Does public transport offer enough privacy?

Parallel parking - how to do it when space is tight

There are many ways to measure the immense improvement in standard of living enjoyed by western countries over the millennia (although most especially over the last two hundred years). I think an important indicator – with implications for city managers – is the greater demand for physical privacy that comes with rising incomes.

Much attention is given to how much better off we are today in terms of basics like food, clothing, energy and shelter than our ancestors were.  But there are many other measures. For example, in The rational optimist, Matt Ridley discusses the spectacular increase in the availability of time.

Part of the improvement came from dramatic reductions in the time taken – and hence the cost – of making things. Part also came from access to artificial light. He provides a fascinating example of how much the cost of manufacturing artificial light has fallen: this is how many lumen-hours (lm-hr) of artificial light could be obtained from an hour’s work at the average wage of the day:

1750BC: 24 lm-hr, sesame oil lamp

1800: 186 lm-hr, tallow lamp

1880: 4,400 lm-hr, kerosene lamp

1950: 531,000 lm-hr, incandescent light bulb

2008: 8,400,000 lm-hr, compact fluoro

If they haven’t already, LEDs will undoubtedly increase the amount of light an hour’s work buys by another order of magnitude. Modern lighting is also cleaner than the comparatively primitive methods widely used even a hundred years ago. It’s less of a fire hazard, doesn’t flicker and doesn’t create smoke within the premises (a leading cause of death in times past).

Although it isn’t discussed by Ridley, another aspect of the rise in living standards that should be of particular interest to anyone interested in cities is the increase in the demand for privacy and personal control.

With rising incomes, households who once shared a one-roomed hovel now have individual bedrooms. Twenty somethings who used to live in share houses a generation ago now live by themselves in studio or one bedroom apartments. Where once hotels and boarding houses had shared facilities, now even the most run-down motel offers a private bathroom and toilet. People who can afford it have babies or convalesce in private hospital rooms, not communal wards.

And look at transport. Around 90% of all travel in a city like Melbourne is by private car, much of it with only the driver present. Those who can afford it take taxis, fly in chartered or private jets or, if there’s no alternative to sharing, cocoon themselves in first class cabins on planes and ships.

Compared to a train, tram or bus, cars offer a lot of privacy and control: they’re available on-demand, go directly to the driver’s destination, are in most cases considerably faster, and are only shared by invitation. Car ownership usually costs more in terms of cash outlays than public transport, but people with a high standard of living are prepared to pay the price.

The increased demand for privacy and personal control might seem at odds with the growth of cities. People have been drawn to cities over the last 200 years on an unprecedented scale, so there’s no doubt they want to be closer to each other than ever. Indeed, a key reason why incomes have increased spectacularly is precisely because of the greater proximity of people.

But it’s clear they also want more privacy. Technology is one reason they’ve been able to live cheek-by-jowl and still increase their autonomy. Yet there are limits. Cars aren’t a very effective solution in dense environments. In response, cities have generally evolved by decentralising population, services and jobs at low densities, enabling residents to maintain their car-oriented lifestyle.

But cars have other downsides like pollution, carbon emissions, traffic accidents and noise. Moreover, a significant proportion of people now want to be close to key nodes, like the CBD and beaches – that requires density, the enemy of cars.

I think it’s very important that policy-makers, particularly those involved with public transport, understand and acknowledge the desire of contemporary travellers for privacy and personal control. Of course there’re many other improvements that need to be made to Melbourne’s public transport system, but this perspective suggests that, for example, safety, security and comfort are key values for existing and prospective public transport users. 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 »


Book giveaway!!! – ‘Human Transit’ by Jarrett Walker

Win a copy of Jarrett Walker's new book

Here’s some great news, just in time for Christmas! I’m very pleased to announce I have two copies of Jarrett Walker’s much-anticipated new book, Human Transit, to give away at random to readers of The Melbourne Urbanist.

