Are we set to commute even further?

Change in average journey-to-work travel distance by region (km). Data from BITRE

The Age says jobs in Melbourne are losing pace with sprawl – it cites a new study by BITRE which predicts “an increase in the average commuting distance” by 2026 and a rise in journeys to work involving a road distance of more than 30 kilometres.

If a rigorous, hard-nosed body like the Bureau of Transport, Infrastructure and Regional Economics is saying things are going to get worse in the future, it’s worth sitting up and taking notice, right? It’s true BITRE does say that, but it’s also true the media tends to err toward a sensational rather than a sober interpretation of any given facts. In this instance the story is a bit of a beat-up.

For a start, it’s hardly news that commuting distances could “increase” over a period of 15 years given the spectacular growth in population projected for Melbourne. What matters is the size of any increase – if it’s only a 1% increase over the entire period, that’s an infinitesimal 0.06% p.a. However if it’s (say) 15%, i.e. 1% p.a., that’s worth taking note of. However The Age is silent on this score.

BITRE doesn’t say anything about the size of the predicted increase either. There’s a good reason for that. BITRE’s study isn’t an authoritative prediction of future commute distances as implied by The Age’s story. It doesn’t make forecasts based on the latest data, using innovative modelling techniques and complex algorithms as one might expect. In fact the report isn’t even about the future! – it’s actually about historical population, employment and commuting patterns in Melbourne up to 2006.

The Age relies on what is in effect an ill-advised throwaway line by BITRE. The report states (p 333) that if the Victorian Government’s spatial projections of population and employment through to 2026 are realised, the likely commuting implications include….”an increase in journeys to work involving a road distance of more than 30 kilometres and an increase in the average commuting distance”. There’s no analysis or supporting information behind this assertion, so too much shouldn’t be made of it. The prominence given to it by The Age suggests BITRE should’ve thought a bit harder before including it in a report about the past and the present.

However what BITRE actually has analysed in-depth is the historical change in travel distances – and here the picture is if anything somewhat mixed. The report looks first at what’s happened over 2001-06 (see exhibit). That isn’t necessarily a guide to what will happen in 2026, but it shows how current patterns are trending. The picture it reveals isn’t one of rampant increases in commute distances but rather one of relative stability.

BITRE found the average commute in Melbourne increased from 14.7 to 14.8 km, or by just 100 metres over five years. That’s a 0.7% increase, or a miniscule 0.1% p.a. Surprisingly, the average commute increased proportionally less in the outer suburbs than in the inner city – in fact as the exhibit shows, the average commute shortened in absolute terms in the Outer South, Outer East and the Outer West.

This is the real news! It’s important because commute distances have historically increased significantly, while commute times have remained relatively stable. So reliable evidence that commute distances have stabilised, even for five years, is noteworthy. Read the rest of this entry »


Should bus lanes be shared?

Hoddle St bus lane, looking north (off peak)

The Government’s announcement this week that motorcycles will be able to travel in the bus lane on Hoddle St for a six month trial period revealed a surprising diversity of views about who should and shouldn’t be able to travel in bus lanes.

At present, only buses and bicycles can use the bus lane on Hoddle St (it runs on the south side of Hoddle between the Eastern Freeway and Victoria Parade – there’s no bus lane on the northern side).

The reporter for The Age, Jason Dowling, did his homework and canvassed a number of organisations with an interest in the matter. The Government and the Victorian Motorcycle Council evidently favour buses, motorcycles and bicycles, but:

  • The RACV says the lane should be limited to buses and taxis
  • The Bus Association says only buses should be permitted
  • Bicycle Network Victoria is against motorcycles – it says the lane should only be used by bicycles and buses

I can’t see any problem with motorcycles and scooters using the bus lane. They’re fast enough so they won’t hold up buses and they’re small enough that they shouldn’t present queuing problems at intersections.  Although they’re not without problems (noise and pollution from two strokes), they’re a relatively efficient form of transport compared to cars and low occupancy buses. If cyclists can successfully share a lane with buses that barely fit, contending with motorcycles should be a cakewalk. Motorcycles warrant space in the bus lane.

However the logic of the RACV’s argument that taxis and hire cars should be able to use bus lanes is hard to fathom. There’s no environmental or equity benefit to be gained from making a trip by taxi rather than by car. The only real difference is that in one case you’re paying for a chauffeur and in the other you’re doing the driving yourself (although for a traveller from one of the 10% of Melbourne households that don’t own a car the equation would be different).

