Myth: The system is fine; people just have to change their behaviour

Myth: The system is fine: people just have to change their behaviour
Fact: To suggest that the problem with public transport in Melbourne is with people rather than with the services is not only incorrect, but insulting to ordinary Melburnians. In cities where public transport works, people just use it; they don’t need to be told to by ‘behaviour change’ experts.

Melbourne’s public transport network as a whole struggles to offer a time-competitive alternative to car travel on almost any trip. Each public transport mode in Melbourne – trains, trams and buses – requires far-reaching innovations, in terms of operation and infrastructure, to offer premium standards of service such as those that help other cities perform better.

Most Liveable and Best Connected? Report to Metropolitan Transport Forum, November 2005

Every now and then in a city you have a crisis point where people need to raise the [transport] vision again. It’s happened in Sydney and it’s happened in Perth….if the Government doesn’t respond it will lose the next election on that issue. They cannot afford to keep saying no.

—report author Peter Newman, The Age, 5 November 2005

An outsider comes in and makes a comment from far away, the reality is Melbourne has a terrific public transport system.

—former Transport Minister Peter Batchelor, The Age, 8 November 2005

Why Won’t More Melburnians Use Public Transport?

Despite recent increases in patronage, public transport in Melbourne is still very much a minority travel mode. Public transport is used for around 10% of journeys, which is one-third to half the share in comparable cities in Europe and Canada.

To understand why the share isn’t greater, we need to understand the needs of travellers and the attitudes that underlie their transport choices. In this regard Melburnians fall, broadly speaking, into four groups.

  • At one extreme are a minority who would never use public transport, no matter how good it was.
  • At the opposite extreme are a minority who are committed to using public transport no matter what, in some cases despite knowing that using a car would sometimes save them time and possibly even be cheaper.
  • The third group are those who use public transport because they have little choice. This is by far the largest group among current users. But although this group has come to include an increasing number of CBD commuters since 2005, it is in long-term decline (especially outside peak hour) as car ownership continues to get cheaper and governments continue to throw money at roads at the expense of public transport.
  • The fourth group makes up the vast majority of the population. These are the people who do not use public transport, who could be convinced to use public transport if it were competitive in time and cost with car travel, but who ‘know’ that it’s currently not up to scratch.

Rather than simply give up in the face of a poor government record on public transport, most Melburnians support the policy objective of shifting car journeys to public transport in order to keep Melbourne liveable. When it comes to shifting actual journeys, the focus must clearly be on the fourth group above: those who aren’t implacably opposed to using public transport but avoid using it for all-too-familiar reasons – it’s too slow, or too limited in operating hours, or too overcrowded, or too expensive, or just too plain awkward compared with driving the car.

The problem has at least been accurately diagnosed, even if not consistently followed through, at the highest political levels:

Most people would be happy to use public transport if it went from near where they are to near where they wanted to go, quickly and regularly. On the other hand, busy people are understandably reluctant to use public transport if it means planning their day around once-an-hour bus timetables. In Australia’s big cities, public transport is generally slow, expensive, not especially reliable and still a hideous drain on the public purse.

—Federal Liberal leader Tony Abbott, Battlelines, 2009

Given this, one might assume that the best way to encourage people to use public transport instead of taking the car would be to improve public transport so it’s competitive with the car instead of being slower, harder to use and (often) more costly.

In Perth, the convenience of the motor car has historically been absolutely paramount. If we’re building new public transport, we must design it to compete with the motor car and be better. Otherwise, don’t bother building it at all.

—Peter Martinovich, WA Government transport planner

Admitting this, however, requires a political commitment to invest more money not just in shiny infrastructure but also in more frequent public transport services – which given budget constraints will inevitably come at the expense of new road construction. It also requires a coordinated effort to plan new services, rather than defend the combination of historical accident and random experiment that has given us most existing timetables, on the bus network in particular.

Denying the Problem

Despite much positive change, it still remains common in government circles not to take the public’s attitudes at face value, but rather to argue that the public is misinformed. Public transport, it is said, is really much better than people think it is. If people could just be persuaded to try out the services that exist, they would realise that public transport is just as good as driving the car. So the thinking goes, all we have to do is market the system better (and rely on extraneous factors like population growth and high petrol prices) and we can double public transport patronage without having to spend a cent on extra services – or at least not outside peak hour, or in the suburbs.

