Are helmet laws suppressing cycling?

If maps were based on time not distance, this is how big (and small) the Netherlands would look

A new Australian study has thrown more fuel on the fiery debate about whether or not bicycle helmets should continue to be mandatory. Its headline claim is 23% of Sydneysiders say they would cycle more if they weren’t obliged by law to wear a helmet.

This isn’t merely saying that some people would prefer to cycle without a helmet – it’s claiming the law actually suppresses cycling.

I lean toward the school of thought that says mandatory helmets probably do more harm socially than good, but as I’ve said before, it’s not the sort of issue that I would want to die in a ditch over. However if there were reliable evidence that compulsory helmets actually restrain cycling, that would require a rethink.

The research was undertaken by Professor Chris Rissell and his colleague, Li Ming Wen. It is published in the latest edition of the Health Promotion Journal of Australia, under the snappy title, The possible effect on frequency of cycling if mandatory bicycle helmet legislation was repealed in Sydney, Australia: a cross sectional survey.

It’s a brief and easy to read article but a summary by Professor Rissell was published on The Conversation last week, Make helmets optional to double the number of cyclists in Australia. Professor Rissell is a self-confessed cycling advocate and firmly in the activist “repeal” camp on helmets.

He and his colleague surveyed 600 Sydney residents aged 16 years and over. They found one fifth of respondents “said they would cycle more if they did not have to wear a helmet, particularly occasional cyclists”. They conclude that:

While a hypothetical situation, if only half of the 22.6% of respondents who said they would cycle more if they did not have to wear a helmet did ride more, Sydney targets for increasing cycling would be achieved by repealing mandatory bicycle helmet legislation. A significant proportion of the population would continue to wear helmets even if they were not required to do so.

Regrettably, I don’t think this study adds anything to our knowledge of whether Sydneysiders would ride more if helmets weren’t compulsory. They might, but then again they might not. The trouble is the survey relies on a hypothetical situation: “Would you cycle more often if you didn’t have to wear a helmet? Yes or No?”.

Hypothetical survey questions are notoriously unreliable. I’m not picking on the anti-mandatory helmet brigade here – I also took Metlink to task earlier this year for trying to make grandiose predictions about future public transport patronage based on a similarly unreliable methodology.

It’s standard practice to avoid hypothetical questions in surveys. Consider this advice from The World Bank publication, The Power of Survey Design:

Hypothetical questions, especially, should be avoided. People cannot reliably forecast their future behaviour in a hypothetical scenario. Thus, the questionnaire design should make careful use of this style of question.

Hypothetical questions are especially problematic when respondents are asked to predict an activity they’ve had little experience of. The Canada Business Network advises questionnaire designers, if possible, to “avoid hypothetical or future intentions questions:

Hypothetical questions force the respondent to provide an answer to something he or she may never have thought about and, therefore, the respondent may not be able to provide an accurate response.

The authors should’ve been alerted that all might not be right when they found 40% of those who say they’d cycle more if helmets weren’t compulsory, also say they support mandatory helmet legislation. Yes, there’re scenarios where it’s conceivable someone could hold both views simultaneously, but 40%?! Read the rest of this entry »

Are these contenders for ‘spin doctor’ of the year?

Public transport fares effective 1 January 2012 (Metlink)

There’s never any shortage of creativity when politicians, business and the media want to put a particular ‘spin’ – meaning an interpretation that furthers their own agenda, sometimes irrespective of logic, truth or salience – on an issue.

I saw a couple of interesting ‘spins’ this week when the Victorian Government announced the public transport fare increase that takes effect from January 1 2012. Three in particular caught my attention. I don’t know if they’re “best in show” but I think they might be leading contenders for The Melbourne Urbanist’s (proposed) annual SPIN Award to honour excellence in deceptiveness, bias, self-serving behaviour and a related string of detestable (and yet to be defined) offences.

The first is the on-line survey The Age ran this week to accompany its story breaking* the news about the fare increase. The Age blatantly sought the sympathy of outraged readers, posing the following question in its on-line survey:

Will you use less public transport as a result of the increase in fares in 2012?

  • Yes, I can’t afford to pay any more so will look at other options
  • No, I’ve got no choice but to fork out the extra cash in fares

For what it’s worth, 52% answered no. But it’s not worth much because almost everything imaginable is wrong with this survey. For a start it’s a leading question, connecting the increase directly to “less” use. That might be tolerated in a newspaper survey, given a more neutral alternative could be a bit clumsy. But where it goes seriously bad is with response options that don’t settle for a straightforward “Yes” or “No”.

