The desire to drive, and how we must counter it

I am discovering that there’s some powerful psychology going on when you get a new car.

Playing into this for me is that my old car was wearing out, and was getting difficult to drive, plus the change from manual to automatic.

This means the new car seems like a breeze to drive.

The “new car smell” is real, and somehow makes it seem pleasurable to sit in the driver’s seat.

The extra features – even on this model which was as cheap as I could buy in the size I wanted – are (I’m guessing) designed to appeal, to make you want to be in the car (and thus to drive it).

Some designers have identified cupholders specifically as desirable, with some perhaps unlikely explanations:

Rapaille says women love cup holders because — and this is really what he told her — cup holders mean coffee, and coffee means safety, because of the memories we all have of our mothers preparing coffee with breakfast.

And this: Anthony Prozzi, design manager for Ford in Michigan, explains that “part of a designers job is to play psychologist, anthropologist and sociologist, and knowing those things helps you read consumers and know what puts a smile on their faces.”

Lancer manual: cup and bottle holders

My new car has a spot to put a bottle in the door (like my old car did) plus cupholders in the centre between the front two seats. So I can have two drinks within easy reach if I want… while the manual warns you not to actually use them while driving. Plus it’s got a spot for a packet of tissues, in case I have a spill.

I suppose car manufacturers have been at this game for a long time. You’ve bought their product for thousands of dollars – they want you to feel good about it, so that in time you’ll want to upgrade to another one.

The net result is that – even for someone like me, who understands the consequences of driving, and doesn’t like driving – I feel like I want to drive it.

I’d never drive it to work. Parking is too expensive, traffic is too soul-destroying, and (usually) the train is too good.

But it’s tempting to drive it other places where PT options are fewer – and I can understand why some people would be tempted to drive every day, even into horrible traffic. Combined with (Australian) governments who keep building big roads, even though it doesn’t solve congestion (it expands it), the desire to drive is powerful.

Just get in, turn the key and go. It’s so easy. Mostly the noise, air quality and traffic impacts are Somebody Else’s Problem. The motorist doesn’t pay for them; society does.

Governments are complicit in this, especially in Australia, where they build ever more roads as cities get bigger – despite this being not how the world’s biggest cities solve their mobility problems.

So the desire to drive is powerful.

CBD traffic, Lonsdale and William Streets

Fighting back

All this means that those of us who believe in the importance of solving those impacts through alternative transport modes have to make sure that they improve enough to fight back. If everybody who could afford to and was able to was on the roads, it’d be a disaster.

Perhaps to an extent cars are self-defeating. The more crowded the roads become, the better the alternatives look.

I also associate the car with first escapes, driving nowhere in particular in the middle of the night with a friend, movement being a goal in its own right. … Countless trips have been made by car since then, and we (still) own a small car today. However, trains became our favorite transport mode a long time ago, and as a family, we nowadays associate highways with congestion and stress, places to avoid.Stefan Gossling

Ultimately to fight back against the car, the other options need to improve.

Gossling again: There are powerful interests at work to psychologically engineer car addiction—addicts, conveniently, never question their behavior. Other insights pertain to the role of cars with regard to emotions, sociality, sex and gender, speed, authority, and death. We need to understand these interrelationships to unlock the possibility of alternative transport futures.

Caulfield station, inbound passengers during evening peak

Can public transport improve?

One could focus on the psychological aspects of public transport, but what about the basics – making the system easy and pleasant to use?

Cleanliness, crowding, information, security and easy to use ticketing all come into it. But seamless connections and cutting waiting times to reduce door-to-door journey times are fundamental requirements.

It would be easy enough to despair. Progress is so damn slow.

Most suburban buses are still running to frequencies from cuts 25 years ago. The last tranche of the better quality orbital Smartbus routes were implemented in 2010, almost a decade ago.

Trams have seen capacity expansion (big trams replacing smaller trams) but few route extensions, and remain slow due to a lack of progress on traffic priority.

The noises about public transport expansion are positive, but the actual progress isn’t.

Particularly frustrating is that literally billions are being spent on new rail tunnels to fix peak hour (great!) but most suburban train lines continue to run only every 20 minutes at most times of day, 30 minutes evenings. There are still gaps of 40 minutes on some lines on Sunday mornings.

A few have improved, but on most lines at most times they are much the same now as they have been for 30 years.

Let’s face it, with some exceptions, outside peak, most of the public transport system remains pathetically infrequent and slow, especially for a city of nearly five million people — despite increasing all-day demand.

Really, it’s no surprise that most people continue to drive.

The car industry is doing its best to coax us in, and on the other side, every signal from authorities, every pathetic half-baked public transport upgrade, every poorly-programmed pedestrian crossing, every non-existent bike path tells people to drive.

