How Commuting Became An $11 Billion Problem

How Commuting Became An $11 Billion Problem

Australians love their cars and drive them in ever-increasing numbers. We hate traffic jams but we don’t use public transport. Is there any way out of this mess?

A study commissioned by Siemens suggests that the overall cost of congestion on Australian city roads is $11 billion a year, which could rise to $20 billion by 2020. The study also reminds us that on the whole we’re not showing much interest in alternatives: 85 per cent of us choose not to use public transport. Currently, there are 7.2 motor vehicles registered per 10 people in Australia; by 2030, this could rise to 9.7.

Siemens argues that to avoid this creating a major congestion problem, we need to integrate the current systems more closely, sharing data from different modes rather than treating each of them entirely independently. It proposes what it calls a “Complete Mobility Manager”, which sounds like a super-charged GPS app which provides real-time information on how long different transport options will take to travel along a given route. This seems a sound idea, although the reluctance of city transport authorities to even allow basic access to their operational data suggests it could be a long time coming.

Whatever happens with technology, it seems clear we also need to invest more money in non-car alternatives if we want anyone to adopt them. The study calculates that of the $62 billion in federal government funding spent on transport between 1974 and 2005, just $4 billion was spent on rail.

I know from previous posts on this topic that many Lifehacker readers argue that they’d use public transport more if reliability improved and prices fell. What other changes would make you more likely to choose public transport?


Lifehacker’s Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.


  • Reduced prices and increased reliability are always great things. More security is another thing I’d like to see of on public transport. The train line I travel on is quite seedy, so more transit and security/police officers would be a nice to have. While I realise you can’t have lower prices but more security and so on, I want to know I am safe while I travel.

  • For myself in Brisbane, the Trains are pretty good though the pricing for the trip to the Airport is too much, $15 each way. The trains don’t run past 10pm, I think it was LH that reported that they would in November but this wasn’t true and it starts in December.

    If the price for the trip to the Airport was $10 each way and run when the last flights get in then I’m happy but now I get into Brisbane about 9:30pm and NO TRAIN, I have to pay almost $40 for a taxi, I only live 15mins from the stupid airport too..

    • I would also like state government transport to create apps (programmes for the old) that can give you up to the minute timetables and when you look at your phone, it gets your location, points you to the nearest Train (in my case) and tells you that it will be there in 5 minutes or whenever. I would pay for that

  • Definitely reliability of the bus system would be a massive factor in making the switch from relying on cars to public transport.

    I used to drive to work everyday, but ever since the new train line to Mandurah was put in, I just take the train in. It’s convenient (close to my place), the trains come around every 2-5minutes so I’m not afraid of missing my train (I can just take the next one), the price is reasonable considering that it would cost me more in terms of petrol, time (traffic jams), parking and stress.

    The $4 billion spent on rail has benefited me enormously. Love the train.

    On the other hand, I wouldn’t rely on the bus systems unless I absolutely had to. And the times that I do, I usually end up waiting 30 minutes to an hour. I’d rather drive. I’d get to my destination a lot faster even with traffic and parking.

    • I live in mandurah as well and am only 5 mins around the corner from the station and it is a god send. However my big problem with public transport systems around Australia and in other parts of the world is the continued lack of disabled access on some services. It has improved immensely from the earlier years however there are some situations that prevent me from wanting to rely on PT.

      For example in Perth it is not always guaranteed that the bus is one of the new accessible buses. the CAT routes are 100% reliable , however on other routes (for example the route outt to ECU in MT Lawley where I go to uni) it is not always one of the accessible buses which prevents me from being comfortable relying on PT.

      Another example is the tram system in melbourne. Whenever i travel to melbourne (which is regular) I find i just avoid the trams and supplement them with taxis due to their lack of accessibility.

      The same goes for underground subways like that of the Paris Metro.

    • Wasn’t even $4 billion… probably didn’t even get to half that!

