Increasing the Use of Public Transport May be Harder Than We Think

“Increase the use of public transport”  is an easy response to Brisbane’s transport problems.   However, once I realized that only 10% of car commutes went to the CBD the picture became more complex. Public and active transport was no longer the answer to everything.

This post started off as a note about reducing public transport fares. However, once I started to put together the data needed to estimate what some of the proposals were going to cost the picture became more complex. Up till then I thought that, because about 65% of commutes used cars as their main method of travel to work there was plenty of scope for reducing transport emissions and congestion by getting most of these car commuters to switch to public or active transport.

 However, some key bits of data changed my mind:

  1. 67% of trips to work were to places that were within the commuters “normal area of residence.”

  2. Only 10% of car commutes were to places within the city center area.

  3. 63% of commutes to the city center were already using public transport by 2011.

It was concluded that the potential for switching car commutes to active or public transport was much less than what was implied by the “65% of Brisbane commutes used cars”.

As part of the homework a number of possibilities were considered for increasing the use of public transport:

  1. Make public transport times more competitive by increasing the number of T2 lanes. (Lanes restricted to the use of buses, commercial vehicles and cars with passengers.)

  2. Replacing low frequency public transport routes that go all the way to the city center with free, shorter, high frequency feeder bus routes that only go to nearby high frequency transport routes, local workplaces, shopping centers, parks etc.  Potential benefits include:

    • Increasing the number of people who have access to high frequency transport.

    • Providing a system that will encourage people to use public transport instead of cars for travel within their local area.

    • Reducing the number of buses going into the city center.

These proposals should be accompanied by campaigns to highlight the quality of life benefits of public transport such as reduced transport stress, time to think, wind down etc.

Both these proposals would have negligible costs unless a decision were made to use more buses on the feeder routes to increase frequency or extent of the feeder bus system.


Table 1 provides a breakdown of the modes of travel used by commuters on Tues 9 2011.

Table 1: MAIN Method of travel to work Tues 9 August 2011- GREATER Brisbane

Method of travel


Brisbane %

Queensland %

Total public transport




Total Car




% cars driver only








Motor bike




Total Active




Total employed people over 15




Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics, Census of Population and Housing 2006 and 2011. Compiled and presented by .id , the population experts.

Tables like this suggest that many of Brisbane’s commuter problems could be solved by getting people out of cars and onto public transport. The underlying assumption here is that it is practical for most commuters to use public transport to get to work.

However, it is not quite as simple as this. When “How many commuters travel every day?” was googled this came up:

“As of the 2011 census, Brisbane had a working population of 643,000. Of this figure, only 211,281 (33%) commute outside their usual area of residence to work. The destination most commuted to is the inner city, with 145,599 (22%) commuting to the inner city on a daily basis. “

Funny thing is Brisbane has a public transport system that is largely about moving the 22% between the CBD and the suburbs. It is not about moving the 67% who work within their usual area of residence and certainly not about moving across the city to a workplace that is nowhere near the CBD.

A Brisbane Times article was also found that came with the following chart and map that changed the way I think about Brisbane public transport:

Fig 1: Public transport mode share of journeys to work by work location (Census 2011).



Fig 2: Percent of people using public transport to go to work

(darker green denotes a higher percentage).


Fig 3 gives more information about the transport split of people going to work in city centres.

Fig 3: Transport split for city centres – 2001 to 2011

Source: The Journey to Work and the City Centre (Australian cities 2011)

The key Brisbane figures for 2011 were:

  1. Public transport=63.2%

  2. Active transport=7.8%

  3. Total sustainable=71.0%

  4. Private transport=28.7%

Note that the share of public and active transport grew significantly between 2001 and 2011.

For other useful information see How People Got to Work in Brisbane and Breakdown of CBD Travel

NOTE: There are differences between some of the data sources. These differences are not large enough to affect key conclusions or create significant errors in calculations based on mixed data.

Travel to the City Centre for Work:

The high use of public transport by those travelling to the city center should hardly be surprising:

  1. The Brisbane public transport system is largely about meeting the needs of people travelling to and from the city center.

