Something like ten percent of our lonely planet’s population are today thoroughly locked in — or at least think they are — to an “automotive life style”. While in barely two generations the earth’s population has tripled, the automotive age has, step by silent surreptitious step, changed the way we live — and in the process made us prisoners of just that technology that was supposed to make us free forever. That’s a bad joke and bad news. But there is worse yet, and it comes in two ugly bites. For starters, in addition to the ten percent of us already hapless prisoners of our cars, another twenty percent of our soon seven billion brothers and sisters are standing in line eagerly in the hope of getting locked in as quickly as possible. And as if that were not bad enough, the consensus among most of the experts and policy makers is that our goose is forever cooked, and there is little anybody can do about it. Well, maybe not. Spend some time this Monday morning with Paul Mees, as he attacks this received belief and suggests . . . Well, why don’t I just get out of the way and let Paul speak for himself.
Transport for Suburbia: Beyond the automobile age
This book is for people concerned about the environmental and social costs of automobile-dominated cities. There are plenty of books that outline these costs, and the other reasons for moving beyond the automobile age, but few that offer practical suggestions about how the move can be made. We need alternatives to the car, and we need them now, because problems like climate change and insecure oil supplies are urgent.
Public transport is not the only alternative to the car – indeed, walking and cycling are the only truly sustainable transport modes – but it is a necessary ingredient in a post-automobile future. Unless public transport is so convenient that it offers real competition to the car, then schemes to promote walking and cycling, and restrain car use, will founder. But providing first-rate public transport seems too hard in most English-speaking countries: the Swiss and some other
Europeans can manage it, but we can’t. And the task seems impossible in the spread-out suburbs and ex-urbs where most population growth is taking place.
My central argument is that the public transport problem is easier to solve
than people think. We don’t need to demolish our suburbs and rebuild them at
many times their current densities; nor do we need a fundamental transformation
in human consciousness, however desirable that might be for other reasons. The
high-quality public transport found in places like Switzerland has been adapted
to serve the existing urban environment, and a population that shares our faults
The critical ingredients of first-class, ‘European-style’ public transport are
planning and politics, the same factors behind public transport failures across much
of the English-speaking world. The idea that compact cities, or consciousness-raising,
or the free market can provide a substitute for getting policies and planning
right has been widespread across the ‘Anglosphere’ for at least two decades. The
results have not been promising. It’s time for a new approach: this book outlines
that approach and the grounds we have for believing it can work.
In putting these ideas together, I have had the assistance of a great many people,
too many to name. But I do want to mention some. . . .
Good public transport requires good planning and policy, along with honest
and competent public administration. These things do not come about by accident;
they require an active, informed community that demands high standards from its
politicians and bureaucrats, and insists that policies be based on evidence rather
than spin. The truth really does matter, no matter how upsetting it is to the powers
Public Transport 101________________
The second university of the Australian city of Melbourne celebrated its 50th
anniversary in 2008. Since the passage of its enabling legislation in 1958, Monash
University has educated over 200,000 students at its campus in suburban Clayton,
granting degrees in disciplines ranging from medicine to literature. But regardless
of their academic discipline, most Monash students over the half-century have been
educated in one unofficial common subject. This subject could be called Public
Transport 101, and it has been offered continuously since the Clayton campus
opened on 11 March 1961.
Sir John Monash, the Australian engineer and general after whom the University
is named, spent much of his early career building railways. In military and civilian
life, Monash demanded the highest standards of planning, organization and
delivery. He might not have been impressed had he tried to reach the university
named after him by public transport. To do so, one takes a suburban train to
Huntingdale Station, some 17km from the city centre. From there, the campus is
just over 2km away by privately operated bus.
Let’s visit Huntingdale Station in the first week of the academic year and join
the students taking Public Transport 101.
The most popular train reaches Huntingdale at 8:40 am, which should leave
plenty of time to reach campus for the first lectures at 9:00 am. The Clayton campus
is home to 32,000 staff and students, and even though most drive, that still means
around 200 alight from the train. They must queue to leave the station, as the
single exit is a narrow ramp, leading to a cramped subway. Passengers emerge into
the station car park, which must be crossed in the open. It’s raining, so they cop
the full force of the weather.
