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 »


Do public transport and road pricing go together?

Animation of US expansion from 1700-1900 - post office openings

It surprises me who’s still lukewarm about congestion pricing of roads. I’d have thought the focus on the carbon tax over the last year would’ve heightened understanding of the role of the price mechanism in managing resources better. Obviously governments find it too hard politically but even organisations like The Greens and the Public Transport Users Association (PTUA) offer only heavily qualified support for congestion pricing.

The PTUA doesn’t support congestion pricing in the absence of alternatives, arguing that it would be unlikely to win community support and would be socially inequitable. It’s position is public transport must first be improved to a competitive level. The Greens take a similar view. Senator Scott Ludlum says the party believes a congestion tax “would be an unfair impost unless significant improvements to public transport and other non-driving modes of commuting, such as walking and cycling facilities, are made at the same time”.

What this means in practice is neither organisation has much to say in favour of congestion pricing – neither could be regarded as a staunch advocate of this potential reform. I think that’s a real pity because congestion pricing and improvements in public transport go hand-in-hand. They are the veritable horse and carriage – you won’t get one without the other.

Cars are a very attractive transport option, especially in our dispersed cities. But even the streets of a dense city like Manhattan are full of cars. We could wait generations in the hope that land use changes will make Melbourne so dense that cars will necessarily become a minority mode. Or we could ignore the probability that motorists will shift to more fuel-efficient vehicles or to ones powered by alternative fuels and instead bet that higher fuel prices will drive cars off  Melbourne’s roads.

But waiting and hoping aren’t a good basis for policy. Realistically, we can’t expect Australians will forego the private benefits of a car unless they’re forced to. The only reason most CBD workers don’t drive is because they can’t – traffic congestion and high parking charges rule driving out. Even so, around a quarter of CBD workers in Melbourne still drive and that proportion rises pretty rapidly to 50% and higher once you move even a few hundred metres away from the city rail loop. It would be a bit hard to argue they make this choice because public transport isn’t good enough.

Investing in public transport without simultaneously constraining the car will only achieve a modest increase in public transport’s existing 15% share of all motorised travel in Melbourne. Consider that Melbourne’s train, tram and bus system would cost an unthinkable amount if we had to build it from scratch today – hundreds of billions of dollars – yet 85% of motorised trips are still made by car. It should be obvious that simply providing the infrastructure isn’t enough.

Congestion pricing is the only way to reduce the considerable competitive advantage cars have over public transport (in most situations) within a reasonable time frame and at a reasonable cost. It’s therefore the only way to significantly increase public transport’s share of motorised trips. Of course good public transport has to be in place at the time congestion pricing is introduced. But what The Greens and the PTUA are missing is that you have to positively and enthusiastically embrace both.

The efficiency case for pricing is very strong and rejected by few. It’s the only practical way to manage traffic congestion. Its great virtue is that it prioritises travellers according to the value of their trip purpose. It also reduces accidents, as well as transport-related emissions and pollution.

The key concern of those with misgivings is the equity implications of congestion pricing. I don’t think it can be doubted that richer people will be better placed to buy road space. But I think there are a number of other issues that also need to be considered here. Read the rest of this entry »


Is Bicycle Victoria (membership) worth it?

Real bike security!

It’s with some regret I report I’ve let my membership of Bicycle Victoria (BV) lapse. I had a call last week from one of BV’s sales people asking me if I would front up $150 to continue my family membership for another year. I said no.

In 2009 my family membership was $120. Last year it jumped to $135, this year it’s $150! That’s more than 10% escalation per annum. Why is this sort of increase necessary? I could downgrade to a two person household membership for $125 or a one person membership for $105 but in my opinion that’s still too much — and in any event I wanted a family membership.

I know some will say that’s what effective lobbying and community education costs in this day and age. What’s a hundred and fifty bucks, they’ll say, in the scheme of things when you compare it to the good works BV does? I know the “if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys” argument. And some will say I’ve lost access to BV’s third party property insurance and legal defence services. But it’s still too much.

