Where the wheels come off: transport poverty and disadvantage


Access to public transport is now going backwards in Melbourne’s urban fringes. Professor Graham Currie looks at the social and economic impact for vulnerable Victorians.

There is much inequality in the availability and need for transport in Melbourne. A 2008 study established that fringe residents had to travel on average 16.4 kilometres per trip compared to 6.4 kilometres for inner urban residents because activities were further away and more spaced out than in inner areas. The implication is that they have higher costs for travel and longer travel times (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Median distance travelled for residents journey to work across Melbourne, 2009–10

Figure 1: Median distance travelled for residents journey to work across Melbourne, 2009–10


Fringe travel is almost entirely by car because there is little public transport; only 29 public transport bus vehicle trips per week were supplied on average in fringe urban areas while there were 4,387 on average for inner urban residents.1 A study exploring walk access to public transport services as well as frequency/availability showed that out of all services supplied to the population of Melbourne, 70 per cent of residents get only 20 per cent of the service whilst 30 per cent get 80 per cent.2

This divide is spatial as well as social: public transport supply is best in inner areas where residents have higher employment and income. Outer areas have less and often no public transport service and tend to have higher levels of unemployment and lower income. One study identified a significant social gap between where public transport services are not supplied at all but where fringe urban residents who have the highest needs for services live. Some 39,000 residents were identified in these areas which were almost entirely in fringe and fringe remote urban settings. 3

On average about 4 per cent of inner Melbourne residents report frequent (daily/weekly) difficulties in access to activities because of lack of transport. In outer fringe areas this increases to 12 per cent.4 It is also more concentrated in certain social groups: young people, older people, the unemployed or those from minority cultural groups.5 For all groups, fringe urban contexts is the most widely reported concern (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Access to public transport

Figure 2: Access to public transport

Lack of transport can significantly influence personal life opportunities and well being. Young people consistently link their frustrations with lack of public transport on the urban fringes with limited employment and social opportunities.

I led a large international inter-disciplinary research project to measure the wider life impacts of lack of transport on people 6 that found a strong correlation between those who self-report transport disadvantage problems and their measures of social exclusion. Older women living alone in fringe suburbs were particularly vulnerable, as was a closely related group of older/retired people who ‘relied on others’ for transport.

Whilst the friends and relatives they relied on provided excellent social links as well as travel options, they were not necessarily always available.

This project was also able to estimate the overall scale of transport disadvantage in Victoria at some 120 million ‘unmet trips’* every year (2010) with an estimated economic impact of $20 per trip (based on estimating the value lost from not being able to access activities). The total social cost is therefore $2.4 billion each year which compares very closely to the estimated economic cost of traffic congestion in Melbourne.7 Needless to say addressing this social cost does not seem to attract the same investment in transport that new road projects attract to tackle traffic congestion. The analysis suggests this lack of action doesn’t make economic (or social) sense.


Investment in local public transport in fringe areas is an obvious solution which some in the field have termed ‘social transit’.8 The concept is to provide at least a basic ‘social’ service to act as a social safety net to guarantee a minimum of access to activities. The Bracks Labor Government supported these ideas and invested $650 million in new bus services in middle and outer Melbourne in 2006 9 to help deliver a 62 per cent increase in the scale of bus services provided in Melbourne between 2001-2 and 2011-12.10 Alas support for these policies was not shared by the Coalition Government that took office in 2010.

Between 2010-11 and 2013-14 there has been no net growth in service supplied whilst population growth, particularly in fringe urban areas, has been booming. The net outcome is that per head of population bus service supplied is actually declining in middle/fringe urban Melbourne.

This is not an appropriate response to a growing population base when there are clear gaps in service and strong and growing social needs associated with issues like an ageing population. Sadly these issues are likely to continue into the future; none of the current plans of either Liberal or Labor parties for the 2014 election have included any commitment for improved bus services on the urban fringe of Melbourne.

The only remaining solution for fringe dwellers is the private car; an expensive item for lower income groups.


Nearly 90 per cent of Melbourne’s growth area residents used their own car to travel to work in 2011, compared to the metropolitan average of 65 per cent 11 and they usually have to travel longer distances so their costs are higher.

