Australians have very high expectations of their public transport systems. They consistently prefer investment in public transport over investment in roads. State elections have been lost when politicians don’t meet those expectations.
As a researcher in public transport, I am frustrated by a narrative I see time and again. It comes up in comments in focus groups and pops up at the bottom of news articles. It goes something like this:
I’ve been to London / New York / Tokyo and their public transport system is better / cheaper / more reliable than ours! Why can’t our public transport be that good?
Australia’s public transport systems seem shoddy compared to other countries for a number of reasons. These reasons make me question whether those comparisons are valid.
The first reason this comparison is flawed is because when we’re on holiday, we don’t use public transport the same way we do in our mundane commute back home.
When you’re on holiday your concept of time and money is different. A few extra dollars for a tourist pass, a few extra minutes on the platform, all becomes part of the adventure of travel. A few extra dollars or minutes back home is another inconvenience in your daily grind.
What's more, chances are when you visited London, Tokyo or New York you visited the exciting tourist centres of these cities – places where public transport is at its best.
You probably didn’t visit Woldingham, Tachikawa or Port Washington – outlying suburbs beyond the reach of metro systems. Places where the trains only run every 20 minutes or, heaven forbid, you may have to use a bus. Places a lot more like the suburbs back home.
Australia’s super cities
The other reason this comparison is flawed is due to the super-size of Australia’s cities. How that came about is an accident of history as much as anything. Many of the overseas cities Australians idolise did most of their growing before the private car became embedded into the transport system. This resulted in compact urban forms served by narrow, winding streets.
That urban form was designed to suit the needs of pedestrians, horse carts and trams. By the time the car came along it had to be retrofitted into the city.
In contrast, Australian cities – along with many American cities – did most of their growing in parallel with the explosion of motor vehicle ownership. Highways and cars facilitated the post-war suburban explosion, allowing millions to live the dream of quarter-acre blocks far from the city centre.
Because of this legacy, Australian cities are enormously far-reaching. In most capitals you can drive for 100km and still be within the same city limits. Melbourne’s footprint is six times the size of London with half its population; Brisbane is 20 times the footprint of New York City with one-quarter of its population.
London (1,572 sq km, 8.3m people) vs Melbourne (9,990 sq km, 4.3m). Image: MapFrappe.com.
New York City (790 sq km, 8.4m people) vs Brisbane (15,826 sq km, 2.2m). Image: MapFrappe.com.
In Australia, public transport has to play catch-up constrained by an urban form designed by and for the car. This isn’t an impossible task, by any means, but it suggests that perhaps we’re comparing ourselves to the wrong cities.
What if we made more realistic comparisons? For example Portland, Oregon, is around the same size and has about the same population of Brisbane. It is held up as one of the “best transit cities” in the United States. Yet Brisbane has more public transport trips per capita – around 70 per year – than Portland, which has 58 per year.
If Australia’s cities were ranked alongside American cities in public transport trips per year, Sydney and Melbourne would both rank third behind New York and San Francisco, Perth would rank ninth (above Chicago) and Brisbane would rank tenth (above Philadelphia).
A call to (realistic) action
I am glad that Australians have high expectations of their public transport systems, and I will continue to advocate for improving public transport as an integral part of efficient, sustainable cities. But Sydney will never be Tokyo and Adelaide will never be London – nor should they be.
We already have strong, uniquely Australian legacies to build on. Adelaide and Brisbane were some of the first cities in the world to invest in bus rapid transit. Melbourne has the largest streetcar (tram) network in the world.
Rather than lamenting what we are not, let us focus on making Australian public transport systems the very best they can be.