Does public transport offer enough privacy?

Parallel parking - how to do it when space is tight

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

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

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

1750BC: 24 lm-hr, sesame oil lamp

1800: 186 lm-hr, tallow lamp

1880: 4,400 lm-hr, kerosene lamp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Should public transport be free?

This video has nothing to do with public transport, free or otherwise, it's just a great video

My post on fare evasion last week prompted a number of commenters to suggest that public transport should be made free. Roads are free, the argument goes, so the idea that public transport should also be free is obvious. It would eliminate fare evasion as an issue, increase patronage, reduce car use and benefit lower income travellers.

Proponents argue that once the costs of ticketing and inspection are allowed for, the net cost would not be that high – one estimate for Melbourne is less than $200 million p.a. That shortfall could be financed by taxing the beneficiaries of public transport infrastructure, like CBD property owners.

Interesting as it is, I don’t agree with this proposition – in my view making public transport free would be poor policy. It might appear at first glance to be a good idea, but it’s instructive that there are few places in the world where public transport isn’t charged for. All of those towns are very small and in some instances only certain services are unpriced e.g. Stanford University free bus shuttle.

Of course there’s no such thing as “free” public transport – it still has to be paid for. Being “free” would simply mean the cost is recovered from someone else, such as taxpayers generally, rather than from the 13% of travellers in Melbourne who currently use it on any given day. And it’s worth noting that while roads are cheap, they aren’t entirely free – other than cyclists, all vehicle owners pay an annual registration fee.

Reliable numbers are hard to come by, but my working estimate is net ticketing revenue in Melbourne, after deducting collection and inspection costs, is around $650 million per annum*. In a world of “no deficit” government, that’s a significant amount. It’s enough to operate more than thirty DART-type Bus Rapid Transit systems each year or more than sixty 1,000 pupil high schools.

But free public transport would cost significantly more than that because it would generate additional trips. This would increase costs – there’d be a need for more services, more maintenance, more cleaning, and so on (e.g. see Crowding on trams gets worse). If patronage were to increase by half (say), the extra cost could be many hundreds of millions per year. There might be economic benefits in lower negative externalities, but actual money would still have to be found to cover the added costs.

Those reductions in negative externalities – principally lower car use – would in any event very likely be much lower than proponents of free public transport assume. The key constraint on significantly increasing transit’s share of trips at the expense of cars isn’t fares, but the greater speed and convenience of cars. Abolishing fares won’t substantially change that equation. In fact I expect much of the additional patronage growth would be extra trips by transit-dependent users, as well as trips by car owners that wouldn’t otherwise have been made (and which therefore are of relatively low value).

And I’m not so sure about the equity benefits of abolishing fares either. The main beneficiaries would be CBD workers and high school students – many of them attending private schools – as well as residents of well-heeled inner suburbs served by trams. It would also confer a larger benefit on those who make long trips and thereby encourage people to live further away from the city centre.

There are assorted other issues too. Some people worry that removing the barrier of fares would see public transport colonised by “undesirables”. This could make it less attractive and consequently deter users. Another potential issue is public transport might struggle even more than it does now to get government funding for service improvements and expansions, given that any expenditure would generate zero return (at the moment public transport covers around a third of its operating costs). Read the rest of this entry »


Are Melbourne’s trains really this bad?

Hurstbridge line, yesterday

The amazing thing about this footage is that it was filmed only yesterday at Montmorency on the Hurstbridge rail line. The truly shocking thing is apparently this section of track was upgraded to concrete sleepers last year.

It was uploaded to Youtube by Rocketboy 1950, who says:

I shot this footage on the Hurstbridge line at Montmorency. It is testament to how safe trains are and how they will handle extraordinarily bad track without going arse over head. This is of course not to say that some of the passengers will be going to see a chiropractor or orthopedic surgeon to have their backs put right after riding the trains through here.

Expertly placed on a curve.

Update: Channel 7 now on to this and ran this story on Friday evening news.


Do we want cars in the city centre?

Possible road pricing cordon boundary, inner Melbourne - Clarke and Hawkins, 2006

I’ve noted before that only 30% of commuters who work within the Hoddle Grid – i.e. the area bounded by Spring, Flinders, Spencer and La Trobe streets – drive to work. However only a block or two beyond the city rail loop, the share of work trips taken by car increases steeply to 50-60%, and above.