This is particularly a concern for low income households, where running cars can represent over half of their expenditure costs, with research showing they tend to have older larger vehicles with higher emissions and higher running costs.

A Melbourne study exploring walk access to public transport services as well as frequency/availability showed 70 per cent of residents get only 20 per cent of the service whilst 30 per cent get 80 per cent.

From 2001-2011 the number of low income households with high car ownership on the urban fringe increased by 93 per cent. Most increases have been in areas with poor access to public transport or walk accessibility.12 Clearly these costs represent a significant concern and the term ‘transport poverty’ has been linked to these groups.

“Transport poverty occurs when a household is forced to consume more travel costs than it can reasonably afford, especially costs relating to motor car ownership and usage.”13
Perhaps the greatest concern with this group is the risks society faces if future increases in transport costs occur as have been predicted. It is expected that the costs of oil based fuels will increase as global supplies decline and as competition for limited stocks increase when the global economy recovers from recession.

Low income groups on the urban fringe cannot afford expensive new electric or alternative fuel vehicles and, due to high entry costs, will be among the last to adopt cheaper running cost and more advanced vehicle technologies. A crisis in affordable mobility seems likely which puts at greater risk the economic and social participation of disadvantaged social groups on the urban fringe.

Current policy is not addressing this concern; indeed fringe urban development without walk access to services or any other alternative to the private car is being encouraged by current policy.
Australian cities are unique in having a significant concentration of lower income groups in fringe and remote urban contexts due largely to housing affordability. This creates mobility and access problems that can significantly limit their economic and social participation.

It seems we know where the ‘wheels will come off’ and, to an extent, how and who it will affect. Given no policy is trying to address the issue a crisis seems inevitable. Perhaps we only need to know when the wheels will come off.

Professor Currie holds the Chair of Public Transport at Monash University where he undertakes research and training to improve the design, planning and management of urban public transport systems. Up to 2010 he led a number of ground breaking studies exploring links between lack of access and social and psychological impacts. He notes he has not worked in this field since because Australian research funding agencies do not deem it an important topic for research funding. He hopes that one day this might change.

For this article, he acknowledges the technical input of a wide range of researchers, notably Dr Alexa Delbosc, Prof Karen Lucas, Adjunct Professor John Stanley and Dr Janet Stanley.

* An unmet trip is one that is wanted to access an activity but cannot be made due to lack of transport options.

1 J Betts, ‘Transport and social disadvantage in Victoria: A government perspective’, in G Currie, J Stanley, J Stanley, eds, 2007.
2 Department of Infrastructure, Meeting our transport challenges – Connecting Victorian Communities Overview, Department of Infrastructure, 2006.
3 G Currie, ‘Public Transport Progress and Failure – Keeping up with growth in Australian Cities’, in Proceedings of the Australian Davos Connection National Infrastructure and Cities Summit, Sydney Cricket Ground, Sydney Australia 13th-14th March 2014, Press, Sydney.
4 G Currie, ed, New perspectives and methods in transport and social exclusion research, Emerald, Bingley, UK, 2011.
5 G Currie, J Stanley, J Stanley eds. No Way to Go – Transport and social disadvantage in Australian communities, Monash Univesity ePress, Melbourne, 2007.
6 A Delbosc, G Currie, ‘Using Lorenz Curves to assess public transport equity’, Journal of Transport Geography, vol 19, issue 6, pp. 1252-1259, 2011.
7 G Currie, ‘Quantifying spatial gaps in public transport supply based on social needs’, Journal of Transport Geography, vol 18, pp. 31–41, 2010.
8 op cit, Betts, 2007.
9 op cit, Department of Infrastructure, 2006.
10 Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2011 Census of Population and Housing: Basic Community Profiles, Canberra, 2013.
11 G Currie, A Delbosc, ‘Exploring conflicting positions on the social impacts of zero vs high car ownership on urban fringe low income residents’, Transport Policy, under review.
12 G Currie, Dellbosc, ‘Exploring trends in forced car ownership in Melbourne’, in Australasian Transport Research Forum, Brisbane, 2013.
13 B Gleeson, B Randolph, ‘Social disadvantage and planning in the Sydney context’, Urban Policy and Research, 20(1), pp. 101-107, 2002.


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