This is a very big deal. Many readers will know Jarrett as the “transit experts’ expert”, as well as through his internationally renowned blog, Human Transit. His new book, Human Transit: How clearer thinking about public transit can enrich our communities and our lives, will be published later this month in Australia by NewSouth Books (ahead of the rest of the world, too).

The book aims to make transit choices clear to the interested general reader, including elected officials, advocates, and professionals in related fields. Here’s NewSouth’s blurb:

Public transit is a powerful tool for addressing a huge range of urban problems, including traffic congestion and economic development as well as climate change. But while many people support transit in the abstract, it’s often hard to channel that support into good transit investments. In Human Transit, Jarrett Walker supplies the basic tools, the critical questions, and the means to make smarter decisions about designing and implementing transit services.

To be in the running to win, all you have to do is nominate your favourite rail station, tram stop or bus stop in Melbourne. Follow this link to enteror go to the Pages menu in the sidebar (whatever you do, don’t enter here!)Entries close in two weeks at midday Saturday, 17th December 2011. One entry per person and I can only post within Australia.

As always, the quality of your nomination has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on whether or not you’ll win. The winner will be determined at random. You just can’t be in the running unless you make a nomination. Of course, a little explanation would be appreciated.

You can get much more info on the book if you follow the link, including the entire introduction and a detailed Table of Contents. You can order an advance copy direct from NewSouth Books and get a 20% discount.

I’ll be reviewing Human Transit: How clearer thinking about public transit can enrich our communities and our lives just as soon as I can get my hands on a copy.

Remember, follow this link to enteror go to the Pages menu in the sidebar (but don’t enter on this page).


Are driverless cars a game changer?

A common observation by many historians I’ve read goes like this: “they failed to understand just how important such-and-such was going to be in the future”. In many cases, “such-and-such” is a decisive technology that went unrecognized until it ended up completely changing the game.

Well, I think one technology that’s being grossly under-estimated today is Driverless Cars (DCs). If they could deliver fully on their promise, they’d have an enormous impact and bring a triple bottom line improvement to our cities – more efficient, more equitable and better for the environment.

There’s plenty of commentary around on driverless cars and I wrote at length on their potential as recently as May 31, in Are driverless cars coming?  In that piece, I discussed the current state of the technology and some of the formidable technical, social and legal obstacles to a driverless car fleet.

However as we know from the history of electricity, public sanitation, the car, the computer, inoculation, the pill and many other innovations, it’s very hard to deny an irresistible idea. Given enough time – say the 30 year horizon typical of current planning strategies – it’s possible the sheer weight of benefits DCs promise our cities will provide the motive force to overcome these obstacles.

The key potential benefits are:

  • Expansion in the effective capacity of the road system – at least double and perhaps eight times as much, with consequent savings in infrastructure provision
  • Time savings from faster journeys – technology can manage vehicle interactions and speeds more efficiently than human drivers (although there might be a trade-off with capacity here)
  • Almost complete elimination of serious injuries and fatalities associated with accidents
  • More productive use of in-vehicle journey time compared to conventional cars
  • Greater mobility for those who cannot drive e.g. the unlicensed, disabled, drunk

These are potentially enormous private and social benefits. In addition, the warrant for owning a private vehicle would be greatly reduced in a world of DCs. If a total or substantial shift to DC-sharing were achieved, the size of the urban car fleet would be reduced by an order of magnitude. There would be many benefits:

  • Lower environmental impact because many fewer vehicles would need to be manufactured
  • Less public and private space devoted to parking – this could greatly enhance the quality of public spaces and even residential streetscapes
  • Better matching of vehicle type to need, resulting in lower resource and environmental costs e.g. many DCs could be single seaters
  • Lower cost of travel due to eliminating need for vehicle ownership and removing the “status” component
  • Reduced noise, pollution, emissions and energy consumption by virtue of having a more efficient “standard” set of vehicles
  • The opportunity to rationalise the way travel is paid for by introducing a new pricing ‘paradigm’ – all standing and variable costs, including externalities, could be incorporated in a distance-related tariff (this isn’t intrinsic to DCs, but the changeover to a new paradigm provides the opportunity)

