Why is public transport patronage increasing?

Public transport patronage growth in Australian cities (chart by Chris Loader)

As the accompanying chart shows, public transport patronage has grown sharply in some of Australia’s capitals this past decade but the rate of growth has generally slowed significantly over the last 18 months.

We’re accustomed to thinking that growth in patronage is driven by higher petrol prices but the chart indicates the explanation is probably more complex.

In particular, the considerable differences between cities suggest that one single factor is unlikely to provide a satisfactory explanation. Patronage grew spectacularly in South East Qld, Perth and Melbourne, but was modest in Greater Sydney and unremarkable elsewhere.

It needs to be borne in mind that all of this growth is from a relatively small base. For example, public transport’s share of all motorised travel (weekday and weekend) in Melbourne is even now only around 11%. This is only slightly lower than Sydney’s. Perth is likely to be only around half Melbourne’s level and Brisbane somewhere in between.

The usual suspect when looking at increasing public transport patronage is higher petrol prices. However if that were the key factor we’d expect a more uniform pattern of growth across cities. Canberra has one of the highest levels of car use of all capitals, yet public transport patronage in the nation’s capital barely moved over the period. The same is true of rising traffic congestion. Sydney would have to figure much more prominently if this were the key driver.

A more plausible explanation appears to be provision of new services. A major new rail line to Mandurah was constructed in Perth during the period and a number of new busways were built in South East Qld. In contrast, very little was done in the other, mostly under-performing, capitals. Yet Melbourne does not fit this pattern. It recorded the third highest increase in patronage over the period even though there was no expansion of the network (just electrification to Sydenham).

Population growth seems to be an important factor because it appears to fit with the evidence. South East Qld and Perth are the traditional growth leaders and Melbourne joined the club for much of the decade.

The overall picture is complicated by the relatively consistent drop in the rate of patronage growth since the middle of last year (no data for Sydney). This decline accords with the parallel decline in the real price of petrol over the same period that I discussed recently (What if the price of petrol doubled?). However it could also be consistent with the negative impact of the GFC from 2007, so it’s hard to pick one cause from another.

All that’s really clear is that the reasons for increasing public transport patronage are more complex than simply higher petrol prices. Local factors appear to be important.

In the case of Melbourne, my hunch is that strong growth in jobs in the CBD (including Docklands and Southbank) is an important part of the explanation. If that hypothesis is correct, encouraging jobs to locate in suburban centres could be a key strategy for deferring the cost of looming capacity constraints on the rail system. That cost, in the form of the Melbourne Metro rail tunnel proposed in the Eddington report, is estimated at more than $4.5 billion.

The chart was prepared by Chris Loader of Charting Transport, an excellent site that specialises in visually representing complex transport data. He also looks at growth in patronage across the capitals by train, bus, light rail and ferry.


9 Comments on “Why is public transport patronage increasing?”

  1. Ian Woodcock says:

    But there is more. To quote the ABS:

    “Several trends are evident:
    * Total Passenger travel has grown less than the rate of population growth.

    * Motor Vehicle Passengers (Car and ‘other’) have grown at less than the rate of growth in total travel.

    * Urban Public Transport Passengers have grown at greater than the rate of growth in total travel,

    leading to

    * An increase in UPT mode share.”
    (Source ABS Information Sheet 31, downloaded 1/12/10)

    Who would have thought?

    • Alan Davies says:

      Who would indeed. It clearly took many by surprise, including the Brumby Government.

      Even now the reasons are imperfectly understood. What really matters is unpicking why patronage is increasing and why the rate of growth has slowed recently. Why isn’t this a top research priority?

      Re your second dot point, I’ve discussed the decline in total vkt of cars before (it’s an international phenomenon).

  2. Joseph says:

    Is the trend towards inner city living part of the explanation?

  3. […] Why is public transport patronage increasing? […]

  4. anne beaumont says:

    If like me you caught the train from one of Melbourne’s western suburbs you might recognise that a significant factor is overseas student population attending CBD vocational education institutions, RMIT & to a lesser extent University of Melbourne and living in relatively cheap rental accommodation in the western suburbs. A mid-year drop is likely to be caused by changes to PRC etc.
    I suspect each city has its own local factors.

  5. Sam says:

    Other factors influencing public transport patronage in Melbourne are the abolition of zone three fares (making it cheaper) and the introduction of more heavily-subsidised parking at train stations.

  6. encouraging jobs to locate in suburban centres could be a key strategy for deferring the cost of looming capacity constraints.

    A good point, however unless public transport connections to these suburban centres are made as easy as possible we can expect that the vast majority of people will simply drive to these destinations rather than use public transport.

    This means we need lots more smart buses and much easier and better coordinated transfers between modes. Some light rail extensions could also go a long way to help create better connections to suburban job centres.

  7. […] noted before that public transport patronage in Australian cities is increasing, but I didn’t realise just how […]


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