Myth: People who own cars won’t use public transport

Fact: Most people will continue to own and use cars, just as they do in European cities. But people do not stubbornly refuse to use public transport when it provides a palatable alternative to car use, as it does in European cities.

A successful city has a public transport system that is easy to use; an unsuccessful city tries to ban cars.

—Deyan Sudjic, The Age, 13 May 2008

It is often said that the car is here to stay, and that people will never give up their private vehicles. We agree.

The elimination of the car is both unlikely and unnecessary. Our immediate traffic problems in Melbourne, that the road lobby promises to solve by building more freeways, could all be relieved if we shift a small, but significant, minority of car trips – about one journey in five – from the car to walking, cycling or public transport. In the long term, stabilising the world’s climate will require shifting about three car trips out of five, but that’s still a lot less than 100 per cent. Lots of local travel, such as grocery shopping, would still be carried out largely by car; people would still take drives in the country; most people with difficult work locations or heavy equipment to carry would still drive to work.

The major cause of Melbourne’s traffic problems is not the odd short car trip to school or the shops; it is long car journeys, the majority focussed on the inner city, precisely the kind of trip to which public transport is best suited. There are two reasons why more of these trips are made by car than would otherwise be the case. The first is that people in Melbourne often lack an effective choice between cars and other modes of transport. The second is that people often have ‘perverse incentives’ to drive cars: the car is packaged into its owner’s salary for a fraction of its true cost, and the owner pays none of the ongoing costs but instead is penalised if the car is not driven far enough or often enough. Both these reasons point to serious problems in public policy, but to acknowledge these problems is not to call for restrictions on car use.

An extreme version of the car-is-inevitable argument claims that once people own cars, they will use them for all their travel, regardless of the alternatives. This is an insulting attitude: it assumes most people are stupid. High car ownership does not necessarily mean high car use. Many places overseas renowned for their walkable cities and successful public transport have car ownership rates similar to or higher than Melbourne or Australia:

City / CountryCar ownership (per 100 persons)
Melbourne (urban area)58

Source: ABS Census data for Melbourne urban centre. World Bank statistics drawing on International Road Federation figures for passenger car ownership.

Even within Melbourne it’s not difficult to find individual suburbs where car ownership is high, yet whose high rates of travel to work by public transport (well above the metropolitan average of 15%) belie the notion that this high car ownership is a barrier to high public transport use.

SuburbCars per
100 persons
Households with
no cars (%)
Journeys to work by
public transport (%)

Source: ABS Census data

High car ownership does not mean that people will never use public transport or other alternatives. It simply means that they don’t have to use public transport, and will not unless it provides an acceptable quality of service. For the CBD-focussed commuters in the fortunate suburbs above, public transport works passably well, so they use it despite having a car option readily available. But as a general rule in Melbourne, unless one happens to be a peak hour CBD commuter, public transport service quality is poor so it attracts few customers.

This is the real meaning of surveys that show people unwilling to reduce their car use despite escalating fuel prices. It’s a recognised fact that people do reduce car use when fuel prices go up (official statistics show that consumers bought 5% less fuel in the year to March 2006 than in the previous year), but it’s also found, not surprisingly, that people don’t like reducing their car use when the alternatives aren’t up to scratch.

The proper response to these surveys is not to conclude (as even some environmentalists do) that people love their cars too much so there’s no point improving the alternatives. This is the same ‘fundamental attribution error‘ that feeds the myth that ‘real‘ people don’t use public transport. Nor do we need silly assertions that human beings can’t be ‘mobile’ in anything other than a motor car, in the words of one prominent commentator:

By 2031, while about 1.5 million trips will be made by public transport each day in Melbourne, almost ten times as many trips (14 million) will still be made by motor vehicles. While there are geographic and social reasons for this, people’s mobility is also important to their sense of personal freedom. Even in an era of carbon constraint, people will choose to allocate some of their carbon ‘ration’ to mobility.

—Sir Rod Eddington, Melbourne on the move, The Age, 29 May 2008

Rather, we should take the low mode share for public transport in Melbourne as a reminder that people aren’t martyrs by nature and, much as they may want an alternative, won’t put up with a third-rate service. Good practice overseas shows how it is possible to attract more people to public transport by providing a consistent high standard of service. In cities where public transport is of high quality – fast, frequent, integrated, safe and cheap – it is used extensively (although people still use their cars too).

People still hang out, go to dinner and take in movies. Just walk around any big city on a weekend night and you’ll see plenty of young people hanging out and chances are they went online to arrange their get together, buy their tickets and make their dinner reservations. What you won’t see, however, are people cruising around in cars. You will see people on bikes and plenty of people walking and using public transportation.

—Larry Magid, Does Facebook Pose a Threat to the Automobile?, Forbes, 6 April 2012

I drive a car, I use public transport, I cycle, and I walk. But I reckon I drive too much and I don’t use public transport enough. At the same time, it is harder to find time to get the daily exercise I need…. As our cities have sprawled, we’ve made enormous investments in our roads. But funding for public transport and for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure has come off the rails. So it’s not terribly surprising that we are so dependent on cars.

I don’t want to do away with my car, but recent research from six US cities shows that putting more money into well-planned public transport…. will help us get out of the driver’s seat. I want to be gently eased out of my car and on to public transport, or on to my bike, or on to my feet. And I am delighted for my taxes and rates to be used to encourage me.

—Rob Moodie (CEO, VicHealth), Herald Sun, 1 June 2006

Last modified: 5 February 2014