      Anyway, while I haven’t found the buses in Perth to be quite that bad, it’s fair to say that they are the weakest part of the Transperth network… many routes are getting better, but in may areas they are still rather infrequent (especially Mandurah… every 2 hours on a Sunday, ouch! I would like every half hour as a minimum 7 days per week, with the possible exception of some routes where it clearly isn’t justified) and not as on time as the trains (although the sheer volatility of Perth traffic could go some way towards explaining this… case in point, Monday’s traffic was dreadful for me, but I got a clear run on Friday – same time of day, by the way!)

    • And yet they are talking about bicyclists having to pay registration fees to ride… incentives to ride are not that forthcoming at the moment especially when you factor in the chances of horrific injury from terrible drivers.

      • and why shouldn’t they have to? I have to pay every year to register my car in order to us the roads and pay Compulsary Third Party insurance, why shouldn’t a bike that wants to use the road have to do the same? at present if a cyclist runs into a car, there’s no insurance paid by the cyclist to cover that. if a cyclist runs into a pedestrian, there’s no Compulsary Third Party insurance paid to cover their injuries.

        if they want to use the road, pay for it the way everyone else has to – otherwise they should stick to their designated bike zones.

        • Example car weight: 1,000kg
          Example bicycle weight: 30kg
          Example car speed (commuting in urban areas): 60 km/h
          Example bicycle speed (commuting in urban areas): 30 km/h
          Car momentum: 60,000 kg·m/s
          Bicycle momentum: 90 kg·m/s
          Car crashes into the side of a car: car frame is crushed of one or both vehicles, potential death of occupants in either vehicle.
          Bicycle crashes into the side of a car: car is scratched or dented, injury (or potentially death) of the bike rider.
          Car runs into a person: severe injury (including paraplegia) to potential death.
          Bicycle runs into a person: minor injury (maybe a broken arm) to potential death (depending on the person getting hit; e.g. elderly person may die).

          The risks associated with an accident on a bike are a lot lower than the risks you take driving a car – how often do you hear of accidents causing injury or death? (Not that it doesn’t happen, but reports of death by bicycle seems to be absent in the media)

          I agree that if bicyclists are to use the same roads as motorists they should pay some sort of tax for the maintenance of the roads, but then they’ll start asking for changes to suit them (like dedicated bike lanes – they’re paying for the roads so they should be able to travel in safety, right?), and it will rob motorists of an excuse to get them off the road (e.g. “they belong on the footpath” – not if they’re paying for use of the roads).

          • Roads are funded from general tax revenue not registration. They cost far more than $500 per year per car LOL.
            Hence cyclists are already paying for the upkeep of the roads.

          • Sorry but keep those darn push bikes off the roads, if they can maintain the speed limit, have lights, reflectors (can be seen easily), obey the road rules..etc..etc. THEN I have no issues with them but let’s be honest how often do any of you experience this in a year?
            * Hint: you will most likely only need a single hand to add it up!

            I love cycling myself but I try to stay off the roads as much as possible on busy streets and if I’m on the road and cars are behind me and I’m not doing the speed limit I feel bad for them and pull over or try to take another route next time… Until proper lanes are installed for bikes stay off the busy roads or bring in a tax to help pay to expedite the additional lanes/paths required…

            Also if you look into the state budgets of roads a good chunk of funding for roads does in fact come from vehicle registration charges (or at least that’s the case in QLD, but I’m sure other states will be similar). In QLD there has been a decrease in road capital expenditure but a nice growth in registration revenue so again I think if bikes want to use the facilities they should contribute at least something for it to help spread the costs as I’m not happy to fund 100% for the required additional lanes/paths that are required.

  • People drive because public transport is not convenient. We need higher density inner city living and far more public transport. I’ve been to about 30 countries and used about as many public transport systems. Paris and London were the best in my book and we should be modelling ourselves on them.

  • As a bookkeeper in innercity Melbourne I rely on my electric bicycle. No parking, good bike lanes and the motor helps my crap knees up the hills. And I dont arrive disheveled. Used to catch public transport but its way too crowded now.