Instead, The Age assumes it knows the reasons for the reader’s answer and and there’re only two possibilities – either “I can’t afford to pay” or “I’ve got no choice”. Other possibilities aren’t considered. What, for example, do respondents do if they want to say “No, I’m happy to pay to improve public transport”, or “Yes, it’s a matter of principle”?

The response options should’ve been a straightforward and unambiguous “Yes” or “No” (and a “don’t know”, or similar, is always a good idea). But this is not a survey designed to get an objective answer. It’s simply and unabashedly part of the main news story. It might as well be a photo or a breakout box. It’s not there to add objectivity; it’s there to add a bit of “colour”. Even the single “No” answer on offer is heavily biased to a begrudging acceptance – “I’ve got no choice”.

At first I wondered why journalism schools don’t give their students a basic grounding in survey design. After all, on-line surveys are ubiquitous. But then I realised that would be pointless – on-line surveys by media organisations are a tool of drama, not research.

The second comes from Metlink, which evidently will go to any lengths to present the fare increase in a favourable light. Counter-intuitively, Metlink tells travellers they “can beat the price rise” by switching from Metcard to myki. Here’s how Metlink says it can be done:

For example, a 2 hour Zone 1 Metcard will increase by 20 cents to $4 while a 2 hour myki cap will increase by 26 cents to $3.28. A Daily Zone 1 Metcard will increase by 60 cents to $7.60 and the daily myki cap will increase 52 cents to $6.56. A Daily Zone 1 + 2 Metcard will increase 90 cents to $11.90, while the equivalent myki fare will increase 88 cents to $11.08.

On this evidence Metlink won’t pass Communication 101, but the bottom line is myki really is cheaper under the new structure than Metcard is at present for the exact comparisons Metlink has specified. Trouble is, Metlink has very carefully cherry-picked its examples. It’s only true if the traveller shifts from a single use Metcard this year to a multi-use ticket next year (and not just to myki – works for multi use Metcards too).

However all those travellers who already have a myki won’t be able to “beat the price rise”. Nor will regular travellers who currently use multi-trip Metcards like a 10x2hr or a 5xDaily be able to “beat the price rise” – Zone 1 versions of both those tickets cost $30.20 at present, or $6.04 per day for a two-way commute. Under the new fare structure, a daily myki cap will cost more – $6.56.

The comparison Metlink is making is dubious – it’s not comparing apples with apples. Myki isn’t an “occasional” system like a 2 hour Metcard. Travellers don’t top-up $3.28 each time they want to make the occasional trip within Zone 1. Myki is more like a multi-trip Metcard – users who top-up via the web or the call centre must put in $10 minimum. I expect most people put in considerably more because it’s bothersome to top-up frequently. This after all is one of the advantages of myki.

Myki should be compared against multi-trip Metcards. As noted above, that comparison reveals myki doesn’t enable travellers to come even close to “beating the price rise”. Read the rest of this entry »

Is the 9% increase in public transport fares…fair?

Fare revenue per passenger kilometre for selected cities ($)

Many people are outraged that the Government has dared to increase public transport fares in real terms. From 1 January, fares in Melbourne will rise by around 9%, well in excess of the rate of inflation (3.6% for the 12 months to the September Quarter).

From what I can make out, I don’t think anyone is questioning the need to increase revenue for public transport. For all its virtues, the system needs billions spent on things like improved signalling, track upgrades and duplications, more train sets, new rail lines, improved security, and much more. Patronage has grown at around 5% p.a. and that increases costs. Indeed, spending more to improve the system is the key to sustaining increasing patronage.

So the issue is not about the need for more money, but rather about where it should come from i.e. who should pay. Additional revenue for higher capital and operating purposes can only come from a limited range of sources. The main possibilities are:

  • From passengers via fares;
  • From taxpayers generally (by foregoing expenditure elsewhere in the Transport portfolio or beyond);
  • From efficiency improvements e.g. reduced fare evasion, less restrictive work practices;
  • From the beneficiaries of the public transport system e.g. land value capture, levies on city centre businesses;
  • From other transport activities with undesirable side-effects e.g. congestion pricing; levy on car registration.

Each of these sources might be able to contribute something, but the revenue task is huge and there are practical and political limits to how much each can put in.

Fares are an important tool because they directly link supply and demand and they have history. Paying for service is a well established principle in public transport – there are very few public transport systems around the world that don’t charge fares.

Melbourne public transport users already get a pretty good deal – their fares recover none of the capital costs and only 44% of operating costs. Moreover, judged against some other cities, Melbourne’s fares aren’t especially high compared to the cost of providing the service (see exhibit).

