Myth: Public transport only works for trips to the city centre

Myth: Public transport only works for trips to the city centre
Fact: While some forms of ‘commuter transit’ are restricted to this role, Melbourne’s train, tram and bus networks are not. In cities with successful public transport, public transport trips follow the same pattern as car trips, and only a minority are made in peak hour or to the city centre.

Proximity to the CBD is totally and utterly irrelevant to these people [in the outer suburbs]…. The public transport indicators don’t mean anything, so you’re penalising them on indicators they don’t even think about.

—Kevin O’Connor (Our Liveable City), The Age, 25 November 2011

Melbourne is a spread-out, low-density city in which most traffic is driving from one suburb to another. We need freeways to improve inter-suburban access, just as we need a Metro to improve access to the city and inner suburbs.

—Tim Colebatch, The Age, 8 May 2013

The idea that public transport can only work for central-city commuters takes us back to the early history of rail systems, which were designed originally to convey middle-class, white-collar workers to central-city workplaces, and to convey people from one city to another.

As cities grew in the twentieth century, public transport systems evolved in two directions. One direction is known as ‘commuter transit’ and is most common in North America. Commuter transit involves a small number of high-speed trains or buses that take people into the city centre in the morning, and out again in the evening. There are few or no off-peak, evening or weekend services. Though such services usually charge premium fares, they usually require quite high subsidies per passenger due to the fact they are restricted to servicing a small and diminishing market.

The other direction in which public transport has evolved is called ‘urban transit’ or ‘regular transit’ by planning experts. The most celebrated examples of such systems are in Europe, such as the Paris Metro and the multimodal systems of Zurich and Hamburg. The essence of ‘urban’ systems is a go-anywhere-anytime network of full-time, high-frequency services. (The recent fashion for private operators to talk about running Melbourne’s public transport as a ‘metro’ is a more vague way of suggesting the same thing.)

In successful ‘urban’ public transport systems, only a small proportion of travel is actually to or from the city centre. As with car trips, public transport trips in such systems are dominated by local, suburb-to-suburb and ‘along the line’ travel. Such systems demonstrate that public transport does not need to rely on central-city commuters for its viability.

A good example of the contrast between ‘urban’ and ‘commuter’ systems is Vancouver, which has rail systems of both types. The Skytrain has all the attributes of an ‘urban’ system: it runs for 28 kilometres through Vancouver’s suburbs, has stations every 1.4 kilometres, and runs every five minutes or better until around 1am every day of the year. The West Coast Express is a typical ‘commuter’ service: it runs 65 kilometres with stations only every 8 kilometres; five trains run into downtown Vancouver on weekday mornings, and the same five trains run back to the suburbs in the evenings; and these are the only services provided. The usage patterns of these services are very different, as Paul Mees explains:

Skytrain carried 42 million passengers in 1996-97, compared with West Coast Express’s 1.4 million. Each West Coast Express seat is filled twice on a typical weekday; each Skytrain seat more than twenty times. The majority of Skytrain passengers are carried outside peak period, and to destinations other than downtown Vancouver. And Skytrain patronage is growing more rapidly at off-peak times than in the peaks, underlining the ability of well-run regular transit to serve diverse, ‘post-modern’ travel, because it matches its pattern.

—Mees, A Very Public Solution, p.129

In Australian cities, a history of well-planned contiguous urban development means that public transport systems have tended to evolve in the ‘urban’ direction – although poor service provision means that patronage patterns are more typical of ‘commuter’ services.

Melbourne’s train system in particular is frequently confused with a commuter service due to its radial orientation and the operational focus on peak-hour travel to the CBD. But Melbourne’s railway station spacing of 1-2km is more typical of ‘urban’ services, and survey evidence shows that both work trips and non-work trips are dominated by radial travel, matching the orientation of the rail system. Melbourne doesn’t actually need to build new lines from scratch to have a ‘metro’ system: it just has to run more frequent trains on the lines it has, and fill a few suburban gaps. (The contrary idea that the predominance of local travel makes suburban train services irrelevant is discussed on another page.)

In Melbourne, the nearest thing to true ‘commuter’ services is actually of more recent origin: the Eastern Freeway express bus services. These provide very limited service outside peak hour, and because they would have to leave the freeway in order to service intermediate destinations, their patronage is limited to central-city commuters.

By contrast, the nearest thing to an ‘urban’ system in Melbourne is the inner-city tram network. Relative to other public transport in Melbourne, trams are well patronised and have high cost recovery. With proper attention to service frequencies and connections between services, Melbourne’s trains, trams and buses could form a network as good as the best ‘urban’ systems in the world. The thing that will make this viable is precisely the fact that the majority of travel occurs outside peak hour, and between origins and destinations other than the city centre.

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Last modified: 9 May 2013