Do trams provide better accessiblity than trains?

% of metropolitan households and jobs within 400 m of a tram/train/SmartBus stop (data from DoT)

New research by the Victorian Department of Transport (DoT) shows Melbourne’s tram system provides access to 34% of metropolitan jobs, whereas trains only give access to 15% (see first exhibit). The analysis found trams also give better access to housing – 17% of metropolitan households are located close to a tram stop compared to 8% close to a train station.

DoT calculated the proportion of metropolitan jobs and households located within 400 metres of tram, train and SmartBus stops, using 2006 Census data.

The superior accessibility of trams might seem surprising given most popular discussion about public transport is focussed on trains. Moreover, trams and trains both serve the employment-rich CBD, so the difference in access to jobs is probably higher than most expect.

The department doesn’t offer an explanation, however there are logical reasons for the superior showing of trams. These include the higher density of the tram route network, the greater frequency of stops, and the relatively high employment and housing densities in the central part of the metropolitan area served by the tram network (i.e. the inner city and inner suburbs).

In the inner eastern suburbs, for example, there are nine parallel east-west tram lines between Victoria Rd and Glenhuntly Rd, a distance of just 8 km. The tram line on High St in Prahran is paralleled by another route just 560 metres to the north on Malvern Rd and one 650 metres to the south on Dandenong Rd.

As shown in the second exhibit (under the fold), tram stops are much more closely spaced than train stations. Tram stops in the inner eastern suburbs are every 200-300 metres, whereas stations in this area are usually more than a kilometre apart.

The tram network also services an area of high job density. The inner city – the area within 5 km of Melbourne Town Hall – might only have 28% of all metropolitan jobs, but they are concentrated in a relatively small area. Likewise, 50% of all jobs in Melbourne are more than 13 km from the centre, but the 0-13 km half is necessarily at much higher density than the 14+ km half.

Compared to the tram system, the train network is relatively sparse, particularly in the middle and outer suburbs where not only the distance between the radial lines increases as a function of simple geometry, but the distance between stations also increases. The distance from Narre Warren station to Berwick station, for example, is over 4 km – the 400 metre walk radius assumed by DoT accordingly misses much more than it picks up.

Suburban rail lines don’t in any event tend to be near jobs. As I’ve pointed out before, the vast bulk of suburban jobs aren’t located within large centres, but instead are relatively dispersed. Even the minority of jobs that is located in large centres tends to be spread out over a relatively extended area rather than concentrated within a small and neat 400 metre radius.

Clayton is by far the largest concentration of jobs within Melbourne’s suburbs, yet very few of the jobs it contains are near a rail station. The second largest job concentration in the suburbs is Tullamarine, which isn’t served by rail at all. The high proportion of jobs accessible by SmartBus services signals clearly that most suburban jobs aren’t within 400 metres of a rail station.

But providing potential access to lots of jobs is not the same as actually delivering workers to them. Trams might be within 400 metres of twice as many jobs as trains, but the latter nevertheless carry well over twice as many commuters to work each day as trams. There are a number of reasons for this difference.

One is that the assumed 400 metre walk distance is harsh on rail. Commuters are prepared to walk further to their nearest stop if the overall journey is long. As rail work trips are on average much longer than tram trips, the assumed walk distance to a station is too restrictive – a distance of 800-1,000 metres would be more reasonable.

Another reason is that many more train travellers get to their train station by other motorised modes – principally by car, but also by bus and tram – than is the case for trams. In fact half as many train travellers combine motorised modes as simply take the train direct. In contrast, the number of workers who use another motorised mode to connect with a tram as their main mode is quite small.

Probably most importantly, taking a tram to work is slow. Trams stop frequently and, because they don’t have their own right of way for much of the route, get caught in peak hour traffic. Commuters who have a choice will take the train instead, either driving to the station or using a bus or tram to connect. Another factor is that many inner city and inner suburban workers are on high incomes – rather than take a slow tram, some will get a car and/or a parking space as part of their remuneration package and will elect to drive instead. 

DoT’s analysis also draws attention to a couple of other interesting points about Melbourne. One is the significant difference in the geography of the city. Trams service an increasingly more affluent inner city/inner suburban demographic than the train system. Moreover, a higher proportion of all jobs served by trams are likely to be the sorts of high-skill, high-pay jobs – especially in finance, insurance, business and property services – that cluster in the centre of the city.

Another point relates to the significantly higher share of jobs and households that can be accessed via SmartBus services compared to trains. It suggests the focus of future public transport investment needs to be widened beyond rail to consider more flexible systems which can be tightly integrated with existing track-based networks and thereby “multiply” their reach.