  2. For most of travelers, parking costs make the cost of driving higher than using public transport.

Not sure why some people choose to drive to the city center to work. Possibilities include:

  1. They want to spend less time travelling to and from work. (I found that 3 zone commuting between the CBD and Chapel Hill using a low frequency bus route (425) took about twice as long as driving.)

  2. Simply see travel time using public transport as the same as driving time. (Public transport involves less stress, time to wind down, etc. compared with driving.)

  3. The start and/or finish of their journey is not well served by public transport. (Part of the problem I found when depending on route 425.)

  4. They drive a company car (or at least get free parking as part of their package.)

  5. They have found somewhere to park for free and want to avoid the higher cost of using public transport.

  6. They drive a vehicle that really is needed for work.

  7. They need to carry things like tools or teaching materials to and from work.

NOTE: Commuting to the city center by car in 2011 was about 10% of the Brisbane total car commutes. This should be kept in mind when deciding where the increasing public transport effort should go.

In terms of commuting between the city center and the suburbs:

  1. Not sure that reducing fares would be a very cost effective way of getting people out of cars and on to public transport. (It would be easy to spend a lot of money reducing the fares of people who are already using public transport in return for only a small increase in the use of public transport by city center commuters.)

  2. It may be far more cost effective to link a campaign highlighting the stress reduction etc. benefits of public transport while doing things to make public transport more competitive in terms of travel time using low cost options such as:

    • Converting low frequency routes into shorter, higher frequency feeder routes.

    • Increasing the use of dedicated T2 lanes for buses, taxis, commercial vehicles and cars with passengers.

Some polling of city center commuters who drive instead of using public transport would be useful.

NOTE: In terms of the total contribution cars make to to congestion, keep in mind that the city center figures above for cars do not include vehicles that are merely passing through to destinations that are outside the city center. The location of bridges, the number of major roads that feed into and through the city center and the quaint practice of placing a toll on congestion bypasses all contribute to this through traffic problem.

People Working Within Their “Usual Area of Residence”.

(NOTE: My understanding is that “Usual Area of Residence” are the areas shown in fig2.)

The figures above suggest that about 85%% of those working outside of the city center would work within their “usual area of residence” and that, for this group, the average use of public and active transport would be lower than the overall. This is not surprising. For example, for the Chapel Hill/Kenmore area where I live:

  1. Driving to most of these jobs would take 10 to 15 mins.

  2. Parking is free and easy to find.

  3. The potential jobs are not concentrated in any one area.

  4. Most of the jobs are outside of easy walking distance.

  5. A bike could be used to safely get to some parts of the area but, for other parts, the bike route is not safe.

  6. Most of the area is hilly so active transport can mean arriving at work hot and sweaty.

  7. Most of the public transport routes are low frequency. In additionGetting from where I live to many other parts of the area would require trips on more than one bus.

  8. Using one full peak travel zone of public transport would cost about $30/week compared with $6/week for a small car traveling 4 km to work.  (The cost for the first zone is much higher than it is for the remaining zones.)

There are things that might be done to reduce some of the above problems. For example:

  1. Provide more safe bike routes.

  2. Use e-bikes or scooters to fix the “arriving hot and sweaty problem.”

  3. Replace low frequency bus routes that run all the way to the city with local, higher frequency feeder bus routes.

  4. Merge some feeder bus routes to allow more of the area to be reached without having to change buses.

  5. Make the feeder buses free like the city center free bus loops.

  6. Encourage the concentration of jobs in areas that are safe and easy to get to using public or active transport.

Even if all of the above changes were done, driving a vehicle would still be the quickest and most convenient way of getting to work for most jobs in the Chapel Hill/Kenmore area.

Not all “usual areas of residence” will have the same transport problems or opportunities as Chapel Hill/Kenmore. They need to be looked at on an area by area basis. Active and/or public transport may/may not be a far more practical way of commuting in some of these areas.

Other “Working Outside the City Centre” Jobs:

Only 11% of travel to work fell into this group of jobs. This makes it hard to tell from the above information what the split between travel modes is or what actions may be worthwhile taking to increase active or public transport.

