Are these curves moving for the same reasons?

Annual per capita passenger kilometres by mode, Melbourne (data from BITRE)

Back in May I compared the historic level of passenger travel by car in Australia since 1970 against rail and bus, showing the significant flattening in car use from circa 2004-05 and the upturn in travel by public transport. This sort of long term perspective is useful for understanding the relative importance of the changes in each mode — something which isn’t as evident if only the last five or six years is examined.

The accompanying exhibit shows the change in passenger travel by mode just within Melbourne, using data from the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics (BITRE). Importantly, it also allows for the increase in population and hence shows the change in per capita passenger travel. The period is the 33 years between 1976/77 and 2008/09.

It can be seen that private – or individual – travel (i.e. car, van, motor cycle) has fallen sharply since 2004/05, by 1,236 km. Conversely, public – or shared – transport travel (i.e. train, tram, bus) increased by 301 km. While the curves are still a long way apart, it’s notable that the gap is closing primarily because Melburnians are driving less.

I haven’t seen anything which shows confidently and unambiguously where the fall-off in driving is happening. For example, is it outer or inner urban driving? Is it certain trip purposes only? Is it fewer trips? Is it shorter trips? Is it confined to particular demographics? Or is it something else entirely? As with most things, the outcome we see most likely results from the interplay of a number of factors, rather than from a single dominant force.

The usual suspects called on to explain these trends include increases in the price of petrol, in traffic congestion, in parking costs, and in the level and quality of public transport. Other explanations include the theory that baby boomers are getting older (and hence driving less) and the conjecture that the long distance drive is increasingly being replaced by cheap air fares (although this relates more to non-urban travel).

Then there’s Gen Y’s declining interest in driving, the impact of new communication technologies and growing interest in health & fitness and environmental issues. There’s also the theory we’ve hit saturation level with driving – we can drive to enough opportunities already, we don’t need more. Perhaps another reason is the increase in women’s workforce participation leaves them with less time and need for driving. Read the rest of this entry »


Is parking the best use of CBD streets?

Pop-up cafe, Pearl St, Lower Manhattan

Here’s an interesting nugget of information from Melbourne City Council’s new Transport Strategy – there are 4,190 parking spaces in Melbourne’s CBD, of which 3,077 are metered. There are however more than 60,000 off-street parking spaces “in the centre of the city”. That means on-street spaces account for just 6% or so of all city centre parking.

This suggests that in the CBD at least, on-street parking is not that important in the overall scheme of things. It’s currently used solely for short-term parking, but commercial parking stations can also perform that function. Indeed, they’d probably prefer the higher income that comes with rapid turnover. Car storage is a remarkably low value use for such premium land. Even in the case of the metered spaces, the price charged is well below the value the land could theoretically fetch in some alternative use.

According to Greville Pabst, chief executive of valuers WBP Property Group, a “car space in a typical city apartment can add from $40,000 to the purchase price and, in some instances, for upmarket apartments in good locations, it can add more than $100,000 to the price tag”. Even in inner city residential areas, the Mayor of the City of Yarra estimates a parking space adds about $50,000 to the value of an inner-city property. In Sydney’s CBD a garage costs as much as $120,000 to $150,000.

There is an opportunity here to do away with all or most on-street parking in the CBD and instead use the space for something more valuable. It could be used for high capacity vehicular modes like buses, trams and motorcycles; for highly valued sustainable modes like cycling, walking or shared car schemes; or for amenity-enhancing uses that could take advantage of ground level proximity to pedestrian traffic.

Parking spaces could be dedicated permanently to new uses – for example a cafe. Given an unrestricted brief, businesses would come up with innovative ways to use these narrow spaces for other purposes. Manhattan’s “pop-up” restaurants provide an interesting take on possible alternative uses.

Of course Council could simply start charging parking fees that reflect the real value of the land, hopefully with a demand-responsive tariff. Prices would presumably be relatively similar to what commercial parking operators charge – somewhat less because they’re not protected from the weather or supervised, but somewhat more for those that are a bit closer to the action. It would need to be examined closely but my view is the social value of alternative uses would still be higher. Read the rest of this entry »


Is commuting killing us?

Assembly kit for Manhattan street grid

Long commutes cause obesity, neck pain, loneliness, divorce, stress, and insomnia. Your commute is in fact killing you, according to this story published in Slate last week. And it’s bad for others too – in his Melbourne address last month, Robert Putnam argued that a ten minute increase in commute time reduces social capital by 10%. Richard Florida says it’s time to put commuting right beside smoking and obesity on the list of priorities for improving the health and well-being of Americans.

