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 »
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 enter, or 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 enter, or go to the Pages menu in the sidebar (but don’t enter on this page).
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 »
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 »
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 »
Planners invariably work on the basis that bus and tram users will walk no more than 400 metres from home to the nearest stop. It’s known travellers will walk further to catch a train, so the maximum walk distance to a station is accordingly usually taken as 800 metres.
So it’s interesting to look at what travellers actually do. Data from the VISTA travel survey shows the median walk distance to the bus in Melbourne is 500 metres, with a quarter walking more than 800 metres. Half of Melbourne’s train travellers walk more than 800 metres and a quarter more than 1.3 kilometres! Hence bus and train users in Melbourne walk much longer distances than the standards assume.
If the VISTA methodology is right, these findings can be interpreted a number of ways. One is that travellers have to walk unreasonably long distances in Melbourne, perhaps because bus and train coverage is too sparse, or stops are poorly located. Alternatively, it could show travellers are prepared to walk much further than planners have historically assumed (I’m sure some would even argue the exercise is good for them!).
Standards like 400/800 metres are often justified on the grounds that if travellers have to walk any further, they will choose to drive instead, thus lowering the demand for public transport. It’s argued that trains can command longer walk distances because experience shows travellers will walk further if they’re taking long trips, or if the mode is fast (train trips tend to be much longer than other modes, both public and private, and also faster because they have their own dedicated right-of-way).
While that’s all fair enough, I don’t think it draws out the policy implications as clearly as it might. I think there’s another way of interpreting the data on trains in particular. Trips by train are indeed longer and faster than those by other modes, but the key reason travellers walk long distances to stations is they have to – they don’t have a choice.
That’s primarily because the key market for trains is workers travelling from the suburbs to the city centre. Driving simply isn’t a realistic option for most of these commuters – parking in or close to the centre is too expensive and the combination of distance and traffic makes driving too slow and too costly. Limited parking means it’s also hard to drive to the station. In addition, there are all those “captive” travellers who don’t have access to a car or can’t drive (e.g. students) but have high value trips to make.
In other words there are many trips where the car is simply not a realistic alternative to the train. In these cases the maximum distance people are prepared to walk (or have to walk!) is much longer than the standard 800 metre maximum. Not having an alternative, train users walk as far as they have to.
In fact the mean distance train travellers walk from home to the station in Melbourne is one kilometre. That’s a lot further than the median (800 metres) and suggests there’s a long tail of travellers who walk a very long distance from home to the station.
Accepting the legitimacy of longer walk distances could possibly have implications in a number of areas, for example in the design of feeder bus services, the spatial extent of development around stations, and in some cases even the spacing of stations. But most stations are already a considerable distance apart, so the practical implications are probably limited.
However where this way of looking at the issue might have particular relevance is in the spacing of tram stops. Unfortunately I don’t have any data to hand on actual tram walk distances in Melbourne, but my understanding is they too are longer than the 400 metre standard suggests. Further, many tram stops in Melbourne are closely spaced – for example, in the inner eastern suburbs they are every 200-300 metres. Read the rest of this entry »
This is not a joke – this is a real graphic from the SA Motor Accident Commission’s new marketing campaign aimed at discouraging young drivers from doing irresponsible things like speeding or drink-driving.
The core idea is life is very bad without the ability to drive. You might, for example, end up having to walk, use public transport, or – apparently the uncoolest thing imaginable – ride a bicycle!
This TV advertisement shows boys who cycle are an absolute turn-off so far as girls who drive are concerned.
And if you lose your license, you’ll really know you’re screwed if:
“you’re caught in an electrical storm, you’re halfway home and you’re on a bike”, or
“you keep catching your hot date staring at your helmet hair”, or
“the creepy guy on the bus has just made eye contact”, or
“after lining up for 10 minutes in the rain the drive thru girl says: sorry we don’t serve pedestrians”
Now perhaps the Motor Accident Commission’s research shows the prospect of cycling or using a bus is so horrendous for the target market that it is the most effective way of incentivising more responsible behaviour. Perhaps.
But even if that’s the case, it comes at the cost of demonising modes that have to play a much more important role in our cities both now and in the future. If the campaign is actually effective, it could be doing incalculable long-term damage to the way alternative modes are perceived.