In some cases the issues and solutions will be similar to those associated with travelling to the CBD or within the “usual area of residence”.

For others the key problem is that the public transport system is CBD centric and provides a very poor service for workers who have to travel across the city instead of to and from the CBD. (For example, at one stage I was working in the Archerfield industrial area. To get there by 9 AM from where I live at Chapel Hill takes about 35 mins x 20km direct drive by car Vs 1.5 hrs using a longer public transport journey that involved using 3 buses.)

Actions that make the public transport system less CBD centric are desirable.

Discussion and Conclusions:

Public transport is not some magic answer to city transport problems. High frequency public transport is a good way of moving lots of people, particularly to an area where parking is limited or expensive. For this reason, public transport makes sense for most of the people who work in a place like the city center. The 63% of city centre workers who commuted using public transport reflects this.

On the other hand, high frequency public transport makes less sense for moving smaller numbers of people relatively short distances to jobs that are spread over a large area. The 65%+ of people who work outside the city center who commuted by car reflects this reality.

It may make sense for the BCC to spend money trying to encourage some of the people who commute by car to switch to public transport. However, we need to accept that there are circumstances where commuting by private vehicle makes sense from the city, car user and other transport user perspective.

One of the figures that stands out in table 1 is that 82.5% of car commutes take place in driver only cars. A safe, weather proof motor bike seems a more logical vehicle for these commuters. The BCC should campaign for the setting of the standards and road rules required to allow this type of vehicle to be legally used.

So what can we say about potential actions to increase public transport usage?

Apart from some fare reduction proposals that will be discussed in a separate note the most promising approaches involve making public transport travel time and convenience more competitive. Combined these changes with the promotion of public transport as a lower stress, “time to do other things” form of transport compared with driving makes sense.

Dedicated Lanes:

Public transport travel times can be made more competitive by increasing the number of T2 lanes (that can only be used by buses, commercial vehicles and cars with passengers.) Keep in mind that dedicated lanes have no effect on the travel times of those who aren’t allowed to use them provided that the section of road they are on is not a bottleneck. The cost of setting up T2 lanes is negligible – nothing more than a few signs.

Free feeder buses:

The feeder bus concept involves replacing low frequency bus routes that go all the way into the city with much shorter, higher frequency feeder bus routes that simply move people to high frequency transport routes and local workplaces, shopping centers, parks etc. Significant gains in frequency can be made without increasing the size of the bus fleet. Merging some of these feeder routes will make it easier to ride around a local area without having to change buses.

It is proposed that feeder buses will be free like the city center free bus loops. Normal fares would apply when passengers transfer to the normal public transport routes. As a result there will be no loss of fares.

The key benefits of free feeder bus systems are:

  1. It will increase the number of people who have access to high frequency transport.

  2. It provides a system that will encourage people to use public transport instead of cars for travel within their local area.

  3. The number of buses going into the city centre will be reduced.

Costs will be negligible unless a decision is made to add extra buses to the service to increase frequency or extend the service.

NOTE: This note has concentrated on travel to work because there was good data available for work travel. Breakdown of CBD Travel provides some useful information on CBD related non-work travel and how traffic volumes vary during the day. Feeder buses would provide significant benefits for non-work travel.

15 thoughts on “Increasing the Use of Public Transport May be Harder Than We Think”

  1. John, there is a wealth of detail here. I think it shows that it is easy to make facile comments about improving public transport and road usage in general, but difficult to come up with genuine improvements.

    Brisbane is blessed with a significant river flowing through it that is expensive to bridge, hilly topography, especially on our side of town, and the forest areas of Mt Coot-tha, the Taylor Range and the Brisbane Forest Park which intrude to within 7km of the GPO. The original streets and roads followed the ridges and were quite narrow. Hence riding bikes has always been difficult and dangerous.

    Then there is the tunnel system, which can help, but it’s quite easy to go the wrong way. I’m not sure how much public transport uses the tunnels, I suspect not much, but there is the proposed and very expensive cross-river rail proposal which we are told is necessary to stop the city from grinding to a halt.

