a big call (and smacks of physical determinism).

      • Ian Woodcock says:

        Without cars, would we have shopping malls, business parks, category-busting big box retailing, industrial precincts full of vacant space? Or for that matter, drive-in-drive-out corporate towers, ‘secure’ apartment complexes, and gated residential communities? I agree, many/most of these new, anti-social urban types are products of a range of economic and social forces, but they are all premised on private motorised transport – they are no longer viable if people are moved around in higher-density pulsed forms of transit, walking or cycling. The thing about car-dependency is that current policies deprive most people of modal choices, so we don’t really know how sensitive people are to pricing signals across the entire metropolitan area. We can only hypothesise that in those suburbs where there is a choice, when prices rise, people seem to have shifted modes. If it was as easy to travel between suburbs by PT (as we know increasingly this is how people activity spaces are structured) as it is to get into the CBD, then we’d have some comparisons to make.

  2. jack horner says:

    Not disagreeing, just a comment on energy efficiency of transport modes: energy/GHG intensity of PT per passenger kilometre in practice depends crucially on vehicle occupancy.

    Increasing PT use implies increasing vehicle occupancy, thus improving energy efficiency, as naturally you will allow existing services to fill up before providing more.

    So ‘buses are more energy intensive than cars’ *under current conditions* does not sustain an argument that increasing bus use won’t help energy efficiency goals.

    NB the referenced 2008 report got ‘buses are more energy intensive than cars’ by finding that Victorian urban bus passenger kilometres fell by two thirds from 1991 to 2003. Ditto vehicle occupancy (which implies that bus vkm was not cut). This was the reason for the much worsening bus energy efficiency per pass km over the period.

    According to the report, during the same period
    other Victorian public transport pass km was steady, and bus Pass Km in the rest of Australia increased by 50% (p98, 105ff).

    These constrasts sound highly implausible. The figures are not discussed but simply referenced back to earlier documents. I’d suggest a close look at where they came from before taking the conclusions as gospel.

    NNB on vehicle occupancy of cars: if we are talking about energy use per *useful* passenger kilometre, which we should be, chauffeurs should be ignored. If mum takes child to soccer practice and returns home alone, the relevant vehicle occupancy is 0.5. The report quotes average weekday occupancy, Melbourne 1995, as 1.6 (p104). This seem extremely high, and it would be interesting to know how much excluding chauffeurs would reduce it.

    • Russ says:

      Jack, increased PT use doesn’t necessarily imply improved occupancy. It depends on how usage has increased. If the number of bus services was doubled, then you’d need double the number of passengers to break even on emissions. On some routes that might be plausible (if the current service level was so bad as to be unusable) but not many.

      • jack horner says:

        Agree. I was thinking of increasing PT use by all the things that don’t require more vehicle kilometres, eg fare policy, rational network design to encourage transfer trips (this will promote offpeak and contrapeak use), integrated ticketing, town planning policy concerning transit oriented development and transit accessable regional centres, congestion charges, parking policy.

        A good public transport plan is a mixture of these things and more VKM, and I think there’s at least a likelihood that the total package would increase average occupancy, considering how many existing services have acceptable frequency but low occupancy (eg most four per hour offpeak train services in Sydney and Melbourne).

        The things other than more VKM are more about planning for gradual long term change.

        But I agree that ‘every 10 minutes to everywhere’ would need a radical increase in VKM, and it’s a big ask to think this alone would increase vehicle occupancy.

  3. Alan Davies says:

    I think one of the key reasons buses don’t generally perform well on emissions on a per person kilometre basis is that they tend to be used on marginal and under-performing routes.

    Their relatively poor performance is not confined to Victorian urban areas – see also the US and UK examples I cite here.

  4. Moss says:

    Alan, what’s the difference in embodied energy between car mode and train/bus/tram? Do you have any figures on that?

    And I am disappointed at your continued disparaging remarks about what you call “physical determinism”. In one blog you wonder why the docklands is a wasteland (I think you mentioned its car-centric nature), and in another you are doubtful that cars lead to antisocial urban design… it just seems a little dislocated.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Sorry Moss, no figures on embodied energy on a passenger per kilometre basis of modes under real world operational conditions.

      No, I don’t think I knocked Docklands for being car-centric. My complaints were about the abysmal urban design and a few other things. Every time I go there I see neither people nor cars!

