As reported in the press this week, a little over half of Australians think improving public transport is the highest priority issue for transport policy in the country. This compares with just over a quarter who nominated road improvements as their priority.

Yet Australians make many more trips by car than public transport, so it seems contradictory that most accord enhancing public transport a much higher priority than roads.

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These findings come from Sydney University’s Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies (ITLS). The Institute this week released its quarterly survey of the attitudes of a representative sample of 1,000 Australians aged 18 years and over towards transport.

The Institute has been running the survey since March 2010. Public transport has been the highest priority issue in all nine quarterly surveys.

In the latest survey, almost twice as many (51%) respondents nominated public transport as their highest priority for improvement, as nominated roads (27%).

Victorians are more concerned about public transport than those who live elsewhere, with 63% nominating it as their key priority compared to just 20% for roads. In Queensland only 43% nominated public transport, but this was still higher than the 33% who selected roads.

Given that travel surveys find around 90% of all trips averaged across Australia’s capitals are made by car, the priority respondents give to expenditure on public transport over roads is curious. I don’t know for sure why that’s the case but, assuming ITLS got their survey design right, it’s an interesting and important question.

Part of the reason might be that many more travellers use public transport on an occasional basis than the travel data indicates, as I discussed recently. A new ABS survey of adults in Melbourne found 38% had used public transport in the last month. Of these, 33% said they use it at least once a month and 24% at least once a week.

Thus a significant proportion of travellers are alert to the failings of public transport even if they only use it irregularly to go to a show or the football. According to the ITLS survey, one of those failings is over-crowding – 43% of train travellers feel crowding on trains is “intolerable”.

A fifth say they spend more than 80% of their time on trains during peak hour having to stand. The perception of crowding is far higher in Victoria, where 53% of train users say it’s intolerable. It’s lowest in Queensland (32%).

There’s no break-down of the time spent standing on trains by state, but overall 40% of rail users say they stand for at least 60% of the time during peak hour.

Another explanation could be most people don’t in fact experience all that much traffic congestion. In Australian cities, less than 10% of the metropolitan population live in the inner city, where traffic and parking issues are worst.

The definition of the inner city I’m using is a 5 km radius around the CBD. But using Melbourne as an example, even an approximate 15 km radius – in the north, that’s to the ring road – only captures around a third of the metropolitan population.

Suburbanites mostly make short driving trips in their local area. Perhaps they also instinctively timetable trips to minimise delay. This IBM study concludes that Melbourne has relatively low traffic congestion compared to a sample of international cities.

Or it might be that people don’t think governments can do much about traffic so they don’t hold them accountable for congestion – they let them off the hook. They might think congestion is everybody’s problem.

But not so public transport. Maybe that’s because there’s a visible operator who schedules services and collects fares and can be blamed for poor service.

Another reason why Australians favour more investment in public transport over roads could be they realise (better than politicians appreciate) that major new roads inevitably get congested. And often they get both congested and tolled, since the latter are designed to maximise revenue, not to manage congestion.

Another explanation is perhaps the obvious one. It could be many Australians have a heightened appreciation of the risks posed by climate change and peak oil. Even though they make the vast bulk of their trips by car, they’re apprehensive about the future and think it prudent that governments invest more in public transport than roads.

No doubt others can (and hopefully will) suggest other reasons. Whatever they are, the implication is obvious. Most of us want better public transport more than we want better roads.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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