The idea that Melbourne’s public transport is ‘world class’ is frequently heard – though usually among people who don’t live in Melbourne or who don’t use public transport. Sydney and Brisbane residents, and visitors from North America, are understandably envious of Melbourne’s tram network and the growth in train patronage between 2005 and 2010. Our extensive infrastructure makes a good first impression on tourists, so it’s not unheard of for visitors to lavish praise on our system purely on the strength of having caught a tram three blocks up Bourke Street and seen a map of the train system.

Transport planner Jarrett Walker explains in this blog entry why people’s experience as tourists is a very poor guide to what kind and standard of transport works in general. Those who experience Melbourne public transport as tourists easily overlook the fact that most Melburnians don’t have access to either trains or trams, that much of our infrastructure is wasted on providing a poor quality of service (especially outside peak hour), and that as a result, our public transport patronage is almost entirely confined to peak hour CBD trips where there’s little choice about whether to use it or not.

It’s when you actually try and use public transport for day-to-day travel in Melbourne, or speak to people who’ve tried to do so, that the truth becomes painfully evident: our public transport is just as bad as most people think, and may even be worse.

One source of evidence is the census. For example, even though Melbourne has trams throughout its inner suburbs and Sydney doesn’t, the 2011 census shows that fewer people in Melbourne’s innermost suburbs take public transport to work: 26% in inner Melbourne versus 30% in inner Sydney.

Other evidence comes from the State Government’s own research. A report commissioned by the government in 2008 from consultants Booz and Co confirmed that while Melbourne rates well on the extent of its rail network (which it noted was 7% larger than Sydney’s, despite Sydney’s higher patronage), its level of service provision is poor even by comparison with other Australian cities. Buses came in for particular criticism:

Melbourne’s bus weekday minimum service standards for finish times are considerably below the standard of all other Australian cities. Melbourne non-Smartbus routes have a minimum finish time of 9p.m. whilst almost all other cities have finishes between 11p.m. and midnight.

—Booz and Co. Melbourne Public Transport Standards Review, August 2008.

(In fact, the real situation is even worse than the report lets on, with dozens of bus services not even meeting the 9pm ‘minimum’ standard finish time.)

The government’s own ‘TravelSmart’ behaviour change programme, run until 2010, provided further evidence of the system’s inadequacy. In one exercise in 2005, university students were asked about their use of ‘green’ travel modes (public transport, cycling, walking and carpools) and also about how much they had expected to use ‘green’ travel when they began their course. In all cases, students’ actual use of green travel was less than they originally expected.

University Number who
expected to use
green travel
regularly
Number who use
green travel
regularly
Monash 67% 55%
La Trobe 52% 47%
Melbourne 96% 92%

Source: Evaluation of the 2005 University TravelSmart Initiative, Institute of Transport Studies, Monash University. Available from TravelSmart. (Figures are for all students surveyed, whether or not they received TravelSmart treatment. Actual use is less than expected use in both subgroups.)

Despite the fact that Melbourne University is the most accessible location by public transport in Melbourne outside the CBD, these figures imply that 1 in 12 students drive to the campus on a regular basis. Even more importantly, only half this number expected to be driving regularly to campus when they started. Coming from students, who often are committed to using ‘green’ travel for environmental reasons, this suggests that people’s expectations are more optimistic than the reality, not the other way round.

The most comprehensive evidence, though, comes from the day-to-day experiences of the very people who use the system. Regular public transport users in Melbourne muddle through largely because they’ve consciously structured their lives around the inadequacies of the system. They choose to live within walking distance of railway stations or tram routes, take jobs in the inner city, and memorise the timetable for every service they use, carefully timing their activities to match the schedule. They put up with frequent cancellations and late running, padding out their personal schedules to allow for such contingencies. And nearly all of them keep a car handy for those occasions when they must travel outside the times and places where public transport works passably well.

[Public transport] is never on time, it’s always overcrowded, they bump up the prices and you get horrible service, it’s always breaking down. It’s just a miserable experience.