  • My local train station just had an upgrade, and it’s fantastic! But if many more people make the switch to public transport in Sydney, things will get overcrowded real quick. My experience on the western lines during peak hour in particular have been pretty intense in the past.

    It’d be interesting to find out how close the Sydney network is to capacity. How many more trains could be run to keep up with an increase of demand?

  • I think PT is pretty good here in Melb. Coming from Auckland where PT is effectively useless with one train line, still runs diesel trains into an underground station… and buses that only go into and out of the city; god forbid you want to go anywhere but town. Having the one ticket to ride anything and there being a transport option to most places is great. I did just get a car for weekends as transport does take a bit of time. But going to work each morning; I would rather zone out on the train or tram than stress myself into an early grave in traffic.

  • Yeah we need a switch to more people on public transport, but people forget that the system is struggling as it is with current patronage. Cities like Brisbane cling to the dream that they can stay as ‘small’ city and not have a higher density city, and keep building more and more estates further and further out. Then they tack on a train line or extra track, and do nothing to marketable improve the performance or reliability.

    My ride to work by train can take anywhere veteran 30-50min. Now tell me how am I supposed to plan my travel, and connections? I’m just very lucky I have flexible work hours otherwise I would be royally muffed.

    • lol.. I know what you mean, especially in the mornings/evenings but if you happen to look outside while in the train, there are massive traffic jams. Those are the people who aren’t using public transport 😛

  • I would jump at the opportunity to use public transport to get work but there a couple of hurdles in the way for me.
    1. It takes me approx 20 mins by car to get to work but if I take public transport, it can take up 90 mins.
    2. When I was taking PT to work, my weekly expenditure on tickets etc was around $100 back in 2005 so my guess it would be $130-150 now, where as if I drive, its around $80 in fuel (I drive a V8 so I could chop that in half if I had a 4 cylinder), factor in other running costs inc Insurances, depreciation etc, the car may cost the same as a PT but then again you pay more for the luxury of being able to drive somewhere at any time.

    So the only reason I would use PT at this moment in time would be for the environmental factor.

      • I cycle to work when I can (twice a week at best).
        My route takes me 11km alongside a motorway. In peak hour I usually get to my destination a few minutes ahead of any vehicles that were visible at the start of the journey.
        Ergo it is slower to drive that route.
        Cycling is incredibly cheap: No parking, no fuel, minimal servicing. Plus if I can do it regularly it saves on a gym membership and I get exercise at the same time as commuting.
        If you have a stressful job, exercise helps to combat that. So another bonus for some people.

        • Cycling is great if your employer happens to supply showers. That last thing anyone needs early in the morning is to sit next to a co-worker that smells like a sweaty gym sock.

  • Anyone who thinks public transport in metro cities is overpriced has rocks in their head. I pay $37 a week for a 1 hour each way city trip in Sydney and I’m 24km away by road. Most people I know pay that or less. That hour of reading/relaxing twice a day is so much better than the irritation of heavy traffic and crap, selfish bonehead drivers instead.

    There is no comparison to the cost of keeping a car on the road ($5-6k excluding the car cost itself) yet millions of idiots refuse to use public transport because they’re so invested in their cars.

    What ISN’T a solution is the actions of those selfish Critical Mass shitheads who will be blocking the Sydney Harbour Bridge at 6pm today.

    Even though I personally won’t be affected, it pisses me off that these brainless cretins think that they’re doing anything other than pissing off and inconveniencing tens of thousands of people at the end of a long working week.

    I wonder how those clowns would react if motorists let the air out of the tyres of every bike they found once a year as a protest against dickhead cyclists who don’t know the rules of the road and endanger themselves and others.

    • Cars clog up the streets twice a day all month but cyclists do it and oh its an outrage.
      Bikes have a right to be on the road, and they do not block the bridge, they merely ride on mass together. As is their right(so long as they observe all other rules) of course.

  • I live 1.5 Hrs from Sydney and commute on the train each day. Apart from train derailments such as the ones on my line at the moment – its pretty good, pretty reliable and at $57 a week for unlimited travel on the ENTIRE network, no complaints here!