    The free bicycle system has been a spectacular failure, partly because the city is not bike-friendly and partly because you have to carry and wear a helmet.

  2. I get a bit tired of people when they are obsessed to the point where they wont consider doing things that will help car travel Get even tireder when they want us all to live in high density housing so that their transport vision will work.
    Tireder still when they won’t consider spending the money on improving public transport out my way because it will cost too much and is out in the boon docks.
    I think we need to look at a wide range of transport as well as ways of reducing peak transport demand.

  3. John, I travel out your way and back a number of times each week against the traffic. Often it looks like a car park on the other side of the road!

  4. Brian: Wash your mouth out with soap! The opportunity-cost of Brisbane tunnels against safer roads out here in The Other Australia could get you into a punch-up with locals; it is a rallying cry for the separation and new state movement in Burnett-Capricornia and, I suppose, would be in North Queensland’s push for separation too.

    Thanks for your terrific analysis, John D.

    Concentration on the Working Outside The City Centre aspect, as well as increasing the T2 Lanes, are definitely the ways to go.

  5. GB: In the minds of some city transport planners Brisbane ends about 5 km from the city center. Inside this magic ring you have lots of cross river bridges, free cross river ferries and even a free inner city bus service.
    The Nationals in WA have had a lot of success with their “Royalties for regions” to the point where they now hold what used to be safe Labor seats like Pt Hedland.

  6. Brian: The really crazy thing about Brisbane is that all the toll roads, bridges and tunnels are congestion bypasses while no tolls are charged for driving along congested roads and into generally congested areas. Equally crazy is the way bus fares are much higher than the cost of running an already owned car. So much for providing sensible incentives for desirable actions.
    The real corker is the effect of legacy way in the afternoon. It has added to the afternoon congestion on the Western Freeway – Brilliant planning!

  7. Hi John this is a really interesting discussion thank you. I wonder if figures on where people commute for work are available for Melbourne? This had never occurred to me that so many people work close to their residence (probably because I’ve never been lucky enough to be in that position!)

    Just some minor problems: the third para is a repeat, and the link about “Brisbane’s working population … ” doesn’t seem to work.
    Also I see the two columns for Mlbourne in figs 1 and 3 are also in the source article, but I can’t see what it means – is it using two different boundaries or something? (If you know?)

    If the commutes to work are relatively short, then active transport should be more easy to promote, but I guess the factors you mention – safety, convenience etc – are the challenges. I guess we could also tell people that cycling gets easier the more you do it, so ‘hot and sweaty’ becomes less of a factor.

    I’m in the fortunate position of having employer provided bike facilities with nice showers, clean towels etc – it’s great. Because the Monash facilities are rented from a hospital (Alfred), there is a health and wellbeing focus, but I also happen to know the relevant population health manager there, and I know she has put a lot of work into getting all these health and wellbeing facilities (including healthy choices food labelling in the cafe etc).

    Getting employers onside is a slow process. Of course the Abbott government kept the favourable tax treatment of novated car leases (why are we not surprised?) – getting rid of that would be a step forward. It’s not only executives but ordinary staff in low paying not-for-profits who have access to that, I believe. Reducing car culture needs a multi-pronged approach, I think your post is a great contribution to the debate and will link it on my blog later (for my few readers! – but it all helps)

  8. Val: Thanks for the comments. The offending pargraph has been removed. I find that Google is a lot more powerful than it used to be and most of the stuff I used can be found by asking to look for the fig title I used with Brisbane replaced by Melb. However, couldn’t find the link thathas gone missing on where people commuted to – which has been a very useful piece of information.
    The 66% local has made me look harder for local jobs. Once you start looking you suddenly see small shopping/business centers as well as houses that hold small engineering offices etc. Then there are people like I was at times working out of home with no signs to tell a passer-by that this was a workplace.
    We lived in Melbourne in 1980 (Mt Waverly working in a CBD office.) Rode my bike about 2 km to station without hot and sweaty being a problem. Hot and sweaty is a problem in Brisbane. In some cases this problem can be solved by an employer who provides a shower but this is unlikely to be practical when a high percentage of employees ride bikes. The logical answer to hot and sweaty is electric bikes. (Use the power to get to work all cool then get the exercise on the way home.)
    What is possible depends on your commute and weather.

