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.


    How about ride sharing to work using your smartphone. and others are leading the way...

      How about ride sharing on the train/tram/bus??? A LOT better for the environment ;)

      How Commuting Become An $11 Billion Problem
      Become? Are you sure its not became or becoming?

    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 can live with $15 each way but I want trains running when I get off the last flight at night

      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

        I believe thats called the translink mobile website (brisbane) its quite accurate sort of up to date.

    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!)

    In the UK there is a scheme which allows tax breaks on bikes to commute on, similar to salary sacrifice. That may encourage more people to ride to work.

      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.

        Wow, those drivers must be really bad if they're on the footpath (you know, where all foot-powered locomotion belongs).

          Not only is it illegal to ride a bike on the footpath, it is dangerous to pedestrians.

          You're only allowed to cycle on the footpath if you're a child under 12 years, or if you're accompanying a child under 12. Chronoligical age, unfortunately so you can't take advantage with your mental age :-)

          If you want to legally ride on the footpath, you'll have to find a way to permanently remain under the age of 12. It's illegal otherwise.

            Perhaps that rule only applies where you live? It's legal to cycle on the footpath in Queensland:

              Well done Chris, I could not agree more keep those cyclists off the roads; they are currently not up to scratch to handle cyclists, I’m sick and tired of driving at 20km/h because some idiot thinks he and cycle in a 60KM zone in the middle of the road? Why is that and why is it allowed? If I drove 30Km/h on 100Km/h highway I would expect to get a fine from the cops for dangerous driving or something, it’s just not right and downright dangerous!

              Until roads are safe for both bikes and cars keep the bikes on the footpaths.

        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.

    "we’re not show much interest in alternatives"

    No one proof reading today? :)

    We don't use public transport? I guess overcrowded trains aren't being used huh?

      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 :P

    it needs to be cheaper and better, i honestly think public transport should be free or extremely low cost

    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.

      That sums it up for me - it's cheaper and faster to drive a car to work.

        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!

    How did "How Commuting Become An $11 Billion Problem" become a sentence?

    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.

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