Engineering, Passenger Rail, Research & Development

Breaking the cycle: improving public transport access in the outer suburbs

Over four million people who live in the outer suburbs of Australia’s capital cities lack adequate access to public transport services, according to a new report by the nation’s independent infrastructure advisory body, Infrastructure Australia.

Australia’s population is forecast to grow by 11 million over the next 30 years, with around 80 per cent of this growth occurring in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide. A large portion of the population increase will be accommodated in the fringe, low-density suburbs of these cities.

A report released by Infrastructure Australia (IA) in October 2018, Outer Urban Public Transport: Improving accessibility in lower-density areas, assesses the frequency and accessibility of public transport services in Australia’s major cities, which are experiencing a rapid expansion in their population.

Over the last several decades, these suburbs have rapidly expanded outward, with more and more people living further and further away from public transport access, rail links in particular.

This state of affairs, according to the IA report, is leading to wide-ranging problems.

“The expansion of our cities away from public transport routes, particularly high-capacity railways, has resulted in a range of challenges, particularly around access to jobs, services and leisure activities,” the report says.

According to the report, with the growth of the “knowledge economy”, high-value jobs are increasingly moving away from the outer suburbs and clustering in the centres of cities. This is compounding the congestion already experienced on urban road networks across the country.

Drawing on the findings of its recent Future Cities report, the new IA report states that accessing jobs via car will steadily become more and more difficult, while public transport is to provide an increasingly important role.

The report details a new spatial analysis which compares the transport behaviours and jobs accessibility of inner, middle and outer areas of Australia’s five largest cities. Two key trends emerge in this analysis: (1) Outer suburbs are at significant disadvantage when it comes to public transport access and face long travel times and distances to major employment centres; (2) those living in outer suburbs use public transport less frequently than those living closer to city centres, and are more likely to drive in order to access jobs and services.

The report found that approximately four million people in Australia’s five largest cities are not within reasonable walking distance of public transport services. Further, they take much longer to get to work every day: 45 per cent of people living in outer-city areas travel more than 20 kilometres to get to work, while only seven per cent of those living in inner-city areas travel as far.

And, in addition to time spent in travel, lack of access to public transport has a deeper economic and social impact. “As a result, people residing in these areas have become more reliant on private vehicles,” the report states. “Subsequently, they pay more for operating their vehicles and have less money to spend on other household expenses.”

On the release of the report, Peter Colacino, IA’s executive director of policy research, said existing transport infrastructure in major cities was outside the reach of many communities living in the outer suburbs, leading to poorer access to job and educational opportunities.

“In Melbourne, more than 1.4 million people fall into this category, with more than 1 million in Sydney and Brisbane, half a million people in Perth and 200,000 people in Adelaide,” Colacino said.

“In the past, it has been very costly to deliver public transport in lower density, outer suburban areas where houses and employment centres are typically spread over large distances. As a result, people prefer to take the most direct route by driving, rather than taking a train or bus – adding to congestion in our growing cities.”


One of Sydney’s newest train stations at Leppington.


According to the report, the absence of quality public transport options in the outer suburbs leads to the development of “vicious cycle of policy challenge” for governments. First, as public transport receives little investment in these areas, it is often of poorer quality, leading to more people preferring car transport. Second, this pattern of low-usage, and the higher costs of running longer routes through spread-out, lower density areas means governments have lower recovery costs, which makes investment less economical.

And lack of investment leads, once again, to poorer quality public transport options.

The report calls on state governments to improve the efficiency of existing transport networks and consider new models, such as on-demand buses and share-riding, to complement traditional transport modes such as rail. These models, it states, could break the cycle outlined above by providing cost-effective public transport options for people living in lower- density areas.

“If incorporated into integrated transport networks, new transport models – such as on-demand services and sharing – can provide attractive services to areas of low transport demand,” the report claims.

“Additionally, governments must focus more on encouraging interchanging between transport services and modes particularly in areas of low density, where direct services cannot be provided in a cost-effective way.”

Colacino said that this would improve the flexibility and reach of transport networks and enable them to better service communities living in outer suburbs.

“We also want governments and transport operators to do more to encourage people to transfer between public transport services, which helps to increase the flexibility and reach of the network,” Colacino said.

“This includes investing in well-designed interchanges, extending integrated ticketing systems to new modes, and introducing fare incentives that actively encourage people to transfer between modes to get to their destination.”

According to federal cities and urban infrastructure minister, Alan Tudge, IA’s report is a welcome examination of what needed to be done to improve transport access in Australia’s outer suburbs.

“Having effective public transport connections is critical in providing access to jobs and services – maintaining our cities as liveable, thriving and vibrant economic centres – and the Government welcomes IA’s contribution to this important debate,” Tudge said.

Tudge claimed the federal government’s infrastructure investment program was a step towards achieving better access in outer-urban areas.

“The Coalition are investing significantly in public transport for urban areas across Australia’s major cities as part of our $75 billion commitment to transport infrastructure,” he said. “These investments provide huge benefits for commuters in outer suburban areas who so often have to spend long periods of time stuck in traffic to get to work.”

However, according to Greens senator and transport spokesperson Janet Rice, outer suburban residents have been neglected, with successive governments failing to invest in quality public transport.

“This report shows just how successive Liberal and Labor governments around the country have failed to properly plan transport solutions for people in outer suburban areas, who are stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic jams for several hours a day,” Rice said.

“People are crying out for accessible, reliable and affordable public transport. Instead we have governments throwing money into expensive, polluting toll roads that do nothing to solve congestion and mean that people living in the outer suburbs have no other option but to drive.”

Rice said investments needed to be targeted to provide a fully-integrated public transport system across different modes.

“We have to make sure public transport is planned properly. It’s not just a matter of announcing big flashy projects. We need comprehensive integrated transport plans across the country that prioritise public transport, and walking and cycling.”

The merits or otherwise of the current federal government’s transport investment program notwithstanding, IA’s new report states that governments need to ensure public transport operates as a coordinated network, rather than as a series of individual routes. “Smarter” network planning, new technology, greater availability of data and new trends in shared consumption, the report concludes, can offer an opportunity to break the vicious cycle of low accessibility of public transport in Australia’s cities.

“Governments have a broad range of policy options available to them for improving public transport in lower-density outer suburbs. As our cities grow and expand, governments will need to look at all options to ensure future generations have access to the jobs and the crucial services they require.”