Myth: No-one uses public transport, so it’s pointless trying to improve it

Fact: People won’t use what they don’t have. Not only do many Melburnians want public transport improved so it becomes usable for them; there is also ample evidence that public transport improvements attract people who never used it before.

It is unreasonable to say that people won’t use public transport, when a large proportion of those who would use it don’t have access to useful services. Why would people use a bus that runs once an hour until 6pm on weekdays and not at all on weekends if they had a choice? It is like giving someone as much gruel as they want to eat and then blaming them for not eating it.

But it’s also popular to argue that the inadequacy of public transport somehow means it can never be made adequate. So it’s said that even if people want an alternative to cars, public transport is hopeless, and therefore we’re condemned to use cars forever. This kind of cynical defeatism gets trotted out in the media regularly, and got a new lease of life in 2008 (despite near record train patronage in Melbourne) after it was revealed that new car sales in Australia exceeded one million for the first time in 2007.

Despite rising petrol prices and concerns about climate change and other environmental impacts, the stark reality is that Australians depend on cars, whether they like them or not. Frankly, our public transport infrastructure is no match for the personal mobility machine called the automobile.

—“One million and counting”, Sydney Morning Herald, 12 January 2008

An electric rail service to Sunbury has been recommended in Sir Rod Eddington’s $18 billion transport blueprint…. But Cr Jack Ogilvie said train services to Sunbury were adequate. I’d confidently state that 90 per cent of Sunbury residents would not want this, he said. 78 per cent of workers in Sunbury use a car with most in trades or sales so a Bulla bypass would be a far more cost effective project.

—“Electric rail line backed”, Sunbury Leader, 7 April 2008

Such talk, of course, is particularly advantageous to those who have a vested interest in car dependence, such as the private operators of the Eastlink tollway, or bureaucrats in charge of road building.

Many motorists don’t have much choice; they still have to drive, whether it be a business trip, commuting or picking up children from school. Certainly in the EastLink corridor, there aren’t a lot of other options.

—John Gardiner (Managing Director, ConnectEast), statement to ASX, June 2008

Queensland Department of Main Roads policy and planning deputy director, Mark Cridland…. said Brisbane motorists refused to move closer to public transport hubs or change the way they travelled. So what does this tell us? We have a deeply entrenched car and suburban life culture.

Brisbane Times, 16 November 2010

The road lobby’s interests are well served by cynicism of this sort, since ‘car dependence is inevitable‘ is an easier message to sell than ‘car dependence is desirable‘. But that doesn’t prevent the public seeing it for what it is, and demanding better public transport at every opportunity.

In the public consultation preceding the development of the government’s Melbourne 2030 plan, improved public transport was seen as an important issue in every single public forum. Supporting public transport does not necessarily equate to using it, but it shows that there are a lot of people out there who would use public transport if it was usable for their purposes. This may mean a bus that runs until 11pm rather than 6pm, a tram that runs until 2am, or a train that runs every 15 minutes rather than every 30 on a Sunday evening. On another page we explain why the current popularity of car travel can’t be used to discount people’s genuine aspirations for something better.

Boronia resident Ian Johnston says he is not a great public transport user but would like to be. We have got to get people out of cars, Mr Johnston said. A lot of people are forced to have two cars because [public transport] services are [inadequate].

Mr Johnston said better integration of transport services and extending late night and weekend bus services should be a State Government priority particularly if you are trying to encourage someone like me to use them. He said a recent trip on public transport from his father’s house in Templestowe to Boronia took 2½ hours.

Public Transport Deficient, Knox Leader, 14 February 2006

There is also no shortage of actual evidence that when services are improved, more people use them (including people who used to drive).