To curb the many problems of the car, they have to do better.

We need better public transport, not free public transport

From time to time the topic of free public transport comes up, most recently because of changes in Estonia.

I think it’s a distraction from far more important issues.

I just wanted to address a few points about it. Apologies for the rambling.

Would it be a good idea in Melbourne and/or Victoria?

I don’t think so.

The first point is the cost: the PTV Annual Report indicates around $800 million is collected in fare revenue every year.

Even allowing for the running costs of the ticket system and fare enforcement, hundreds of millions of dollars would have to be found to cover that.

That’s money that wouldn’t be available for upgrades, which are a far higher priority, because the main reason people don’t use public transport isn’t the fares, it’s the service quality.

If the system goes free, assuming that at least some of the shortfall is via higher taxes, you’d have a lot of people paying more for a service they can’t practicably use, which brings me to the next point.

Free Tram Zone

Would free PT get more people on board?

Melbourne’s existing free public transport is an indicator of what would happen if the whole system was free.

The usable, frequent services would be swamped with people. They’d need upgrades to keep up with growth — upgrades which would be far more difficult if revenue isn’t growing with patronage growth. Example: the Free Tram Zone; free New Years Eve trains.

You’d also lose any peak/off-peak pricing mechanism that can moderate peak demand and help encourage off-peak travel. This is used heavily on V/Line (30% discount outside peak, and for all trips that don’t go through Zone 1), and also on Metro (100% discount before 7:15am on weekdays), though arguably this could be used more extensively.

The infrequent, less usable services — such as suburban buses — still wouldn’t get a lot of use. Example: Seniors and Myki Pass-holders on weekends. Some use the buses, but plenty would rather drive, even if they can use public transport for free (or for no extra cost with their weekday ticket).

And that’s a problem if one of the prime aims is to increase public transport usage. Those middle and outer suburban areas where most people travel day to day is where public transport is failing to win market share, thus driving dominates. It would continue to be the case.

If a suburban bus is once an hour (and plenty are), then it’s not suddenly a compelling service if it becomes free. They need more services, not free services.

Myki, Smartrider, Go card, Opal public transport smartcards

It costs more to collect fares than the revenue

No, completely wrong.

Myki was an expensive system to build; around $1.5 billion including ten years running costs = $150 million per year.

It’s still expensive. The recently signed operations contract is $700 million for seven years = $100 million per year.

(Sydney’s Opal card system is also expensive, at $1.2 billion for 15 years. That’s a bit cheaper, but these systems can be very expensive when they involve coverage of a large network, requiring lots of hardware — whether or not it’s established technology or being built afresh.)

So yes, ticket systems cost a lot of money. But even if you supposed that on top of the $100-$150 million per year for the ticket system, ticket inspections were costing another $50 million per year (and assuming those staff aren’t needed anyway for other purposes such as safety), that’s still around $600 million per year lost if fares aren’t collected.

Or to put it another way: if Myki hadn’t been built, instead the system could have been fare-free… but only for about two years.

There would be some benefit from going fare-free: better passenger flows in and around stations, as fencing and gates are removed, and on and off trams and buses. But at a huge cost, and these issues can be ameliorated in other ways.

New Myki signage on trams, October 2015

But Estonia has free public transport!

No it doesn’t. If you look beyond the headlines, you’ll discover that recent changes have made regional buses in Estonia free.

Free journeys will be available for all Estonians using county buses, but won’t be available on trains (although enhanced subsidies will make tickets on the state-owned rail network cheaper). And in Estonian cities outside of Tallinn, all passengers will still have to pay to use all modes of public transit, including buses. — Huffington Post

It’s apparently not even all county regional buses:

To date, not all Estonia’s 15 counties have taken up the offer, though the free-fare zone is set to cover large areas of the country. — European Sting

So it excludes rail services, and city (suburban) buses — which would account for the majority of passengers.

Tallin, the capital of Estonia (population 610,000) does have free buses, trolley-buses, trams, ferries and trains within the city limits, but only for residents.

People still use a smartcard, but the cards issued to local residents give them free rides. Which means the system still incurs the cost of running the ticketing system. In fact Wikipedia notes that services are stopped during ticket checks — so it’s really not a fare free system at all.

Problems aside, was Tallinn’s free public transport a success? That depends on how you define success:

…a 2016 analysis of the Tallinn scheme found it didn’t really encourage many people to stop driving.

In 2014, a year into the experiment, the use of public transport had increased by 14%. However, car use only declined by 5%.

In fact, it was walkers who hopped on buses, as the number of trips made on foot dropped by a staggering 40%.