—Shannon Scullin (Fitzroy), The Age, 5 January 2007

In Melbourne, regular public transport users probably know even better than non-users why it’s likely to deter rather than entice new users. Most people can’t live within walking distance of a railway station, and must put up with feeder buses that still run to sheep-paddock frequencies and hours of operation (or else attempt to park and ride, which introduces its own peculiar problems). People whose workplaces are outside the city centre have trouble navigating a system run with only central-city commuters in mind. And most people don’t like having their lives run by a timetable, nor will they tolerate having to leave home half an hour earlier than necessary in case a train is cancelled.

Examples of the un-usability of Melbourne’s public transport, due to neglect or just downright bad planning, turn up in the papers almost every week. Here are just a few examples:

Each day, [Patrice Le Miere] rises at 4:30am….At 5:30 he quietly shuts the front door, setting out on the 15-minute walk to the bus stop….Miss the first bus and the next one is 40 minutes away. He’ll be late.

Le Miere says the vast majority of his neighbours simply drive to work. You see less and less people catching the bus each morning – they’ve just given up.

The Age, 23 October 2005

I live in Fitzroy and work in Doncaster, and on Friday night I waited for 45 minutes at Doncaster shopping centre for a bus home as one bus appeared to have been cancelled (although I was unable to get any useful information from Metlink on the missing bus).

I am always trying to convince friends to use public transport, but with this kind of thing happening far too frequently, I find it hard to judge my friends when they prefer to drive.

—Scott Baldwin, The Age, 7 November 2005

The bus leaves at 5:53pm. The train arrives at 5:48, but occasionally it is late, and the bus doesn’t wait…. unless forced to do so (i.e. on one occasion passengers from the train just about had to run in front of it and cut it off). Too bad if you came from the last carriage of the train, and/or a slow walker – you probably would have missed it…. You have to walk to the end of the platform, go down the ramp, under the train line, past the main bus stop, across the car park road, and around the (hopefully) parked bus.

The next bus leaves at 6:55pm. The only other bus (after 5pm) leaves at 7:40pm. As I consider the bus service inadequate for my needs, I drive to/from the station.

—Brian May, message to PTUA, September 2006

Doncaster is crying out for a train…. I have little choice but to drive. I could catch a bus, which is OK in the morning, but getting home is a problem because I sometimes work late and it only comes at hourly intervals.

—Diarmuid McAlary, Manningham Leader, 26 June 2007

Bus services between south-east shopping hubs Endeavour Hills and Fountain Gate are so poor we found it 30 minutes quicker to do the 8km on a bicycle.

—Letter to Pakenham Leader, 25 January 2008

The City of Melbourne’s new boss caught the train in from far-flung Eltham for her first day at her new downtown office this week. But by yesterday, day two in the job, she made the journey by car.

She doesn’t want it to become her habit. Kathy Alexander would like to think she espouses sustainable behaviour as a priority both personally and professionally, but sometimes practicalities – like when the day is likely to end – will dictate otherwise, she says.

CEO looks beyond ledger to city’s vibrancy, The Age, 12 April 2008

On Friday 30 May, the 4.52 pm 279 bus was running early and didn’t wait for me to cross the very busy Middleborough Road. Hence, I was left running to catch the 271 and had to risk the traffic to dash across the road so that I could possibly get to Box Hill train station in time…. There is still lack of timetable integration of buses and trains, which means that there is often a half hour wait at the Box Hill bus station after arriving by train. Many times a bus has left a couple of minutes before the train arrives.

—Submission to Whitehorse Bus Service Review, August 2008

I caught the 6:09 V/Line from Southern Cross to Lara last night. We disembarked the train at Lara and as we were waiting for the safety gates to open (it’s an island platform), a bus pulled into the station and then straight out again. One person was actually going to catch that bus – who became very angry indeed! Making matters worse, that was the last bus for the day (they come every 50 minutes and stop at 7pm which is a joke in itself).

—Ryan Herbert, message to PTUA, May 2009

Chelsea Discovery Holiday Park resident Jean Harper, 76, said she was reliant on friends or expensive taxis to get around because the closest bus stop was at least a 20 minute walk away. The existing 857 bus route only travelled to Fowler St, too far for many of the Broadway caravan park’s mostly elderly residents.

I could do it when I first came, but it’s one I can’t do any more, Ms Harper said.

