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under the snappy title, The possible effect on frequency of cycling if mandatory bicycle helmet legislation was repealed in Sydney, Australia: a cross sectional survey.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 »


Google Ngram for: ‘Sydney’ vs ‘Melbourne’

Melbourne almost rivalled Sydney circa 1890 – click to insert your own search terms. More on Ngram here.


Why is public transport patronage increasing?

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

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

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

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

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

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


Does Labor’s Sydney-Newcastle High Speed train make sense?

The car-eating "straddle" train

I watched Anthony Albanese foreshadow on Lateline on Wednesday night that the Government, if re-elected, would fund a $20 million feasibility study of a high speed rail connection between Sydney and Newcastle as part of a Sydney-Brisbane route.

The Minister’s subseqent announcement on Thursday puts more emphasis on an east coast Brisbane-Sydney-Melbourne HSR but it seems clear the Central Coast is a key target of the initiative (Robertson is a marginal seat).

The announcement was greeted with some scepticism – an HSR link between Sydney and Newcastle was announced by Bob Carr twelve years ago. Crikey’s Canberra correspondent, Bernard Keane, reckons Labor isn’t serious about HSR and is only pretending.

Provided the focus is on Sydney-Newcastle, I think there are some reasonable aspects to this initiative notwithstanding its apparent political motivation. Read the rest of this entry »


Are Australia’s 1960s suburbs really “emptying out”?

This article at Club Troppo, We’re not full, has generated lots of interest on the net (e.g. here) because the writer argues that, contrary to what population growth opponents contend, Sydney is far from “bursting at the seams”.

The key evidence he offers is that many older suburbs that were settled in the 1960s and 70s, like Campbelltown, are losing population. This is largely because the children of those early settlers have grown up and left home, leaving mum and dad getting older and rattling around in a home with three or more bedrooms.

I completely agree that Sydney is not bursting at the seams, but regular readers of The Melbourne Urbanist will know instinctively that there’s more to this issue than meets the eye. These suburbs are not really “emptying out”. Read the rest of this entry »


Is Sydney really more liveable than Melbourne (part 1)?

On Wednesday the Sydney Morning Herald reported the release of the 2010 Mercer annual quality of living survey with the headline, “Sydney beats Melbourne in world’s top cities league”.

This is not news. Sydney beat Melbourne in the 2009 Mercer survey too. Sydney has stayed in 10th position and Melbourne has “slipped” from 17th to 18th out of 221 cities across the world.

Victorian politicians prefer to reference the annual survey done by The Economist Intelligence Unit. Its 2010 Global Liveability Report ranks Melbourne 3rd after Vancouver and Vienna. Sydney is ranked 7th.

Do these surveys really indicate that Sydney is more “liveable” than Melbourne, or vice versa? No, they don’t.

For one thing, the difference in scores is miniscule. In the Mercer survey, Sydney scored 106 points to Melbourne’s 105. In The Economist’s survey Melbourne scored 97 and Sydney 96.

Clearly rankings give a misleading impression of the two cities relative merits.

These sorts of surveys have been criticised on a number of grounds, including lack of transparency about their methodologies, definitions and quality of data. But that criticism misses the point that they are designed for a different purpose – to assist companies determine living allowances for staff posted to an overseas destination. The lower the city ranks, the higher the compensating allowance. Read the rest of this entry »


Does the housing dollar buy more in Melbourne?

Yes! Compared to Sydney, you get 11 km closer to the city centre in Melbourne and pay $70,000 less!

The Financial Review ran an interesting article on Saturday titled Only units deliver median inner glow. It’s paywalled, but I’ve made two graphs (click to enlarge) based on information it presents in a table on house and unit prices. The data was compiled by RP Data.

The Financial Review’s emphasis was on affordability however the sophisticated readers of this blog will appreciate that there’s a more interesting story here (although with a caveat – I haven’t seen RP Data’s full set of numbers as they’re subscription only).