And while the share of car use marginally decreased, the average distance travelled by car actually went up. — European Sting

Cardiff Bay: Pierhead building and Millennium Centre

Wales has free public transport!

No it doesn’t. Wales has free bus services on weekends only… but only for 9 bus regional routes run by one operator, the Welsh government-owned Travel Cymru. It appears to be a measure designed to stimulate tourism.

The scheme excludes rail services, and all other bus services — including bus services within cities.

Hasselt, Belgium has free public transport!

No it doesn’t. They had free buses (not other modes) from 1997 until 2013 when they scrapped the scheme because of cost — in part the costs of running services to cater for higher patronage. The buses are still free for those under 19.

Hasselt isn’t a big city, in any case – it has a population of only about 71,000 people. That means it’s not a good example to point to when arguing for a large city to go fare free.


The (socialist) Mayor of Paris has proposed it, but the idea has been opposed by others.

As far as I can make out, as of 2018, there is no major city in the world (of say more than a million people) where all public transport is free.

But the roads are free

Toll roads are an obvious exception, but even “free” roads aren’t actually free. They are heavily subsidised, but motorists still have to pay fuel tax at the pump, and registration and licencing fees.

Public transport is subsidised too of course. This is no reason to cut out fare collection and make the subsidy even bigger.

Crowded train, Richmond


Chris Hale recently wrote in The Age that: “a public dollar frittered on fare discounting is invariably a waste, whereas that same dollar invested in better off-peak service gets great results.”

Fares certainly need to be affordable. Part of that is addressed ensuring there are concessions to those who need them.

But in any big city, even those hailed as having great public transport, service and infrastructure improvements are needed.

In fact the best public transport cities tend to get into a growth spiral of patronage – they need ongoing investment. It costs, but it’s good for their city.

All of which means that in any city, with even a moderately successful public transport network, given the huge amount of money raised from fares, it’s very difficult to envisage a time when making the service free would be a priority, or even desirable.

Melbourne’s fares rise above CPI again

As expected, fare rises have been announced to take place on January 1st.

It’s a rise of 4.7% — which is CPI+2.5%.

(At least, 4.7% is the claim. Some fares, such as a Zone 1 two-hour fare, are rising by more: $4.10 to $4.30 is almost 4.9%, thanks to the price being rounded to the nearest 10 cents… which makes no sense, because you can’t directly buy these fares with cash.)

Just as this was emerging on Saturday, the Caulfield group of lines suffered major unplanned disruptions. Channel 9 was out for the fare rise story, but captured the train chaos as well:

Here’s the official PTV price list (which oddly doesn’t list the Weekend/Public Holiday Daily Cap, believed to still be $6 adult/$3 concession, or the Seniors Weekday Cap, which in 2017 is $4.10).

Here’s the State Government press release (which tries to temper the anger by announcing minor reforms such as free rides for primary school groups at off-peak times).

So how much have fares gone up over the years?

I thought I’d do a quick graph of the last 20 years.

Melbourne fares 1997-2018


  • 1998 and 2010 saw no rise, as prices were frozen those years
  • 2007: Zone 3 is merged with zone 2, resulting in 3-zone trips dropping in price
  • 2013: single fares (on Metcard) were abolished, switching everyone to the slightly cheaper Myki fares, which were equivalent to 10×2 hour discounted fares under Myki
  • 2015: Zone 1 and 2 fares were capped at zone 1 rates, resulting in 2-zone trips dropping in price to the nearly-flat fares we have now

What if we look at the rises in those fares, and compare them with CPI?

Melbourne fare rises since 1997

  • 2004 saw a whopping 9.8% increase in fares, about three times CPI, the same year that Short Trip tickets were abolished, resulting in a huge jump for non-CBD short trips
  • 2012 and 2013 saw rises of CPI+5%, budgeted by Labor, implemented by the Coalition
  • 2015 to 2018 saw rises of CPI+2.5%, budgeted by the Coalition, implemented by Labor. What a team.

As you can see, for trips formerly covering three zones, these are still cheaper (just) than they were before 1997. Two zone trips are still relatively cheap, rising at well below CPI.

Zone one trips were tracking a bit above CPI until 2012, but when Metcard was abolished the switch to bulk rates brought it back down pretty much in line with CPI since 1997. Rises since have it well above.

There are still Ways to save. Options include Earlybird, and Myki Pass if travelling most/all days of the week. In fact you can buy a Myki Pass before January 1st and pay the pre-rise price, then use it later.

Additional fare revenue adds up to a lot of money, which can go into upgrades — we all understand that.

But the fare changes to a largely flat fare have resulted in some people benefitting enormously with fairly cheap fares for long trips, at the expense of others, who are paying a lot for short trips.