Bus services are stopping short in Chelsea and Bonbeach, Mordialloc Chelsea Leader, 16 July 2009

Yesterday I wasted a total of 30 minutes on two separate occasions waiting for buses. I’m over it. Time to buy a car!

The first bus… was 20 minutes late. It then took a further 10 minutes to get to Footscray station from Geelong Rd / Barkly St. (I should have just walked to the train station, I know…) Second was last night after the footy; the 246 from Punt Rd/Swan St was 10 minutes late…. lateness is not in the order of a few minutes, but often 10 minutes or more, by which time you wonder whether it’s coming at all.

—A frustrated bus user, message to PTUA, August 2009

Raj Soni agrees that [Point Cook’s] set up made the family’s decision to opt for four cars inevitable. He says there are too few footpaths, the local bus service runs only hourly, and busy roads with poor crossings discourage walking. Most of the time, with the shopping centre less than two kilometres away, you would think that we would walk with the kids, but it is not really a place to walk to and we just drive, he says. I wish I had a better option.

Driven to distraction, The Age, 21 March 2010

My talk on sustainable transport at Doncaster finished just before 9.30pm. The bus stop across the road from the civic centre had a real-time information panel but it was not operational. Was it broken? Was it not yet commissioned? A timetable on a post indicated that the last 307 bus back to the CBD was at 8.24pm, and the next (and last) 207 bus was at 10.21pm. It was cold and I was stranded. No wonder so few use the bus.

—Steven Ingrouille, Going Solar Transport Newsletter, June 2010

Prem Kumar lives in Derrimut and commutes daily to the city for work. He catches the 400 bus, which starts in Laverton and runs to Sunshine station…. [He] said most mornings the bus, which runs half-hourly, is too full to stop at his Hammerwood Avenue stop. This means he must wait another 30 minutes for the next one to catch his connecting train from Sunshine to the city.

Calls for more frequent Brimbank services, Brimbank Leader, 1 March 2012

Loren Bartley [was] making a trip on public transport from [her] home in Point Cook…. [but] even her low expectations weren’t met. The trip to the leisure centre in neighbouring Hoppers Crossing – a 15-minute car drive – took them almost 1½ hours. It included a 40-minute bus ride and a long walk in the rain carrying a grumpy toddler on her hip and shepherding the other children across two major roads…. The whole experience left the family so disheartened that Bartley rang her husband for a lift home.

Sick suburbs, The Age, 15 March 2012

The Government is saying we’re adequately serviced by public transport, which is an absolute fallacy. The buses run at different times to the trains coming in. Some students have to get to Craigieburn station by 7.15am and then wait about an hour for a bus to Mt Ridley. They will not change the bus or train timetable.

—Andrew McKenzie (Principal, Hume Anglican Grammar), Hume Leader, 27 November 2012

CARRINGTON Scarffe, 14, leaves for school two hours before her first class at Nossal High in Berwick. The school is 11 minutes away by car…. Using two buses, it takes Carrington 42 minutes and that’s after she walks for half an hour to get to the bus stop. She then arrives at school 41 minutes early.

“Having Carrington leave home at 7am for an 8.48am start at a school that is little more than 10 minutes away is ridiculous. Given the rapid expansion of Cranbourne and the developing education hub around Berwick, I find it amazing students are not better catered for with buses,” [Emma Scarfe said].

Two-hour bus ride no joke for Cranbourne student, Cranbourne Leader, 20 February 2013

On a recent journey from South Yarra to Healesville, the Lilydale train was running six minutes late when it arrived at Ringwood where it sat for a further four minutes. It was then terminated at Mooroolbark, one station short of its destination, Lilydale. With half an hour before the next train, I missed my connecting bus to Healesville. My journey travel time was 80 minutes, and 95 minutes of waiting time. If this is OK with [Victorian Transport Minister] Mulder, it indicates the low priority his government puts on public transport.

—Andrew Blair, The Age, 10 June 2014

My friend Gary had a choice. For years he endured the 232 bus across the Westgate Bridge to work in Port Melbourne. Every time I’d see him he’d have a tale of the latest delays, missing buses, and service diverted.

The service kept declining, so eventually he gave up. Now he’s stuck in the Westgate traffic with all the other drivers.