The key market for the system is CBD workers who on average are reasonably well paid relative to their counterparts in other parts of the city. Further, a significant proportion of public transport users already benefit from concessional fares.

Those who argue that funding should come from general revenue rather than from passengers don’t always think about what would have to be foregone. They often implicitly imagine it would be at the expense of something they personally see as valueless or negative (new freeway construction is a common target).

But there’s nil guarantee of that. Any such decision would be made by the Government of the day according to its priorities and values. It might come at the expense of a very worthy transport project or it might come at the expense of another portfolio, perhaps a highly emotive one like education, health or community services. This attitude just shifts the problem to somewhere else where it might possibly impact others with less capacity than CBD workers.

In the short term – and this increase will take effect within four weeks – there are really only two choices: raise fares or fund the increase from elsewhere in the budget. In the longer term however there are possible alternatives to future fare increases. Read the rest of this entry »

Should public transport be free?

This video has nothing to do with public transport, free or otherwise, it's just a great video

My post on fare evasion last week prompted a number of commenters to suggest that public transport should be made free. Roads are free, the argument goes, so the idea that public transport should also be free is obvious. It would eliminate fare evasion as an issue, increase patronage, reduce car use and benefit lower income travellers.

Proponents argue that once the costs of ticketing and inspection are allowed for, the net cost would not be that high – one estimate for Melbourne is less than $200 million p.a. That shortfall could be financed by taxing the beneficiaries of public transport infrastructure, like CBD property owners.

Interesting as it is, I don’t agree with this proposition – in my view making public transport free would be poor policy. It might appear at first glance to be a good idea, but it’s instructive that there are few places in the world where public transport isn’t charged for. All of those towns are very small and in some instances only certain services are unpriced e.g. Stanford University free bus shuttle.

Of course there’s no such thing as “free” public transport – it still has to be paid for. Being “free” would simply mean the cost is recovered from someone else, such as taxpayers generally, rather than from the 13% of travellers in Melbourne who currently use it on any given day. And it’s worth noting that while roads are cheap, they aren’t entirely free – other than cyclists, all vehicle owners pay an annual registration fee.

Reliable numbers are hard to come by, but my working estimate is net ticketing revenue in Melbourne, after deducting collection and inspection costs, is around $650 million per annum*. In a world of “no deficit” government, that’s a significant amount. It’s enough to operate more than thirty DART-type Bus Rapid Transit systems each year or more than sixty 1,000 pupil high schools.

But free public transport would cost significantly more than that because it would generate additional trips. This would increase costs – there’d be a need for more services, more maintenance, more cleaning, and so on (e.g. see Crowding on trams gets worse). If patronage were to increase by half (say), the extra cost could be many hundreds of millions per year. There might be economic benefits in lower negative externalities, but actual money would still have to be found to cover the added costs.

Those reductions in negative externalities – principally lower car use – would in any event very likely be much lower than proponents of free public transport assume. The key constraint on significantly increasing transit’s share of trips at the expense of cars isn’t fares, but the greater speed and convenience of cars. Abolishing fares won’t substantially change that equation. In fact I expect much of the additional patronage growth would be extra trips by transit-dependent users, as well as trips by car owners that wouldn’t otherwise have been made (and which therefore are of relatively low value).

And I’m not so sure about the equity benefits of abolishing fares either. The main beneficiaries would be CBD workers and high school students – many of them attending private schools – as well as residents of well-heeled inner suburbs served by trams. It would also confer a larger benefit on those who make long trips and thereby encourage people to live further away from the city centre.

There are assorted other issues too. Some people worry that removing the barrier of fares would see public transport colonised by “undesirables”. This could make it less attractive and consequently deter users. Another potential issue is public transport might struggle even more than it does now to get government funding for service improvements and expansions, given that any expenditure would generate zero return (at the moment public transport covers around a third of its operating costs). Read the rest of this entry »

What to do about fare evasion?

% journeys where fare is evaded (Metlink data)

Metlink released its Metropolitan Fare Evasion Survey on the weekend, which apparently shows 13.5% of trips on public transport in Melbourne in the first half of 2011 weren’t paid for.

The figure for trams, where it’s easier to avoid paying, was much higher – The Age’s headline was One in five evading fares on trams (see exhibit).

Metlink’s disappointed me before with its slipshod approach to customer focus and they’ve done it again this time. The survey was released to the media, but not to public transport users, so we can’t read it (in fact the most recent media release available on Metlink’s web site as of today is 17 August!).