I’m always bemused by these sorts of claims. Apart from the fact that the majority of commutes are relatively short, they neglect the salient fact that people spend time commuting because it’s worth it – that’s how they earn their living. And in general, the further they go, the better the job and/or the better the house. Commuting is a bit like having children – it costs a squillion, but for most people it’s worth it!

The reality is that most people prefer to commute some distance. This study of US commuters by Redmond and Mokhtarian found that 42% of their sample are happy with their current commute i.e. their actual travel time and their ‘ideal’ commute time coincide. People seem to like some space between work and home. They found that 7% actually say their commute isn’t long enough!

Nevertheless, the study also found that just over half feel their commute time is too long compared to their ‘ideal’ commute time. That finding, however, doesn’t really say much. The trouble is people don’t make unconstrained judgements like this in real life. If asked, rational people will of course say they would like less of the boring things in life and more of the interesting and exciting things. If they’re not forced explicitly to consider the cost, people will naturally acquiesce when they’re posed questions of this sort. It’s a difficult concept to measure, so a much better guide to commuting time preferences is what people actually choose to do in the face of real-world constraints.

It turns out workers don’t tend to spend inordinate amounts of time commuting. This analysis of US Census data shows that 45% of one-way commutes in US metropolitan areas take less than 20 minutes and only 8% take more than 60 minutes. This US survey found that 81% of commuters spend less than half an hour getting to work. In Melbourne, more than half of all trips to work (54%) take less than 30 minutes. Only 12% of commutes take longer than an hour and only 3% more than 90 minutes.

Having said that, whether or not an hour a day spent commuting to and from work is ‘inordinate’, depends on what it yields. The question can’t be addressed sensibly without considering the benefits as well as the costs. We spend time on a host of activities like sleeping, cooking and taking the kids to sport because we feel they are necessary to derive the associated benefits. Likewise, commuting provides something that’s extremely valuable – income. That’s a basic, a necessity. But work also provides a host of associated benefits like status and social interaction. The bottom line is we commute because it’s worth it – we’ll minimise commute time subject to other constraints but we don’t expect it to cost nothing. Read the rest of this entry »


Is time on transit more productive than driving?

MTR Hong Kong - SRO (photo by M Wong)

I regularly hear the argument that time spent travelling on public transport is more enjoyable and more productive than time spent in the driver’s seat of a car. The public transport passenger can read, study, write, listen to music, play games, talk to others and even think without distraction. The driver, on the other hand, must devote most of his or her attention to the road or else get fined (or worse).

I think this line of argument is ultimately pointless. Both modes have their upsides and downsides in terms of how fruitfully in-vehicle travel time can be spent. Travellers make their choice on criteria that are far more critical than this one. Still, it’s an argument that’s often made so it’s worth looking briefly at the issues.

You can listen to music, podcasts and radio just as well while driving as you can on transit, so let’s scotch that one from the get-go. In fact some people prefer listening over speakers because ear phones can cause fatigue. And far too few smartphones and mp3 players come with AM radio, so if listening to 621 or 774 on the train is your thing then your options are limited. I’d score this one even.

What you can’t do in a car however is use a notebook computer, send text messages, play games or read reports and books, at least not if you’re driving.  Actually notebooks aren’t widely used on public transport in my experience, even on the sharp end of planes, but reading, texting and playing games are certainly a common way to while away the time. It’s neither legal nor practical to do those activities in any meaningful way if you’re driving.

But they’re much harder to do on public transport if you don’t have a seat. On Melbourne’s public transport system that’s by no means guaranteed in rush hour. In places like Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan where public transport is the dominant mode, you don’t necessarily even get a choice (see picture – the priority there is to move lots of people quickly).

But there’s one area where the car has an offsetting advantage – (hands free) phone calls. Drivers can make personal and business calls without sacrificing privacy and without imposing on others. That means they can make more important, nuanced and meaningful calls than they would on a train or a bus. They can communicate more effectively without feeling self-conscious because strangers are listening in. Apart from the odd loudmouth, phone calls on public transport are like text messages – suitable mainly for communicating simple or straightforward information. Read the rest of this entry »


Does driving cost less than transit?

Median journey to work time in Melbourne, by mode, ordered by approx distance of home municipality from CBD (VISTA)

With petrol prices spiking upwards, it’s a good time to examine the relative cost of driving versus public transport. You can save a lot of cash if you’re prepared to live without a car, but you’ll pay in other ways.

According to the RACV’s 2010 Driving Your Dollar survey, it costs $10,668 p.a. on average to run a medium sized car like a Toyota Camry Altise. The cost could be as low as $6,759 p.a. for something small such as a Toyota Yaris or as much as $19,234 p.a. for a behemoth like a Toyota Landcruiser GXL. On the other hand, a zones 1and 2 Yearly Metcard costs $1,859 p.a. for unlimited travel. However ticket outlays need to be adjusted for household size. In my case, my wife would also require a yearly pass and our two children would need travel concession passes. That brings the total cost up to $4,562 p.a., but that’s still considerably less than the Camry’s $10,668 p.a.

