The suburbs – where cars, not phones, are essential

Stone the crows! People who sneer at those with cars would be honking their horns in delight, if they had them, at the news that Americans are eschewing automobiles.

According to the New York Times, public transport use is at a 50 year high. At 10.65bn journeys per annum, this is up 37 per cent over 20 years or so, well ahead of population growth and miles driven. And the increase in the last couple of years is occurring without a hike in petrol prices.[i]

This will cheer enemies of the auto who think drivers are awful. Like Anthony Sharwood, who accepts radial public transport networks do not suit everybody but –

The real problem is the people who don’t take public transport because they’re too lazy. I know a few spoilt Gen Y brats in that camp, but this is not a generational thing. Plenty of people of all ages won’t travel anywhere without their car because they simply can’t be bothered.[ii]

It will surely please those who believe driving is well (shudder) ordinary. As Elizabeth Farrelly put it:

Just as the internal combustion engine removes rhythm from our rhyme and song, it dulls our senses, blunts our brains, removes texture and detail from our material lives. Car culture applies the same coarsening effect across the rest of our urban geography, out-sizing roads, fragmenting landscapes and reducing cities to glassy, non-porous surfaces across which we slide in our umwelts, spectators in our own place.[iii]

Gosh, and there I was thinking a car was the quickest way from A to out-of-the-way B. (As to unwelts, trust me it’s a word you are never likely to need).

And, oh green hued joy, it is young people, the rejecters of consumerism, the embracers of the environment, who are helping to fill seats on buses and bicycles, trains and trams. This certainly confirms the case that the young are not interested in car culture.

According to Toyota global head Masamichi Kogai, “Younger people’s growing indifference about car ownership has become a serious challenge for vehicle makers.” [iv] This appears to apply in Sydney where the decline in the percentage of people in their 20s with a driver’s licence reflects, in part, the concentration of the young and the hip in inner-city areas well served by public transport.[v] Certainly, 18-34 year olds account for more than 40 per cent of total train trips in the city.[vi]

But is it because they are too cool for driving school? Certainly, a US survey finds 40 per cent say losing a phone is worse than losing a car.[vii]  However, lower incomes, due to more people studying for longer and the increase of part time employment, probably has a fair bit to do with it. [viii]

In any case, the argument is irrelevant to everybody but hipsters who earn enough, or whose families do, to support fixie riding, cider drinking, beard growing, Frankie reading, inner-city lifestyles where public transport works. The reason most young people drive, or get lifts, is because there are no, or utterly inadequate, trains and buses where they live.

The NSW Bureau of Transport Statistics survey of where people live and work makes it plain that easy access to jobs and transport is a privilege that makes driving optional for some, but mainly in the city.

Consider the north end of Redfern, where 40 per cent of the 4000 residents who are in the workforce are employed in the close-by CBD, with 43 per cent of them walking to work. Another 30 per cent catch a train or ride a bus, with just 17 per cent driving. A surprising 17 per cent of the Redferners work at Penrith (I’m guessing a lot at UWS) but, despite living handy to Central Station, 79 per cent of them drive. It’s a salient statistic – the longer the trip the more the number of people who prefer to drive.

Which explains why all the public transport in the world will not help people who live on the outer urban fringe in, for example, Orchard Hills just south of the M4 and not far east of the Nepean River. Some 43 per cent of residents in Orchard Hills work in Penrith, with the rest employed all over greater Sydney. The absence of any kind of public transport, going anywhere, means 90 per cent of them either drive or are driven to work. [ix]

So much for public transport as a fashion statement among all of the young. Sure, those who can afford to live in the inner city do not need to drive. But those in the suburbs, where the train lines are distant and buses rare, have no choice. ‘Twas ever thus, ‘twas ever will be (especially now shale oil has postponed the global energy crisis indefinitely).

And all the trams to Kingsford (9000 passengers per hour) and trains to Rouse Hill (20,000 passengers per hour) will not save the people of Orchard Hills and the hundreds of suburbs like it from driving.[x] For them, cars not iPhones are essential.

To make your case with opinion leaders call the crows



[i] Jon Hurdle, Use of Public Transit in U.S. Reaches Highest Level Since 1956, Advocates Report, New York Times, March 10

[ii] Anthony Sharwood, “Most people who hate public transport are selfish and lazy,” The Punch, March 8 2011 @ recovered on March 15

[iii] Elizabeth Farrelly, “The cars that ate the planet,” Sydney Morning Herald, December 16 2006

[iv] Sam Hall, “Young a challenge for carmakers says Mazda boss,” Sydney Morning Herald, February 1

[v] Tim Raimond and Frank Milthorpe, “Why are young people driving less? Trends in licence-holding and travel behaviour,” Australian Transport Research Forum, 2010 Proceedings, @ recovered on March 15

[vi] New South Wales Bureau of Transport Statistics, “Transfigures,” January 2013 @ recovered on March 15

[vii] Zipcar, January 27 @ recovered March 15

[viii] Alan Davies, “Why are Australians driving less than they used to,” Crikey, May 2 2013

[ix] New South Wales Bureau of Transport Statistics, “Journeys to work explorer” 2011 @ recovered on March 15

[x] Jacob Saulwick, “Trams in eastern suburbs to be full within two years,” Sydney Morning Herald, November 23, Bambul Shakibaei, “How might the northwest rail link work?” Transport Sydney, October 16 2013 @ recovered on March 15