Finally, since trams give access to such a large number of jobs and households – and hence have potential to increase patronage significantly – improving speeds should be a high priority of policy-makers

Trams routes and stops (grey) compared with train routes and stations (red)


21 Comments on “Do trams provide better accessiblity than trains?”

  1. Cycling rather than walking increases the number of homes with access to stations by around a factor of 10. The pedelec increases the number of homes with access to public transport by at least a factor of 25 over walking. The limitation of radiating rail lines going to the CBD for commuting is largely eliminated by the pedelec which makes cross suburban travel very much easier. Rail and bus stations, modal interchanges need to become a highly visible focal point of surrounding bike networks. The use of pedelecs could become a means of local transport and to access outer urban rail stations or express bus routes, well beyond walking distance, as it is Japan and the Netherlands (Parker 1999).

    Assuming walking and bicycling rail station catchments require the same physical effort of 75 watts for 7.5 minutes See DoT data ? but pedelec riding with 25 watts effort for 20 minutes within a rectangular street layout similar to that which exists in much of Metropolitan Melbourne would reach many more patrons. Our capital cities have sprawled In the hilly parts of Australia and 250 watts pedelecs would enable able-bodied people to cycle much more than they do now which is an important safety consideration because of the need to ride up hills without weaving (Parker 2011) (Dobson and Sipe 2005).

    Eight bicycles or pedelecs can be parked in one car parking space and use space not suitable for car parking. They should replace some existing car parking spaces at the entrance to rail stations or on the platforms when space permits. The Victorian, NSW, Qld and SA policy of giving priority to car parking in the past 20 years and ignoring the provision of secure bicycle parking at most stations has been a costly waste of funds due to the bigger vehicles needing paving and drainage as well as far more space (Parker 2011).

    The problem with DoT and predecessors that have not never had a clue about making melbourne more accessible in a sustainable way. Never did they Alan.

    • Dudley Horscroft says:

      Eight bicycles/pedelecs is probably a feasible figure if a car space is converted to bike parking. However, at school the bike sheds used ‘ramps’ on which the bikes were stored, alternately in and out, which gave a capacity closer to 16 in the same length as a car would have taken.
      In new construction, there is no need for the wide lane needed for cars to enter and exit the space, so in the same area there could be perhaps 20-30 times as many bikes as cars.
      Again, by suitable use of separators and lockable doors the bike parking could be made ‘near-secure’.

  2. Sam says:

    When not communting by bike, I walk past a tram stop within 400 metres of my house to get to a train line almost a kilometre from my house.

    The fact that DOT persists with the metric equivalent of a 1/4 mile for their access measure is indicative of their many outdated, under-researched rules-of-thumb indicators.

    • Paul Smith says:

      Your assuming everyone has the same mobility as you. 400m is an average. Many people can and will walk much further, however many others can only walk distances less than 400m

      • Sam says:

        I am commenting on the 400m being a completely arbitrary conversion of 1/4 mile to metric.

        I am not saying that we can all walk further than this, I am simply saying that it is not based on any research or thought about what the catchment area for public transport is or that it might differ for different modes and locations.

  3. Russ says:

    Regarding Sam’s point, optimum stopping space distance for users on a route is a function of travel distance. That the DoT seems to equate trams and trains as equivalent options, instead of complementary modes explains a lot of the mediocre forward planning. It really shouldn’t be possible to take either a tram or a train, for the same trip. Both, often, but not in competition. To do so means it is almost certain that both modes are operating far below optimal; not to mention wasting scarce resources providing two (probably unprofitable) services when one would do.

    • rohan says:

      trams and train serve different types of travellers – eg. upfield line users on the whole do not use it to get to sydney road shops, and while some tram users use it for peak hr city access, other users heading to the shops or services of sydney rd get dropped off exactly where they want to go.

      • rohan says:

        oh yes, and no public transport lines are ‘profitable’.

        • Russ says:

          Actually, that is not true. If you examined lines on segments of several km, quite a lot of them are profitable. The per passenger subsidy for a tram is only $1 after all, and the outer extents are run basically empty. And even so, the size of the loss matters; the Upfield services could be much more efficient if the tram serviced only a couple of major stations.

          Regarding competing modes, there are many many places where trams/buses and trains run in parallel one stopping at 800m-2km and one at 200-400m. That means people travelling 2-3km will take the train (as it has more services), which slow it down for travellers going further (lower efficiency and poor performance), and removes passengers from the equivalent bus, resulting in it getting a worse service frequency, which makes it useless for trips 1-2km. (The 780 bus is a good example, but far from the only one)

        • Plenty of public transport lines are profitable. As Alan has argued before, Skybus is profitable.

          There probably aren’t many profitable lines in Melbourne because as Russ points out, much of the tram network mirrors the train network. Unfortunately the same is true of buses.

          Cities that operate on a feeder service basis will have many more profitable lines than cities that do not.

