Myth: Car travel is popular, so we should provide more roads
Fact: This is confusing cause and effect. Car travel is popular precisely because we have spent so much on the road system, in an increasingly futile attempt to make it as easy as possible. If we invested seriously in public transport, that would become popular too (and we’d save money into the bargain). Meanwhile, opinion polls regularly confirm that government action on public transport is more popular than road building, and that public transport can be a vote-winner.

Perhaps the first question any public transport advocate is called on to answer is: why bother? As Paul Mees wrote on the opening page of A Very Public Solution in 2000:

Patronage has declined since World War II in most developed countries, which seems to suggest that people no longer want public transport. Perhaps it is simply a superseded transport technology, like the horse and buggy. Many people thought this way in the 1950s when the promise of the car seemed unlimited, and the view retains many adherents.

—Mees, A Very Public Solution, p.1

But Mees also provides the answer to this question: although most people drive cars, they are also conscious of the limitations of car travel and are concerned about the lack of alternatives. Quite simply, car travel is popular because too many people have no choice.

Bus services in particular are of extremely low quality, with a confusing and inefficient route structure….and poor frequencies and hours of operation….[T]he majority of Melburnians have no access to public transport at all in the evening or on weekends, and those served by public transport have a limited choice of destinations, poor levels of safety and cleanliness and, for those travelling to the inner city from Zones 2 and 3, high fares. From the perspective of a passenger wishing to travel to a destination, and at a time, of their own choosing, this is extremely inflexible public transport.

—Mees, A Very Public Solution, p.253

Government planners have spent the past half-century quite deliberately creating a car-dominated transport system, by giving the lion’s share of funding to roads and neglecting alternative modes. Their approach is the one characterised by Britain’s Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution in the 1990s as “predict and provide”: road planners predict massive increases in traffic, and provide the new roads to cater for it.

A recent textbook example is the Eddington East West Link Needs Assessment of 2008. In essence, the report (a) predicted that road traffic would increase by 30 per cent by 2031; (b) found that the current Melbourne road system wouldn’t cope with the increased traffic; and (c) recommended the provision of a $9 billion (now $16 billion) road tunnel. In reality, nothing could do more to ensure road traffic continues to increase.

Similar predict-and-provide reasoning runs right through the Federal Government’s AusLink transport strategies, the blueprint for Federal transport policy until the establishment of Infrastructure Australia in 2008:

[C]ar travel will continue to increase substantially in absolute terms, and cars will account for a large (but declining) share of the total vehicle kilometres travelled in metropolitan Melbourne. Light commercial vehicles and rigid trucks will account for growing shares of vehicle kilometres…. It is apparent that the Melbourne transport network will experience increased traffic pressures over the next 25 years, and investments in infrastructure capacity….will be necessary to alleviate these pressures.

AusLink: Melbourne Urban Corridor Strategy, December 2006, pp. 19-20

The capacity of the road infrastructure along the Melbourne-Geelong corridor generally meets current demand. However, with significant growth occurring along and beyond the corridor, capacity and congestion challenges will emerge along the corridor in the medium term, affecting the corridor’s ability to provide an appropriate level of service.

AusLink: Melbourne-Geelong Corridor Strategy, February 2007, p.11

Because the new roads built produce their own induced traffic, the predictions of increased traffic inevitably become self-fulfilling, and public transport use declines as people take to the new roads. Governments beholden to the road lobby reinforce the trend, making statements like “we have to cater for the 90 per cent of people who drive cars”, and ensuring that nothing changes.

‘Push polling’ by motoring organisations has also played its part. Because our natural tendency is to feel that any public expenditure for our benefit is better than none, it’s very easy for organisations like the RACV to manufacture poll results in favour of road projects, simply by framing the question as ‘building a freeway’ versus ‘doing nothing’. When freeways and public transport are put up as explicit alternatives, the response is of a very different nature (of which more below).

Nor do such organisations have any shame in exploiting their dual nature as commercial service providers and lobby groups – as though every person who signs up for emergency roadside assistance or discounted driving lessons is automatically in favour of building roads at the expense of public transport, urban amenity and the environment. The AAA seven million voters campaign of 2013 is only one of the most recent and most blatant in conscripting the membership of service organisations in this fashion.

As a result of all this self-reinforcing policy, the majority of Melbourne residents are practically forced to do all their travel by car, because they do not live within walking distance of a railway station and have access only to a bus route running to Third World standards. Road planners and politicians misread this (wilfully or otherwise) as free choice, and evidence that Melburnians will never give up their cars and there is no alternative to more roads. At the same time, the slightest policy shift in favour of public transport is blasted by the road lobby as a social-engineering conspiracy against the public.