Most every non-profit I see these days is a “professional” organisation with the culture that implies – relatively high salaries at the top, expense accounts, frequent travel, and so on. Many function in part as out-sourced providers of government programs so perhaps it’s not surprising that they tend to mimic public sector standards and practices. While I have no reason to doubt the competence and dedication of BV’s staff, I fear it’s becoming more about bureaucracy than bicycles.

Have a look at BV’s web site to see just how many paid staff BV has. This is a big organisation. Annual revenue is $11.7 million. There’s the CEO and seven general managers. Then there are seven teams. There are five staff in the Ride2School team, seven in the Facilities Development Team, six in the Riders Team, four each in the Finance and the Publications teams, five in the Events Team and three in the Rider Services Team. Some of these staff are supported by “behaviour change” grants to deliver particular programs on behalf of government. Perhaps some of them are part-time, but I don’t think there’s any doubt this is now a big organisation.

My interest in supporting BV is not how big it can get, but what it can do to improve conditions for cyclists. The key to that is lobbying state and local governments and educating the community about cycling. That’s a task that requires a coordinator to act on behalf of cyclists because it can’t be done by the market. So we need a BV in some incarnation. But like so many organisations, BV seems to have grown to take on a raft of other functions, many of them aimed at generating more revenue – in fact membership fees now make up only 19% of BV’s revenue. But more revenue for what?

The 2009-2010 Financial Statement and the 2009-2010 Annual Report indicate that close to half of BV’s expenditure goes on conducting rides. These are a big focus of attention – they account for 48% of expenditure (and 58% of revenue). That’s nice, but my membership fees aren’t needed to conduct operations that cover their costs and could in any event be mostly left to the private sector. Nor am I interested in forking out $150 a year so the government has an organisation that can deliver behaviour change programs on its behalf or so that BV can provide consulting services on a commercial basis. And quite frankly if it wasn’t “free”, I wouldn’t choose to buy the bi-monthly Ride On magazine, which is essentially a promotional vehicle with little solid content. Read the rest of this entry »


Is management of public transport a mess?

Who is responsible for public transport? (PTUA)

It seems the way management structures and processes are arranged is still the key public transport solution being advanced in the Victorian election campaign.

The first three points in the Green’s Six Point Transport Plan all relate to governance and management. Now the Public Transport Users Association (PTUA) has released this chaotic flowchart with the charge that “a hundred different organisations are running public transport in Victoria” (see first graphic).

The PTUA says the flowchart illustrates how difficult it is for the average person to work out who to contact with questions and problems. This is a brilliant and no doubt effective piece of politics, building on the glorious history of spaghetti diagrams like Barry Jones’ famous Knowledge Nation vision.

As I’ve argued before, I think management arrangements are a second order issue – there’re more important things to get right first. And I’m by no means arguing that current arrangements are ideal or can’t be improved.

But there are a number of reasons why this flowchart is not a fair and reasonable account of the way transport is managed in Victoria.

First, as pointed out by a commenter (Invincible) over at Skyscrapercity.com, this is a deceptive diagram – flow charts usually flow from top left to bottom right, otherwise they will always look misleadingly complex. Invincible has redrawn the same information in a more logical flow, producing a vastly simpler diagram (see second graphic). Read the rest of this entry »


Is a busway right for Mernda?

If I lived in Mernda I’d be pretty unhappy that the Brumby Government (here and here) is only going to give me a bus service rather than extend the Epping rail line beyond the new station at South Morang.

Sure, it’s Bus Rapid Transit with its own dedicated 7.5 km busway (here and here). And buses will be coordinated with arrivals and departures when trains start operating from the new South Morang station.

But it means I would have to change mode at South Morang. That will inevitably lose me some minutes. Moreover, a bus is simply not as comfortable as a train.

