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Thursday, 11 June 2015

Why the inconvenience of carrying whitegoods on a train is not very important

As restful as it may be to leave our prejudices quietly undisturbed, there are times when habits of thought need to be shaken up by a dose of empirical evidence. The great American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce called it the irritation of doubt.

And where better to start this unsettling journey than a visit to the NSW Bureau of Transport Statistics website?

We can be lulled by the belief that the "main game" in Sydney's transport is moving people into and out of the central business district. That's probably why Sydney's transport network is a radial pattern, funnelling passengers on trains, ferries and conga lines of buses into the small area bounded by Circular Quay to the north and Central Station to the south.  

There can also be a lingering assumption that most trips are journeys to and from work.

None of these beliefs are true.

According to the BTS Household Travel Survey, Sydney's residents make an average of 16.7 million trips each week-day. Even if the Central Business District is broadly defined as the Sydney LGA (covering the area from Alexandria (south) to Circular Quay (north) and from Glebe (west) to Moore Park (east)), then this is the destination of just 10% of those trips. 

Some may pretend that travel that is not work related is unimportant, or "discretionary" (perhaps an "indulgence"), but we are human beings and as humans we meet friends, shop, watch movies and go on picnics. The data shows that commuting to work is not the main purpose of our travel. There are more shopping trips each day than journeys to work!    

The BTS Journey to Work data provides a more detailed picture of commuter travel.  This shows that only 12 per cent of jobs in Sydney are located in the central business district.

If travelling to work in the CBD is such a small component of all our travel needs, why is Sydney's public transport network so focussed on the CBD?       

This dose of reality goes some way to explain why the private motor car is still king and public transport makes up only 12% of the trips we make each week-day. It is not taking us where we need to go. This is a more fundamental cause of low mode share in this city than, say, the inconvenience of carrying whitegoods on a train. 

We need only look to continental Europe to see what needs to be done to achieve the mode shift necessary to make Sydney a more liveable, less congested city - designing public transport so residents can get from wherever they are to wherever they need to go, at a time that suits them. This, in combination with a little demand management of private car use, can lead to some habit changing about when to ride a bus or catch a train.  

There must also be a rethink about fare structures to encourage greater use of public transport, not ration it, which is what the "pay as you go" Opal card does. And let's not penalise transfers between modes nor differentiate prices based on mode. 

None of this is about extravagant infrastructure projects. The city's mobility problems will not be solved by a new cable car to Barangaroo or a big new rail project. We just need a change in thinking, as uncomfortable as that may be.                                                       

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