Peter Parker at Melbourne on Transit offers an explanation. Using Metlink, he found a journey from Laverton station to Melbourne Town Hall in the morning peak takes 33 minutes. However if the Laverton traveller is bound for nearby Docklands (Waterfront City), the trip takes an extraordinary 54 minutes. Anyone travelling from Greensborough station to the same two destinations would have to allow an additional 29 minutes to get to Docklands and if travelling from Cheltenham station an extra 30 minutes.

In other words, once a traveller gets off the rail system in the CBD, further travel to near-CBD destinations is very slow. This is in part because the rail loop was not designed primarily to move people around the CBD and in part because trams are slow. Peter explains:

We have trams but unlike some compact European cities we don’t have a dense metro in the job-dense 2-5km core that allows for fast local travel. Instead for the ‘last mile’ we rely on slow surface modes, notably trams and buses, often without their own right of way.

Public transport’s mode share in the vicinity of Waterfront City is just 22%. This is despite the area having a frequent tram service. Given the huge investment in public transport in the city centre, any mode share below 50% is very disappointing, but the figure for Waterfront City is appalling.

I suspect there are two key reasons for the low mode share of near-CBD areas. The first is simply that the cost of driving and parking in these areas is still reasonably low – so workers drive because they can. Perhaps there’s a high proportion of workers in the CBD fringe whose status attracts a “company car”. Perhaps also there are more institutions like hospitals with shift workers who drive off-peak. The second reason is that movement within the city centre by public transport is too slow. That’s partly because the rail loop is not configured well for intra CBD trips and partly because trams are slowed by cars, particularly at intersections.

The CBD is one of those places where I think it’s very hard to justify commuting by car, given the enormous investment in public transport infrastructure and the extremely high accessibility it provides to the rest of the metropolitan area. It’s such a vital asset to the city as a whole and to the State that its amenity should not be despoiled by the noise, fumes and danger of too many cars.

The Melbourne City Council has proposed some worthwhile improvements, such as a maximum speed limit of 40 km/hr in the CBD (although I’d prefer 30 km/hr) and a plan to eliminate cars, taxis and vans from Swanston Street (although I fear the potential for pedestrian/cyclist conflict has not been fully resolved). Read the rest of this entry »


Should fare zones be rationalised?

I like the principle underlying Melbourne’s two zone public transport fares system – if you travel further, you pay more. Travel within roughly 11 km of Flinders St Station is a Zone 1 fare and travel within the area beyond that is a Zone 2 fare. Those who travel between zones pay a Zone 1-2 fare. Sensibly, there’s a three station ‘grace’ overlap between zones.

The logic of the tariff is premised on the idea that trips are to the CBD. If you live in Epping (say), you are 19 km from the CBD and in Zone 2, whereas someone living near Bell station in Preston is only 9 km out and is in Zone 1. The standard Two Hour Zone 1 fare is $3.80 and the Zone 2 fare is $2.90. If you cross zones, the fare for the longer distances expected with Zone 1-2 trips is $6.00.

That all sounds good, but inevitably there are anomalies. For example, a traveller boarding a train on the Epping line at Reservoir station can travel through 15 stations to Flinders St for a Zone 1 fare. However anyone boarding at the next station out, Ruthven, must pay a Zone 1-2 fare to travel to Flinders St.

Residents who live near the overlap stations and make short trips face a very high marginal cost. For example, someone boarding at Bell station on the Epping line can only travel 3 stations away from the CBD before incurring a Zone 1-2 fare.  Similarly the four station inbound trip from Ruthven station to Bell is a Zone 1-2 fare. The same pattern happens on other lines.

Another anomaly is the cost of Zone 1-2 fares compared to Zone 1 and Zone 2 fares. With so much of the cost of operating a rail service tied up in capital items, it’s hard to see why a Zone 1-2 fare costs 60% more than a Zone 1 fare and over 100% more than a Zone 2 fare. That might possibly make sense for buses but seems a real stretch for trains.

These sorts of anomalies could be seen as unfortunate but inevitable compromises – after all, most travellers are bound for the city centre. However as discussed here, the great bulk of jobs are now in the suburbs, not the CBD. Moreover, most Melburnians live relatively close to their key travel destinations, usually in the same or a contiguous municipality.

We should expect that public transport travellers will increasingly be seeking to make intra-suburban trips via a grid of well coordinated train and bus services. Indeed, many advocate such an approach. A two-part tariff based on distance from the CBD makes less sense in that situation. While the CBD will remain the main market for trains for a considerable time yet, they nevertheless are likely to have a growing role in intra-suburban travel. Policy-makers should be thinking about how to make them work harder in this role. Read the rest of this entry »


Why are we still so focussed on CBD rail?