As a parting shot, the bus service was effectively deleted – the version of the 232 that ran via Port Melbourne no longer runs. If he had to use the bus today, he’d have to [go] all the way into the City, then back out again. That’s not choice.

—Daniel Bowen, Diary of an Average Australian, 21 April 2015

Amazingly, services in Melbourne can utterly fail to connect even when they are run by the same operator. In October 2005, former metro train operator Connex proudly announced it was running extra morning trains from Frankston to Stony Point on the weekend of the Motorcycle Grand Prix on Phillip Island. Unfortunately, the scheduled departure time from Frankston was 7:05am, which on Saturday was three minutes before the arrival of the train from the city to Frankston. People living between Frankston and the city, who wished to try the public transport alternative to get to the Moto GP, would have to get the earlier train – leaving Flinders Street at the ungodly hour of 5:40am – and face a 27 minute wait at Frankston. On Sunday they didn’t even have that choice, since no trains arrive at Frankston before 7:05am on a Sunday!

All behaviour-change programmes notwithstanding, what person with a choice would use this ‘service’ to travel to Phillip Island, when the same government that paid Connex to run non-connecting trains also provided a freeway-standard road allowing one to drive there in two hours flat? Once again, the bumper-to-bumper traffic that filled this road on Moto GP weekend shows that, given no sensible alternative, people voted with their feet on the accelerator. The road lobby couldn’t be happier with this state of affairs.

As for the Transport Minister who presided over the system at the time, he remained in denial right up until being replaced after the 2006 elections – clearly still not understanding that public transport will only become popular when it becomes attractive to people who don’t now use it.

Melbourne has a pretty good public transport system. People who use it, like it. The biggest complaints come from people who sit in university cafes or who drive cars.

—Peter Batchelor, Stateline interview, 19 May 2006

Efforts to change people’s travel habits without actually improving services also run up against significant forces compelling people in the opposite direction, due to the self-reinforcing nature of car dependence in Melbourne.

  • In 1988, Coles Myer (as it was then) relocated its headquarters from Lonsdale Street in the CBD to a new site in Tooronga. Within months, the method of travel to work for Coles Myer staff (aside from the 20% who had company cars) changed from 80% by public transport and 20% by car before the shift, to 15% by public transport and 85% by car afterward. The public transport share has continued to decline in the years since, forcing multiple extensions to the employee car park.
  • The Melbourne PC User Group had operated from premises in the South Melbourne area (a 10 minute tram trip from Flinders Street) since it opened its first office in 1988. In 2004, however, it shifted its premises to the Chadstone Shopping Centre, admitting that the principal attraction of the site was the free car parking provided by the shopping centre. As with the Coles Myer move, members would find travel by car much more convenient than before, but travel by public transport would be much less convenient even for those who live in the south-eastern suburbs (since the nearest station, Hughesdale, is also the worst served by buses from Chadstone). In this environment, trying to shift peoples’ habits in favour of greater public transport use by persuasion alone is a hopeless task.
  • Cars are frequently bought under leasing arrangements with favourable financial terms. Often, however, it has been a condition of the lease that the car be driven a minimum number of kilometres per year: a typical figure is 30,000km which is twice the average for Australia’s 10 million registered vehicles. Buyers who undertake to moderate their car use would be in breach of their lease conditions and be liable for financial penalties. These requirements stem from the peculiar treatment of cars under Fringe Benefits Tax rules, which was only partially remedied in 2011.

Because Melbourne and other Australian cities lag so far behind other cities in the world in breaking the cycle of car dependence, most of us are unable to voluntarily switch from car use to public transport even when rising petrol prices make it worth our while. A global survey by ACNeilsen, reported in The Age on 8 March 2006, found that while on average 24 per cent of the 23,000 people surveyed around the world were using public transport more as a result of rising fuel prices, the average in Australia was only 19 per cent.

Solutions Required: Better Service, Not Spin

If public transport is to become attractive to the majority of Melburnians, something has to be done about the real inadequacies of the system. Feeder buses must be overhauled, so that people can count on getting to their nearest railway station quickly without having to fight over a car park. Buses, trains and trams have to be run as a coordinated network, for easy travel between any two points. Service frequencies need to improve, particularly in the evenings and on weekends. And of course reliability must be assured: even a 90 per cent reliability figure means a five-day-a-week commuter will have their train cancelled once every week.

