Australia’s biggest city has a car problem

Cath Lorenz predicts that in a couple of years, everyone in her Melbourne household will own a car.

    She and her husband each have a car, their 19-year-old daughter has one and their teenage son will likely get his own wheels when he turns 18.

    Ideally, it wouldn’t be this way, the Heidelberg Heights resident admits.

    Ms Lorenz comes from a family of train enthusiasts, and believes public transport is the best way to travel.

    A woman looking at a railway crossing sign on a garage wall
    Even though Ms Lorenz comes from a family of rail enthusiasts, everyone owns and drives a car.(ABC News: Madi Chwasta)

    Yet work and family commitments require her to travel from one side of Melbourne to the other – routes that are near impossible or lengthy via train and bus.

    It means she feels she has no choice but to own a car.

    “We’re all pretty good with the public transport thing,” Ms Lorenz said.

    “But it’s the difference between an hour-and-a-half of travel time, compared to maybe 30 or 40 minutes.

    “It’s the reality of living in Melbourne.” 

    Traffic on a freeway with a sign to the Moreland Road exit overhead.
    Ms Lorenz said driving was a part of living in Melbourne.(ABC News: Danielle Bonica)

    Data suggests Ms Lorenz was not alone.

    The number of registered vehicles in Victoria has continually risen in the past decade – and since 2021, at a rate faster than population growth.

    ABC analysis of Bureau of Infrastructure and Transport Research Economics data found the number of vehicles per person had grown to 810 per 1,000 people in 2023.

    It represents the largest increase in the country at 4.1 per cent, and amounts to an additional 209,000 vehicles, with about half of those being standard cars.

    Vehicle sales data suggests this trend has continued into 2024.

    Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries data showed Victorian motor sales in 2023 outperformed 2022 by 12.5 per cent – and 2024 numbers are already outpacing last year’s growth.

    This was happening despite more Melburnians working remotely since the COVID pandemic. So what’s going on?

    Melbourne’s population is growing – and so is traffic

    Graham Currie, Professor of Public Transport at Monash University, said it was due to a few reasons.

    One was Melbourne’s population growth, which had been increasing at a faster rate than any other Australian city.

    The only time Melbourne’s population stopped growing in the past 20 years was during COVID.

    But now it had bounced back and reached its highest point yet.

    The growth amounted to about 450 people moving to Melbourne each day.

    A significant portion of those people were establishing themselves in council areas on Melbourne’s fringe, where the most housing growth is happening.

    They included Hume in the north, Wyndham and Melton in the west, and Casey in the east.

    But those areas were new compared with the rest of Melbourne, and residents have consistently spoken out about the need for more public transport

    A man with a black beard and wearing a white shirt sits for a portrait.
    Professor Currie said Melbourne’s population growth plays a big part in the increase in vehicle registrations.(ABC News: Kristian Silva)

    Professor Currie said this had led households having no choice but to buy cars.

    “With Melbourne’s growth, we put more and more people far from anywhere near public transport,” Professor Currie said.

    “We get this thing called forced car ownership, which is where low-income groups in Australia who are trying to eke out a living for their families have jobs in places where they’re going to need cars.”

    ABS data showed those council areas on Melbourne’s fringe had a higher proportion of households with three or more cars.

    Figures from the Australian Automobile Association also reflected this trend.

    They showed the highest increases in registrations between 2021 to 2023 were on Melbourne’s fringe, in the Hume, Wyndham, Casey and Melton council areas.

    But the data also showed the increases in vehicle registrations were not just on the city’s outskirts.

    Nearly every council area in Melbourne recorded a rise, except Boroondara in the city’s inner east, which saw a tiny drop.

    Dr Currie said because public transport had generally not kept up with population growth across the board, Melbourne was a car-oriented city.

    He said it was then expected that vehicle ownership would grow across Melbourne, as the population had increased virtually everywhere.

    “As population grows so does travel, and since cars dominate, it follows that car ownership grows.”

    Melburnians turn away from public transport

    Melbourne’s residents aren’t just registering more vehicles – they’re driving them more too.

    A recent Committee for Melbourne report found the city had become more dependent on car travel since COVID compared with similar cities across the globe.

    It said more than three-quarters of trips were taken by car over other forms of transport, which was a rate similar to many US cities.

    The report compared this with Sydney, where the rate was closer to two-thirds, and in Berlin and London, where it was less than a third.