Upgrades to infrastructure and services are important to get more people using public transport. But affordable fares are also important — with repeated above CPI rises, for many people, this is going backwards.

With this fourth CPI+2.5% increase, Labor implemented the Coalition’s budgeted rises. They can argue that if they hadn’t, they’d have had to find the money elsewhere. Question is: what will happen next?

Sense8’s public transport. Can you name the cities?

I’m always interested to see portrayals of public transport in popular culture.

I’ve been watching the Netflix series Sense8 — I’m a bit over halfway through it. (And I just realised the Wikipedia article includes spoilers, so watch your step if you’re planning to watch it).

It’s pretty good — at least, I’m intrigued enough by the story to keep watching. It’s scifi, created by the minds behind The Matrix and Babylon 5, and set in the present day, with eight (hence the name) main characters in different cities around the globe.

In the title sequence they seek to highlight different parts of the world with lots of different shots from the cities featured. Here’s the video if you feel so inclined (it’s about two minutes long).

If you’re trying to highlight different cities, what helps distinguishes them apart from their skyline and famous buildings? Their public transport systems!

Public transport can visually differentiate cities a lot more than, say, freeways, given that motorway signs and cars look pretty much the same across the (western) world.

Perhaps they (at least subconsciously) thought a bit about this, because in the title sequence there are numerous shots of public transport. … Or perhaps there aren’t really that many, and it’s just me that notices them. (Actually there are shots of freeways and road bridges as well.)

Can you guess the cities? Some of them are pretty easy. They’ve doubled up on some, and I think they’ve missed one of the eight cities here.

Here they are in the order shown in the titles:

PT in the Sense8 titles 01

PT in the Sense8 titles 02

PT in the Sense8 titles 03

PT in the Sense8 titles 04

PT in the Sense8 titles 05

PT in the Sense8 titles 06

PT in the Sense8 titles 07

PT in the Sense8 titles 08

PT in the Sense8 titles 09

PT in the Sense8 titles 10

Those who have actually watched the series would know that one of these actually features heavily in the plot.

What are some other TV shows or movies that have prominently featured the PT systems of their cities (without it necessarily being the basis of the plot, such as Pelham 123) ?

Oh damn. Someone’s catalogued all the locations in the Sense8 titles (with assistance from the program makers).

Never mind — have a guess. No cheating now.

Farewell MX

Freebie afternoon commuter newspaper MX finishes its run today after 14 years of publishing in Melbourne (and shorter runs in Brisbane and Sydney).

Melbourne Express was its awkward morning competitor for a short time in 2001 — it was never going to last because morning distribution is so difficult. That brand name lives on in The Age’s morning updates.

Some may mock MX for being overly filled with show-biz news and lifestyle stories, but for years it had a good team of local reporters, and their focus on public transport-using readers meant they always gave the PTUA a good run, often on the front page. It was a great way to reach a key demographic… for advertisers too, of course.

Here are some of the more (for me) memorable stories:

30/8/2005: East-west tunnel? Or public transport? It’s a debate that’s been around for a while.
MX: road tunnel, or public transport (30/8/2005)

11/10/2006: Celebrating the PTUA’s 30th anniversary
MX: 30 years of PTUA (11/10/2006)

23/5/2011: When the PTUA’s “Problem Of The Day” poked holes in the new tram network map, MX went Full Tabloid on it:
MX: Map of crap (23/5/2011)

2/6/2011: And this one, critiquing in detail the screens at Southern Cross Station:
MX: Southern Cross screens (2/6/2011)

Alas, their coverage of local news changed somewhat earlier this year when MX had a revamp. Recently there’s been little local content in it; indeed it appears much of the paper has been a generic Sydney/Melbourne/Brisbane production.

MX of course had other uses. Some would get it every day just for the crosswords. You could wave it angrily at cars that failed to stop at zebra crossings. You could use it to cover that horrible-looking stuff on the train seat.

Litter could be a problem on evening trains, though MX probably helped the push for recycle bins to be installed at suburban stations. (And litter on trains is unlikely to just vanish when MX is gone.)

Perhaps with the recent proliferation of smart phones (iPhones were still six years away when MX launched) it’s not surprising it’s wrapping up.

It’s hard to break news if you go to press at midday for distribution to people at 4-5pm when many of your readers will have seen the same stories at lunchtime on their phones and computers.

Notably, News Corporation has been advertising heavily around public transport recently.

So long MX, it’s been nice knowing you.

And to all the journos there I dealt with over the years, past and present: Erin, Hanna, Inga, Lachlan, Maria, Michelle, Nadia, Rebecca and any I might have forgotten (and/or not saved in my phone!) — thank you and good luck!