I am so over public transport.

—Letter in MX newspaper, 24 May 2005

The [NSW] Transport Minister, John Watkins, has little doubt about why motorists keep pouring onto clogged roads. He believes it is a tide of aggrieved former rail commuters.

Mr Watkins told the Herald last night that restoring public confidence in the rail network remained his top priority, but he conceded it was a case of once bitten, twice shy when trying to tempt disgruntled passengers back onto trains.

Sydney Morning Herald, 18 August 2005

Our family and our host family – four adults and four children – arrived at the Heatherdale station mid-morning on a Saturday. We missed the first train because it took us more than 20 minutes to buy return tickets to Flinders Street Station. The equipment regularly failed to work….

Lastly, I was surprised at how crowded both our trains were (similar to peak-hour) on a Saturday. I assume this was due to cost-cutting; all the trains we saw had only four carriages, which added to the unpleasant family experience.

I pity the Commonwealth Games visitors if they need to use Melbourne’s public transport system, and I expect that ticket inspectors will have a field day fining those who have the wrong tickets. And when our family next comes to Melbourne, we will drive around town rather than use your public transport system.

—Jason Masters (North Ryde, NSW), letter to The Age, 14 October 2005

After eight years I got sick and tired of our unreliable public transport and switched to driving. I do not enjoy paying an obscene petrol price that includes a double tax, or traffic jams and waiting at level crossings, and I miss reading books on the train. Yet I will keep driving until public transport is improved enough to provide a reliable and comfortable service at an affordable price.

—Anna Heifetz (Bentleigh), The Age, 5 February 2008

In Rowville, the Rowe family has five cars on the go. Lynette Rowe said her sons would like to use public transport more but the irregularity of bus services and the distance from train and tram lines meant it was unrealistic. A new rail line to Rowville, running past Monash University, would drastically reduce their car reliance, Ms Rowe said.

Car use driven by lack of trains, buses, The Age, 21 November 2009

None of this means that targeted marketing can’t be effective when there is an actual new service improvement that people might not otherwise know about. Experience in cities such as Perth, that have invested significantly in public transport, show that a deliberate marketing effort can improve the initial take-up rate of new services when they are introduced.

But by prioritising behaviour-change marketing ahead of actual service improvements, bureaucrats and marketing consultants seek an easy short cut that does not exist. If a car is the easier option, people will drive, no matter how much they’re cajoled about the impact on the environment. And there is the danger that real damage will be done by persuading people to use unimproved services: some people will discover that public transport is worse than they thought, and like those in the old story of the boy who cried ‘Wolf’, they’ll be even less inclined to change their behaviour even if a future government bites the bullet and improves services. (As the NSW Minister says: once bitten, twice shy.) Others will be resentful at what comes across as the government telling them how to behave.

It is clear that [behaviour management] techniques will only work ‘on their own’ when there is a large gap in perception between what exists and what people believe exists. For public transport where services and travel quality [are] much higher than perceived, personalised approaches can have very large effects, but where such a gap does not exist the travel behaviour effects could be negligible…. It would seem that they need to be thought of as an integral part of a strategy rather than as some form of ‘public relations’ exercise, when nothing substantive is being done to address strategic transport priorities.

Department for Transport, UK, 2002

It is easier and less costly to change the way people think about reality than it is to change reality.

—Sharon Beder, Global Spin: The corporate assault on environmentalism, 2000

Last but not least, one can always learn from international experience. The introduction of the kind of fast, frequent and well-connected public transport that the PTUA advocates has always generated its own patronage, whether it be the Vancouver Skytrain, the Northern Suburbs line in Perth, or even the very limited ‘SmartBus’ initiatives in Melbourne. Marketing has in some cases made it happen faster, but even this makes little difference to usage rates in the longer term. This is because people aren’t stupid, and can judge for themselves whether public transport is as good as car travel or not. Trying to tell people they’re mistaken in their judgments is just insulting their intelligence, and is no way to win them over.

The greenies can scream as much as they like but until the empty heads in charge can get it right PT is not an option for people with expectations of reasonable service.

—Comment on The Age blog, November 2006

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Last modified: 21 April 2015