Comparing transport statistics around the world

Posted: February 26, 2013 in Transport, Urban planning
Tags: ,

Sydney has been compared unfavourably to other countries through poor use of statistics. But that does raise the question: is it even fair to compare Sydney (or any Australian city) to the rest of the world? That question recently led to this exchange on Twitter:

Twitter conversation

There are many examples of Australians returning from abroad and singing the praises of the transport systems of European or Asian cities. “If only we had a system like that over here” they say. But that is like putting a square peg through a round hole. Those cities have a different history to Australian cities, and have developed differently as a result. You cannot then just overlay their transport system on a different city anymore than you can wear your cousin’s suit to a wedding when that cousin happens to be taller and skinnier than you.

European cities were built over hundreds, sometimes thousands of years. In many cases, most of their footprint was set before the time of the motor vehicle. In fact, their urban layout was more likely to be shaped by long distance commuter trains and short distance trams, leading to a city and transport system that is well suited to public transport.

Asian cities, and Middle Eastern ones to a lesser extent, are much newer, and were built during a time when most Australian households had a car in every garage. But 2 things were different. First, most Asian households were poor, and could not afford cars. They relied instead on public transport or bicycles. Secondly, Asian governments tend to have much less of an interest in due process and individual rights than Western governments. If your house is in the way of the new rail line, you are moving out and the bulldozers are moving in. This has allowed them to fast track shiny new underground metros and high speed rail in a way that would never be possible in Australia.

So that leaves the New World (leaving Africa aside): North America and Australasia  plus also South America. Countries made up predominantly of migrants, which also saw big population booms in the aftermath of World War 2. This was a time when the private motor vehicle began to really spread, when increased populations were settled in the city’s fringes leading to the beginning of urban sprawl, and when governments began building highways instead of railways in order to move people around.

When comparing Sydney to cities around the world, it is places like Auckland, Los Angeles, and Vancouver that comparisons should be made with, not London, Paris, or Tokyo. And when looking at how to improve Sydney’s transport system, it is successful New World cities which hold the answer.

Strangely enough, Los Angeles probably provides the best example of how Sydney can improve its transport system. (The link is to a piece by Jarrett Walker at Human Transit, which is well worth a read for more details). Despite being well known as a car dominated city, LA has been making an effort to improve its public transport system, and shares many similarities with Sydney. Both cities have large footprints and built a network of highways after the rise of the car following World War 2. Each is also made up of multiple urban centres with a dense core, Sydney has the Sydney CBD, Parramatta, Liverpool, Penrith, Chatswood, etc while Los Angeles has downtown Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Westwood, Burbank, etc. However they also have their differences – Sydney has a strong heavy rail network, while Los Angeles has an well laid out grid street system.

  1. Tony Bailey says:

    The major error is usually no one seems to know how the comparative statistics were derived – and what they mean?

    One example is that there is seldom an explanation of how patronage is derived-
    A single trip on one mode?
    A return trip on one mode?
    A single journey, either single or multiple modes?
    Total daily journeys, either single or multiple modes?

    Actual counted paid or estimated?

  2. Comparisons between cities have generally been quite good at standardising those sorts of statistics. I don’t think that is often an issue. What is less good is recognising that the urban form is different, population density, the layout of roads, a pre-existing rail network, etc. these tend to be qualitative rather than quantitative in nature, and therefore get lost in the statistics.

  3. ash says:

    Surprising point on comparing Sydney with LA. I had always thought the street grid system made it heaps more comparable with Melbourne for example, and not really Sydney. But I get the other points you mentioned. Quite interesting why we shouldn’t compare with European cities.

    Here’s something I have been thinking about – is there truth in that the quality of European transport networks were largely “helped” by the need to rebuild after WW2, and that less people could own cars there then say people here and in the US? I think Japan is comparable in this case too.

  4. RichardU says:

    We don’t have to replicate a whole public transport system to pick the eyes out of the features we can use.

    In particular, integrated fares. Instead, many years late, we a still plodding on with the expensive, unnecessarily cumbersome Opal based ticketing hardware and fare structures on the basis that politicians can deliver winners but NEVER losers even when it is in the common interest. Even with Opal, a fare will be charged every time you get on a bus to complete your journey. Consequently, passengers are not used to changing buses, services run less frequently and partially empty into a crowded CBD. The fare structure has been solved elsewhere at less cost to instal and run yet we cling to the old ways.

