Myth: Public transport can’t possibly be as fast as driving

Myth: Public transport can’t possibly be as fast as driving
Fact: In well-run systems, trains are significantly faster than cars, trams and buses about the same. So the main difference is waiting time, which is minimised by running decent service frequencies. Time can also be used much more productively on public transport than in a car.

Public transport in Melbourne can often be frustratingly slow. In some really bad cases, a journey that takes fifteen minutes by car can take fifty by public transport. More typically, it’s found one has to allow one and a half to twice the amount of time to do a journey by public transport as one would expect to need by car.

Unfortunately, people come to think this is normal: that slow journeys are a characteristic of public transport anywhere, that renders it impractical given today’s time-poor lifestyles. People are also drawn to this conclusion by the fact that Melbourne has a very good road system by international standards, so that outside peak hours, journeys can be done much faster by car than in many British and European cities. Psychology comes into it a lot too, since the perception of being ‘in control’ in a car leads people to underestimate the time required to go somewhere by car, and to exaggerate the time required by public transport.

But low speeds are not an unavoidable characteristic of public transport, even within cities. To see this one only has to go to Swiss or German cities noted for their superior public transport, where one can frequently go from A to B faster than one can by car in Melbourne. Impressive as this seems, most of these cities have brought this about with less infrastructure and less management overheads than in Melbourne. What characterises these cities is that their planners have, with ruthless efficiency, gone about removing every tangible obstacle to faster journey times.

What would such an approach entail in Melbourne? It certainly isn’t hard to identify the factors that really pad out our journey times:

  • On Melbourne’s trains, there is very little express running outside peak hour. This means that public transport is often slower off-peak than in peak hour; meanwhile driving is faster.
  • Low frequencies (often ridiculously low in the case of buses) lengthen waiting times, often to a significant proportion of total journey time. If you have to wait twenty minutes to go ten kilometres, or ten minutes to go five kilometres, a car could probably get you there in less time than you spend waiting. Huge numbers of people are deterred from using public transport because of this in a car, I’d be there by now factor. This is why in the PTUA’s view, high frequencies are more important than any other factor in attracting people to public transport.
  • To help ensure that private operators aren’t penalised for late running, timetables are designed for the worst case. This means that whenever conditions are better than the worst case (that is, most of the time), vehicles run slower than necessary or linger at ‘timing points’ en route.
  • Trams and buses are given little priority over other traffic. Thus they spend much of their time waiting unnecessarily behind turning or parking cars, or at traffic lights designed to favour cars.

None of these is an unavoidable feature of public transport, since there are systems elsewhere that don’t have these problems. In Perth, trains on the Northern Suburbs line run express throughout the day, using a ‘skip-stop’ pattern that ensures uniform coverage of stations en route. In Vancouver, the Skytrain runs every five minutes or better all day, providing a convenient high-speed urban rail backbone for the city. Timetables in many European cities are set for faster running, and any situations causing late running are tracked and managed, rather than being allowed to persist. And public transport is given priority over other traffic, on the principle that a tram with fifty people in it needs more attention than a car with one person in it.

Trains when run properly travel much faster than cars, since there is nothing but other trains to delay them. In suburban areas trains can achieve average speeds around 60kph with limited express running, compared with around 30kph for cars. (Even Munich’s suburban railway, with no expresses at all, achieves between 50kph and 60kph average speed over its entire network.) In rural areas trains can run at 160kph between stations.

So if public transport is slower than car travel, it can only be because the transport to and from the station is slower. Bus routes in Melbourne are currently poorly designed; in an attempt to connect all origins and destinations with a single route they follow circuitous paths through suburbs, taking twice as long as necessary to get from A to B. On another page we explain how a network of simple, direct routes is much more convenient for passengers. When combined with proper traffic priority, this ensures that buses and trams achieve average speeds comparable to those of cars.

It may be, nonetheless, that on some trips a car can get there a few minutes faster than the best-run public transport. But that’s no reason to give up on the latter. Indeed, time spent on public transport can be much more useful than time spent in a car. When driving a car, it’s really impossible to do much other than drive, unless one wants to risk life and limb in a crash. But on public transport one can leave the driving to someone else and read a book or newspaper, catch up on an important piece of work, do the crossword or hold an intelligent conversation. Public transport makes travel time into productive time.

One can even get some rest while on public transport. Fatigue when driving a car is a severe danger to oneself and others, but on public transport is of no consequence. One way in which we currently fail as a society is in providing scant public transport in the evening and late at night, when it is customary for people to go out and drink. Better public transport after dark can get people home quickly and safely after an evening out.

In summary, public transport in Melbourne is stuck with the consequences of bad planning, which make it much slower and less frequent than it ought to be. Improvements in frequency and priority, which will pay for themselves in extra patronage, are needed to bring its performance up to scratch, and to bring journey times more in line with car travel.

Last modified: 28 June 2006

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