Taxis provide an important service, but they aren’t “public transport” in the meaningful sense of a vehicle shared by multiple passengers going to multiple destinations (except sometimes at the airport). They are “public transport” only in the narrow sense that they’re available to anyone for a price. That’s also true of rental cars and I can’t see any reason why they should get access to bus lanes either.

If anything, bicycles are probably the least appropriate mode to share with buses. They’re slower and hence can potentially hold buses up, depending on conditions. In order to overtake a cyclist safely, a bus on Hoddle St will need to enter the adjoining lane, thus weakening to some degree the whole point of a dedicated bus lane. Read the rest of this entry »


How far do we walk to the station?

Average distances Melburnians walk to bus and train stops - km (data derived from VISTA)

Planners invariably work on the basis that bus and tram users will walk no more than 400 metres from home to the nearest stop. It’s known travellers will walk further to catch a train, so the maximum walk distance to a station is accordingly usually taken as 800 metres.

So it’s interesting to look at what travellers actually do. Data from the VISTA travel survey shows the median walk distance to the bus in Melbourne is 500 metres, with a quarter walking more than 800 metres. Half of Melbourne’s train travellers walk more than 800 metres and a quarter more than 1.3 kilometres! Hence bus and train users in Melbourne walk much longer distances than the standards assume.

If the VISTA methodology is right, these findings can be interpreted a number of ways. One is that travellers have to walk unreasonably long distances in Melbourne, perhaps because bus and train coverage is too sparse, or stops are poorly located. Alternatively, it could show travellers are prepared to walk much further than planners have historically assumed (I’m sure some would even argue the exercise is good for them!).

Standards like 400/800 metres are often justified on the grounds that if travellers have to walk any further, they will choose to drive instead, thus lowering the demand for public transport. It’s argued that trains can command longer walk distances because experience shows travellers will walk further if they’re taking long trips, or if the mode is fast (train trips tend to be much longer than other modes, both public and private, and also faster because they have their own dedicated right-of-way).

While that’s all fair enough, I don’t think it draws out the policy implications as clearly as it might. I think there’s another way of interpreting the data on trains in particular. Trips by train are indeed longer and faster than those by other modes, but the key reason travellers walk long distances to stations is they have to – they don’t have a choice.

That’s primarily because the key market for trains is workers travelling from the suburbs to the city centre. Driving simply isn’t a realistic option for most of these commuters – parking in or close to the centre is too expensive and the combination of distance and traffic makes driving too slow and too costly. Limited parking means it’s also hard to drive to the station. In addition, there are all those “captive” travellers who don’t have access to a car or can’t drive (e.g. students) but have high value trips to make.

In other words there are many trips where the car is simply not a realistic alternative to the train. In these cases the maximum distance people are prepared to walk (or have to walk!) is much longer than the standard 800 metre maximum. Not having an alternative, train users walk as far as they have to.

In fact the mean distance train travellers walk from home to the station in Melbourne is one kilometre. That’s a lot further than the median (800 metres) and suggests there’s a long tail of travellers who walk a very long distance from home to the station.

Accepting the legitimacy of longer walk distances could possibly have implications in a number of areas, for example in the design of feeder bus services, the spatial extent of development around stations, and in some cases even the spacing of stations. But most stations are already a considerable distance apart, so the practical implications are probably limited.

However where this way of looking at the issue might have particular relevance is in the spacing of tram stops. Unfortunately I don’t have any data to hand on actual tram walk distances in Melbourne, but my understanding 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 metres. Read the rest of this entry »


Do Melbourne’s trams need conductors?

Multi-section Siemens Combino tram - could one conductor handle all this in peak hour?

On the face of it, The Green’s case for the reintroduction of tram conductors looks pretty convincing. They say that for a net cost of just $6-9 million p.a., 1,000 conductors could be placed on all of Melbourne’s 500 odd trams from the first service to the last.

The Green’s proposal rests firmly on the assumption that the presence of conductors would effectively eliminate fare evasion. While it would cost $50 million p.a. to employ the conductors, they would claw back virtually all the estimated $40 million currently stolen by fare evaders.

Fewer ticket inspectors would therefore be needed and there’d be further savings in reduced vandalism and injuries to passengers. The Greens have called on the Government to introduce a two year trial with 100 conductors, targeted at heavily patronised routes like the No. 96.