      You know from previous discussions that I think architects and planners tend to read too much into the influence of the physical environment on human behaviour. I’m not saying it doesn’t have any impact, but it’s a long, long way behind social factors in most cases in my opinion.

      I do think it’s very loose to label big box developments as “anti-social”. They may be ugly, they may be unsustainable, but to think they have an important role in determining the quality of social relationships is far-fetched.

      It’s the same sort of attitude that led to the inner city “slum clearances” in Sydney and Melbourne after WW2 on the theory that if you improve the physical environment you do away with poverty and social dysfunction. At best an ignorant and misguided delusion; in reality an arrogant and patronising attitude with shattering consequences for some (although not all – some residents liked the change).

      PS: BTW I’d have thought my earlier comment was the first disparaging remark about physical determinism that I’ve made for some considerable time???

  5. Joseph says:

    Alan, agree with your view that there is little environmental benefit from public transport in a city like Melbourne. As you note the key to efficient and economic public transport is high population density. Melbourne probably could benefit from higher population density and better public transport but the main inhibitor as I see it is political.

    If I can be permitted to generalise, old people vote, young people don’t, old people like to keep their suburbs low density, young people would prefer high density. Housing barely got a mention during the federal election even though for those under, say, 35 housing would arguably rate as the biggest public policy issue. I would ascribe this to lack of engagement in the political process by the sub-35 age group. Until they become engaged I don’t see much changing hence low density and poor public transport prevail. I can’t imagine I am the only one to make a connection here but can’t recall having seen the issue raised elsewhere.

  6. Ian Woodcock says:

    Times have moved on a long way since the slum-clearance movements – its overly simplistic to make such an analogy and detracts from the issues at stake (straw man arguments lower the tone somewhat!). The comment about anti-social urban design vis-a-vis bog box retailing wasn’t referring to their appearance (as we know, slums aka informal settlements, may well be deemed ‘ugly’ too, but they are generally very sociable environments for their inhabitants). Big box retailing is car-dependent and unpleasant to use – swathes of car park surrounding big boxes. Why would anyone socialise in such places?

  7. TomD says:

    Getting off the track with the rest of you over this bearing of architecture and different combinations of built/natural environments on social behavior … just want to add that I don’t think it is any accident that calmer states of mind seem to be induced/reinforced/enhanced by environments reflecting more zen like qualities. Cluttered home environments/Cluttered and more debilitated minds is a link many people subscribe to? While not necessarily being true for all of course!

    • Moss says:

      Perhaps we all agree that it’s time for Alan to blog on this physical determinism/architecture-social relationship? It’s certainly an area of interest to me, and I’d be interested in the “opposing” view…

  8. Ian Woodcock says:

    There you go again – ‘socialise’ is a (only one, not the only) meaning of ‘social’. Reductio ad absurdum!

  9. […] that climate change and peak oil are the least compelling reasons for investing in public transport (Public transport: time for a new paradigm?). There are far more convincing reasons, such as providing universal mobility and an alternative in […]

  10. Russell says:

    Your points probably apply even more to Perth – before peak hour, when I’m riding back from the beach, I see articlulated buses lumbering along with 1 or 2 passengers, and the same when I drive home from work at 6.30 pm. Perth is very spread out.

    I gave up public transport commuting about 15 years ago when the train got just too crowded – and I know it’s now much, much worse. Agree that car technology already exists for much greener cars, though size & weight should be the easiest thing for people to change, and that if fuel becomes expensive, commuters like myself will switch to 75cc motorcycles. I am never going back to public transport.

    Social/ising in big box shopping centres: there’s one near me (“Garden City” but no garden) that I go to perhaps once a year. Each annual visit I find lots of shops have changed since last time, but that there are still 40 or more places to eat/have coffee, and they are all packed with people gossiping and eating junk food. Even a row of tables squeezed down the middle of an isle crowded with passing shoppers will be fully occupied! There’s no accounting for taste.

    Public transport will never let us have the convenience we have now. Just one example, for the past two months I have visited my mother, who’s in hospital, each day after work. The hospital isn’t in the CBD. But it’s easy to drive there, have the things I need to take her, stop at the shops for things I need on the way home …..

  11. […] operated on a full cost-recovery basis if cars are also required to pay their full costs (as I’ve argued here). That’s a neat synergy because in most situations public transport will only be competitive with […]

  12. […] commuting periods but when considered across all trips, emissions per capita for public transport are nearly as bad as cars. Because the authors assume 91% of the workers in the house drive to work compared to 50% in the […]

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