Public transport can’t save planet

John Cox | July 28, 2008

PUBLIC transport is often recommended as a solution to congestion in our cities and as a way of reducing the fuel costs of working families.

Two cautions are needed regarding this suggestion. First is the increased cost to governments from any increase in public transport patronage. Victoria has been successful in increasing annual passenger trips from 351 million in 2001 to 383 million in 2005, but the public transport budget has also increased from $1.34 billion to $1.92 billion over the same period. This works out to a cost of $19 for every trip increase, and is much higher than the average public transport subsidy for the entire Melbourne network of trains, trams and buses of about $4 a passenger trip.

The second caution, and this sounds counter-intuitive, is that increased public transport patronage will probably decrease social equity.

Australian Bureau of Statistics surveys of household expenditures have found that the upper 20 per cent income group spend about three to four times more on public transport than the lower 20 per cent income group, probably because most of the present public transport infrastructure is located in high-income inner and middle suburbs and most public transport trips are made into the central business district by higher income managerial and office workers. In other words, the subsidies state governments provide to public transport are going mainly to higher income groups, whereas other expenditures on education and health are much more equitably based.

Given that governments have only limited budgets, any increase in public transport expenditure would lead to lower expenditure on health and education, and thereby to reduced income transfers to lower income groups. There is also the social inequity of residents in country areas paying taxes to subsidise further increases in huge metropolitan public transport expenditures in Australia, which are already of the order of $4.5 billion a year.

It may surprise some, but public transport was a profitable business for governments in the 1950s, when passenger trips reached 1500 million journeys a year.

The rise of the motor car, mainly because of a tenfold decrease in vehicle operating costs, meant public transport trips dropped to just over 800 million journeys in the ’80s, despite a doubling of the population. They have increased slightly in total numbers during the present decade, but not on a per capita basis.

This shift away from public transport was a classic case of a newer technology providing a cheaper and quicker transport mode that took market share from the slower transport mode, just as railways took away market share from the horse and carriage and planes are taking market share from cars on interstate travel.

The decline in public transport share has been even more noticeable for rural passenger travel: the quantity of rail trips has decreased from 60 per cent in the ’50s to 2 per cent today.

Public transport is still economically viable in some markets, such as radial journey-to-work trips to the CBD and for education trips, while cars have their own particular passenger markets, such as circumferential journey-to-work trips and shopping, social and business trips.

It is difficult to see that this market differentiation will change by either mode capturing market share from the other in the future. In fact the experience of Seattle is that significantly increasing public transport facilities and patronage does not reduce car trips or congestion but increases the total amount of urban trips taken.

One of the inevitable trends when new technology triggers the development of a new infrastructure network for trains, cars, planes or, most recently, the broadband network, is that the substitution of one mode for another follows a particular model that is independent of different political and economic systems. Like sailing ships and the horse and carriage, public transport will not come back to regain market share and we will probably see public transport trips in Australia continue to decline as a percentage of all trips taken.

The most promising avenue for decreasing fuel costs for working families and reducing congestion costs lies in new technological developments that will provide us with a cheaper and quicker method of communicating with each other.

The transport substitute of telecommunications has allowed many of us not to visit banks (internet banking), libraries (Google), shops (internet sales), entertainment centres (broadband) and people (Facebook). Telecommuting saves journeys to work while salesmen’s visits are abbreviated because of websites with details of every companies’ wares.

Reducing urban congestion and family fuel costs will probably depend on how quickly the broadband infrastructure network takes market share away from rail, road and airport networks.

John Cox is a transport consultant and author of Refocusing Road Reform and Roads in the Community.

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©2007 Coalition On Sustainable Transportation