Myth: Public transport isn’t viable in Melbourne because it doesn’t snow here

Fact: High rates of public transport use in cities like Toronto has precious little to do with snowfall closing roads. In Toronto, public transport patronage is lower on days of heavy snowfall; the reason is obvious to anyone who has had to wait for a bus in sub-zero temperatures.

In Melbourne’s transport debate over the last decade or so, the ‘Toronto model’ has figured prominently. And for good reason: the city of Toronto in Canada is about as similar to Melbourne as an overseas city could be in size, population density, history, car ownership and other social characteristics. Yet somehow Toronto (at least in 1990 when the example was first discussed) had achieved a seeming miracle: one-quarter of all journeys, and one-third of all journeys to work, were made by public transport. In Melbourne, we barely manage one in fourteen.

(Following the election of a neoliberal, public-transport-hostile government in Ontario in 1995, public transport patronage in Toronto declined. Toronto has however begun to make up these losses following another change of government in 2003, and patronage is well on the way back to its early-1990s peak. As always, the mode split between cars and public transport has as much to do with governments’ policy stance as with individual preferences, urban design, or the weather.)

The obvious explanation for the difference in public transport use between Melbourne and Toronto is the very different quality of public transport services in those cities, as explained by Paul Mees in A Very Public Solution (Melbourne University Press, 2000). But because this explanation reflects badly on the state of public transport planning in Melbourne, there is no shortage of alternative ‘explanations’ emanating from officialdom.

One that has gained urban myth status is the difference in climate between the two cities. A typical sighting is in a submission prepared on behalf of the Victorian Government by consultant Stuart Joy:

Toronto is above the snow line, and for a considerable period each year residents who can are encouraged to use the rapid transit railway to downtown, with its underground passages connecting downtown stations to major buildings.

—Stuart Joy, Victorian Government submission to Industry Commission Urban Transport Inquiry (unpublished, 1993), p.4

The problem with this theory is that Toronto’s rail system is not very extensive (and was even less so in 1993); the vast majority of Metropolitan Toronto is serviced only by buses or trams, which travel many kilometres to feed the rail system. And while harsh weather conditions might make trains more attractive than cars, the same conditions also make buses much less attractive. As Mees writes:

When I visited Ontario in 1994, I put this idea to the transport and urban planners I met. All reacted with scepticism, responding that, if anything, it should be harder to persuade people to use public transport in inclement weather. The same snow and ice that covers the roads also covers footpaths, and even a short wait in the open for a bus or tram is extremely uncomfortable. I have only had the experience of waiting for a bus in temperatures below minus 10 degrees once in my life, but it was enough to illustrate the point. Public transport patronage [in Toronto] is actually lowest on days with heavy snowfall and in extremely inclement weather….the system shuts down.

—Mees, A Very Public Solution, pp.182-183

As Mees explains, it is also debatable whether Toronto has severe weather for enough days of the year for this to be a major factor in overall public transport patronage.

[Toronto has] a fairly mild and humid climate by Canadian standards, though with some changeable extremes.

Canadian Encyclopedia

[Weather in Toronto is] the same as in the northern United States.

Fodor’s Guide to Canada

Heavy snowfall….is rare, even in January and February, the coldest

Encyclopedia Britannica

If climate were really a significant determinant of public transport use, Mees concludes, it would also be the case in nearby Minneapolis and Detroit, which have similarly cold climates. Yet these cities have extremely low rates of use, even compared with Melbourne. It would thus appear that these differences in public transport use have very little to do with snow and much more to do with quality of service.

Last modified: 1 July 2007