  • I use the Perth-Joondalup train line to get to work every day. It’s great if you live close to a station. The feeder bus system to the stations is alright, but they really need more of them.

    The real problem with this train line is capacity. All of the trains in peak hour are full. They can’t effectively run larger trains as the stations won’t fit them. They really need more frequent services here.

  • I pay $30.90 a week to be squashed into a moving death trap (a.k.a. a bus) with people who smell, yell continuously into their phones and, in the rare cases I manage to knock over an old lady to get a seat, thwack me in the head with the effing backpacks they refuse to take off. It is about as relaxing as late Saturday night in A&E (a location I am familiar with). To top off this experience I get hurled around like a pinball thanks to the driving behaviour of 95% of the drivers who, I have to assume, are playing some secret game in which they score points for how many passengers they can make fall over. Extra points for permanent back damage.

    The problem with public transport is that other people, for the most part, suck.

    • Your problem is because the government misspends money on busses. Instead of buying more busses and increasing frequency, it keeps pretending its a money making corporation.

      Are you aware of the hundreds of millions it has invested in its grand unified ticketting system. States are spending mega bucks to sell you tickets, just to keep some people in charge of the ticketting system.

      Tickets are only sold so, ticket inspectors, ticket machine maintenance people and some big wigs can pretend they are maximizing profits. Take a look at reports oif NSW rail its a known fact that the public pays for 90%+ of the total costs of the system. Thats your right your tickets only pay for 10% so why even bother.

      • I agree. I’ve also seen reports showing that the cost of ticketing infrastructure, security for cashboxes, and the staff required to run it exceeds the revenue collected.
        Imagine how much better the service would be if people hopped on and off buses and trains without presenting / buying tickets. It would speed things up and make it more convenient. But then overcrowding would worsen to the point of returning the service to an equal level of unpleasantness that it was originally.
        And then there would be all the extra beggars due to the ticketing / revenue / security staff job losses.

    • I’m former Brisbane taxi driver and a few years back I had some bus mechanics who worked for Brisbane City Council. They said drivers who failed the test to become taxi drivers, became BCC bus drivers.

  • The answer is of course to make public transport free. This will increase patronage and reduce car travel. With people turning to local public transport, more services will be made available. More buses, trains, ferries also means less cars. Less cars means all trips on the bus will be faster. The cost of waiting for people to pay cash or fiddle with tickets on those machines just makes the overall trip that much slower.

    When the system patronage improves, the government will save money on roads which also means more money for more services. The more the investment the more the return.

  • 85%.. wow.. can you imagine how overcrowded the public transport system would be if that number was 50% or a more respectable 25%? They are overcrowded already.. that would be a nightmare.. there’s only so many trains they can throw on these old, worn out rails and hopelessly inefficient network.

  • I’d like to see more frequency of train services. And would be nice if Sydney didn’t shut down major parts of its network every other weekend for maintenance.

  • If the crowded (during peak hour) trains/buses are only 15% of the working population, then … we have real issues. We could use a little more capacity to deal with existing users, so if we want more to use the system we’ll need some massive investment.

  • Give me public transport that will not take 3-5x the time it takes to drive, is notably cheaper than petrol, not uncomfortable as sin and is reliable and I may consider it.

  • So presume 5% of that 11billion yearly problem is solved by people being able to work from home regularly due to a faster nbn ? Thing just payed for itself I’d say.

    • Except the loss in efficiency/production from people working from home but that’s another issue all together. (the vast majority of people lack the discipline to work from home for a long period of time, I know I would struggle to do it without getting distracted!)

  • My problem with public transport is this.

    They want us to use Public Transport, which is fine and I agree, and I don’t mind that the service can be somewhat shoddy at times. However be damned if I can get a carpark at the train station. At times I have to resort to ‘illegal’ parking, whether it be in a no standing zone or a 4 hour zone in which the ticket inspectors are more than happy to ticket me for doing this.
    The car park is packed with people who commute and there is a lot of land at the back of the carpark that could be used to increase parking.
    The facilities at train stations are a joke. They want people to drive less but don’t provide the facilities to do so.