This seems like a politically fraught decision. The President of the Victorian Planning Institute says it’s bad planning and that buses are a “dinky service”. The President of the Public Transport Users Association (PTUA) says buses are “not as good as a train and are certainly not what residents are looking for”.

However I don’t live in Mernda. And I pay taxes, so I’m quite interested in public money being spent efficiently and equitably. I also understand that there are many demands on available funds, not just from other transport projects but from other portfolios like education, health and housing.

So when I stand back and take a look at this initiative I can see some positives. In fact I think this is the right decision. It’s how governments should be approaching this sort of issue. These are my reasons: Read the rest of this entry »


Should public transport fares to the airport be subsidised?

Yesterday’s discussion of an airport-CBD rail link prompts me to look further at the idea that airport users have a “right” to public transport priced at the standard Metlink tariff.

My first reaction is that the idea makes sense. After all, everywhere else in Melbourne is provided with public transport subsidised by the Government (no matter how inadequate it might be). Melbourne Airport is also one of the largest suburban activity centres in the metropolitan area, with around 12,000 workers.

If travel to and from the Airport were charged in accordance with the Metlink tariff, the fare to the CBD would be the standard Zone 1-2 fare of $5.80 one-way. But while it might be the equitable solution it doesn’t follow that it’s the sensible one, the necessary one, or the one that’s in the best interests of all Melburnians. Read the rest of this entry »


Will an airport rail link reduce GHGs?

Given the evident public interest in the idea of a rail link from the  CBD to the airport, I thought I’d look more closely at some of the key rationales for this project, starting with the claim that it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Energy use and emissions (PTUA)

I’ve looked at this issue and, on my admittedly simple calculations, I conclude that the value of greenhouse gas (GHG) savings from a rail line is likely to be minor compared to the probable cost. There are far cheaper ways to offset equivalent emissions than building a rail line.

I looked at this by making the following simplifying assumptions.

First, I assume that a new rail line captures 20% of airport passenger traffic or five million of the current 25 million annual passenger movements at Melbourne Airport. This is double the share captured at either Sydney or Brisbane (around 10%), and almost three times the 7% estimated in feasibility studies.

Second, I assume that all of the current two million passengers using Skybus transfer to the new train (i.e. Skybus ceases to operate) and three million passengers transfer from cars, including taxis.

Third, I assume an average distance of 22 km from the CBD to the airport for bus and train. I assume that the combined average distance travelled to the airport by the cars and taxis that are replaced by train is 35 km. Read the rest of this entry »


Housekeeping – sources for my OpEd in The Age

A reader of my OpEd in today’s The Age (Problems with fringe-dwellers are peripheral) asked for more information on sources. That sort of technical detail is not welcomed by newspapers. So I’ve set out some of the key sources I’ve used over the fold. I’ve only included those where there is a link on the web (i.e. no gated academic journals). Read the rest of this entry »


Does sprawl cause obesity?

I’m unconvinced by the argument that suburban sprawl is obesity’s best friend. I’m equally suspicious that higher density living is justified as a sensible response to obesity, as this story in the Sydney Morning Herald, How City Living Fights the Waistband Sprawl, contends.

It’s not that I doubt there’s a correlation between obesity and distance from the city centre. The SMH story reports University of NSW researchers as finding that “those living in the outer suburbs were 30 to 50 per cent more at risk of being overweight and 40 to 60 per cent less likely to be physically active than their inner-city counterparts”.

Nor do I doubt that the physical environment might have some role. After all, 13% of inner city residents in Melbourne walk to work compared to just 1% in the outer suburbs.

But how much of this difference is due to low density living? Is the relationship causal?

Even at first glance, weight gain seems to me to be much more sensitive to what you eat than what you do (or don’t do). For example, you have to walk the dog for an hour and a half, or cycle for an hour, to burn off the calories in just one Big Mac. Isn’t it likely that all those suburban families eat more fast food than inner city latte sippers?

So differences in diet are probably a much more significant factor explaining obesity than low density living. Read the rest of this entry »