I’d be surprised if the creative talent of Adelaide couldn’t come up with a campaign that achieves the responsible driving objective without undermining another important dimension of transport policy. However I’m not quite so confident about the judgement of politicians and bureacrats who would let this sort of message through!
The report in The Age that the Government is considering a 10% real increase in public transport fares has generated an intense negative reaction from readers.
If the Government went ahead with the touted increase, the paper calculates that combined with CPI increases, the cost of a weekly zone one myki pass would rise from the current $30.20 to $34.90 in 2013, or by $4.70 per week. The equivalent zone two pass would rise from $51.00 to $58.95.
Out of well in excess of 100 reader comments on the story, only a handful defended the proposition. The overwhelming view is the system is so broken it would be outrageous for the government to ask beleaguered users to pay more. While many say they’d be prepared to pay more if it meant the system were improved, quite a few think public transport is already too expensive at current fare levels – indeed, a number argued public transport is a “public good” and should be free.
Some warn higher fares would be self-defeating because they’d encourage further fare evasion – equivalent revenue could instead be raised by getting serious about evaders. Another objection is that recent increases in patronage have raised enough additional revenue to obviate the need for increasing fares.
There’s also a common sentiment that increasing fares would increase car use and hence be bad environmentally. A surprising number reckon the increase would make public transport more expensive than driving.
I think The Age has taken some licence here. Current policy is that fares increase in line with inflation, so some of the prospective rise is going to happen anyway. By itself, a 10% increase (i.e. a 5% increase in each of two consecutive years) would put up the cost of a zone one weekly myki pass by $3.10 per week. The corresponding increase for a zone two weekly would be $5.25 per week.
Still, I don’t think even these somewhat lower numbers would do much to assuage the vitriol spat out by most readers. However I disagree with them. As I’ve pointed out before, I support the idea of increasing fares in real terms. This is not a conservative view – the public transport advocates who undertook the Independent Public Inquiry into Sydney’s long-term public transport needs think it’s a good and necessary idea too.
The argument that fares shouldn’t be increased because the system is flawed is politically potent but counter-productive. More revenue is one of the crucial inputs needed to improve the system. Better service is a much more important driver of patronage than fare levels.
Fares aren’t in any event expensive relative to the cost of the service provided. They’re already heavily subsidised – fare box revenue in Melbourne only recovers 44% of operating costs and none of the capital cost. Moreover, fare revenue is around 12 cents per passenger kilometre – that’s around average for Australian cities but considerably lower than some major cities in New Zealand, Canada and the United States (see exhibit).
There’s a sense of perspective missing here. For all its failings (and I’m not suggesting they aren’t real), the public transport system in Melbourne is still delivering a reasonable service. In fact it’s been good enough to support spectacular jobs growth in the transit-dependent CBD over recent years – employers are prepared to bet on it.
There are good reasons for pursuing revenue foregone through fare evasion, but it isn’t a magical hollow log. Collecting the marginal dollar entails substantial and increasing costs, such as employing more inspectors (or conductors). Likewise, recent boosts in patronage have increased revenue, but they’ve also raised operating costs and required more investment in infrastructure e.g. new trains.
The argument that higher fares will increase driving isn’t convincing either. While there would undoubtedly be some drift at the margin, the great bulk of public transport users are “captive” in the sense that they either can’t drive or motoring is simply too expensive due to high parking costs and traffic congestion. Even a one-off 10% real increase isn’t going to change that equation substantially (although I expect it could well give a modest boost to cycling).
The key market for public transport is work trips to the city centre. The CBD couldn’t exist in its current size and form without transit. There’s no convincing reason – on either efficiency or equity grounds – why CBD employers should have the travel costs of their generally well-paid workers subsidised by the rest of the population by holding down fares (in an ideal world I’d favour a tax on central city employers to supplement funding of transit services but that’s another story).
Despite what some readers of The Age think, public transport is not a “public good”. It’s neither non-rivalrous nor non-excludable – it gets congested and users pay. Of course it has a social function but so do water and energy. As is usually the case with these utilities, subsidies should be directed at eligible users, not bestowed on all passengers via the fare structure irrespective of income .
