Why is transit’s share low at Latrobe Uni?

Mode shares (%), 2006 Census

Workers who commute to Melbourne University at Parkville are much more inclined to use public transport than their colleagues who work at suburban Monash or Latrobe universities. The chart shows that at the 2006 Census, 41% of Melbourne University workers reported they drove to work compared to 83% at Monash and 84% at Latrobe universities. Many more staff at Melbourne also walked and cycled – 24% compared to 6-7% at the other two institutions.

Melbourne University’s lower car use is explained by a few key factors. The main one is that it is located on the edge of the CBD where car use is limited by high levels of traffic congestion and expensive all-day parking charges. For many staff, driving would take too long, generate too much angst and be too expensive. If the value of driving is marginal, the decision to choose an alternative will be tipped by the high quality of public transport service available to Parkville workers. Although it’s not served directly by rail (none of these universities are), Melbourne University has easy access by multiple tram lines to the CBD and thence to the many radial train and tram lines linking to the larger metropolitan area. For many Melbourne University workers public transport would be a no-brainer.

Melbourne University’s high level of walking can largely be attributed to the relatively high residential densities in the nearby CBD and inner city environs. If transport is expensive in outlays and time, it makes sense for workers to live close to the university. In this case, living close to the university also means living close to the many activities and opportunities offered by the inner city.

The suburban setting of Monash and Latrobe provides a very different environment. Although these universities are not without their challenges, they generally experience less traffic congestion and enjoy cheaper parking than Melbourne University. Low suburban residential densities and large open space and industrial uses mean fewer staff can live within walking distance. The level of public transport service is actually pretty reasonable by prevailing standards (for example, see here) but obviously not as good as Melbourne University, which benefits greatly from its proximity to the CBD.

These factors all favour driving at Monash and Latrobe. In addition, a high proportion of staff at both universities live within a short commute by car. For example, more than half of Latrobe’s workers live either in the host municipality (Darebin) or in contiguous municipalities. Short trip distances on comparatively uncongested roads make driving a very attractive option. Even a very high standard of public transport service entails some walking and waiting time, making it hard for transit to compete effectively when the commuting time by car is less than 30 minutes.

However the reason why significantly fewer staff at Monash and Latrobe commute by bicycle compared to Melbourne isn’t as straightforward. One explanation might be the lower standard of cycling infrastructure and traffic management works in the suburbs. However I think the cause runs deeper and is essentially the same reason why these universities have low public transport use – driving is simply so attractive that it undermines the case for both transit and cycling. Another way of explaining this is to recognise that most commuting by bicycle comes at the expense of public transport rather than the car. Put simply, if there aren’t many public transport users then there won’t be many cyclists either.

The use of public transport by staff at Monash and Latrobe is modest even when compared with other major suburban activity centres. For example, a higher proportion of workers at Chadstone and Southland use public transport to get to work than at either of these universities. Public transport even has a higher mode share at Northland than at Latrobe (remember this discussion is about workers, not students or shoppers).

The comparison of universities highlights an important question: does public transport have a much higher mode share at Melbourne University because the campus is served by a high quality public transport system, or because driving is too hard? If it’s the former, then improving public transport service at the suburban universities – for example, by building the Rowville rail line from Huntingdale to Monash – should significantly increase public transport’s share of the journey to work. But if it isn’t it will be a poor use of limited resources. My view is that it’s both – public transport (and cycling) won’t win a high share at Monash and Latrobe universities unless driving becomes too hard.

12 Comments on “Why is transit’s share low at Latrobe Uni?”

  1. Simon says:

    “…driving is simply so attractive that it undermines the case for…cycling”

    Driving and cycling aren’t separate beasts here – they compete for the same infrastructure (road space). That infrastructure is overwhelmingly geared to driving at the expense of cycling. Driving may be more attractive than cycling, but that’s only because we have made it so over the last few decades by explicitly designing all our roads this way.

    Other countries have spent decades rejigging their roads in the opposite way, and have upwards of 30% cycling modal share to show for it, even in spread-out areas. It’s important to recognise that what we have here is the result of past (and present) policy rather than some unquestionable given.

    • Alan Davies says:

      I agree – policy has favoured driving much more than cycling. But I think its critical for policy-makers to understand that providing equivalent cycling infrastructure isn’t going to increase the latter’s share to even close to 30%. As I say in the last sentence, significant increases in the mode share of cycling and transit will only come if driving’s made harder i.e. less competitive.