Past the car park is a busy road. On the other side are two bus stops, one for
each route that travels to Monash. Each stop is in a different street, with a blind
corner in between, so if a passenger waits at one and the first bus comes to the
other, they will miss the bus. There is no such problem today: the 8:35 am bus is
still waiting, as a long queue of passengers from the previous train boards, one by
one, each required to insert a ticket into a validating machine. Eventually the bus
departs, ten minutes late and packed to the gunwales, leaving dozens of passengers
behind. They are joined by those from the 8:40 train. As the shelter at the stop
only holds five people, everyone else waits in the rain; some take refuge among cars
parked in the undercroft of a nearby factory. The 8:46 bus arrives and eventually
leaves, full, at 9. The last passengers from the 8:40 train reach Monash University
at half past nine.
At quieter times, the problem is the opposite of overcrowding. Some students
stay back at night as the campus libraries are open late, while students living on
campus often go out at night and come home through Huntingdale. Because the
bus and train timetables are not co-ordinated, waits can be up to half an hour. The
main bus stop is in a laneway between the blank concrete wall of a road overpass
and the blank brick wall of a factory. Students are understandably afraid to wait
there after dark.
A visiting Canadian academic colleague returned from a trip to Monash
fuming. The squalid facilities, the long walk in the open and the lack of timetable
coordination astonished her. The visitor was from York University in Toronto,
which is of similar age and size to Monash, and also a few kilometres from the
nearest station. Dedicated ‘university rocket’ express shuttles leave every two
minutes (the frequency drops to every two minutes 15 seconds in the off-peak)1
from the top of the escalators serving the station platform. As explained in Chapter
6, there are no delays from ticket checking as the bus terminal is inside the station
fare gates. The Toronto Transit Commission is currently planning to extend the
rail line to York University.
My colleague could not understand why things were so much worse at a place
that in other respects was so similar. ‘How long has this been going on?’ she asked
me. The answer is: since Monash opened in 1961. For many years, the main bus
route and the train service both ran every half-hour during the evening: as the bus
actually ran in the evening, it was regarded as good by Melbourne standards. Each
bus reached the station two minutes after the corresponding train left, ensuring
a 28-minute wait for the next train – which was even helpfully shown on the
timetable. This continued until 1990, when the bus company, citing low demand,
scrapped most evening services.
I told the story of the bus missing the train in my 2000 book A Very Public
Solution, but apparently nobody in Melbourne noticed, because in 2006 the saga
was repeated. A second bus route, called ‘Smart Bus’, was introduced between
Huntingdale Station and the university, as part of a government response to
complaints about Melbourne’s privatized, but state-subsidized, public transport.
Smart Buses provide the very best Melbourne has to offer: they even run seven days
a week – which is handy because the Monash library is open every day, including
Sunday. The new Smart Bus ran every half hour on Sunday mornings, just like
the train, with buses departing Huntingdale at 4 and 34 minutes past the hour. As
trains reached the station at 7 and 37 past the hour, each bus missed the nearest
train by three minutes. After 7 pm, trains arrived three minutes earlier – at exactly
the time the buses left. Since even an Olympic sprinter would take two minutes
to reach the bus stop from the station, all this ensured was that passengers could
view the departing bus from the station platform, before waiting half an hour for
the next one.
This story does have a happier ending. I incorporated the printed Smart Bus
timetable, which actually showed the buses and trains missing each other, into a
presentation for the Australian Government’s Garnaut Climate Change Review.
My presentation was placed on the review’s website, where it embarrassed the
bus company into changing the timetable. Smart Buses now connect with trains
at Huntingdale on Sunday mornings and evenings, although not during the day
or most of the rest of the week. The interchange facilities remain as appalling as
So what have 200,000 Monash graduates learned in Public Transport 101?
Before the end of first semester, the crowding problems at Huntingdale ease as
students begin to desert public transport and drive cars. By graduation, nearly
all of them are driving to campus. The student environment office helps them
by organizing car pooling: even it has given up on public transport. The Monash
Clayton campus is surrounded by a sea of parked cars, and parking shortages are
a constant subject of on-campus discussion.