  1. In 1991, a trial involving improvement of train services on the Sandringham line from every 20 minutes to every 15 resulted in a one-third increase in passengers, more than enough to cover the cost of the increased services.
  2. The Mont Albert tram line was extended to Box Hill in 2002. As a result, patronage on the far end of the tram line (from Balwyn eastward) increased by over 60 per cent between 2000 and 2004. The number of passengers on the new extension alone in 2004 equalled the number of passengers using the line between Mont Albert and Balwyn in 2000.
  3. Similarly, the extension of the St Albans suburban train line to Sydenham led to a 30 per cent increase in patronage for the entire line between 2000 and 2004. Subsequently, numbers have increased in line with the general escalation in Melbourne train patronage from 2005 onward.
  4. At the PTUA’s insistence, the ‘SmartBus’ programme was enlarged from an exercise in technological gadgetry to include actual service improvements. The first bus service to see frequency improvements was the Blackburn Road route in 2002. After just one year, overall patronage had grown by 16 per cent and full-fare patronage by 22 per cent. According to BusVic figures released in November 2008, patronage has grown at 15% for every 10% increase in service kilometres, which means the frequency boost (unlike the gadgets) has had a net positive financial effect.
  5. V/Line train services to regional cities received a major frequency boost in 2006. Within six months, patronage on these lines had grown far beyond anything the V/Line managers had anticipated. But because these managers failed to understand the feedback effect on patronage and therefore failed to procure sufficient train carriages to carry the extra passengers, the outcome is likely to be complaints of overcrowded trains, rather than the first-rate train service it should be.
  6. In Perth, the Northern Suburbs train line built in the early 1990s now carries over 30,000 passengers a day, a quarter of whom previously did the trip by car. Perth has a long history of non-use of public transport, but they didn’t let that stop them improving public transport to make it attractive to people. As a result, rail patronage in Perth increased from 7 million people in 1991 to 30 million in 1997 – more than fourfold in just six years. (And this was done almost entirely through ‘carrots’ such as improved train frequencies, rather than through ‘sticks’ such as parking levies and road tolls.)
  7. After years of criticism over atrocious Sunday bus services, the State Government made some improvements between 2005 and 2007 (including the introduction of modest Sunday services on over 100 routes that previously had no Sunday service at all). As a result, official patronage figures show that over just the twelve months between July 2007 and June 2008, patronage on Sunday buses shot up by 44%.
  8. Suburban train services were extended from Broadmeadows to Craigieburn in 2007, resulting in a significant increase in train frequencies to Craigieburn station. Within the first 12 months of the new service, patronage through Craigieburn station grew threefold.

There is a virtuous or vicious circle relating services and patronage – improve services and people will use them, cut them and fewer people will use them. Further, with the right kind of improvements the gains can far exceed the cost. In part this is because the new ‘choice’ passengers are more likely to be paying full fares, thus making a relatively higher contribution to revenue. In the Sandringham example, while patronage increased by 33%, revenue actually increased by 40%.

The issue is no longer about getting people to use public transport, it’s about giving them something to use, especially in the outer suburbs.

—“Missing the Bus”, The Age, 16 May 2006

As studies by Griffith University and people’s actual experience makes clear, the need for a public transport alternative in the outer suburbs is particularly acute, given the financial stress people are experiencing due to high petrol prices.

Further price rises will be bad news for people struggling such as the Nichol family in Mulgrave. Daphne Nichol spends up to $100 a week on petrol driving her three sons to school, sport, music lessons, part-time work and weekend parties, as well as caring for her elderly mother in Springvale. Public transport is not the best, so we just have to cut back on things, Ms Nichol said….

The rising cost of fuel has completely changed the life of single mum Kirsty Roberts and her children…. Between my mortgage and petrol, I don’t have much money left for anything else, Ms Roberts said. Sometimes I definitely have to choose between food and petrol. Often I am so low on food I have to go to the community kitchen in Cranbourne, but I can’t afford the petrol to get there…. I can’t afford the petrol to drive to work. Public transport is a joke. Ms Roberts is forced to walk everywhere possible and is struggling to continue her education with a professional writing course in Berwick.

Price fuels rage, Herald-Sun, 26 May 2007

It is unfair on the large number of Melburnians without access to decent public transport to argue that because they don’t use what they have they won’t get anything better. Just because people won’t eat gruel doesn’t mean they aren’t hungry.

Last modified: 23 November 2010