[Parliamentary Secretary for Transport Martin] Pakula agrees there has been much more work on road infrastructure than public transport over the past 15 years, but argues this has been necessary. It’s because car usage has expanded exponentially, he says.

The Melbourne Times, 14 February 2007

The elite view is largely driven by an ideological animus against the car and is aimed at forcing people out of their vehicles in favour of bicycles and public transport.

—Wayne Kayler-Thompson (VECCI chief executive), The Age, 5 December 2008

Labor transport ministers…. have tried to balance their party’s traditional commitment to a public transport system against a policy reality where the vast majority of Victorians prefer to use their cars.

—Nick Economou (lecturer in politics, Monash University), The Age, 18 January 2009

Taking Melbourne as a case study, behavioural data shows that most travellers prefer to travel by car and consequently public transport carries less than 10 per cent of all motorised trips within the metropolitan area…. Travellers value their time highly and are prepared to pay for convenience…. It is almost always easier to use the car for the various demands of modern life, like dropping the kids off at childcare on the way to work, shopping at the supermarket, visiting mum and dad on the other side of town, commuting to work in the suburbs or going to dinner or the movies.

—Alan Davies (urban planner, University of Melbourne), ABC Unleashed, 15 February 2010

Many ordinary people, on the other hand, can see what is really going on here. Victorian government transport policy, far from responding to an immutable ‘policy reality’ or trying to force people out of cars, has deliberately engineered a reality of its own: one which does its best to keep people in cars and away from public transport.

Example No.1

Our area’s only public transport is the prohibitively expensive Bus Route 788…. commuters who may prefer route 788 to rising petrol prices, are all forced to pay exhorbitant bus fares – up to $17.40 return from Frankston to Portsea…. No wonder [the major roads] are so clogged with traffic when no effective public transport competition is offered to private car transport.

Interestingly….the recent Labor Budget does commit millions of taxpayers dollars to be spent on improved private transport on another north-south peninsula arterial route – the widening to four lanes of Western Port Highway from Frankston-Cranbourne Rd to North Rd. This will do nothing to encourage people to use public transport on the Peninsula.

—Kangerong Ward Action Group convenor, Mornington and Southern Peninsula Mail, 22 June 2006

Example No.2

Janet lives in Keysborough and works at the Royal Womens’ Hospital in Carlton. Janet’s nearest station is Noble Park, but the bus service is abysmal: the first bus arrives at the station at 7:25am, too late for Janet to reach work at the starting time of 8:30. The last bus home leaves at 6:30pm, which means Janet misses it whenever she leaves work after 5:00. So Janet can’t even reach the station without driving a car, and unless she’s one of the lucky few who rush to fill the station car park in the morning, she can’t even do that. So Janet does the perfectly rational thing and drives all the way to work instead. We’re now at the point where Melbourne’s public transport can’t even cater for a peak-hour central-city commuter like Janet: clearly those whose travel patterns are less predictable are in even more trouble.

Example No.3

Karen, a young recently married professional working in the CBD, has just moved to rapidly growing Sydenham to start a family. There is a bus stop right outside the door of her new house, but the bus service runs at 50 minute intervals so hardly anyone catches it unless they are desperate and have no choice. The bus takes about 20 minutes to get to the station.

The Watergardens station car park took 6 months to build. It is so huge that when Karen tries driving to the station to catch the train it takes 7 minutes to walk from her car to the platform. Despite this, the car park is always full from a very early hour.

Despite lack of adequate bus services and carparking the carpark does not accommodate any new secure bicycle parking. Karen would be prepared to ride to the station but the few lockers provided are already taken and there is a long waiting list.

Whether going to the city or coming home again, the trains are always packed – even at 10pm. Karen is lucky to find space on the train home. After trying public transport for a little while she gives up and drives instead.

Example No.4

In the evening, [Mr Giddings] catches the 5:13pm express from Parliament to Werribee, then the bus home, stepping into his house about 6:15pm. But there’s not a direct link from the train to every bus, he said, glumly…. Buses don’t run after 7pm, so if he’s working late he will miss the last bus from the station. And that’s during the week.

Bus services are further limited on the weekends, so Mr Giddings doesn’t bother. Even though I’ve got a yearly ticket, it’s just so much more convenient to use the car, he said.

The Giddings household – Jim, his wife and their 25-year-old son – has three cars…. (My son) needs a car on the weekend to get around, he said. So does Dad. Mrs Giddings’ work in Altona North is not well serviced by public transport, so she must drive. And she occasionally works on the weekends, he said, so we got the extra car (for me).