Of course many children already have a school travel concession pass. And adults who know they have a limited travel range could probably get by with either a zone 1 ($1,202) or zone 2 ($799) ticket and buy extra daily tickets on those (presumably infrequent) occasions they travel cross-zone. Travellers who use public transport exclusively will in all likelihood spend more on taxis and occasional light truck rental, as well as sacrifice some spontaneity in trip planning, but in cash terms they should still come out well ahead of car owners.

Whatever the overall saving is, it isn’t going to be realised by households who keep their car and simply use it less. The bulk of outlays associated with a car are standing costs like depreciation, insurance and registration. In order to be significantly better off in cash terms, a household either has to lose a second car or decide they can get along without any car at all.

But this simple accounting doesn’t provide a fair comparison. There’s one big difference that has to be taken into account – travel by car is much faster on average than by public transport. The latter is most attractive for work travel, but even then the median journey time in Melbourne is almost double that by car (see accompanying chart). Those longer trip times in part reflect commuters who catch trains from distant places to the city centre. But the main reason is that passengers have to expend time on tasks like walking to the stop, waiting for the service and in some cases transferring between services.   Read the rest of this entry »


Is this a sensible comparison of cars and public transport?

Many readers will have seen this now-ubiquitous chart before – it’s from Melbourne 2030 and has been republished countless times. It shows the proportion of metropolitan jobs accessible within 40 minutes travelling time from different parts of Melbourne by car and by public transport.

I’ve never been happy with this chart because its simplicity is deceptive – I don’t accept the implicit premise that public transport should be judged on the same basis as cars. I’ll come to that shortly, but first there are some technical shortcomings that need to be addressed.

One is that the chart doesn’t say how the data range intervals are determined – are they equal counts? Are they based on a ‘natural break’ in the way the data is distributed? It’s not possible to be confident that they portray the situation with either public transport or cars in as objective a way as possible.

Another shortcoming is that a mere three categories is very limiting. If you live in Sunbury (say), the chart says you can drive to between 3% and 25% of metropolitan jobs within 40 minutes. That’s an enormous range – a factor of more than eight between the lowest and highest values. It’s essentially a useless piece of information. And the maps give a misleading impression of how many Melburnians live in areas with the poorest accessibility. There are very large areas on the fringe that have a tiny population e.g. there is a 9 km wide greenbelt between Melton and Caroline Springs. Much of the outer north east is a catchment area.

Yet even with these technical flaws, there is some intriguing information. For example, the majority of the population can access no more than 2% of metropolitan jobs within 40 minutes travel by public transport. Read the rest of this entry »


Will networking make public transport the mode of choice?

What's the biggest danger?

According to a report in The Age last month, new research published in the latest issue of Australian Planner shows that higher suburban densities are not a precondition for vastly better public transport. Reporter Andrew West says:

City dwellers have been presented with a false choice – live in apartments and enjoy good public transport or retain the house and land and rely on cars

The research by Dr John Stone and Dr Paul Mees contends that it is not necessary to intensify land-use across the whole city before significant improvement in both patronage and economic efficiency of public transport becomes possible.

They say the contribution made by urban consolidation “to recent public transport patronage growth is modest and makes little impact on the density of the whole urban region”. Most residents of Australian cities will continue to live in houses and suburban subdivisions that are already built so “alternatives to the car will need to be effective at existing urban residential densities”.

They argue instead for a ‘networked’ model of public transport. Improving the way existing public transport resources are managed – especially by providing higher frequencies and improving coordination between services and between modes – will yield significantly higher transit patronage in the suburbs without the need for broadbrush increases in density.

I’ve argued before that increasing residential density, by itself, will not necessarily increase public transport patronage significantly, much less shift travellers out of their cars in large numbers.

I’ve also argued that there are generally better gains to be had from using existing resources more efficiently rather than relying on strategies based around huge new infrastructure investments or massive land use changes.

And I think the idea of networking public transport is absolutely critical. By embracing transfers, networking provides faster travel paths to all parts of the metropolitan area than is possible by radial routing.

However it’s not obvious to me that ‘networked’ public transport, by itself, would have the sort of major impact on mode share in the suburbs implied by The Age’s report. I can see that it would make public transport much better for existing users and I’ve no doubt it would increase patronage, but I’m not persuaded that it would be enough to address the ‘false choice’ that The Age says Melburnites have been presented with. Read the rest of this entry »