    • “…83 per cent were single occupant vehicles.
      Only three cars out of 1086 carried two or more passengers.”

      “…capacity of 598 vehicles – seven cars came from within 400m and another 19 came from within 400-800m.”

      the “app for that” idea for car-pooling (even if it’s only to the train station) is a winner … although it’d probably end up being an iapp, thereby excluding a large chunk of the population

      bottom line : people suck.

      • You’re bottom line of ‘people suck’ I do not share entirely (sure some might but even with your stats above there is clearly issues with the system more so?)

        Out of all the cars 19 of them came from almost 1KM away (radius from the station I’m guessing?), WOW that’s not as much as I expected! In a 1KM radius I would have expected allot more in my area any way!

        Most of the train stations in my area are less than 2KM apart meaning they should cover a 1KM radius around the station (of cause plus other commuters that are well out of that area or don’t have transport and need to drive to a station) So I don’t belive the stats are that bad and like I said it’s allot better than I would have though.

        I guess what it really shows is we need more public transport as the majority of people are needing to drive to a public transport centre/location before they can get access to it, that’s the issue I believe as well as the time it takes and COST (it’s cheaper to drive, or at least in Brisbane any way!)

  • Cheap & convenient ticketing (e.g. $100/year for Bus/Train/Ferry/Light Rail) and regular service to all stations.

    Lots of parking at the stations which don’t have bus connectivity.

    Put air conditioning on the trains.

    Somewhere on the trains + buses to hang your bike.

  • Retest all the drivers, starting with those who’ve earned tickets, and those who’ve not been tested for a while. Make the test really hard. If you are awesome, great, licence for ten years, $100. If not, retest in a month, $100.

    Less congestion, better drivers, more room for buses.

  • Saying 85% of us “choose” not to use public-transport isn’t very useful without asking, why?

    In Brisbane, it is cheaper to drive than it is to use public-transport; and ironically this equation gets worse the further you travel. Moreover there are little or no facilities to support traveling to/from stations and stops. Feeder services are almost non-existant; car parks are few and notoriously insecure; and bike facilities almost completely non-existent.

    So unless you consider paying a premium for an inconvenient service, you are far far better off commuting by car.

    This is not surprising when you compare the massive subsidies provided to vehicular traffic by Australian Governments at all levels, against the pitiful funding provided to public-transport.

    • 1. Most Transperth (note: lowercase p!) buses I’ve been on have been on time to a couple of minutes. While there have been some exceptions… route 34 was certainly one earlier this year, no thanks to the City of Perth’s multiple roadworks at once
      2. Why an iPhone app? If it’s going to access the internet, just make it a web site so anyone can access it without needing some overpriced anticompetitive iFailure.
      3. Speaking of websites, the grapevine says that they’re doing that anyway. The Perth CATS are already up (albeit with a 1990’s interface.)

  • Instead of jacking up the price of tickets every year, how about lowering the price for a change? Its absolutely staggering how much money you’d spend on full fare tickets here in Melbourne.

    I think its rubbish that not enough people are using public transport. Packed trains during peak hour and parking at the station can be a pain, even for stations 1 hour away from the city

  • Adelaide metro’s webpage has a section to indicate how much money you can save by using PT. If you enter under 15km and $0 for parking there is a negative saving meaning that it costs more!
    Add the fact that PT takes twice as long minimum, what is the point?
    I read in the paper that Adelaide has the most car parks / capital city = low price. The suggestion was to increase the cost.

    Most People are time poor or money poor or both so the answer is cheapest, quickest & convenient way. Looks like driving is it for Adelaide.

    • Well said, the calculations I did a few years back showed a good saving (including running costs which I included things such as services, wheels, maintenance, rego, insurance..etc..etc), not to mention the massive time saving on top of that as well. It’s sad when I can drive my car with just me inside and it costs less than taking up a single seat on a bus. Something is not right with our public transport, why are prices so ridiculous and routes so inconvenient?