—“Facing up to the long haul”, The Age, 21 August 2005

Example No.5

Let’s imagine you [living in Monbulk] have a friend who lives in Belgrave and relies on the bus, as you do also. She has come to visit and have dinner. Obviously 6:10pm [the last bus back to Belgrave] is far too early to leave so you hurry with dinner, have a short yet nice time and she is on the 7:50pm Monbulk to Lilydale bus. She arrives in Lilydale at 8:25pm. She has to wait until the train leaves at 8:48pm. The train arrives in Ringwood at 9:04pm.

Your friend’s lovely evening is a now long gone memory as she has already waited on the Lilydale station for 23 minutes and faces the long wait at Ringwood for the Belgrave train for another 22 minutes; that is a total of 45 minutes in the dark. She arrives seven kilometres from where she began her trip two hours later at 9:50pm. She could have walked it in half the time, but without footpaths she would have to walk along the dark, dangerous and narrow Monbulk road.

More interesting is the fact that this 7:50pm bus set out for its final nightly journey from Belgrave to Monbulk where the commuters have to depart the bus and alight another to Lilydale. Why? Believe or not the bus returns [to Belgrave] to service another route, without taking passengers. Sorry people, I know I will be in Belgrave in 20 minutes but you can catch the Lilydale train and be in Belgrave in two hours. At least that would not happen on a weekend, there is no Lilydale service. And we still have absolutely no bus service on a Sunday or public holidays.

—Letter to Ranges Trader Mail, 8 April 2008

Example No.6

The more perceptive opponents of public transport have called attention to the fact that mode shares for public transport languish around 20% even in the most ‘public transport rich’ areas of Melbourne, such as Fitzroy, Brunswick and St Kilda. This, they say, is evidence that the vast majority of people really do prefer to use cars even when there are ample public transport alternatives.

But the problem here is the same: people keen to shore up the dominant position of the motor car are making public transport out to be better than it actually is. Fitzroy, for example, is blessed with a number of high-frequency north-south tram routes. Yet services in the east-west direction are almost nonexistent, apart from the Johnston Street corridor where bus frequencies range from 15 minutes in peak hour to hourly in the evenings. In other words, the most frequent east-west service is poorer than the least frequent north-south service.

The story is the same throughout the inner suburbs. Largely as a result of historical accidents combined with 1990s bus service cuts, even the most comparatively well-served suburbs have only half the network that an urban neighbourhood needs – which is to say, no network at all. This is what makes the real difference between Melbourne and cities like Zurich or Toronto with healthy mode shares for public transport: not population density or the peculiarities of Melbourne residents’ DNA.

People really do want something better

So yes, car travel is ‘popular’. But so too is the search for alternatives.

In 2001, as part of the background studies for its Melbourne 2030 planning blueprint, the State Government conducted community forums all over the metropolitan area. Participants were asked what planning issues they considered the most important, then invited to break into small groups to discuss particular topic areas. The forum organisers were surprised to discover that wherever they went, from Broadmeadows to Berwick, public transport rated as the most important issue (closely followed by residential development).

The transport and accessibility topic area was the most popular during Round 2 of consultation and almost 33 per cent of forum participants were involved in discussions. Strong support was recorded for initiatives to reduce or improve car usage, and increase the service levels of public transport. Initiatives to encourage walking and cycling to work also drew general support from participants. The participants in support of more roads and freeways were in the minority.

Metropolitan Strategy Information Bulletin, November 2001


Reducing car dependence, controlling the urban sprawl and taking better care of our environment are the keys to the future of Melbourne, according to its residents….

The report is the culmination of 17 public forums held last year across Victoria, to canvass community opinion on the Metropolitan Strategy – a 30-year action plan that will guide the development of Melbourne and its relationship with regional Victoria.

—State Government media release, 2002

We had 1500 people on the consultation process for Melbourne 2030, and less than 10 people said they wanted to see bigger roads and the freeway network finished. The rest wanted better public transport, and to be able to walk and cycle safely to more places.

—Dr John Grant (Melbourne 2030 planner), The Age, 8 November 2008

It is a fact that when given an actual choice whether to improve public transport or roads, most Victorians would actually prefer improving public transport – despite all the propaganda to the contrary. Although this has been anecdotally evident for a long time, definitive proof first came with a Nielsen poll in 2008. As The Age reported:

The poll, of 1009 Victorians taken between November 10 and 14, found 62 per cent want the Government to give public transport priority over roads, compared with 24 per cent who want roads to have priority. In Melbourne, support for public transport was even stronger, with 68 per cent wanting more funding directed to it instead of roads; just 19 per cent support roads as the priority.