Figure 1 (based on numbers prepared by RP Data)

Figure 1 shows that a buyer has to travel 23 km from the CBD in Sydney in order to obtain a house at the median price of $500,000. However in Melbourne the median house costs considerably less – $430,000 – and, more importantly, you only have to go 12 km out to find it. All this even though the population difference is only around 500,000 people – 4 million in Melbourne vs 4.5 million in Sydney.

Thus the bundle of locational services available in Melbourne for the dollar is significantly better than in our older sister up the Hume. Those services relate to the special attractions of proximity to the city centre – high level corporate and government jobs, recreational and cultural facilities, private schools, entertainment, etc.

The value of the city centre is brought home by that quintessential icon of Melbourne, the footy. The only place you can attend an AFL game within Melbourne nowadays is in the centre. And being 12 km from the CBD will usually be a better location than points further out for accessing Melbourne’s wealth of suburban jobs and for being closer to family. No wonder migrants are beating a path to Melbourne rather than Sydney. Read the rest of this entry »


Is Melbourne really bigger than Los Angeles?

Deirdre Macken makes the point in today’s AFR (gated) that a large proportion of Australia’s population is located in a very small number of primate cities, unlike the US where there are very many smaller cities.

She argues that if you want an urban lifestyle in Australia you either live in a large capital city or you camp out, whereas in the US you are spoilt for choice. Instead of making our capital cities larger, she asks, why don’t we build up our smaller cities?

Good question and if I weren’t about to go to the Zombie Shuffle I might well have something to say about it. Perhaps another day.

Not the Melbourne Zombie Shuffle but the footy! (The Age, today)

However for the moment let me just respond to her claim that “if Sydney were transported to the US, it would rank as the second-biggest city after New York. If Melbourne were transported to the US, it too would be the second biggest city, just pipping Los Angeles’s 3.8 million”.

A mere 3.8 million people in LA? I’ve got a lot of sympathy for journalists but this seems a bit too obvious. Perhaps Deirdre doesn’t do much travelling. She’s also got form when it comes to playing fast and loose with the numbers.

Sydney’s population is currently around 4.5 million and Melbourne’s is 4.0 million. Los Angeles had a population in 2009 of 12.9 million. In fact there are ten US cities that are larger than Sydney and fourteen larger than Melbourne (see here and here). Read the rest of this entry »


Is the Very Fast Train all huff and no puff?

The idea of a very fast train (VFT) connecting Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne is gaining momentum (again). The CRC for Rail Innovation launched a pre-feasibility study earlier this year; veteran journalist Brain Toohey expressed his enthusiasm for the idea on Insiders on 11 April; and now the Greens are calling on the Federal Government to fund a $10 million study into a new scheme they are proposing.

The idea of a VFT has a long history in Australia, dating back to the first serious proposal put forward by the CSIRO in 1984. The key drivers of the current proposal are environmental and resource efficiency and support for expanded regional centres.

I don’t have access to whatever technical analysis the Green’s are relying on, but this seems an unlikely idea. The fact no project has yet been shown to be viable should be a warning to tread warily. I have some doubts. Read the rest of this entry »


More myths about Melbourne’s density

The Australian Financial Review ran an article on the weekend by Deirdre Macken that perpetuates the myth that Melbourne and Sydney are archetypal sprawled cities (Shifting sands of suburbia – gated unfortunately). The article claims that Melbourne’s population density is 520 persons per km2 and Sydney’s is 370 persons per km2. Melbourne denser than Sydney? That should have set off a few bells.

The problem is the journalist used population figures from a new Australian Bureau of Statistics publication, Regional population growth, Australia, 2008-09, released on 30 March 2010. Rather than use the urbanised or developed part of the metropolitan area to calculate population density, the ABS uses the Melbourne Statistical Division (MSD) as the boundary. This is a patently unsuitable definition for this purpose because it includes some very large undeveloped areas. As I’ve noted before, the MSD boundary extends to Warburton in the east!

Read the rest of this entry »