Overall then, I think increasing fares in real terms is a good idea. However I don’t see fares as the only source of revenue – CBD businesses should be paying too (and Sydney’s Independent Inquiry also identified a number of other potential sources of funding). I’d also like to see attention given to the fare structure, so that among other things, it provides further incentive for travellers to shift to non-peak services. Read the rest of this entry »
I know people who have the option of driving but instead take the train so they can improve their physical fitness. It takes longer than driving, but since they’re going to work anyway, walking to the station is an easy way to exercise. It makes good sense; I’ve walked or cycled to work at various times for the same reason.
However it’s one thing to make a private choice to use public transport in order to exercise – it’s another thing altogether to elevate the war on obesity and other health issues, as a matter of public policy, to the status of a key goal of the transport system. That’s what organisations like the Planning Institute and the National Transport Commission propose, but it’s not self-evident to me that it’s a good idea. It’s worth thinking about it further.
There’s a paradox here. The very point of public transport is to extend personal mobility. At the end of the nineteenth century when everyone other than the very wealthy walked, the arrival of trams and trains greatly enriched people’s lives by overcoming the limitations of walking. Now they could travel further to better jobs or better houses, take the family to the beach on Sunday, or visit friends and relatives in more distant suburbs. The whole point of public transport was to travel faster than walking so people could travel further in the same time.
The panoply of exercise-related issues like obesity are not a transport problem, they’re a social problem. They’re a result of eating more and of expending less effort in all aspects of life, not just in the way we travel. It’s true we are much more likely today to drive than walk, cycle or use public transport, but the avoidance of effort is true of almost everything we do.
Most of us work in jobs that don’t involve anything even remotely like the level of physical effort expended by the average worker of a few generations ago. If we did, Occ Health and Safety would have a fit. On the home front, we’ve had “labour saving” devices like refrigerators, stoves, washing machines and vacuum cleaners for generations. Television and home delivered newspapers mean we don’t even need to go out to get information and entertainment.
Consider the giant strides we’ve made in avoiding exertion over the last twenty years. Computers have eliminated the effort of going to the bank, the booking office, the travel agent or the bookshop. We blow leaves rather than rake them, we use power tools to drive nails and screws, we answer the phone without getting out of our seat, and we cook meals without having to prepare them. We control our air conditioners, central heating, TVs and sound systems with remotes. Climate control means our bodies don’t even consume much energy to keep warm – many children barely know what it means to shiver.
The decline of effort pervades all aspects of our lives, not just how we travel. For better or worse, it’s one of the ways we define progress. So transport – and that essentially means the car – is only one part of the health problem.
Lennert Veerman, Senior Research Fellow at Queensland University’s School of Population Health, points to a recent study which argues the main force driving the obesity pandemic is an increase in consumption. He says the 1970s was:
When the food supply started to change radically. The supply of refined carbohydrates and fat increased and more food was mass prepared rather than cooked at home. The era of easily available, cheap, tasty, highly promoted, energy-dense foods had begun. This view of the causes of the rise in obesity prevalence suggests the likely solutions lie in the area of the supply and promotion of food. And research supports that notion.
He says if governments are serious about tackling obesity their priority should be food. They should tax unhealthy food, limit advertising and restrict availability in schools. He also says healthy food should be subsidised. Read the rest of this entry »
The world would be a much better place if transport operators would stop spinning patronage numbers to the media and public and start giving us the salient facts instead.
The Financial Review reported on Thursday that travellers in Melbourne aged 20-29 years comprise 38% of all public transport users in the city. This figure is in line with the claim of the WA Public Transport Authority that 18-25 year olds comprise 35% of all train users in Perth and 40% of all bus users.
As I’ve indicated before, I find these sorts of figures very hard to believe, given these two cohort’s each comprise around 15% of the population. In fact they’re extraordinary. It’s true young adults have always been over-represented on public transport because many are on relatively low incomes, but it’s the sheer scale of these figures I find too good to be true.
The reality is they’re not true, at least for Melbourne. The real situation is shown in the first exhibit. According to the Victorian Department of Transport’s VISTA database, travellers in the 20-29 age group account for only 22.3% of public transport users on an average day. If confined solely to the average weekday, the figure is a little lower, 21.9%. If instead we look at public transport boardings – to allow for the possibility that young adults make more multi-modal trips than others – the proportion in the 20-29 age group using public transport is a little higher, but still only 22.9%.