  • I live 10kms from my workplace, I can get there easily by bike, public trans (bus & train) or car. The car is probably the quickest (by maybe 10 mins). However, the savings I make on fuel, maintenance, health (read exercise), improved environment (cleaner air, less noise pollution), education (yes, I read on pt), lowered stress (no parking, traffic hassels), and improved social interaction (I talk to people at the station etc.) – it’s a no brainer to avoid the car like the plague!! For people who have further to travel can I suggest look at driving part the way, the less you use your car the better you will feel 🙂

  • I would be quite interested in using the buses on the weekend – if we had any. There are no services where I live on Saturday and Sunday. Also during the week there are no services between 10am and 12pm. For someone with kidney failure and who relies on dialysis that’s not a great incentive to rely on public transport.

  • Brisbane and Sydney desperately need a comprehensive underground rail network to complement their existing networks. In these cities, unless you live near one of the few rail lines you can add at least half an hour to your commute.

    Commuting is not just a money problem. It also takes a profound toll on your quality of life and your long-term health.

  • Here in backwater Adelaide…which still doesn’t have a motorway around the suburbs….our PT system is still not popular due to decades of low investment. I live 11k from the CBD…it I catch the train (25mins…supposed to be 20 but its always 5mins late…which is within the apparent 6minute buffer for “on time” classification) – yet by car I can do the same trip in peak hour in 20mins….11mins outside of peak periods.

    Although I use PT “on occasion” if I am in a hurry its the last thing I would consider given they are always late (6mins is late in my book – not “on time”).

    For those in the Eastern States…yes your freeways are packed and your PT is usually very expensive given your populations and you are usually Jammed in like Sardines next to smelly or sweaty germ infested people… have the populations to warrant a London or Paris rail network…..perhaps you will get a Govt. that will deliver it one day.

  • An even bigger question is “Why corporations do not embrace more employees working from home or from a local community centre?” With the technology that is available to most people today there are very few real reasons for most people to commute.

    The problem is that companies continue to evaluate employee performance by activities rather than outcomes.

    When senior managers finally understand this and can run their companies in a way that discourages middle managers from building fiefdoms rather than focussing on achieving outcomes then most commuting will lose it importance and become unnecessary.

    How many middle managers do we all know who worry more about seeing people in the office than what those people are actually accomplishing?

  • Lack of awareness of decent PT solutions is probably part of it: apps that proposed PT routes to get to events, told you how long it would take to get home etc would start to get you thinking that way. Instead of calendar events that remind you “1 hour before the meeting”, they could remind you “10 minutes before you need to leave for the meeting”. Your phone knows where you are, so if it knows where you’re trying to get to, it can work all this out and just put the option out there.

    • That’s a great idea! (no sarcasm intended, although it does sound like it), however the next major issue you face is trying to get the public transport on time (to show up at all or for it not to be full and pass by)… the next issue would be for them to sort out there exorbitant pricing!

  • I have been catching the train into the city every day for four years now, but I’ve recently bought a motorbike and started riding to work (I travel roughly 90km to work) and since changing I’ve found the motorbike to be costing me half of what the train did (including regular maintenance). I’ve also shaved off 20minutes travel time in the morning and a full hour in the evening – this with the abysmal traffic on the Monash freeway.

  • If public transport in Brisbane (or Australia for that matter) was a decent price I might concider using it, also if the system actually went places you wanted to go it would help too, for me to get to my local shops I need to catch 3 different buses and takes about an hour! (What a joke, I could probably walk there faster or in about the same amount of time!).

    For meetings I take the bus/train into the city at times and I find allot of the drivers/staff not very friendly (some are and it’s a great surprise when they are but it should not be like that)… Also often I need to take for a few buses as they either are full or simply do not arrive on time. For the price they ask I do expect a much better system, something is wrong!

    Lets face it Australian transport has improved over the last 10 years but it’s still a complete and utter joke and costs or just simply ridiculous, I avoid it as much as possible!

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