Bike lanes - Hitler hates them!!

It’s bizarre, but much of the contemporary debate about expanding public transport in Melbourne is focussed on building more rail lines to the CBD even though the great bulk of jobs are now in the suburbs. It seems we’re locked in an old way of thinking when the world long ago moved on to doing things in a very different way.

The proposed Rowville, Doncaster and Melbourne Airport rail lines are evidence of our preoccupation with radial train lines. They were key issues during last year’s election campaign and the Government promised to study the feasibility of all three. They all connect to the CBD. No one refers to any of them as, for example, the proposed “Rowville to CBD” rail line – the debate is so CBD-centric that’s taken for granted.

Yet the city centre now has only a fraction of all jobs in the metropolitan area. The traditional CBD – that area bounded by Spring, Flinders, Spencer and La Trobe streets – has just 10% of all jobs in Melbourne, as mentioned here. Even the entire City of Melbourne municipality has only 19% of metropolitan jobs.

But it’s not just jobs (although they’re very important because that’s where rail does best). The vast bulk of travel by Melburnians for non-work purposes – which involves considerably more trips than the journey to work – is also not directed at the city centre. It’s local and over relatively short distances.

One consequence of  this ‘radial thinking’ mindset is the popular sentiment that ‘black holes’ in the network, like Doncaster, have to be ‘filled in’ with new rail lines to the CBD. This is despite the likelihood that the justification for a Doncaster-CBD line borders on the farcical. For example, Eddington estimated that only 8,500 workers living in the municipality of Manningham commute to the City of Melbourne, of whom 3,150 already take public transport (and this was before the new DART bus rapid transit system started!).

With 72% of jobs located more than 5 km from the CBD and 50% more than 13 km, it’s surprising that the focus of public transport expansion isn’t on improving services for cross-suburban travel.  Why, for example, isn’t there more emphasis on improving suburban orbital services and feeder services to major suburban destinations?

The fact is Melbourne’s radial train system was never intended to deliver workers to suburban jobs. The existing rail lines are the ‘spokes’ in a radial system that’s designed for the high peak loadings generated by the CBD. In contrast, economic activity in Melbourne’s suburbs is quite dispersed – no more than 20% of suburban jobs are in the largest 31 activity centres – so something far more flexible than commuter heavy rail is likely to be required. Read the rest of this entry »


Why can’t we have more train lines?

Rail system 1890, Melbourne and Victoria

By the time of the economic depression in 1891, Melbourne and Victoria already had an impressive network of railway lines. The last significant addition to the metropolitan rail system – the Glen Waverley line – was built in 1930, just before the Great Depression.

It’s reasonable to ask why, with the threat of climate change and peak oil hanging over us, we can’t replicate the achievements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and massively expand Melbourne’s rail network. If our forebears of four or five generations ago could do it, why can’t we — with our superior technology — do even better?

I think the answer is that circumstances were vastly different then and much more sympathetic to constructing a network of rail lines. I can’t bring an historian’s eye to this topic but here are some of the broad ways – consider them as hypotheses – in which I think the great rail-building era differed from today.

First, train patronage was very high in that era. Virtually everyone relied on trains to travel any sort of distance. The proportion of the metropolitan population that lived and/or worked in the inner city where rail access was best was much larger than today. Hence there was a real will to build rail lines.

Second, the railways covered their operating costs. All of the first lines built in the 1850s from Melbourne to the suburbs were financed by private money.  I don’t know when it happened in Australian cities, but US railways weren’t subsidised directly until after the second world war. If lines are profitable – or at least cover their operating costs – getting funding for expansion of networks and services is much easier.

Third, competition was limited. Investors in rail, whether private or public, had to compete with horses and in some localities with trams, but they had nothing like the competition that contemporary rail lines get from cars. The widespread market penetration of cars, especially after world war two, strangled the demand for train travel in Melbourne, reducing it’s share of motorised travel to around 10%.

Fourth, many Melbourne train lines also extended beyond the metropolitan boundary to country areas and interstate. They did double duty, carrying not only suburban commuters but also country freight and passengers. As this was an era when a much higher proportion of the nation’s population lived in the country, it would have made the case for building new lines right into the heart of Melbourne considerably stronger. Of course, country trains didn’t have to compete against trucks or planes, either. Read the rest of this entry »