These same students are among the most environmentally aware section of
the community, concerned about issues like pollution and global warming. They
are avid followers of the Garnaut Review’s warnings about the need to reduce
carbon emissions, including those from transport.2 Monash students take courses
on climate change, insecure oil supplies and other constraints on a car-dominated
future. They learn that a sudden interruption to supplies of affordable oil, or a
serious attempt to reduce carbon emissions from transport, would cripple the
university and the metropolis of Melbourne. Some of the more curious ask why
their city and campus are not better prepared for the future. Why has public
transport to campus been so hopeless for so many years, and why is nothing being
done about it?
The answer students at Monash and other Australian universities most
commonly receive is that their parents’ housing preferences are to blame. Urban
density is the major cause of automobile dependence, so public transport problems
can’t be fixed until Melburnians abandon their separate houses and backyards, and
begin living in apartments like Europeans.
Nobody in Sternenberg lives in an apartment. The 349 residents of the highest
and remotest municipality in the Canton, or State, of Zürich prize their rural
lifestyle. Sternenberg’s rustic charms were celebrated by its most famous resident,
the poet Jakob Stutz, who lived there from 1841 to 1857 after being convicted
on a ‘morals charge’ in his previous home town. In Stutz’s time, the municipality
had 1400 residents, but rural depopulation reduced this to a low-point of 297 by
the 1980 census. People live on farms or in tiny hamlets of three or four dwellings
scattered across the municipality’s 9km2. The village centre is a few houses grouped
around the picturesque 1706 church. Farming is still important, but so is tourism,
particularly summer hiking along the Jakob Stutz Way and other trails.3
In recent years, the population has begun growing again, thanks to commuters
with jobs in the City of Zürich and its suburbs. The majority of workers are still
employed locally, mainly in rural industries, but nearly half now travel to jobs
outside the municipality. This reflects a pattern seen across the Canton of Zürich
and indeed across Europe: the City of Zürich, which houses a third of the canton’s
1.3 million residents, has been losing people since the 1960s, while suburban and
rural populations are booming.4
The church at Sternenberg is 42km from the centre of Zürich, but because
of the mountainous terrain, the route by road or rail is longer. It takes an hour by
train to reach the village of Bauma from Zürich’s main railway station, and then
another 15 minutes by bus up the hairpin bends of the Sternenberg-Strasse.
Of the 171 municipalities making up Canton Zürich, Sternenberg has the
worst public transport service – because it’s the only one without an urbanized
population of 300, the minimum required for regular-interval, all-day public
transport (see Chapter 8).5 Bauma, with just over 1000 residents, has two trains
an hour every day of the year, from 6:00 am to midnight, with an hourly all-night
bus service on Fridays and Saturdays. Of course, if Sternenberg was in Australia
or the UK it would have no public transport at all, and Bauma would be lucky to
see a bus a day.
There are seven buses to Sternenberg each weekday, five on normal weekends
and seven on summer Sundays and holidays. Each Sunday bus leaves from outside
Bauma station at 24 minutes past the hour, connecting with trains arriving at 20
past the hour. The bus calls at the church, dropping off hikers, then does a circuit
of the main hamlets collecting locals before returning to Bauma to connect with
an outward train. Once they board the bus, residents of Sternenberg don’t need
to worry about timetables. Each bus meets the train at Bauma, which in turn
connects at the regional hub of Winterthur with another train to Zürich, as well
as departures to Zürich Airport and major centres across the canton. Each of these
trains is met by connecting bus services at stations en route, providing access to
every place with more than 300 residents or jobs.
Sternenberg is about as car-dependent as it gets in Canton Zürich. Only 19
per cent of workers used public transport on census day in 2000; 10 per cent
more walked or cycled. These figures are, however, much higher than the mode
shares of 13 and 3 per cent respectively recorded for metropolitan Melbourne
at the following year’s Australian census.6 They are also higher than every US
metropolitan area except New York, and higher even than most British urban
regions. Public transport is only the second-most popular mode for travel to
work in Sternenberg, but its share of travel is increasing: Zürich is the only Swiss
canton in which public transport’s share of travel is growing, and the increase is
occurring mainly in suburban and rural areas. Only 14 per cent of Sternenbergers
took public transport to work in 1990. The shift away from the car that Zürich
City achieved in the 1980s is now being repeated, admittedly on a more modest
scale, in the rest of the canton.