Given we’ve (theoretically) got an automated ticketing system, my default position is we shouldn’t need the expense of conductors anymore than we still need elevator operators, ushers at the movies, bank tellers, or someone to fill our petrol tanks.

Yet The Green’s proposal is what I call a “what the heck” argument. The logic goes like this: the $40 million is dead money, so we might as well get some value out of it by bringing conductors back. It’s not necessarily the optimum way you’d spend an unencumbered $40 million, but what the heck, our options are limited.

That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a bad idea. Restoring conductors could potentially provide a range of benefits. As well as checking validations, they could issue short-trip tickets, advise tourists, assist the disabled and provide at least a limited disincentive to vandalism and anti-social behaviour. In my view conductors could also provide an important intangible benefit – they would eliminate the ‘regularisation’ of evasion that is arguably inherent in the existing system.

Indeed, if the net cost really is less than $10 million p.a. as The Greens claim, restoring conductors sounds like a pretty attractive proposition. The idea could be very attractive politically to a Government that wants to demonstrate its bona fides on public transport.

But there’s the inevitable catch. The Greens assume 1,000 conductors because that was the staffing level when the conductor role was abolished in the early 90s and it seems to fit with the size of the current fleet (just under 500 trams) and the need for two shifts per day. However while the number of trams hasn’t increased significantly since the days of conductors, the size of trams has.

It’s doubtful that a lone conductor could make much headway through a crowded five-section Siemens Combino tram carrying 200 passengers in peak hour, while checking mykis, helping passengers and selling tickets. Either larger trams require multiple conductors in the peak – at greater cost – or it has to be accepted that conductors wouldn’t make as big a dent in foregone revenue as The Greens assume.

In any event, even if The Green’s number is accepted, it still under-estimates the number of conductors that would be needed. Due allowance hasn’t been made for conductors getting sick, going on holidays, attending training, and so on. Also, on-costs need to be factored in, as well as administrative support and the cost of equipment like mobile myki readers.

If I assume 1,300 conductors are required at $50,000 p.a., plus 50% on-costs, the aggregate cost is $97 million p.a. (I’ll follow The Greens in also assuming a saving of $10 million p.a. because 100 ticket inspectors would no longer be required, but I’ll add back $10 million p.a. for ancillary costs). That looks pretty expensive compared to the amount of evaded revenue conductors could realistically bring in.

But we don’t necessarily have to adopt the “what the heck” strategy. There might be other ways to recover all or part of the lost $40 million, thereby enabling any recovered funds to be applied to their optimal use. A failing of The Green’s proposal is that it doesn’t assess the alternatives. Read the rest of this entry »


Will Baillieu abandon Melbourne Metro (in favour of the East-West road tunnel)?

Melbourne Metro - proposed tunnel alignment and stations

From Wednesday’s Crikey newsletter (gated), in the Tips and Rumours section:

Vic government tunnels under greenies. A Victorian political spy reckons the Baillieu government is about to resurrect the East-West road tunnel underneath Royal Park at the expense of the Labor government’s planned Melbourne Metro scheme. It’s “a big up-yours to all the inner-city greenies that gave the old government such a run-around,” they say.

Assuming the Crikey report is well-founded (and it might not be – it is only a rumour, after all), I wouldn’t expect any government would be silly enough to announce it is abandoning a rail project in favour of a road project. No, it would say it’s going to do both.

The road would simply get priority over the rail project when scarce capital funds are doled out. The $40 million already allocated from Infrastructure Australia for Melbourne Metro will continue to be applied to feasibility studies and planning approvals, but if Crikey’s report is true, the project will languish for want of the billions needed to build it.

If that’s what’s intended by the Government, it could create an enormous problem. I’m not so much concerned that the Government might dare to build a new freeway as I am about the possible loss of the Melbourne Metro project.

Melbourne Metro is a response to the looming shortfall in capacity in the city’s rail system. What’s needed to expand capacity, according to the Eddington Report, is a new line in the CBD, essentially linking Flinders St and Southern Cross stations.

This could be achieved with a relatively short tunnel. However Eddington recommended that it be done with a much more ambitious tunnel running from Footscray to The Domain (and ultimately Caulfield) with new stations at North Melbourne, Parkville, the CBD (two) and The Domain – see exhibit. The first option costs a lot less but the second provides more capacity and has wider economic benefits, especially in terms of enhanced urban development.

If funding for Melbourne Metro is to be delayed (and again I emphasise the “if”), the Government needs to explain how it’s going to deal with the looming rail capacity problem in the city centre.


