Are helmet laws suppressing cycling?

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

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

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

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

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under the snappy title, The possible effect on frequency of cycling if mandatory bicycle helmet legislation was repealed in Sydney, Australia: a cross sectional survey.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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 »


Does being the most liveable city in the world mean anything?

EIU's ten "most liveable" cities in the world (scores out of 100)

The good thing about ‘winning’ the World’s Most Liveable City gong is that it might help market Melbourne to overseas tourists, students, investors and maybe even buyers of our services. Unlike the Grand Prix, it costs us nothing. And while it won’t stop some Melburnians from pissing in trains (like this guy in case you missed him in yesterday’s post), it might give many others greater pride in their city. The thousands of Melburnians who travel overseas for business or pleasure each year can now be ambassadors for their city with this neat and handy marketing tool.

But of course league tables like The Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) annual Liveability Survey are all bunkum and sensible people shouldn’t be sucked in. The EIU’s Survey purportedly provides an objective ranking of world cities based on 58 variables measuring dimensions like political stability, health care, environment, culture, education and infrastructure. However, as I’ve explained before (here, here and here), there are a number of reasons why liveability league tables are best left to the marketeers.

The EIU’s Survey is designed primarily to assist companies with formulating appropriate living allowances for staff posted to overseas cities. These people are transitory and well-heeled – they don’t experience the city like the average permanent resident. They usually rent somewhere convenient and salubrious, so they won’t care too much about high housing prices and inadequacies in outer suburban public transport.

There are also difficult methodological problems involved in arriving at a single summary ranking of a city’s “liveability”. These sorts of surveys typically have lots of variables – some are easy to measure, others are very subjective. The analysts often make the convenient but unrealistic assumption that they’re all of equal value (weight). Not all of them can be ‘added’ together in any meaningful sense, yet they have to be to arrive at a simple league table.

The differences between top cities in these sorts of surveys are in any event miniscule and hence of little consequence. For example, the top five ranked cities in the EIU’s survey all scored 97 points out of 100 (see exhibit) – this would be swamped by the margin of error in the estimates. The EIU acknowledges that “some 63 cities (down to Santiago in Chile) are considered to be in the very top tier of liveability, where few problems are encountered…. Melbourne in first place and Santiago in 63rd place (can) both lay claim to being on an equal footing in terms of presenting few, if any, challenges to residents’ lifestyles”.

Defining “liveability” is itself a difficult challenge (I’ve discussed this before in the context of the ‘Sydney vs Melbourne’ debate – see here and here). The EIU finds the concept so slippery it comes up with this tautology: “The concept of liveability is simple: it assesses which locations around the world provide the best or the worst living conditions”. Arriving at a consensus definition is extremely hard because it depends on a number of factors, like the characteristics of the observer – for example, their ethnicity, their income, their stage in the life cycle and so on. The vibrant centre of Melbourne might add nothing to the city’s liveability for someone who’s elderly, or on a low income, or a member of a cultural group that is under-represented in the city.

It’s not surprising the EIU’s top ten cities seem to be all of a one. They’re all medium sized cities (no megalopolises here), they’re practically all low to middling density, they’re all in first world countries and, with the possible exception of Sydney, they all have cool to cold climates. What seems obvious is that the ranking is shaped much more by the characteristics of the host country than anything else. Factors like political stability, health and education – which loom large in the selection calculus – are pretty much the same whether you’re in Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, Adelaide or Auckland.

I would be more inclined to focus on the attractiveness of a city and measure how sought after it is (perhaps by looking at the difference between wages and housing costs). It’s instructive, I think, that few of the cities in the EIU’s top ten are the sorts of places young people around the world seem to aspire to live in. Let’s be realistic, Australian cities don’t have quite the drawing power of places like London, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Paris.

The slightly different methodology used by the rival Mercer Quality of Living Survey ranks Sydney 10th and Melbourne 18th. This is a big drop in ranking for Melbourne compared to the EIU Survey, but again the difference in ranking is far larger than the difference in absolute scores, which is small. Read the rest of this entry »


Do Tiger Airway’s woes mean we need HSR?

Alta Velocidad Española (AVE) High Speed Rail network, Spain

I guess it was only a matter of time before someone would see Tiger Airway’s current troubles as evidence Australia needs High Speed Rail (HSR) between Sydney and Melbourne.

That someone is a Mr Peter Appleton of Brown Hill, who wrote to The Age saying “with the halt of flights, we are back to Third World trains service – Sydney to Melbourne, 800 kilometres in 11 hours. French, German, Japanese and Chinese trains would cover the same distance in 2½ hours”.

It’s evidently escaped Mr Appleton’s attention that there are three other airlines still flying between Sydney and Melbourne – Qantas, Virgin Australia and Jetstar. Mr Appleton doesn’t need to use the train. It’s puzzling why The Age even published this letter given there’s no logical connection between Tiger Airways current troubles and the “Third World” train service between the two cities.

Indeed, another interpretation is that Tiger’s troubles are evidence of effective competition in domestic aviation, leading to lower prices for consumers. Tiger’s particular mix of price and service evidently isn’t proving attractive to enough travellers (big surprise!), but even if the company withdraws permanently from the market, we still have three operators. History suggests the possibility of another entrant to the market can’t be discounted.