There are other potential strategic benefits too. Driverless cars could greatly reduce (though not eliminate) the need for public transport. This would offer a number of potential advantages:

  • Faster, safer and more private travel for those who currently use public transport – many travellers would enjoy very significant time savings
  • A higher proportion of the total cost of providing transport in the city could be borne directly by DC users rather than, as at present, by taxpayers

DCs aren’t just a replacement for the car, they’re a potential game-changer for the entire urban transport task. 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 »


What is the cost of commuting by car compared to public transport?

Weekly cost of commuting per household by car and public transport, Melbourne (Data from BITRE)

The exhibit shows that in terms of weekly household cash outlays, commuting by public transport is vastly cheaper than commuting by car, irrespective of where the commuter lives (see first three rows).

Both fixed and variable costs are much higher for cars than for public transport. For example, outer suburban households where the workers drive spend $302 p.w. compared to $41 p.w. for households whose workers use public transport.

The real killer for cars is fixed costs such as depreciation, interest and registration. These dominate variable costs like petrol, servicing and parking.

The numbers are taken from this report (which I’ve mentioned a few times recently) by the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics (BITRE). The Bureau looked at the journey-to- work costs a household of two adults and two children aged under 18 years face in Melbourne, and how they vary by location and mode.

Location is an important variable – BITRE assumes household income, level of car ownership and commuting distance/time vary substantially by location (measured here as inner city, middle suburban and outer suburban). It’s assumed households who drive own a new 4 cylinder Camry. BITRE only counts that proportion of car standing costs attributable to commuting.

Although public transport costs considerably less in terms of cash outlays, the exhibit also shows commuting by public transport takes much more time than commuting by car, no matter where a household lives. The extra time is enormous for households living in the middle and outer suburbs i.e. for more than 90% of Melburnians.

For example, the cumulative weekly commuting time for the workers in an outer suburban household who use public transport is 1,326 minutes, whereas workers in neighbouring households who drive only expend 561 minutes per week. Even members of inner city households who use public transport spend more time commuting than members of outer suburban households who drive.

BITRE value the opportunity cost of time spent commuting at average weekly earnings (just over $800 p.w.). With this assumption it’s evident time is far and away the main cost of commuting by public transport, even for households who live in the inner city. That’s a key reason why many argue the focus of public transport spending should be on improving services, not lowering or abolishing fares.

Still, notwithstanding the significant time penalty associated with public transport in Melbourne, it costs inner city and middle suburban households significantly less in total to commute by public transport than by car. Even in the outer suburbs where public transport is at its worst, the total cost on average is pretty much the same according to BITRE.

So why is public transport’s share of work journeys only 24% in the inner city, around 15% in the middle suburbs and below 10% in the outer suburbs?

That’s a good question and I think it could point to a major limitation of BITRE’s analysis – the Bureau doesn’t explain the underlying travel pattern that its analysis is based on. The reader understandably assumes commuters have a choice between two modes for the same trips, but what I suspect the numbers in the exhibit are really showing is the existing pattern of accessibility to employment in Melbourne. And that varies greatly by mode.

At present, public transport users can only comfortably get to a limited number of Melbourne’s jobs, mostly in the CBD and near-CBD. Existing public transport use reflects that limitation – most trips are CBD commutes. However given that a little over 80% of jobs are outside Melbourne City Council’s boundary and relatively dispersed – indeed, 50% are more 13 km from the CBD – most jobs are more easily accessed by car-based commuters.

So BITRE’s figures seem very limited in their application and should be interpreted with that caveat in mind. Having said that, I have some issues with the methodology anyway. Read the rest of this entry »