Will networking make public transport the mode of choice?Posted: February 1, 2011
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.
The key problem for public transport in the suburbs is competition from the car. For the vast bulk of trips – especially the non-work trips which comprise the lion’s share of all journeys – cars are simply faster and more convenient. Suburbanites recognise this and are prepared to pay more to get that speed and flexibility.
The ‘networked’ model relies on transfers. Even with the sorts of ten minute frequencies proposed by the authors, a journey involving even one modal change will in the great bulk of cases take longer than one taken by car. A properly networked system is a huge boon for ‘captive’ public transport users but doesn’t do enough to redress the advantages of the car for those who have a choice of mode.
The only situation in which public transport really comes in to its own is for trips where the car has been neutered. In Australian cities that’s primarily work journeys to the CBD.
The reason public transport wins a high share of trips to the CBD is largely because the car is throttled by factors like high parking charges and traffic congestion. Unlike in the suburbs, public transport in the CBD and surrounding areas can out-compete cars. And the CBD has that advantage principally because high density non-residential activities, especially jobs, create conditions that are antithetical to cars.
With public transport’s share of CBD commutes now approaching 70% in Melbourne, there’s probably not a lot of room left for further increases in its mode share (even assuming adequate spare capacity). Most of the remaining car travel to the CBD is by workers whose vehicles are subsidised in some way by their employers e.g. cheap or free parking. They will be very hard to shift.
Work journeys, however, only account for a minority of all trips. And the CBD only has a minority of all metropolitan jobs (in Melbourne, around 15%).
The great majority of suburban residents work in dispersed locations within the suburbs where the obstacles to the car are nowhere near as formidable as they are in or close to the city centre. And the great majority of trips are in any case accounted for by non-work trips, which are the least amenable to public transport.
Astronomically higher petrol prices could possibly throttle the car in the suburbs, but it’s very likely drivers would respond by switching to more fuel-efficient cars and alternative fuels.
Spreading traffic congestion will be a major disincentive to car travel in the suburbs, at least for work journeys, but that’s an inefficient way to promote mode shift. More importantly though, jobs and people are likely to continue to do what they’ve always done in Australian cities when confronted with congestion – spread further out to escape it.
Road pricing is the obvious way to make public transport more competitive with cars in the suburbs.
Drs Stone and Mees are right to advocate better networking of public transport – it’s essential. We’re not going to get lots of new rail lines in the foreseeable future, so the only feasible way to get a decent public transport system is if we maximise the interconnectedness of the existing infrastructure. That will make public transport users better off and win some trips away from cars, but it won’t have a really dramatic impact on mode share unless simultaneous and complementary action is taken to make cars less competitive.