Of course three operators isn’t as good as four (and Qantas and Jetstar are related), but any High Speed Rail service on the Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne route would almost certainly be provided by a single (i.e. monopoly) operator, as is the case elsewhere.

The first stage of the Federal Government’s HSR study is due this month so there are likely to be more tall stories as the lobbying intensifies. The Age ran what was in effect an advertorial on June 24 for French electricity and transport company Alstom. Just what disinterested contribution the paper expected would be provided by a company that claims to have built 650 high speed trains over the last four decades is anyone’s guess.

The Age was happy to run with the line of Alstom’s Australian chief executive, Chris Raine, that “events such as the volcanic ash cloud from Chile (have) made it all too clear Australia could not rely on aviation alone to meet its transport needs”. Unless Mr Raine has evidence that global warming is somehow leading to more volcanic eruptions, he should acknowledge that the number of flying hours lost to volcanoes in Australian aviation history is miniscule. This reminds me of those who imply earthquakes are caused by global warming! Read the rest of this entry »


-Sydney buses from the air

Melbourne data visualisation company, Flink Labs, has produced another excellent transport animation – this time it’s 24 hours in the life of Sydney buses. Flink Labs prepared it as part of the apps4nsw program.

There’s also an associated real time bus map which uses GPS to show the location of Sydney’s many buses. It’s updated every minute.

Unfortunately it might not work with Internet Explorer (hmmm, Flink Labs must have a very interesting business model – maybe it’s intended solely for smartphones?).

Sure are a lot of buses in Sydney!

Readers might recall Flink Lab’s superb animation of Melbourne’s trains which appeared on these pages in July.

See also these animations of transport in Auckland and Lisbon.


Is public transport ‘CBD dependent’?

Journey to work mode share, Sydney

A recent paper on travel in Sydney illustrates how dependent the CBD is on public transport and, in turn, how dependent public transport is on CBD commuting.

The paper analyses the journey to work in Sydney using data from the 2006 Census. It was undertaken by Blake Xu and Frank Milthorpe of the NSW Bureau of Transport Statistics.

Although the great majority of travel in Australia’s capitals is now undertaken for non-work purposes and is dominated by the car, the journey to work nevertheless remains an important travel purpose.
This is partly because it generates the largest peak in demand and partly because it is the one travel purpose where public transport’s mode share still remains relatively high.

The first chart shows that, as is the case with other capitals, public transport dominates commutes to the CBD in Sydney. It captures 75% of all journeys by Sydney CBD workers, whereas the car only gets 20%. That’s a bit higher than the other capitals but it’s an expected result.

Journey to work, market share by mode, Sydney

However what might surprise is that outside the CBD, public transport’s share is quite small. Only 13% of people who work elsewhere in metropolitan Sydney use public transport to get to work, while 80% drive.

When the CBD and the rest of the metropolitan area are taken together, the mode split for commuting for all of Sydney is 22% for public transport and 71% for car. Despite its high public transport share, the CBD has a small effect on the Sydney-wide average because it only has a small proportion of all jobs in Sydney – it accounts for just 14% of total work journeys.

Public transport patronage grew strongly in Sydney in absolute terms over 1981-06, but car use grew even faster. Transit’s share of work journeys fell from 25% to 22% over the period.

These numbers tell us that public transport is extremely important for the functioning of the CBD. Delivering large numbers of workers to the Sydney CBD in peak hour simply wouldn’t be possible without it. Read the rest of this entry »


How liveable are our major cities?

How residents of our five largest cities (combined) see liveability

Adelaide is the most liveable capital city in Australia and Sydney is the least, according to a study released earlier this month by the Property Council of Australia.

The Australian reports that Sydney might have the harbour, Opera House and Bondi, but most Sydneysiders live a long way from these attractions in less salubrious places like Liverpool, Strathfield and Penrith.

The Property Council’s study is based on a national sample of 4,072 respondents in the nation’s eight capital cities (with around 600 in each of the four largest cities). They were given 17 attributes of liveability and asked, firstly, to rate them by importance and, secondly, to rate how well their cities perform on each of them. These two dimensions were then combined to produce a ‘liveability score’ for each city.

I’ve taken quite an interest in “liveability” in the past, especially as it relates to Sydney/Melbourne rivalry (e.g. here, here and here), so naturally I had a look at the study.

These sorts of surveys are often problematic and this one is no exception. For example, information on the representativeness of those who actually responded to the survey is scant and some of the attributes are sloppily conceptualised and poorly worded.

So with that caveat, let’s look at what the study found. The aggregate liveability scores of the eight capitals are probably the least useful aspect because the differences are small – Adelaide does best with 63.4 and Sydney does worst with 55.1. Third ranking Melbourne scores 60.9 but sixth ranking Brisbane scores 60.2. Put Sydney aside and there’s not enough in it to be useful.

What’s more interesting is how respondents define liveability. I’ve put the accompanying chart together to show how the five largest capital cities perform in aggregate i.e. Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide (you won’t see this table in the Property Council’s report because I had to correct the figures in the Appendix to the report. Also, make sure to have a look at the full text of the questions).

The first column shows how important respondents think each attribute is for liveability (smaller is better). The second shows what proportion of respondents agree that their city exhibits this attribute. Read the rest of this entry »