However fortunately The Age has cited some of the findings in this indignant editorial, Fare dodgers owe us all big time. I also stumbled across Metlink’s Network revenue protection plan 2010 which was released under FOI and made available publicly by The Age (I do like it when media use the power of the digital world to supply supporting documentation online).

Metlink’s Network Revenue Protection report provides some interesting findings based on focus group research. I found it surprising only a small proportion of travellers actually always pay the fare  – most people have not paid the fare at some time and some don’t pay frequently. The sorts of explanations offered are “because I didn’t have any change” or “because I could get away with it”.

Worryingly, the report argues that “fare evasion is seen as normative behaviour shared by the majority of the population”. Prevalent public attitudes are:

  • Even people who admit to occasional fare evasion do not see themselves as ‘fare evaders’ i.e.they don’t see what they do as wrong
  • Fare evasion is seen as socially acceptable i.e. it is perceived that everyone does it
  • Opportunistic or inadvertent fare evasion leads to more systematic fare evasion as people learn how to ‘get away with it’
  • Some customers are unwilling to pay for what they perceive as poor service delivery
  • The existing ticketing system is perceived as letting passengers down – it’s too confusing, too hard to use, etc
  • Poor value for money – despite the value provided by ‘bulk’ tickets, Melburnians are more likely than users in other Australian cities to consider public transport expensive
  • Some customers like the idea of  ‘playing the game’ and actively take on the system.

Many comments on The Age’s news report support this conclusion. Not paying fares is variously justified by difficulties with buying or validating tickets, inadequate information about ticketing requirements, poor quality of service, and expensive prices. Some suggest conductors should be restored to trams and some, with imaginative logic, say making public transport free would put paid to the problem of fare evasion (pun not intended).

Trams present a particular difficulty for protecting revenue because they’re relatively “open”. It isn’t practical to have barriers at city stops like there are at loop rail stations. Even with the best of intentions, ticket purchase and validation can be difficult on a crowded tram. Chronic evaders can “hover” near a validation point and only use it if an inspector comes aboard.

Whatever measures are adopted to increase fare compliance, there are limits. There’s always going to be a trade-off between minimising non-compliance, maintaining an attractive experience for bona fide travellers, and keeping costs within sensible bounds – this is public transport, so there’s a political constraint as well. Some lost revenue is inevitable: almost all retail businesses tolerate some degree of freeloading because beyond a certain point the cost relative to the saving in foregone revenue is too high. Read the rest of this entry »

Is transit patronage really growing this fast?

'The Beauty of Maps' - BBC TV series

I’ve noted before that public transport patronage in Australian cities is increasing, but I didn’t realise just how dramatically it has escalated in Melbourne until I had cause to leaf through the Annual Review 2010 published by Metlink, the marketing organisation for Melbourne’s train, tram and bus operators.

This claim really caught my attention: “Metlink research shows that 74% of Melburnians use public transport to get to work, school or leisure activities”. Three quarters of Melburnians?! That’s not merely astonishing, it’s mind-boggling. It comes as quite a surprise to me, as the Department of Transport’s VISTA database says that only around 11% of all weekday travel in Melbourne is by public transport and even in the case of education, only 25% of trips to primary, secondary and tertiary education are made by public transport.

That quote can’t be dismissed as a one-off case of excessive zeal. This recent press release by Metlink also seems to strain credibility. It says Metlink has done a survey which found that “19% of Melburnians decreased their car use” in the past twelve months. It goes on to say that “62% of Melburnians (say) they will rely more on public transport than their cars” in the future. And this media statement released the same day says: “The study found that 94 per cent of Melburnians want governments to spend more on public transport……while only 68 per cent wanted taxpayer money spent on roads”.

If some of that sounds improbable, that might be because it is. One clue is in this story in The Age. The reporter, when noting the claim that 19% of Melburnians decreased their car use, also mentions that another 19% increased their car use i.e. Metlink’s survey found net car use was actually static. The reporter also asked Dr Paul Mees of RMIT for comment on another finding  – that the number of people walking more often in the past 12 months increased by 15%:

Dr Mees said he was sceptical about the dramatic jump in the number of people who claimed to be walking more, because if the 15 per cent rise were true, it would be unprecedented. ”I do feel that many people must be responding with the answer that they think the person asking the question wants to hear – it makes them feel good to answer that they are walking more,” Dr Mees said.

Intrigued by the apparent ease with which Metlink can conjure paradigm-changing numbers, I did a bit of digging around and came up with Metlink’s media kit for the survey. As is often the case with chook food, this is mainly Powerpoint slides rather than  comprehensive details about the methodology. Even with that caveat, the material suggests a few possible explanations for Metlink’s somewhat optimistic findings.  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 »