The Age reported last week that cars were still the dominant mode in Melbourne for the journey to work:

“Many Melburnians are continuing to hop in their cars to travel to work. Just 35 per cent use public transport, compared to 50 per cent in Sydney.”

Just 35%? That looks pretty poor compared to what Sydney commuters are doing. But the numbers — which come from the State of Australian Cities 2015-15 report — are just plain wrong when used in this way.

If it were true, a mode share of “just” 35% for the journey to work wouldn’t be cause for disappointment; it would be cause for rejoicing! A mode share that high would be a remarkable achievement.

And the 50% mode share The Age gives Sydney would have many European nations looking to the harbour city for inspiration!

However, it looks like The Age has made an elementary mistake and misinterpreted the meaning of the data in the report.

My original theory of how The Age might’ve come to attach the wrong meaning to the numbers was that it had (a) extrapolated travel behavior from a small jobs area (the inner city) to the entire metropolitan area; and (b) compared commutes by area of jobs with commutes by area of residence.

However, a reader points out that the second part of my theory is probably wrong. I think the simpler and more plausible explanation is that The Age has taken the mode split for commutes to the inner city and wrongly generalised it to the entire metropolitan area.

Thus, 50% of commutes to the centre of Sydney from elsewhere in the metropolitan area are made by public transport. The corresponding figure for Melbourne is 35%.

But these figures give a misleading impression of the actual use of public transport because the inner city is much smaller and very different in character from the rest of the metropolitan area. For example, the inner city has only around 15% of metro jobs and is the hub of the train system.

But regardless of how The Age arrived at the headline, the level of public transport use in both Sydney and Melbourne is unfortunately nowhere near as rosy. It’s actually less than half the level cited by the newspaper; around 23% in Sydney and 16% in Melbourne.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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