Cars or Trains: Which Will Win the Commuting Future?


Infrastructure investment is a hot topic and the focus of that discussion tends to lean towards transport infrastructure over other categories (like energy or water for example). When it comes to transport, trains seem to feature prominently on the wish lists of big investment or ‘nation building’ projects. But how far could billions of dollars in new rail infrastructure actually go in improving congestion across our cities?  Will cars inevitably win? If so, why?

‘We need more public transport’ is the silver bullet catch cry often heard in conjunction with debates about congestion in major cities. It has become so common that its validity is rarely tested. Even large scale commuter rail projects like Brisbane’s proposed $5billion (or $8billion – what a few billion amongst friends?) cross river rail can still maintain preferred project status – despite no business case after several years of discussion and now being in the hands of the project’s third state government.

As technology reshapes the nature of work - and with it where we work - and as Australia faces cities policy with renewed national interest – led primarily by our Prime Minister – it is timely to ask how infrastructure priorities might be shaped by evolving metropolitan form and the fast changing habits of urban inhabitants. Will old ways serve new days? Do we need more passenger rail, or will cars find a new purpose in decongesting our cities and serving a new economic model?

Some recent figures through Macroplan serve to highlight the role played by rail in urban life. In 2013–14, there were 178.5 billion passenger kilometres travelled on capital city roads in Australia and 12.6 billion passenger kilometres travelled on urban rail networks. I’ve written before that this share is unlikely to change for the simple fact that only around 10% of metropolitan wide jobs are based in central business districts of our major cities. Agreed, it’s an important 10% for public transport because PT best serves a highly centralized workforce as you find in CBDs. Commuter rail in particular relies on a ‘hub and spoke’ model, mainly designed to ferry people from into and out of CBDs.

For people who work in CBDs, a high proportion will use public transport – rail included. But that’s a high proportion of the 10% minority of people in a metro wide area. Even if every single person who worked in a CBD caught PT, the mode share can never rise very high because around 90% of the workforce work in suburban areas, for which rail is not well suited. There has been a lot of talk about Transit Oriented Development (TODs) particularly around suburban rail nodes but despite decades of discussion, we are yet to see many (any?) genuine examples.

And the reality is that the economy is fast suburbanizing. New employment engines in sectors like personal services or health and caring are not beneficiaries of industry proximity. Being close to others in the same industry might have been good for finance, property and business service industries in traditional CBDs but the fastest growing sector of our economy at present is health care related, where being close to the people being served is important. This is not the CBD. There is even evidence that technology startups in the US have tended to prefer suburban or high street locations, offering high amenity, ample low cost or free parking, and cheap (or free) premises. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak of Apple fame started in a suburban garage after all. And Mark Zuckerberg got started at a desk in his college dorm.

As this shift of the economy moves from centralized to increasingly decentralized models – aided by new and fast evolving digital technology which makes connectivity over larger geographic areas so much easier – do the foundations of commuter rail feasibility begin to crumble?

This graph, which shows the dramatic long term decline of the CBD as the dominant employer region in Sydney, could apply equally to other capitals:

Source: The Polycentric Metropolis – Sydney’s Centres Policy in 2051, Bob Meyer, Director of Planning, COX Richardson Architects and Planners

This shift is directly related to how public transport versus private has fared over a similar long term scale, as evidenced by this chart:

Source: Mode share of motorised travel (passenger kms) 1945-2014 for five largest Australian cities, public transport vs private transport (source data: BITRE), taken from Alan Davies writing in Crikey.

Adding to this shift has been the enabling factor of falling car prices. According to COMMSEC, in 1976 the cost of a new Holden sedan (back then it was Holden or Ford and that was about it) was $4,336 and the average male full time wage was $182 a week – meaning it took 24 weeks income to pay for a new car. Today, the average full time weekly wage is around $1,440 and there are plenty of good quality brand new sedans you can buy for $19,000 on road. In just over three months, you can own one. New cars are fuel efficient, emissions efficient, reliable, technologically enabled and comfortable.

Rubbing salt into the commuter rail wound is that travel by car – even across larger distances – tends to be quicker than rail. Here’s the picture in Melbourne:

Source: Average journey to work trip duration by mode and ring, Melbourne (source data: VISTA 2012-13). Taken from Alan Davies in Crikey.

In Sydney, according to their Household Travel Survey 2013-14, only 13% of car drivers took longer than 45 minutes to get to work, while 79% of train passengers took more than 45 minutes. 

So, given that commuter rail is best designed to serve an increasing minority of the workforce with jobs in traditional CBDs, how will spending extra billions on commuter rail infrastructure expansion solve congestion? How will it translate into more rail passengers, given the way the economy is changing?

Is there an alternative?

For me it’s actually not a case of one or the other. Sensible investment in commuter rail, given the existing investment in rail networks, makes sense provided there’s a valid business case and the alternative options for that investment have been measured.

It also strikes me that we may have a forgotten the massive sunken investment in metropolitan road networks which do most of the transport work in our cities. Some (not all) of these roads are congested for maybe 4 to 6 hours out of every 24. Our cars which move us around our cities spend maybe only 3 or 4 hours a day going anywhere. For more than 20 out of 24 hours, they are parked.

Talk about driverless cars is not just about a fictional scene from ‘Total Recall’ – it’s also about computer aided traffic management on a city wide scale. Squeezing more efficiency from the road network and from motor vehicles seems to make a lot of sense. Ride sharing apps like Uber provide an early insight into how disruptive technologies can impact on traditional, cumbersome and market protected transport thinking. There are also car sharing Apps like Goget and more are on their way. Technology is changing the way we do everything, from entertainment to where we work and how we get around. Would it not make sense for cities to be exploring how this wide scale urban economic shift can best served, rather than stubbornly sticking to mantras about public transport systems designed for traditional urban employment models?

And what about buses? Their great virtue is that they can use the metrowide road networks. It is easy to change a bus route to adapt to demand. You can’t do that with rail. Think how technology might soon morph public transport buses and private transport cars into a hybrid of some sort? Driverless buses are not new. Perth is already about to trial them. This is just a baby step. Think about where this could lead.

There’s no such thing, in my view, as a bad infrastructure investment. But there’s only so much money to go around. The decisions on infrastructure investment, when it comes to issues like urban economic productivity and reducing congestion, should focus on how to get the best bang for the buck. That can mean thinking more about the future and how patterns of work will shape what we need from transit systems, and working back from that to identify the best solutions.

Ross Elliott has more than 20 years experience in property and public policy. His past roles have included stints in urban economics, national and state roles with the Property Council, and in destination marketing. He has written extensively on a range of public policy issues centering around urban issues, and continues to maintain his recreational interest in public policy through ongoing contributions such as this or via his monthly blog The Pulse.

Flickr photo by Curtis Perry: Another perfect day for highway drivers in LA.

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All your analysis of the PAST is useless for predicting the FUTURE.
Autonomous vehicles will change everything.
And, we are unsure of how.

Dave Barnes