      • Michael says:

        It’s hard to see any popularly elected state government making driving less attractive to places like La Trobe or Monash. How would they realistically do this when there are powerful forces constantly whining for more car services. If driving becomes less attractive it will be because external forces make petrol more expensive or congestion increases faster than measures to reduce it rather than as a deliberate policy.

        I’d like to see a genuine experiment where commuter cyclists actually get some dedicated cycling paths, and I don’t mean the kind of meandering death traps that non-cyclists in councils like to foist on the public whenever it’s convenient to fix dog walking paths. I realise I might be starting to sound like a lunatic, but commuter cycling in Melbourne really is undertaken despite the best efforts of governments to make it unsafe and unattractive.

        • Simon says:

          Cycling infrastructure is prey to network effects. A few cycling paths (even a lot of them) don’t mean much unless they form a comprehensive network, and that’s gonna take at least a couple of decades of redesigning and remaking streets. If that’s what you mean by “genuine experiment” then I agree, but otherwise I think the experiment would be set up to fail.

      • Simon says:

        When you say “if driving’s made harder” it’s not clear whether you mean harder compared to the past (ie, slower than before, more expensive than before), or harder compared to cycling (ie, slower than cycling, more expensive than cycling). I think only the latter is important, and can be achieved without doing the former.

        • Alan Davies says:

          I mean raising the cost of driving in terms of both cash and time, relative to what it is now and relative to PT and cycling. For Monash and Latrobe, the obvious strategy would be to raise parking charges (and let the govt carry the can for improved PT services and cycling infrastructure!).

  2. brisurban says:

    This is what is.
    But is this is what could be?

    The key question I think is ‘is there an intervention that would create increased PT mode share to both Monash and LaTrobe universities?’and still be acceptable (financially and so on). And would such an ‘intervention’ be a good thing or a bad thing and warranted? Should we be concerned about high car more share (an interesting question in itself).

    Would running dedicated frequent bus line be such a solution? Increasing car parking costs on campus? A U-pass scheme? (Dr Paul Mees talks about UBC, Vancouver in Transport for Suburbia and how they managed to get a large mode share shift there).

    I’m interested in the Census data- does it actually allow people to discern mode shares right down to the campus level? I’m not sure if there are other inner city universities either in Melbourne or elsewhere that are located further away from PT supply that could provide “contols” or comparators for this.

    • Alan Davies says:

      “What could be” is a good question I’ll tackle more fully when time permits. For the moment, as I said at the end of the post and in the comment above, I think the secret to increasing mode share at Monash and Latrobe is tackling the car by, e.g., increasing parking charges. Someone who works at Latrobe recently told me they pay $5 a day for parking. Simply increasing the quality of transit service won’t by itself give a big increase.

      The Census data does come down to the level of individual unis – that’s what this post is based on (some unis have their own postcodes, too).

      I like your “interesting question”. This is something I’ve discussed here before. I think making cars more fuel and emissions efficient and more friendly to residents, cyclists and pedestrians is the key priority ahead of increasing transit’s mode share.

  3. rohan says:

    I would have thought whether or not staff use PT at Latrobe and Monash is not all that important – but far the greatest numbers going there are students, and any PT improvements would aim to capture them. In fact, being students brings up another reason for using PT – they might not actually have a car, or wish to avoid the expense of buying one, so PT would have a constituency that might prefer PT if it was available, whether driving was difficult or not.

    • Alan Davies says:

      It’s a data availability issue – the Census only asks about the journey to work (that’s one reason there’s so much analysis of work travel, even though it’s a minority purpose). There’s sample data for other trip purposes but it’s less reliable at the sub-LGA level needed to identify individual universities. Nevertheless, work numbers are large in their own right – e.g. 6,490 commutes to Monash in 2006. That’s a large concentration in the context of the suburbs.

  4. At least with Monash the buses are a big problem as well. The uni has been forced to hire private buses just to cope with shuttling students to and from the train station and as of this year there will be a fee to use them (on top of your regular ticket).

    The problem has been highlighted by various people, organisations and ran prominently through The Age last year, but so far the problem has barely been rectified at all.

  5. […] pattern of sub-regionalisation is illustrated by Melbourne’s three major universities. I posted on March 16th about the mode shares of work trips to these universities. To summarise, at the time of the 2006 […]

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