Should public transport fares be higher?

Fare revenue/per passenger km ($) for public transport in selected cities (data from Ian Wallis & Assocs)

The report in The Age that the Government is considering a 10% real increase in public transport fares has generated an intense negative reaction from readers.

If the Government went ahead with the touted increase, the paper calculates that combined with CPI increases, the cost of a weekly zone one myki pass would rise from the current $30.20 to $34.90 in 2013, or by $4.70 per week. The equivalent zone two pass would rise from $51.00 to $58.95.

Out of well in excess of 100 reader comments on the story, only a handful defended the proposition. The overwhelming view is the system is so broken it would be outrageous for the government to ask beleaguered users to pay more. While many say they’d be prepared to pay more if it meant the system were improved, quite a few think public transport is already too expensive at current fare levels – indeed, a number argued public transport is a “public good” and should be free.

Some warn higher fares would be self-defeating because they’d encourage further fare evasion – equivalent revenue could instead be raised by getting serious about evaders. Another objection is that recent increases in patronage have raised enough additional revenue to obviate the need for increasing fares.

There’s also a common sentiment that increasing fares would increase car use and hence be bad environmentally. A surprising number reckon the increase would make public transport more expensive than driving.

I think The Age has taken some licence here. Current policy is that fares increase in line with inflation, so some of the prospective rise is going to happen anyway. By itself, a 10% increase (i.e. a 5% increase in each of two consecutive years) would put up the cost of a zone one weekly myki pass by $3.10 per week. The corresponding increase for a zone two weekly would be $5.25 per week.

Still, I don’t think even these somewhat lower numbers would do much to assuage the vitriol spat out by most readers. However I disagree with them. As I’ve pointed out before, I support the idea of increasing fares in real terms. This is not a conservative view – the public transport advocates who undertook the Independent Public Inquiry into Sydney’s long-term public transport needs think it’s a good and necessary idea too.

The argument that fares shouldn’t be increased because the system is flawed is politically potent but counter-productive. More revenue is one of the crucial inputs needed to improve the system. Better service is a much more important driver of patronage than fare levels.

Fares aren’t in any event expensive relative to the cost of the service provided. They’re already heavily subsidised – fare box revenue in Melbourne only recovers 44% of operating costs and none of the capital cost. Moreover, fare revenue is around 12 cents per passenger kilometre – that’s around average for Australian cities but considerably lower than some major cities in New Zealand, Canada and the United States (see exhibit).

There’s a sense of perspective missing here. For all its failings (and I’m not suggesting they aren’t real), the public transport system in Melbourne is still delivering a reasonable service. In fact it’s been good enough to support spectacular jobs growth in the transit-dependent CBD over recent years – employers are prepared to bet on it.

There are good reasons for pursuing revenue foregone through fare evasion, but it isn’t a magical hollow log. Collecting the marginal dollar entails substantial and increasing costs, such as employing more inspectors (or conductors). Likewise, recent boosts in patronage have increased revenue, but they’ve also raised operating costs and required more investment in infrastructure e.g. new trains.

The argument that higher fares will increase driving isn’t convincing either. While there would undoubtedly be some drift at the margin, the great bulk of public transport users are “captive” in the sense that they either can’t drive or motoring is simply too expensive due to high parking costs and traffic congestion. Even a one-off 10% real increase isn’t going to change that equation substantially (although I expect it could well give a modest boost to cycling).

The key market for public transport is work trips to the city centre. The CBD couldn’t exist in its current size and form without transit. There’s no convincing reason – on either efficiency or equity grounds – why CBD employers should have the travel costs of their generally well-paid workers subsidised by the rest of the population by holding down fares (in an ideal world I’d favour a tax on central city employers to supplement funding of transit services but that’s another story).

Despite what some readers of The Age think, public transport is not a “public good”. It’s neither non-rivalrous nor non-excludable – it gets congested and users pay. Of course it has a social function but so do water and energy. As is usually the case with these utilities, subsidies should be directed at eligible users, not bestowed on all passengers via the fare structure irrespective of income .

Overall then, I think increasing fares in real terms is a good idea. However I don’t see fares as the only source of revenue – CBD businesses should be paying too (and Sydney’s Independent Inquiry also identified a number of other potential sources of funding). I’d also like to see attention given to the fare structure, so that among other things, it provides further incentive for travellers to shift to non-peak services. Read the rest of this entry »


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.  Read the rest of this entry »