Are young adults really dominating public transport use?

Actual use - age profile of public transport users in Melbourne (boardings) from VISTA

The world would be a much better place if transport operators would stop spinning patronage numbers to the media and public and start giving us the salient facts instead.

The Financial Review reported on Thursday that travellers in Melbourne aged 20-29 years comprise 38% of all public transport users in the city. This figure is in line with the claim of the WA Public Transport Authority that 18-25 year olds comprise 35% of all train users in Perth and 40% of all bus users.

As I’ve indicated before, I find these sorts of figures very hard to believe, given these two cohort’s each comprise around 15% of the population. In fact they’re extraordinary. It’s true young adults have always been over-represented on public transport because many are on relatively low incomes, but it’s the sheer scale of these figures I find too good to be true.

The reality is they’re not true, at least for Melbourne. The real situation is shown in the first exhibit. According to the Victorian Department of Transport’s VISTA database, travellers in the 20-29 age group account for only 22.3% of public transport users on an average day. If confined solely to the average weekday, the figure is a little lower, 21.9%. If instead we look at public transport boardings – to allow for the possibility that young adults make more multi-modal trips than others – the proportion in the 20-29 age group using public transport is a little higher, but still only 22.9%.

That’s a long, long way short of 38%. One explanation for this evident discrepancy could be that public transport operaters are measuring something else. VISTA is a snapshot of travel on a typical day, but it could be operators are counting the number of people who have ever used public transport – even if only once or twice – in some preceding period e.g. in the previous week, month or year. This will invariably give a much higher total patronage figure than VISTA or the Census because it picks up everybody who’s used train, tram, bus or ferry at least once during the (longer) period.

If this explanation is right, it would account for why claimed patronage levels for public transport are sometimes 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 perhaps it’s a common practise in other states too. But by itself this explanation doesn’t fully account for why the young adult cohort’s share is apparently so high relative to others (see second exhibit).

Claimed use - claimed patronage shares in Perth by age and mode, Public Transport Authority

However there might be a straightforward explanation. It could be young adults are simply more likely to use public transport on an infrequent, irregular or occasional basis than other age groups. Perhaps they travel more at night to places like the city centre where they can’t afford to park, or perhaps they’re more likely to drink and travel and hence are wary of random breath/drug tests.

If this hypothesis is right then that’s valuable intelligence for marketers. Rather than focus on misleading claims about public transport’s share of total travel, it would be more productive to examine the prospects of increasing the number of trips made for other purposes by these irregular users.

Now I don’t know if there’s any truth in this hypothesis or not – it would need to be tested. It might simply be that the survey methods used aren’t up to the job in other ways, as I’ve suggested before might possibly be the case in relation to some of the research Metlink relies on. But I do know that claims like “38% of public transport users are aged between 20 and 29 years” are way off the mark. They’re probably relatively harmless if confined to hyperbole like Peter Newman’s claim that “previous generations found freedom and flexibility through the car, but generation Ys find freedom and flexibility by staying connected to friends, family and workplaces through information devices like laptops or iPhones”.

However if public transport operators believe their own snake oil – as it appears they do – then errors of this magnitude could, at the very least, lead them to mistakenly direct too much of their marketing effort at a particular demographic and neglect others. Please, collect whatever information is pertinent, but just tell us the basis on which numbers are collected.

4 Comments on “Are young adults really dominating public transport use?”

  1. cat mack says:

    Very interesting commentary and one I can completely agree with. Working in another field of urban planning, I am astonished at just how bad the research that is supposed to underpin public policy is. This is particularly so in the use of statistics but it not limited to that field. (I recently read a ‘consultant’ report where a single respondent was supposed to be indicative of a statistically significant trend!)

    • Oz says:

      Tony Richardson of VATS/VISTA fame used to fascinate his audience by drawing any shaped trend line through three points…even a circle.
      The sample size “n” should always be included in any attempt at meaningful discussion of percentages.

  2. heritagepoliceman says:

    Yes poor figures leads to poor decision making.
    But this brings to mind that directing some more effort at the 20 somethings, at least those who work or socialise regularly in the central city area (Im including inner suburbs) wouldnt hurt. There has been an explosion in ‘going out’ and certainly shopping on weekends and weekday nights, and now sometimes the trams are peak hr crowded on Sundays and late on fridays – but the tram r\frequencies are still those of the 1970s (probably). About time more services were provided at those times – the number of times Ive been in the city on a friday or sat night, then discovered the next no 96 at about 10pm isnt for another 20 minutes !! And its cold !!

  3. Johnyboy says:

    I do not trust the government statistics. I do not trust the government where there is a conflict of interest. The more I hear about the rail link to avalon and the alternative uses for the money . The more I see a conflict of interest. I think the congestion in the city reflects the bad policies. It is easily fixed though. We just pretend its not happening. So what if spend more time on travelling.? So what if there is a cost to business?. We get what we deserve. Poor planning and poor public transport. Yea we need more road tunnels so we can get more ways to make an elite class. I think the best way to solve the problems is to sell the roads off. Then we can have a feudal system. All that really matters is the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The poor deserve what they get. They need to take more risks like the rich people. In risks we just have to run the gaunlet of the law. I totally agree on any tax that makes rich people richer. 😉

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