Is transit patronage really growing this fast?

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I’ve noted before that public transport patronage in Australian cities is increasing, but I didn’t realise just how dramatically it has escalated in Melbourne until I had cause to leaf through the Annual Review 2010 published by Metlink, the marketing organisation for Melbourne’s train, tram and bus operators.

This claim really caught my attention: “Metlink research shows that 74% of Melburnians use public transport to get to work, school or leisure activities”. Three quarters of Melburnians?! That’s not merely astonishing, it’s mind-boggling. It comes as quite a surprise to me, as the Department of Transport’s VISTA database says that only around 11% of all weekday travel in Melbourne is by public transport and even in the case of education, only 25% of trips to primary, secondary and tertiary education are made by public transport.

That quote can’t be dismissed as a one-off case of excessive zeal. This recent press release by Metlink also seems to strain credibility. It says Metlink has done a survey which found that “19% of Melburnians decreased their car use” in the past twelve months. It goes on to say that “62% of Melburnians (say) they will rely more on public transport than their cars” in the future. And this media statement released the same day says: “The study found that 94 per cent of Melburnians want governments to spend more on public transport……while only 68 per cent wanted taxpayer money spent on roads”.

If some of that sounds improbable, that might be because it is. One clue is in this story in The Age. The reporter, when noting the claim that 19% of Melburnians decreased their car use, also mentions that another 19% increased their car use i.e. Metlink’s survey found net car use was actually static. The reporter also asked Dr Paul Mees of RMIT for comment on another finding  – that the number of people walking more often in the past 12 months increased by 15%:

Dr Mees said he was sceptical about the dramatic jump in the number of people who claimed to be walking more, because if the 15 per cent rise were true, it would be unprecedented. ”I do feel that many people must be responding with the answer that they think the person asking the question wants to hear – it makes them feel good to answer that they are walking more,” Dr Mees said.

Intrigued by the apparent ease with which Metlink can conjure paradigm-changing numbers, I did a bit of digging around and came up with Metlink’s media kit for the survey. As is often the case with chook food, this is mainly Powerpoint slides rather than  comprehensive details about the methodology. Even with that caveat, the material suggests a few possible explanations for Metlink’s somewhat optimistic findings. 

First, the methodology doesn’t seem to be up to the job of supporting all the claims made in the press releases. There appears to be a base sample of 600 randomly selected Melburnians, as you’d expect, but this was “boosted” by a further 400 interviews “with Melburnians who had changed their use of public transport in the past 12 months”. In other words, the sample seems to be heavily weighted to existing public transport users.

This sort of sample might be suitable for drawing inferences about what public transport users think (if interpreted with care), but it throws little light on what Melburnians as a whole think about either driving or public transport. What it’s telling us is that public transport users decreased their car use significantly and notably increased their walking. This is important and valuable information, but it’s not telling us about Melburnians. And of course it’s less surprising that people who use public transport favour investment in public transport more than investment in roads.

Second, it appears that a public transport user, for the purposes of this survey, is anyone who has used public transport within the last twelve months. So it could include daily commuters, but it could also include occasional public transport users, like someone whose only use is to visit the MCG, or someone who catches a tram for two or three stops along Collins Street every now and then. I’m not convinced that these sorts of “opportunistic” users should be given the same weight as “strategic” public transport users. Many people would in any event have great difficulty recalling accurately their level of use in the previous twelve months, let alone comparing it against the previous year. The task could be much harder for occasional and irregular users. I’m doubtful that this sort of question measures anything particularly useful.

Travel surveys like VISTA and the Census, on the other hand, ask travellers what mode they used on a particular day (or in some cases a small number of days). That method will pick up very few occasional public transport users precisely because their use is infrequent. So when 18% of Metlink’s sample say they’ve increased their use of public transport in the past year, I wonder how many of those are actually saying something like, “I think I used the train once the previous year, this year I might’ve used it twice”.

Third, the way the questions are asked isn’t very testing. Who isn’t going to agree with the proposition that government’s need to spend more money on public transport in the future? What policy makers really need to know is what people are prepared to pay – or what they’re prepared to forego – so that better public transport can be provided. It seems to me this sort of information would also be important to those who market public transport!

The claim that “62% of Melburnians…say…they will rely more on public transport than their cars” in the future appears to be based on a question worded like: do you agree or disagree that in the future people will rely more on public transport than on their cars? That’s a very, very different question from asking someone what they personally anticipate doing! When asked directly what they personally expect to do, only a net 8% of the Melbourne sample say they anticipate using public transport more in the next twelve months.

Let me reiterate that I don’t have full and complete information about the methodology used in this study so I can’t entirely discount the possibility that some of my interpretations may be a bit off the mark. If so, Metlink might like to have a good think about the standard of information it dishes out to the public (via the media).

What’s most important is that Metlink provides believable information. Public transport patronage is increasing but it’s not in the public’s interest — nor in the interests of the operators — to provide a “gilded” interpretation of the numbers.

My favourite ‘Metlinkism’ comes directly from the company’s Annual Review 2008, in a section titled Market Intelligence: “In the past 12 months, 30 per cent of people in Melbourne have decreased their car use. Two out of three of these people moved to public transport and half of these people switched to train travel”. Really? A fifth of Melburnians shifted to public transport in 2008?

5 Comments on “Is transit patronage really growing this fast?”

  1. Oz says:

    ABS and VISTA base line data in Victoria, is in the public domain and is also available to be drawn on by Metlink. The purposeful selective use of data whether it be by Government or its agencies whether it be on police, public transport or similar, will not assist to achieve a sustinable environment.

  2. […] breathtakingly high compared to the customary, more rigorous ways of measuring travel. I’ve commented before on Metlink’s use of these sorts of inflated, self-serving numbers in its marketing material, but […]

  3. […] disappointed me before with its slipshod approach to customer focus and they’ve done it again this time. The survey was […]

  4. […] for fallacious thinking – for example, surveys that purport to show huge latent demand for a particular mode of transport, but sample only users of that mode. So I’m always interested in new examples of where we can so […]

  5. […] are notoriously unreliable. I’m not picking on the anti-mandatory helmet brigade here – I also took Metlink to task earlier this year for trying to make grandiose predictions about future public transport patronage […]

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