So if the oil supply was suddenly interrupted, or carbon emissions from
transport rationed, even rural areas of Canton Zürich could cope. Sternenberg
has not yet moved beyond the automobile age, but it is ready if it needs to. And
the hikers could keep coming.
DENSITY AS DESTINY
Nobody in Sternenberg thinks the population density is too low to justify an
integrated, albeit basic, public transport service designed to make travel by car a
choice instead of a necessity. But the dominant view in the much larger, denser
metropolis of Melbourne is that suburban densities cannot support viable public
transport. It’s a local truism that transport policies that work in European cities
could not possibly hold lessons for Australia.
Urban planners across Australia, the UK, the US, Canada and New Zealand
insist that transport patterns are outcomes of urban form. The way to improve
public transport is through compact cities, new urbanism, smart growth and
transit-oriented design. In the words of one prominent New Urbanist, ‘we have
to earn our transit through urbanism.’ There is much less interest in directly
tackling transport policy, reflecting a mindset among planners that goes back
decades. Transport planning is boring and mathematical; design is artistic and
creative. Planners ‘own’ city design; transport means working with engineers and
economists, who are much better at maths than us. Urban design is what we do;
transport planning is what other people do.
Many transport planners are happy to agree with these arguments. Even
Switzerland has powerful highway agencies that specialize in building new and
expanded roads. The professionals who staff these agencies are intelligent enough
to realize that, as communities become more concerned about the environment,
questions will increasingly be asked about the wisdom of continued large-scale
road-building. The notion that urban form, rather than transport policy, determines
transport outcomes is convenient for these bodies. It can also suit those responsible
for providing public transport, because it pins the blame for poor services on
suburban residents rather than public transport providers.
For two decades, the Australian capital, Canberra, was racked by controversy
about a proposal to build a freeway through the Canberra Nature Park. Hardly
surprisingly, environmentalists and concerned citizens were horrified. They argued
that the funds would be better spent tackling Canberra’s woeful public transport.
In 2001, a parliamentary inquiry was called to resolve the controversy. It conceded
that the freeway was environmentally disastrous, but argued that there was no
The committee is struck by [the] major differences between the transport
studies with a car-oriented approach and those making public transport
pre-eminent … the car-oriented strategy is associated with a dispersed
city of mostly low rise buildings; whereas the public transport approach
is associated with fairly dense ‘urban villages’… The committee is not
convinced that the [Canberra] community is ready, or would understand
the need, for town planning changes of the kind associated with the
public transport strategy… These town planning considerations lead
the committee to conclude that the car-oriented strategy … continues
to be appropriate.
The freeway went ahead in the face of legal challenges and protests, opening in
2008. Escalating construction costs helped create a financial crisis that led to
closure of a fifth of Canberra’s government schools. Within weeks of opening, the
freeway was jammed with traffic, and the government announced that it would
be doubled in width.
While the results of the committee’s decision to give the green light to the
freeway were disastrous, it is difficult to argue with the logic. If suburban densities
in cities like Canberra really are too low for viable alternatives to the car, then we
are in serious trouble, because large increases to the density of big cities take many
decades, and may be politically impossible in a democratic society.
Suburbanization is now a global phenomenon. It may have been invented
in the US – although Chapter 6 argues that Australians were the true pioneers
– but it has been successfully exported. Europe’s suburbs house the majority of the
populations of their metropolitan regions, and account for most or all population
growth. Suburban sprawl can be found across the continent, as the European
Environment Agency notes in a 2006 report suggestively titled Urban Sprawl
in Europe: The ignored challenge.8 Employment is also decentralizing, and urban
Europe is becoming increasingly poly-centric. Even if we wanted to see The End
of Suburbia, as the title of a popular documentary suggests, this would require the
rebuilding of entire urban regions – a task that might take a century even if it were
affordable or politically possible.
The difficulty of the task can be seen in the glacial rate of progress in the two
decades since ideas like new urbanism and the compact city became dominant
among planners. The amount of new housing that has been built in accordance
with these ideas is vanishingly small, but more importantly, there is little reliable
evidence that it has produced any appreciable reduction in automobile use. The
slide shows look great, but where are the data on mode share? The new urbanist
solution risks becoming like the new religion lampooned by G. K. Chesterton back
in the 1920s: ‘it only manages to remain as the New Religion by always coming
to-morrow and never to-day.’9
Meanwhile, most transport analysts argue that the task of providing effective
public transport in spacious suburbs is impossible, and should be given up as
hopeless; few have even contemplated attempting the task in the still more difficult
terrain of rural towns and villages like Bauma and Sternenberg.