That’s a long, long way short of 38%. One explanation for this evident discrepancy could be that public transport operaters are measuring something else. VISTA is a snapshot of travel on a typical day, but it could be operators are counting the number of people who have ever used public transport – even if only once or twice – in some preceding period e.g. in the previous week, month or year. This will invariably give a much higher total patronage figure than VISTA or the Census because it picks up everybody who’s used train, tram, bus or ferry at least once during the (longer) period.
If this explanation is right, it would account for why claimed patronage levels for public transport are sometimes breathtakingly high compared to the customary, more rigorous ways of measuring travel. I’ve commented before on Metlink’s use of these sorts of inflated, self-serving numbers in its marketing material, but perhaps it’s a common practise in other states too. But by itself this explanation doesn’t fully account for why the young adult cohort’s share is apparently so high relative to others (see second exhibit). Read the rest of this entry »
It’s often pointed out that residents of the inner city, on average, are less obese than residents of the outer suburbs. Since the inner city is denser, more walkable and has much better public transport access than any other part of the metropolitan area, the conclusion seems obvious to many – a key strategy to address obesity should be to encourage higher dwelling densities and better public transport in the suburbs, especially the newer, fringe areas.
The flaw in this thinking is it fails to observe that the inner city – defined roughly as the area within 5 km of the CBD – is a different world. Relative to the suburbs, the inner city has an emphatic over-representation of younger, well educated and affluent residents with fewer dependents. The proportion of the population made up of young singles is three times that of the metropolitan area as a whole and there are twice as many young couples without children.
These are the sorts of people who on average are slimmer because they’re younger, who are of an age where appearance is enormously important, and who are well educated enough to know about nutrition and eschew fast food. They can afford to buy high quality fruit and vegetables and pay for gym memberships. Because they’re more affluent, they have fewer children on average and hence less need for a car.
They live in smaller dwellings so they can be near the CBD and take advantage of its enormous and unparalleled concentration of high-paying professional jobs, its matchless endowment of cultural attractions and its huge and diverse range of social and entertainment opportunities. There’s no other concentration of activity within the metropolitan area that comes even close to the richness of what the inner city offers.
Because they live at higher density, driving is too hard for many trips – roads are congested and parking costs range from expensive to impossible. So residents often walk or use public transport instead. That’s O.K., because they happen to live in that transit-rich, small and unique geographical area where every train line and tram line in the entire metropolitan area – the result of 130 years of construction and at least one spectacular land boom – converges.
So population density and access to public transport are not the underlying forces driving this group’s superior average BMI. Rather, it’s a combination of the small but highly specialised group who can afford to live there, on the one hand, and the special characteristics of the area, particularly the presence of the CBD, on the other.
It’s pie in the sky to imagine the sheer scale and complexity of the highly specialised attributes offered by the inner city could be replicated in the suburbs – much less the outer suburbs – within the foreseeable future. The inner city is focussed on the CBD and in almost every city in the world, the number of jobs in the city centre is an order of magnitude larger than any suburban centre (Atlanta is possibly the sole exception). In Australia, the centre offers the cream of corporate jobs.
The importance of proximity to the CBD in explaining the special character of the inner city is demonstrated by the fact walking’s share of work trips plummets from 13% in the inner city to just 2% immediately one locates in the adjacent inner suburbs. This share is only marginally better than the outer suburbs.
Will building at higher densities and providing better public transport in the outer suburbs significantly lower the incidence of obesity? Not likely. Even if all outer suburban dwellings were townhouses, the incentive to walk is much lower if there’s no CBD, cultural precinct, river, beach, historic buildings, hundreds of cafes, and hundreds of thousands of jobs to walk to. Perhaps most importantly, the outer suburbs don’t have the constraints on driving and parking that often make walking or public transport a superior alternative in the inner city. Read the rest of this entry »
If you think crowding of trains in Australia’s capital cities is bad, have a look at this extraordinary video of how they cram passengers onto trains in Japan! John West could learn a thing or two! Peak crowding is uncomfortable for passengers and increases operating costs – more capacity is needed to handle the peak, but much of it is unused in the off-peak period. That extra capacity might take many forms, such as more carriages, more trains, more staff, etc.