—“Fix public transport, Brumby urged”, The Age, 25 November 2008

The Victorian state election in 2010 brought this into stark relief, with the push to fix public transport credited as one of the chief factors behind the change of government. Internal ALP polling reported by The Age found that after the widely credited ‘it’s time’ factor, the next most significant factor causing ALP voters to defect to the Coalition was public transport. Meanwhile, opinion research by the University of Sydney reported that 73% of Victorians surveyed wanted public transport improvements to have priority over roads, with just 11% taking the opposite view.

In early 2014 another Nielsen poll along similar lines – but this time focussing on specific politically prominent road and rail projects – found essentially the same result as in 2008. Once again it found a clear majority of randomly selected Victorians favoured rail projects, with less than a quarter favouring the Napthine Government’s heavily promoted East West Link tollway.

Despite countless hours and millions of dollars spent marketing the $8 billion road project, the latest Age/Nielsen poll has found that only one in four Victorians believe the tunnel should be the highest infrastructure priority to ease congestion and improve liveability. Instead, most people want the government to build the Metro Rail Capacity Project….

On transport, 42 per cent of those polled viewed the Metro Rail Capacity Project as the most important, followed by Labor’s plan to remove 50 level crossings (27 per cent), while the east-west link was last (24 per cent).

Denis Napthine has bad poll news, east-west link not popular, The Age, 2 March 2014

The 2014 poll also re-confirmed—as did the state elections held since—that public majority support for public transport over road projects is bipartisan, despite all attempts to turn the issue into just another Lib-Lab political contest (and despite the very substantial Coalition promises on public transport in 2010, most since abandoned). The poll found that a majority of Coalition voters preferred rail projects to the East West Link, with only about one-third support for the road.

And barely a day after that Neilsen poll was reported in The Age in March 2014, the Herald Sun came out with its own Galaxy poll, based on a slightly different list of alternative projects but with the same overall result. According to this poll, 79 per cent of Victorians nominated a public transport project as highest priority: either rail to Melbourne Airport, level crossing elimination or the Metro rail tunnel. Only 15 per cent rated the East West motorway as highest priority. (The remainder were uncommitted.)

Those surveyed were able to nominate what they thought was the most important project out of the airport link, the Metro rail capacity project that will link northwest Melbourne to South Yarra, getting rid of 50 of the worst rail crossings, or the East West Link from Sunshine to the Eastern Freeway.

While 34 per cent said the airport project was number one, 30 per cent nominated Labor’s big transport promise – getting rid of 50 dangerous level crossings – as the highest priority project….

Both Labor and Coalition supporters chose the airport rail link above any other project as the most important transport need.

Herald Sun/Galaxy Poll reveals airport rail link our top priority, Herald Sun, 2 March 2014

The Herald Sun newspaper has, indeed, consistently rated public transport ahead of new roads as a significant public concern. For example:

  • In January 2005 an Issues Survey of over 18,000 Herald-Sun readers found that an overwhelming 87 per cent wanted the Bracks Government to do more to improve train, tram and bus services. As with the Metropolitan Strategy workshops, this survey asked people about a whole range of issues (not just transport), yet it was improved public transport that emerged as having wide support.
  • A survey of business leaders reported on 21 January 2005 found that most considered public transport to be the single most important issue facing the city.
  • When the Herald-Sun conducted vox-pops in November 2005 on the question What would you prefer: major public investment in roads or in better public transport?, all respondents said public transport. The following February, a Herald-Sun poll on the question Should the state government give priority to improving public transport? gained a ‘Yes’ vote of 92.9 per cent. A subsequent poll on the more radical question Should cars be banned in Melbourne’s CBD? still found two-thirds of people in favour.
  • Another poll of Herald-Sun readers in June 2008 asked them to choose from a range of options for easing traffic congestion. The most popular, attracting 54% of the 1,737 votes, was provide better and more frequent trains and trams. It beat alternatives that included a new cross-city road tunnel, widening existing roads, and introducing a congestion tax.

More on public transport because apart from traffic and other things, it’s much better for the environment.

—Matt Griffin (Mt Waverley), Herald-Sun, 15 November 2005

Public transport. I catch public transport as much as possible. There’s too much traffic and if there were a viable option, more people would use it.

