Does it cost less to drive to work than catch the train?

Laneways of Melbourne (photo from Planning Institute - VYP Street Art Tour)

The Public Transport Users Association (PTUA) is keen to make the case that it costs more to travel by public transport in Melbourne than it does by car. The PTUA says above-inflation fare rises over the last decade mean public transport now costs much more than “petrol in the car” for many trips.

The PTUA might take some moral support from this op-ed in The Age this week by journalist Gabriella Costa (the paper calls it an ‘Analysis’). Like the PTUA, she also argues that commuting by car is cheaper. She says the 9% fare increase announced this week by the Government will make driving a better option. Her contention is that, “even loosely, the maths just don’t add up” for rail:

And it’s a simple equation. A Metro daily ticket from a zone 2 station into the city? $11.90 from January 1. Petrol from home to work and back? two to three litres. Parking: less than $10 a day on the city’s edge.

Ms Costa doesn’t actually do the maths, so I have. Unless she gets her petrol for free, even on those numbers it still costs less to take the train to the city than drive! Petrol at $1.35 per litre is $4.00 a day, plus $10 for parking. Even loosely, that adds up in favour of the train! But as we all know, there’s more to the financial cost of driving than just petrol and parking, so I’ll try to do a tighter estimate.

Ms Costa’s example is based on her own circumstances. I know from her article that she lives in St Albans, near Giniver station in Zone 2. By her estimate, she’s 17 km by road from where she works in the city (presumably at The Age HQ in Spencer St). I’ll assume she commutes 220 days a year after taking rec leave, public holidays, sick leave, the odd day off, a bit of work-related travel and weekends into account. If she drove to work on every one of these 220 days she’d therefore travel 7,480 km in a year.

I’ll assume she drives the cheapest vehicle you can buy new in the small car class, a Hyundai i30. According to the RACV, operating costs of this vehicle for fuel, tyres and servicing, are 16.6 cents per kilometre, giving her an annual commuting cost of $1,224. That’s conservative because the fuel component is based on a city-country average – commuting in busy traffic is thirstier work.

Add to that parking at $10 per day for 220 days and her all up cost for a year of commuting by car to the CBD totals $3,444. That’s still quite a bit more than the cost of catching the train from St Albans, even under the new fare structure that takes effect from 1 January.

St Albans is in Zone 2, so Ms Costa could buy a myki Yearly Pass in 2012 for $2,021. That would save her $1480 compared to driving. Even if she travelled every day on a myki Daily Cap it would cost $2,438 over the course of a year, still putting her ahead by $1,000 compared to driving.

And if she lived any further out the cost of train travel would stay the same but driving would cost considerably more. If, for example, she lived in Pakenham (since she mentions it in her article) her annual expenditure on driving would increase to $6,371 p.a. because it’s 57 km from her workplace. But the cost of the train would be the same as it is from St Albans, since both stations are in Zone 2.

It’s important to note that I’ve only considered variable costs, specifically parking, fuel, tyres and servicing – I’ve taken no account of the cost of owning the car. But it makes no sense to ignore standing costs, because if she doesn’t actually have a car she can’t drive to work! The RACV says the annual standing cost of a Hyundai i30 is $5,668, made up primarily of depreciation, interest, insurance and registration.

If I assume commuting accounts for half of her total annual travel by car (i.e. she drives 7,480 km to work each year as well as doing a further 7,480 km p.a. in non-work travel), then the standing costs that should be attributed to her journey to work come to $2,834.

Add that $2,834 to the $3,444 she pays for parking, fuel, tyres and servicing and Ms Costa is up for an annual total of $6,278 for the privilege of driving to work from St Albans. Remember, a myki Yearly Pass will cost much less, just $2,021, and even a myki Daily Cap will cost her $2,438 for the year. Read the rest of this entry »


Are public transport trips longer (than car trips)?

Non-work trip distances (km) by car and public transport (%) - data from VISTA

I’ve frequently mentioned that trips by public transport in Melbourne are longer on average than those by car. The exhibit above illustrates that difference using data from the Department of Transport’s VISTA data base.

It shows the length of non-work trips in Melbourne by private vehicles versus public transport. For all practical purposes, it’s cars on the one hand (in red), versus trains, trams and buses combined on the other (in blue).

A ‘trip’ refers to travel between main activities. Where multiple modes are used on one trip a single ‘main mode’ is defined. For example, if a person drives from home to the station, catches a train to the city, and walks to their destination, their mode for the trip is the train.

It’s important to get these figures in perspective from the outset. There are almost fourteen times as many non-work trips made by car as are made by public transport. This reflects the dominance of private transport in Melbourne.

It’s evident from the exhibit non-workcar trips are substantially shorter – just compare the two fitted curves. In fact 56% are less than 5 km, whereas the corresponding figure for public transport is 27%. At the other end of the scale, 5% of non-work car trips are longer than 30 km, compared to 9% of public transport trips.

Work trips (i.e. commutes) tend to be longer than non-work trips in the case of both private and public transport, but again public transport trips are longer on average. For example, 40% of commutes by public transport exceed 20 km. The corresponding proportion for car commutes is much lower, at 27%.

I’ve shown non-work trips in the exhibit because they account for around four fifths of all trips (defined as per above). They are not as dominant in the case of public transport, but still comprise two thirds of all trips by trains, trams and buses.

Trains are the key reason public transport trips are so much longer – people travel considerably further on metropolitan trains on average than they do on buses and trams. I don’t have data to hand that separates out trains (I hope to get my hands on it shortly), but the difference between cars and trains would be much more dramatic.

It’s not that the train out-competes the car for long trips. In fact many more people still prefer to use the car for long trips than take any form of public transport. For example, while 7% of non-work car trips are over 25 km compared to 14% of public transport trips (they’re virtually all train), the car trips number 534,000 per day. The comparable number of trips made by public transport passengers is just 80,000.

Rather, people who choose to travel by train are more inclined to use it for longer distances, on average, than car travellers. I’d say that’s largely because Melbourne’s train system is designed to transport people across long distances – primarily from the suburbs to the city centre.

Cars are flexible and in non-congested conditions can get travellers to a range of dispersed destinations, both near and far. Melbourne’s train system on the other hand is relatively inflexible by comparison. It essentially leads to one destination. Read the rest of this entry »


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 »