There could potentially be big savings if some of this peak demand were shifted to earlier or later periods. This applies to trains, buses and roads and indeed to many activities that experience peaking e.g. cinemas, concerts. Apart from the disincentive of being treated like a sardine, the standard approach is to charge a higher price in peak periods relative to the off-peak. However political constraints mean public transport operators in Australia tend to conceive of differential pricing as an off-peak concession rather than as an active way of managing peak demand.
Here’s another way of approaching this problem. The Economist reports Singapore is planning a pilot scheme offering public transport passengers a greater chance of winning a prize if they choose to go off-peak. All travellers are entered into a pool with a chance to win cash in weekly lotteries, but those who travel off-peak will effectively get three times as many ‘tickets’. The principle is that small rewards will pay for themselves in lower capital and operating costs.
The Economist quotes Stanford University academic, Balaji Prabhakar, who says lotteries rely on the behavioural-economics insight that the average person is risk-seeking when stakes are small:
Offer individuals 20p to leave the house an hour earlier, and most will say no. But a 1-in-50 chance of winning £10 may seem more enticing. The risk-seeking effect is amplified in small networks: regularly hearing about other winners leads individuals to overestimate their own chances of success.
The idea of carrots rather than sticks is not new. For example, long-standing readers might recall this proposal to reward drivers who don’t speed with a cash reward. Fines from speeders are paid into a pot and redistributed randomly as prizes to motorists who are ‘caught’ by speed cameras driving within the designated limit. The Capital Bikeshare scheme in Washington DC offers prizes to riders who travel against the dominant flow, thus reducing the cost of rebalancing the (geographical) distribution of bikes. This study of the effectiveness of a lottery in reducing car travel found it had a positive effect, although it disappeared when the lottery was stopped (note very small sample size). Read the rest of this entry »
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 »
There are nine completely driverless train systems/lines operating in Europe, eight in Asia and six elsewhere. There are a further nineteen in Europe with a “standby driver” or, like London’s Docklands Light Railway, with a “Passenger Service Agent” present on the train, just in case something goes wrong.
So Google’s claim that its seven driverless test cars have driven 1,000 miles on roads without human intervention and more than 140,000 miles with only occasional human control sounds plausible. The company is reported by the New York Times as saying one car drove itself down Lombard Street, one of the steepest and curviest streets in San Francisco.
According to the paper, Google’s engineers say “robot drivers” are better because they:
React faster than humans, have 360-degree perception and do not get distracted, sleepy or intoxicated……They speak in terms of lives saved and injuries avoided — more than 37,000 people died in car accidents in the United States in 2008. The engineers say the technology could double the capacity of roads by allowing cars to drive more safely while closer together.
Although they are some years away yet, the claimed potential benefits of this new technology are enormous. If proven, it should allow travellers to do other things while driving, making time spent travelling much more productive. On roads where conventional vehicles have been superseded, road capacity should at least double, although according to some observers an eight-fold increase can easily be achieved. Speeds should increase while simultaneously reducing road accidents — one of the largest negative externalities associated with roads — through keeping drunk drivers away from the wheel and minimising simple driver error. If accidents are less likely, vehicles can be made lighter and therefore use less fuel.
If it can be implemented without the need for a “standby driver”, there is scope to lower taxi and freight costs substantially. In the latter case this should help make smaller trucks viable, reducing the need for very large trucks within urban areas. However the natural extension of eliminating the need for drivers is to remove the requirement to own cars altogether. If all the functionality of a private car is still possible – like on-demand availability, privacy, point-to-point travel – then the warrant for owning a dedicated vehicle is greatly reduced.
Huge benefits would follow if sharing could be made to work because rather than being parked for 98% of the day, vehicles could be out earning their keep 24/7. The size of the city’s car fleet would be greatly reduced and the cars themselves could be much smaller and lighter – for example, a majority could be single seaters to reflect demand patterns. In time, it’s likely the cost of travel attributable to vehicle ownership and fuel costs would fall significantly as economies of scale were achieved. People on lower incomes or unable to drive would get a big improvement in mobility. Travellers would ‘pay per kilometre’, making them more sensitive to travel costs. Read the rest of this entry »