    A main street in Camberwell showing pedestrians, cars and a tram.
    Committee of Melbourne analysis suggests Melburnians have turned more to driving than other cities around the world since the COVID pandemic.(ABC News: Danielle Bonica)

    Professor Currie said more people were choosing to drive their car than take public transport since the COVID pandemic.

    Data from the Department of Transport showed Melburnians were using trams and trains at about two-thirds of the rate they did before 2019.

    “People have shifted from public transport use to car use,” he said.

    “This is because they are still worried about infection, even though public transport is very safe.”

    Liam Davies, from the Centre of Urban Planning at RMIT, said while research had not been conclusive in this space, he suspected travel patterns had also changed since COVID, putting more people on the road.

    He attributed this to higher work from home rates than before the pandemic.

    This had been highlighted in a national ABS survey, which found 33.9 per cent of employees usually worked from home, compared with 38.9 per cent in August 2023.

    “For someone who works at home and finishes at 5 o’ clock, it means they could then spend some of their travel time budget visiting friends or family,” Dr Davies said.

    “But our public transport system is designed to move people from population centres to employment centres – it’s not equipped to getting people to their family and friends, so people are defaulting to the car.”

    A man sitting at a desk inside a modern university
    Dr Davies believes travel patterns have changed for Melbourne residents since the pandemic. (ABC News: Nicholas Mc Elroy)

    Marion Terrill, transport policy expert formerly with the Grattan Institute, said it was likely there would be even more cars on the road with increased purchases of electric vehicles.

    “They’re much more visible now than two years ago, and they’re really cheap to drive,” Ms Terrill said.

    “I think unless governments do something about it, it is a recipe for gridlock.”

    Calls for transport policy changes

    The upward trend in vehicle ownership wasn’t isolated to Victoria – registrations had increased across the country, and in some places, at a pace faster than population growth.

    Victoria’s 209,814 came second to Queensland, which saw the highest increase, adding an estimated 253,801 vehicles.

    New South Wales was third, registering 200,379 in two years.

    These factors have put Australia’s per capita rates of vehicle ownership up there with the highest in the world.

    “We are currently a car-dependent Los Angeles – we’re going down that path,” Dr Currie said.

    Dr Currie said research showed car-dependence and traffic congestion contributed to worse environmental and health outcomes.

    “Livability is very poor in car-dominated cities, particularly if they’re growing,” he said.

    “We’re all spending more time on the roads and it’s unproductive time – we should be walking and cycling more for local travel.”

    Victorian government commits billions in transport projects

    To address population growth, the Victorian government had committed billions of dollars into a number of road and public transport projects.

    Road projects included the West Gate Tunnel, the North East Link and the removal of 110 level crossings across Melbourne by 2030.

    Transport projects included the Metro Tunnel in Melbourne’s CBD, the Suburban Rail Loop in the south-east, and the upgrading of trams, trains and buses across the network.

    “Since 2015 we’ve added more than 2,000 metro and regional train services and more than 20,000 buses to keep up with growth across our growing state,” a Victorian government spokesperson said.

    Cars are shown on a busy freeway
    Dr Currie said Melbourne was moving towards becoming a car-dependent city like Los Angeles, which is known for its traffic congestion.(AP: Mark J. Terrill/File)

    While Dr Currie was supportive of these public transport projects, he said many were some way off.

    “The balance is that car use is still attractive,” he said.

    He said government needed to change population growth patterns across Melbourne, so the city stopped expanding on its outskirts where there was less public transport available.

    The Victorian government had taken steps towards this in their Housing Statement, which aimed to build thousands of homes in areas of Melbourne which have existing transport infrastructure.

    “The more development we have in areas with good transit, the more the private car isn’t the best alternative,” he said.

    But Dr Terrill said the easiest and cheapest solution was to implement congestion charge.

    Woman wearing a black top and light grey blazer leaning against a brick wall.
    Ms Terrill said the state government should consider implementing a congestion charge.(ABC News: Scott Jewel)

    While owners of off-street car parking spaces in parts of inner Melbourne already have to pay a congestion levy, Ms Terrill said it needed to go further.

    It involved putting a small charge on vehicles that want to travel through congested areas at the busiest times of day.

    “What it does is it just gives a small signal every single time for people that if people want to occupy scarce road space, that there’s a consequence for the whole community and to sort of reflect that in a small price.”

    Ms Terrill said other cities in the world had introduced such charges, like Singapore, Stockholm and London, the accumulated charge would then be invested in alternative sustainable transport.

    Dr Currie said the outcome was in policy-makers’ hands.

    “It depends what future we want to take,” he said.

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