  9. I’ve had a look, Val, and I’m impressed with a 17 km commute, even over flat land!

    Graham, I know you need better roads, bridges and such, but Brisbane would just gum up if we didn’t spend some money here. Queensland has the most dispersed population, and generally more challenging topography and extreme weather events, where people live.

    One aspect not mentioned is the time wasted in traffic by tradies, delivery services and other services to the home. My wife now works in in-home aged care a few days a week. She often has to tell her controllers, no, it isn’t possible to get from The Gap to St Lucia in 15 minutes. She gets paid if she’s sitting in a traffic jam, but being on time is important, sometimes critical to take people to medical appointments etc.

  10. John, I’m not sure it’s valid to accuse traffic planners of a 5km horizon. For example, I think something like $4 billion was spent on the interchange at Oxley and traffic works between Brisbane and Ipswich. Last time I went to the Gold Coast I got lost, because the whole joint seems to have been re-organised. The reconstruction of the roads around the airport was a mega project.

    Legacy Way for those who don’t know it, is a a 4.6 km tunnel linking the Western Freeway at Toowong and the Inner City Bypass at Kelvin Grove. I believe it bypasses 22 sets of traffic lights. The Wikipedia article says the travel time between the Centenary Bridge and the Inner City Bypass has been reduced by 71%.

    A lot of our tunnels were built on shonky traffic forecasts. The link above says Legacy Way carries 20,000 per day. Not sure how that stacks up, but it should produce a revenue stream of around $35 million pa as against a $1.5 billion cost.

    This Council blurb says the whole tunnel system takes 120,000 car movements off the surface each day. I’m sure that will increase over time. Don’t know, but I think the Clem Jones tunnel, cross river, might be the dud in the pack. Certainly the Inner City Bypass and the Airport link work like a charm when you have to meet planes from our place, and probably save an hour or more against a public transport trip. Public transport would probably cost double the cash outlay, taxi would be more than double again.

  11. Brian: The 5km to the boon docks thinking was a probelm at the last local gov election. Just ask where the free bus service and free cross river ferries end. Then go along ans see where the bridges are, particularly the free bridges. Then look at where the bus services are concentrated.
    Viv/Brian: It takes an old codger like me about 3/4 hr to go to/from my place and Southbank over a not particularly flat route.

  12. John, from a meeting we attended way back when about our local roads, there are different classifications of roads. Our road, Davies Road, is a local road where traffic is minimised, and Coopers Camp Road which it feeds into one end is a through road where the more traffic the better, up to a point. The strategy is to calm Davies Road with chicanes and speed bumps and push the traffic onto Coopers Camp. Some of those measures can be difficult or incompatible with buses. When we came there were 5500 cars per day whizzing past our door, which was supposed to be a back street.

    Heavy trucks were banned and calming installed, but our neighbours had trouble with tool boxes doing a jump on the back of utes, with a speed bump right there near their bedroom in the front of the house. Also breaking and accelerating.

    Speed bump removed through lobbying and it’s all pretty good now, other than a townhouse development that went in over the road, leading to congested parking.

    There are different focusses for local, state and national government in terms of responsibility and funding, and I’m sure the results of this are sometimes less than optimal.

  13. Yes it takes me about 45-50 mins, I’m not a fast rider though I do have a good bike (courtesy Xmas present from kids) which makes a big difference. My ride to work is basically slight downhill whereas coming home is of course slight uphill, but the slope is so gradual that it’s not hard.

    I’m visiting Brissie again soon with family but won’t have a bike, so can’t test out how I go on your hills! Hobart would be the real challenge I think, some of the hills there are seriously steep.

  14. Val: Living where the route to work is slightly downhill would be the equivalent of having an electric bike in terms of arriving at work without being hot and sweaty and getting a good workout on the way home.

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