SOLUTIONS FOR SUBURBIA
The central argument of this book is that density is not destiny. Transport policy
itself has a bigger impact on transport patterns than urban planners have realized,
and suburbs don’t have to be totally reliant on the car. Planners who insist that
car dominance can only be addressed by impossibly large increases in density may
actually be entrenching the problem they are trying to solve.
In recent years, problems like climate change and precarious oil supplies have
led an increasing number of people to ask whether the end of the automobile age is
at hand. As explained in Chapters 2 and 3, there are many good reasons to change
course on urban transport. But problems like global warming and volatile oil prices
are real and urgent: they can’t wait decades for solutions – especially when those
solutions are not backed by solid evidence of effectiveness.
There is an alternative, and Zürich is not the only example of it. In parts
of Europe and some other places, the high-quality public transport previously
found only in dense city centres is being extended to suburbs and even rural areas.
Public transport networks which once catered only for peak-hour commuters have
been reconfigured to serve cross-city, off-peak and – as we saw with the hikers of
Sternenberg – even recreational trips. By providing a complete substitute for the
car, high quality public transport networks also promote increased walking and,
in some cases, cycling. A model of successful public transport network planning
for low-density urban areas is emerging, with evidence of effectiveness to back it.
This is a genuine success story which should be welcomed by urban planners and
But the story remains a secret. Most of the work building effective suburban
public transport has been done by practising public transport planners, who don’t
have time to write books or travel the world showing PowerPoint slides. Transport
academics have largely ignored the real-world success stories; prestigious journals
are instead filled with endless reports on new technologies and the intricacies of
mathematical modelling. Urban planners, as Chapter 4 explains, can’t see the
gains achieved because there is no accompanying development in the desirable
new urbanist form. The dominant school of economists dislikes these success
stories because they have not relied on the free market (see Chapter 5). Some
environmentalists are so certain that cycling is the answer to the urban transport
problem that they are not interested in hearing about public transport – or in many
cases, walking (see Chapter 11). And for some critics, fixing public transport may
be unattractive precisely because it is easier than demolishing suburbia: for these
people, hating the suburbs has become a kind of moral crusade.
The main purpose of this book is to share the secret of successful suburban
public transport. Chapters 6 to 8 examine a range of very different urban regions
that have managed to provide effective public transport in low-density areas. All
the successful cities have discovered what I call the ‘network effect’. As Chapter
9 explains, this occurs when public transport imitates the flexibility of the car by
knitting different routes and modes into a single, multi-modal network. Making
transfers between the different routes near effortless enables the public transport
network to mimic the ‘go anywhere, anytime’ flexibility of a road system. I argue
that this is a genuinely new model of public transport planning that can be applied
in most suburban environments, and in Chapters 10 and 11 discuss the policies
required to bring it about.
Interestingly, the different cities discovered the network effect independently
of one another. There have been no books or journals in which public transport
planners can read about transfer-based networks. When the Norwegian transport
planner Gustav Nielsen produced the HiTrans guides to providing high-quality
public transport in smaller cities and regions, he reported that ‘the literature search
has not revealed any comprehensive studies or reports that have their main focus
on the topic of public transport network design.’10 Nielsen’s HiTrans manuals are
excellent resources, but something more comprehensive and widely available is
also required; hence this book.
The book is intended for planners, but also for citizens. One of the most
encouraging lessons from the success stories discussed here is the critical role played
by citizens and their elected representatives in bringing about transport policy
change. Technical expertise is very important, but technicians can become set in
their ways and resistant to change, as the story of Auckland in the next chapter
illustrates. Real innovation requires a creative tension between experts and the
This is not the first study to have used a comparative cities approach to shed
light on transport policy questions. The tradition was pioneered in 1977 with J.
Michael Thomson’s Great Cities and Their Traffic, which examined road, public
transport and land-use policies in cities across five continents. Thomson’s book
remains a classic, and his observations are as relevant today as three decades ago.
