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Are cars the way to address outer suburban transport disadvantage?

By Alan Davies - posted Friday, 5 September 2014

Progressives should embrace the idea that the best way of improving the mobility of most very low income outer suburban residents is by assisting them with the high costs of driving

One good thing to come out of Joe Hockey's recent public gaffe on indexation of fuel excise (see here and here) is the attention it gave to the neglected issue of transport affordability in the outer suburbs of Australia's capital cities.

One of the key concerns around transport disadvantage is the idea of 'forced car ownership'; the contention that low income households in outer suburbs have no choice, due to poor public transport service, than to incur the considerable standing and operating costs of owning multiple cars.


In a recent study, Professor Graham Currie and Dr Alexa Delbosc from Monash University used 2011 Census data to estimate that 40,116 households in Melbourne suffer forced car ownership (Exploring trends in forced car ownership in Melbourne).

These are households who (a) live in outer suburbs, (b) own two or more cars and (c) are in the lowest income quartile (earning less than $800 per week in 2011). They make up 8% of all households in the outer suburbs and 3% of all households in metropolitan Melbourne.

The received wisdom is that forced car ownership is a consequence of the lack of alternative transport options in fringe areas. The appropriate solution is therefore to improve the access of poor households to good public transport.

Since it's much cheaper to travel by train or bus than to own a car once standing costs like depreciation, registration, maintenance and insurance are taken into account, these households would be much better off financially if public transport services offered them an alternative means of transport.

I think that view is wrong-headed and is symptomatic of a lot of the paternalistic nonsense that gets passed off as "helping the poor".

It seems to me that a genuinely progressive analysis would inevitably lead to the view that the best way of addressing forced car ownership in the outer suburbs is by lowering the cost of car ownership for low income travellers.


Most low income outer suburban households own multiple cars for the same reason their higher income neighbours do; because cars offer enormous advantages in terms of speed and convenience in low density environments.

The nub of the problem is that providing public transport that's even semi-competitive with a car is extraordinarily hard in the suburbs. Even very good public transport would take a long time to implement and necessarily entails a big penalty in time and convenience compared to making the same journey by car.

I suspect many who advocate public transport instead of cars for the outer suburban poor form their view on the basis of their own experiences with public transport. For them, public transport usually is a better option than driving for certain trips.

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This article was first published on The Urbanist.

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About the Author

Dr Alan Davies is a principal of Melbourne-based economic and planning consultancy, Pollard Davies Pty Ltd ( and is the editor of the The Urbanist blog.

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