Why is public transport patronage increasing?

Public transport patronage growth in Australian cities (chart by Chris Loader)

As the accompanying chart shows, public transport patronage has grown sharply in some of Australia’s capitals this past decade but the rate of growth has generally slowed significantly over the last 18 months.

We’re accustomed to thinking that growth in patronage is driven by higher petrol prices but the chart indicates the explanation is probably more complex.

In particular, the considerable differences between cities suggest that one single factor is unlikely to provide a satisfactory explanation. Patronage grew spectacularly in South East Qld, Perth and Melbourne, but was modest in Greater Sydney and unremarkable elsewhere.

It needs to be borne in mind that all of this growth is from a relatively small base. For example, public transport’s share of all motorised travel (weekday and weekend) in Melbourne is even now only around 11%. This is only slightly lower than Sydney’s. Perth is likely to be only around half Melbourne’s level and Brisbane somewhere in between.

The usual suspect when looking at increasing public transport patronage is higher petrol prices. However if that were the key factor we’d expect a more uniform pattern of growth across cities. Canberra has one of the highest levels of car use of all capitals, yet public transport patronage in the nation’s capital barely moved over the period. The same is true of rising traffic congestion. Sydney would have to figure much more prominently if this were the key driver. Read the rest of this entry »

What if the price of petrol doubled?

One clue to the likely consequence of a major hike in the price of petrol is provided by the recent past. As it happens, the price almost doubled within the last ten years.

The accompanying chart, which is based on ABS data, shows the nominal price increased 100% between March 2000 and September 2008. Fortunately it’s dropped back substantially since then. Even so, the current price is still around 80% higher than it was ten or eleven years ago.

It is therefore instructive to look at how drivers responded to this increase in costs.

In part, travellers adjust to higher petrol prices by driving more carefully, driving less and by buying more fuel-efficient cars. While there have been some improvements in this respect, they’re not spectacular. The average fuel consumption of new light vehicles is now around 8 litres per 100 km. Yet the average consumption of the national fleet is still up at 11 litres per 100 km. Moreover, the potential benefits from more fuel-efficient cars are not being fully realised because of increasing consumer demand for larger, more powerful and more luxurious vehicles.

Some travellers respond to higher petrol prices by switching to public transport. Indeed, there was a significant increase in demand for public transport over this period, especially from around 2004-05. However this was from a small base and public transport still only accounts for around 14% of all weekday trips in Sydney and Melbourne.

Like most things, this increase in patronage is very likely the result of a combination of factors. While there seems little doubt that the higher price of petrol is a factor, it is by no means certain it is the most important one. Read the rest of this entry »

Will the streets of Melbourne look more like Hanoi than Manhattan in the future?

I’ve believed for some years that motor scooters and motorcycles are likely to become a much more important component of Melbourne’s transport system if the cost of fuel increases dramatically.

Scooters and small motorcycles are extremely popular in cities like Hanoi where, like the probable Melbourne of the future, the cost of transport is very high relative to incomes.

Like cars, scooters offer a very high degree of personal mobility. They also have the advantage that they can ‘thread’ their way through congested traffic, are easy to park and are light on fuel. Read the rest of this entry »