    And can reform be expected in a lifetime given it has taken nearly a lifetime to get Opal itself?

  5. I get the point about city grids. Though I would argue that the grid itself is a minor part of a city’s transport usage. Houston and New York are both grid based cities, but the former is a new city with a very dispersed urban form while the latter is a much older city that is very compact in urban form. Largely because of this, New York has a very high public transport (as well as walking/biking) usage while Houston is highly car dependant.

    Very interesting question about the post WW2 rebulding. To be honest, I don’t know. Reconstruction does provide the opportunity to start from scratch, so at the time that could have meant a more car based city rather than the traditional public transport based city.

    Taking a guess, I reckon Europe tends to be more socialist that Australasia and North America, and this lends itself to building a communal transport system “for the people”, whereas in Australasia and North America they liked the individual freedom that the car allowed people. That’s partly why ex-Communist countries in East Europe still have these fantastic public transport networks while free-market American cities built massive highway networks. That doesn’t technically answer your question, but I’ll have a think about it and see if I can come up with a proper answer.

  6. The post was not about recreating transport systems per se, it was about the folly of doing so without replicating the urban form of a city. Integrated fares are unrelated to urban form and so can be introduced anywhere, including to Sydney.

    Your comments on the problems caused by a lack of integrated fares are spot on. They should be introduced, even if that means producing winners and losers, because the overall benefits will be so substantial.

    The Transport Minister has indicated that the cabinet will be considering fares at some point in the beginning of this year. My guess is that fares will not be integrated until Opal is fully rolled out onto buses, which will not occur until 2014 or 2015. Rushing into it earlier could result in the sort of failure that resulted when the government rushed the Northwest Metro, only to later abandon it after costing the tax payer $500 million.

    This is worth doing, but it’s worth doing it right, and that means not rushing it.

  7. Bambul Interesting hypothesis but I’m less fatalistic. I think this is a matter of self-determination. I’d disagree that Australian cities are bound to/ more comprable to a model of US etc cities by virtue of shorter histories c.f. European cities.
    I think even a huge divergence of approaches became apparent both in North America and Europe over the C20th. Cities with central areas formed before 1920 ostensively had the same form. Modern cities like Sydney, New York, Toronto, San Francisco, LA and ancient cities like Zurich, Paris, London and Hamburg were all very similar in terms of land use and transport in the 1910s. Dense down-town comercial, business, retail and culture centres, and trams/ street cars to inner-urban medium density housing.
    The big difference I think was a cultural/ social one. Some countries and cities (the culture is driven by more than a city alone) went down the aggresive auto expansion route, whether it be Los Angeles’ freeways or Frankfurt’s Reichsautobahns in the 1930s. Other cities chose to replace their trams with underground rapid transit (like London, New York and Paris). Other cities opposed (represented through organisations like the UITP) the motor-vehicle-isation of their cities and actively fought the automotive “tragedy of the commons” and the interests of auto industry. I don’t think this is bound to either UK/Europe or North America, as Toronto, Chicago, Boston, Newark, New York attest. Compare the history of San Francisco’s MUNI with Los Angele’s public transport and Council policies from 1930-1970.
    Whereas the SF’s civic leaders responded to the horror of their initial transit cutbacks (e.g. the closure of the Key System railway and the handover of it’s corridor to cars), in Los Angeles they went for more of the same. SF continued, through retention of street tramways, their enhancement through grade separation, and construction of an independent metro (BART), urban consolidation and a vital, vibrant inner urban area. LA has taken 50 years to realise the error of its ways (Sydney may be similar in this respect).

  8. Simon says:

    Interesting point in that last sentence. Although I would go further and say that Sydney continues to seek a car centric culture to this day. Any talk of doing anything else is ridiculed. Even though the NWRL appears to be getting built, capacity for the core for existing routes actually being built is largely a dream, which will not be realised even if the proposed and very much unfunded second harbour crossing plans come to fruition, unless they are modified significantly. Even if that does happen, the outcome will still be second best, and stay that way because the via Macquarie Park trains will not be able to access the upper Northern Line, making the capacity issues via Homebush far worse. Also, the new harbour crossing will be less utilised than what it should be because of these issues.

    The tram plans will not be help.

    I honestly think that the future is pretty bleak for Sydney, and it is the voters who are insisting on the path to destruction.

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