—Renee Prochazka (Upwey), Herald-Sun, 15 November 2005

Herald-Sun surveys had also been indicating (years before the 2010 election) that there are more votes in public transport than in roads and cars, contrary to the once-commonplace assertions of many ‘pragmatists’ on all sides of politics. A poll commissioned back in April 2006 by the Sunday Herald-Sun on the issues that Victorians consider important in determining how they vote yielded 61% for environmental issues and 55% for public transport, compared with just 25% for speed cameras and 20% for Eastlink tolls.

Many other public surveys have revealed the strength of support for improving public transport, even when it comes at the expense of road construction. A 2001 Newspoll survey conducted for the Australasian Railway Association found 84% supported building more rail lines to reduce road congestion, compared with just 38% in favour of more freeways. A similar high percentage supported the Federal Government funding new urban rail lines on the same basis as urban roads. Also in 2001, a study by the University of Sydney’s Warren Centre for Advanced Engineering found that

  • 85% of people were opposed to spending money on roads at the expense of public transport;
  • 71% considered that transport planning should focus on public transport rather than toll roads;
  • 70% favoured public transport improvements being funded by diverting money from the roads budget; and
  • 64% favoured road demand management over new freeways.

In 1999, a survey by Western Australia’s Department of Transport showed 87% support for diverting funds from new roads to public transport, walking and cycling, and even a majority of those who did not support this still recognised the need for increased public transport usage and decreasing car usage.

Likewise, in March 2007 ABC Science’s Road to 2050 project surveyed its online audience on preferred ways to reduce greenhouse emissions. Once again, the most popular suggestion was to increase public transport and discourage private car use. (This is despite political leaders focussing almost exclusively on electricity generation and not transport in their responses to the climate change threat.) In the leadup to the 2007 Federal election, an ACF survey found that two-thirds of people in Sydney would prefer that the budget surplus be spent on public transport ahead of tax cuts.

And in case it’s thought all this support comes just from inner-city trendies, there is the Eastern Transport Coalition’s survey of 1000 people in Melbourne’s outer eastern suburbs in August 2007. 62% of those surveyed said it was unacceptable for the Federal Government to provide funding for major roads and not for public transport infrastructure. And while 71% said they used cars to get to work, 61% also said they would use public transport if the option was available.

A new trend: Cars not so popular any more?

In many ‘Western’ countries including Australia a trend has been noted: overall car use appears to have peaked around 2004-05 and since then has been static or in decline. Analysis in the US points to two factors: the aging of the baby-boom generation, and more importantly, a decline in popularity of driving among young people from the 2000s onward. Apparently the presumed immortal popularity of the motor car is waning among a younger generation who no longer view cruising in cars as the identity-defining activity it was for people in the postwar era.

It’s a big cost and there are better things I could be doing with my money. I can get around with public transport. I hire a rideshare to get to jobs.

—Rachel Bradley (reluctant car browser), The Guardian, 22 April 2019

Perhaps the last word then should go to consultants for General Motors in the USA in their attempt to understand this trend.

[MTV Scratch executive Ross Martin] and his team are trying to help General Motors solve one of the most vexing problems facing the car industry: many young consumers today just do not care that much about cars. That is a major shift from the days when the car stood at the centre of youth culture and wheels served as the ultimate gateway to freedom and independence…. Today Facebook, Twitter and text messaging allow teenagers and 20-somethings to connect without wheels. High [petrol] prices and environmental concerns don’t help matters.

They think of a car as a giant bummer, said Mr Martin. Think about your dashboard. It’s filled with nothing but bad news. There is data to support Mr Martin’s observations. In 2008, 46.3 per cent of potential drivers 19 years old and younger had drivers’ licenses, compared with 64.4 percent in 1998…. Forty-six percent of drivers aged 18 to 24 said they would choose Internet access over owning a car, according to the research firm Gartner.

Cars are still essential to drivers of all ages…. But automobiles have fallen in the public estimation of younger people. In a survey of 3,000 consumers born from 1981 to 2000…. Scratch asked which of 31 brands they preferred. Not one car brand ranked in the top 10, lagging far behind companies like Google and Nike.

As Young Lose Interest in Cars, G.M. Turns to MTV for Help, New York Times, 22 March 2012

This state of affairs has many parallels. Most of us drink alcohol, derive a great deal of enjoyment from it, and relish our freedom to do so. At the same time, we are aware of the harm that results from excessive alcohol consumption, take a dim view of its public manifestations, and keep an eye on how much we drink. Importantly, we also understand the need for government intervention in support of responsible drinking. Perhaps the message that comes from these forums and surveys is that Australians see the need to ‘use cars in moderation’ – though so many of us aren’t able to keep our car use down, because of the lack of alternatives.

Last modified: 19 May 2019