The Australian Bureau of Statistics published an article last week which detailed how the increased availability and affordability of cars in Australia has allowed Australians to travel further than was possible before.

The convenience and affordability of cars saw ownership rates proliferate. In 1955, there were 153 passenger vehicles per 1,000 people in Australia. By 2013, this rate had increased to 568 per 1,000 people.  And as car ownership increased, we used public transport less often.

David Cosgrove, from the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics, charted over one hundred years of usage patterns on metro public transport systems in Australia and found that public transit was dominant through the early part of last century. In 1950, more than half of total urban passenger kilometres were on metro public transport before gradually losing market share with the growing popularity of private car travel. In 2010, close to 90 per cent of urban travel was done in light motor vehicles and about 10 per cent by rail, bus and ferry.

This remarkable trend away from public transport was relatively similar in Perth. After World War II, metro public transport trips peaked at over 85 million and then declined for four decades to less than 55 million trips in 1985. The decline in trips per capita was more impressive, falling from over 300 to approximately 53 trips per annum. That is, the average Perth resident in 1985 was making one sixth as many trips on public transport compared to 40 years prior.

There has been a revival of public transport in Perth over the last two decades, and the last four years in particular. There were over 63 million metro train trips in 2011/12 and over 20 million more than levels just four years prior. There were also 15 million more metro bus trips in Perth in 11/12 compared to 07/08 and a total of 80.6 million for the year. But on a per capita basis, the average Perth resident is only making 77 trips on public transport each year.

The tentative revival of the public transport commute
Congestion, fuel prices and new infrastructure is, however, encouraging Australian commuters to turn back to trains, trams and buses. After decades of rapid decline, public transport usage rates commenced a revival in 1996, according to an RMIT study. The revival began slowly, but the five years to 2011 saw the biggest increase in public transport mode share seen since 1976.

Perth has had the most impressive turnaround in public transport of any capital city. It is the only city where public transport mode share is higher than in 1981. The revival of public transport has occurred mainly on rail systems, which have recovered the ground lost during the two decades of decline prior to 1996. The share of workers travelling by train is three times as high as 35 years ago in Perth.

According to a recent study conducted by the Bureau of Statistics, cars are still the dominant form of transport but their share is declining. The proportion of adults in WA using a private car as their main form of transport to commute to work of full-time study was 87 per cent in 2006, but declined to 84.6 per cent in 2009 and 81.9 per cent in 2012. The share of adults using public transport for their commute subsequently increased from 8.4 per cent in 2006 to 11 per cent in 2009 and 12.2 per cent in 2012 (compared to the national average of 15.8 per cent).

Interestingly, the most popular reason for using public transport for the commute was “convenience/comfort/less stress”, with just one third selecting “price/cost” as a reason and less than one in five respondents selecting “reduced travel time” as a reason. Meanwhile, of those that don’t use P.T. for commute, 32 per cent said the reason was because there was “no service available at all”.

Non-commute public transport usage
Whilst the focus of public transport commentary is typically on commuting, there are a substantial number of other trips made throughout the typical week and many of these are done on public transport. Approximately, one in five (19.5 per cent) adults in WA uses public transport for trips other than the commute (i.e. to the shops, beach, etc.). In Perth, one quarter of Perth adults use public transport for non-commute trips, which is on par with Brisbane and Adelaide residents, but less than Melbourne (33.5 per cent) and Sydney (38 per cent).

The car is, however, the ultimate in personal mobility, flexibility and convenience. More than nine out of ten adults use private cars for non-commute trips (91.1 per cent in Perth, which is the equal most with Hobart residents).