    • Sam says:

      It also explains their poor treatment of inner city train station users, whose stations are skipped because of a perception that the tram is an alternative.

  4. Steve says:

    (upfront disclaimer – I am one of the editors of the Bulletin where the original story was published, but the views below are my own and not those of the Department…)

    Alan, I think your observations book-end the rationale for the article well when you write:

    – “The superior accessibility of trams might seem surprising given most popular discussion about public transport is focussed on trains.”
    – “since trams give access to such a large number of jobs and households – and hence have potential to increase patronage significantly – improving speeds should be a high priority of policy-makers”.

    Highlighting trams in an arguably new light and raising discussion on their usage – as per above quotes – is what interested me in the research.

    The commentary around different catchment definitions is fair, and difficult to address adequately in 150-200 words. If the catchment is extended to 800m, a slightly different picture emerges. The number of households covered balances to around 25% for the three modes analysed. The number of jobs within the broader catchment is 37%, 38% and 39% for trains, SmartBus and tram respectively. There will obviously be some network overlap for job access (particularly in the CBD), but with train extending into the suburbs and SmartBus making non-radial connections, the complementary travel choices are clearly growing.

    • rohan says:

      well the figures may present trams in a new light, and hopefully that helps, but it seem obvious that ” improving speeds should be a high priority of policy-makers” though I would add frequency as equally as important as speed. Sunday timetables havnt changed in years despite huge numbers heading to the city and environs on weekends.

  5. gwiz says:

    I take tram 86 to work everday and don’t mind the longer journey over the train, I’m not stuck to a timetable, the frequency is like a tube train in London every 5 – 7min, I just turn up to the stop and use tram tracker and work out when it is coming, there is a different sort of intimacy on the tram, people almost seem less upset about their commute than on the train, appreciate this is a matter of opinion.

    The super stops are being put in Northcote this will be interesting to see if the trams get caught up in more delays from longer queues of cars at traffic lights or if speeds will come down, motorists might look for an alternative route to take. It seems part of the success of the tram is getting priority on the road like no. 96 where it is not impacted by queues of traffic.

    If we can somehow get greater priority for trams city bound during morning peak times say 8-9 this would hopefully reduce travel times of tram journeys. So often you see a packed tram and wonder how long a line of single occupant vehicles those numbers would transpire too and why isn’t greater priority given to the trams over the cars. I think such public education was attempted many years ago with television commericals calling for more respect from drivers towards right of way for trams.

    Greater priority could be given for the 86 along High St in Northcote and Westgarth and the 112 down Brunswick St before it crosses Alexander Parade, this would allow trams to pass queuing vehicles and hopefully make this mode of transport more attractive to people who would otherwise use a vehicle to commute to work, school or leisure.

    • “people almost seem less upset about their commute than on the train, appreciate this is a matter of opinion.”

      I think it has a lot to do with the service too. Remembering my days living in Fitzroy attempting to board the 112 service during peak hour and either being crushed like a sardine or waiting for one to two services to pass will tell you not all trams are lovely and relaxed.

      Priority for trams should be a priority though (hmm too tired to word that better). The first step should simply be setting up light signalling systems. As a tram approaches the traffic light, the sequence is triggered so they get the green light, or so the green light stays green long enough for passengers to board. The same should be done for buses.

  6. Urt says:

    What’s a pedelec?

    • Dudley Horscroft says:

      I believe a “pedelec” is a bicycle fitted with an electric motor and a battery, such that in suitable conditions the motor can propel the bicycle at a good speed, while the rider takes it easy, and in not so good conditions the rider has to pedal hard. I suspect that the latter may be going up hill, where the energy required would flatten the battery quickly, whereas on the level or downhill the battery has only a small energy draw.

      • John Burke says:

        Dudley one thing people worry about with pedelecs or E-bikes is flattening the battery. That is if they don’t own one. Lithium battery technology has erased that problem and there are improvements, some say in the order of 10% storage capacity for a given weight and size per year.

        Its always the first thing people ask: how far can you go on the battery? It is a question relevant to Electric cars only, at least as far as commuting distances go.

        By the way. They are fun

  7. Oz says:

    Writing about “profitability” of segments of the transport system without a qualifier covering times of operation required to meet social goals is not helpful. For example tram routes 1 and 8 may operate with nearly full cost recovery in peak periods (on the assumption passengers have paid their fair fare), but the route and its segments will never recover operating costs between 6 and 7 am. The off-peak operating requirements to meet social sustainability goals prevent most of Melbourne’s PT route segments ever becoming close to a bull’s roar of operating cost recovery.

  8. […] is they too are longer than the 400 metre standard suggests. Further, many tram stops in Melbourne are closely spaced – for example, in the inner eastern suburbs they are every 200-300 […]

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