Robert Cervero’s The Transit Metropolis (1998) is a contemporary take on the
comparative study, with a focus on innovative approaches to public transport. This
book revisits some of the cities studied by Cervero and Thomson, with a direct focus
on the question of creating public transport networks. Some of my conclusions
back theirs, but as will be seen, there are also some key differences.
What follows is not a critique of new urbanism or the compact city. I am
arguing that urban form has been used as an excuse for not directly tackling public
transport service quality, but I am not suggesting that urban form has no influence.
I am certainly not advocating deregulated land-use planning, or urban sprawl – in
the original sense of scattered, unplanned fringe growth that is ‘neither town nor
country’. There are things land-use planners can do to encourage public transport
and walking, and others that will discourage them, although not all of them are
about population density. Many books have been written about these issues and
I am not seeking to add to that literature. My argument is that these policies
should be part of an integrated package of measures that include direct changes to
transport, and will fail if they are pursued on their own.
My own attitudes to suburbs and transport have been shaped by my background.
I grew up in suburban Melbourne, a long stone’s-throw from Pinoak Court,
Vermont South, better known to Neighbours viewers as Ramsay Street (apologies
to North American readers, to whom this will mean nothing). This quintessential
piece of post-World War II suburbia originated as a transit-oriented development:
it grew up around the Glen Waverley rail line, and all the major shopping centres
were adjacent to railway stations. When I was young, many of the fathers in our
street could be seen each day making the long walk to and from the station, but over
time the numbers doing so declined. In fact, it was fiendishly difficult to get around
without a car, except to destinations along the train line, and even that required a
long walk to the station. Monash was my local university, but was actually more
difficult to reach than the older, more distant University of Melbourne in the city
Most of my peers reacted rationally to these problems by buying cars as soon
as they were legally able to drive. I was more stubborn, particularly once I became
involved in debates over freeways in Melbourne. These debates were heated because
the reservations set aside for the roads usually passed through parklands and river
valleys, just like in Canberra. I read Thomson’s Great Cities, which was particularly
harsh in its judgement of both the quality and honesty of Melbourne’s freeway
planning, and wondered why we could not do better. Why was Melbourne not
learning from the European cities that were moving away from the car towards
first-rate public transport? The answer, I kept hearing, was density: because most
Australians live in places like Ramsay Street, the car will be king forever.
This led me to ask whether there were any places where effective public
transport and lower-density housing coexisted. My PhD compared Melbourne
with Toronto and showed that similar densities had not prevented very different
results. Since publishing this study in 2000 as A Very Public Solution, I have had
the opportunity to study other cities that allow people to enjoy both backyards
and quality public transport. Much of this work was carried out with postgraduate
students, so what you will read is as much the result of their work as mine.
The public transport success stories outlined in this book are a very diverse
group of cities, but they have striking elements in common. They suggest that there
is a general model that can be used to provide effective public transport in suburban
environments, a model that will help us move beyond the automobile age.
# # #
You have just read a good part of the Preface and first chapter of Paul Mees’s just-published book under this title. If you or your library would wish to order the book directly from the publisher, Earthscan, they have made arrangements to give World Streets readers a twenty percent discount off any Earthscan book at www.earthscan.co.uk using the voucher code WORLDSTREETS. The order information for Paul’s book is at http://www.earthscan.co.uk/?tabid=92752
About the author:
Dr. Paul Mees (born 1961) is an Australian academic, currently serving as a senior lecturer at the school of Global Studies, Social Science and Planning at RMIT University, previously at University of Melbourne, and has been a consultant to local, regional and State government transport and planning agencies in Australia, New Zealand and Canada.. Originally a lawyer prior to becoming an academic, he lectures in statutory planning and transport planning.
Paul is a past President of the Public Transport Users Association in Melbourne and has been a very high-profile contributor to public debates on transport planning in Victoria over the last decade. Some of the most notable controversies involving Dr. Mees have been his legal actions attempting to prevent the construction of transport projects contrary to his views on good public transport policy. A very prominent example of this was his attempt during the late 1990s to question the legality of aspects of the largest urban infrastructure project in Australia’s history, the CityLink tollway system in Melbourne. More recently he contested the legality of the project to build a marshalling yard and a new tram “superstop” in front of the main entrance to the University of Melbourne’s Parkville campus on Swanston Street. . You can contact him at paul.mees (at) rmit.edu.au.