Myth: Viable public transport requires high population densities

Common Urban Myths About Transport

Myth: Viable public transport requires high population densities
Fact: Public transport runs successfully in many cities with similar or lower population densities than Melbourne. Any city with sufficient population density to cause traffic congestion has sufficient population to support a first-rate public transport alternative.

This is probably the most widely believed myth about public transport, and therefore the most dangerous. It’s an old story that, like current transport policy, originates in the first major American freeway study:

The conditions of land use and density….are the major determinants of the travel market. If demand is constrained by these factors, it is unlikely that changes in supply will have any great impact on the number of users.
—Chicago Area Transportation Study 1956

Public Transport Users Association

There was no alternative to freeways in Chicago, the road planners said, because the city was too spread out and low-density. The road lobby and its supporters have been using the ‘spread-out city’ as an excuse for freeway building ever since. The story has been repeated so often in Melbourne that many urban planners, commentators, and even some environmentalists believe it.

In the 2000s the density myth became the centrepiece of the Bracks/Brumby Government’s Melbourne 2030 planning strategy. Apparently, in order to encourage public transport, vast tracts of inner Melbourne would have to be rebuilt at higher densities. As The Age put it:

The deal implicit in urban consolidation is that people forgo private space, backyards and cars for a more compact lifestyle…. [instead] Melburnians are opting for ever bigger, more energy-consuming homes. They need to spare a thought for the environment in which their children will be brought up…. The compact city vision is also under pressure from knee-jerk resident groups and councils in established suburbs…. Unreasonable opposition to higher-density housing in existing streets only adds to the pressure for car-dependent fringe estates.
The Age (editorial), 5 January 2007

The implication was that we must give open slather to developers to build high-rise towers throughout the inner suburbs because, we were told, this is the only way to achieve higher rates of public transport use. The problem, of course (apart from the fact that public transport use doubled of its own accord between 2005 and 2010), is that although many Melburnians are open to the idea of forgoing at least some car use, the idea of forgoing private space and backyards is much less popular.

Pretexts and Fabrications

Many of the contemporary supporters of higher densities are perfectly well-meaning, and speak from genuine concern with the sustainability of Melbourne’s urban form. But not everyone’s motives are so benign. It’s always been the case that many Australian transport planners and economists, and their allies in the media, want to convince us that Melbourne is the most decentralised, low-density city in the world because they have an implacable ideological hostility to public transport (especially rail) and a love affair with roads (especially motorways). No-one sums up this attitude better than the neo-liberal Institute of Public Affairs, who to their credit have held to this position consistently for three decades:

In spite of public transport benefiting from massive subsidies, the coverage of its ability to carry people to their destinations quickly is highly restricted…. It can only operate effectively in urban conditions and only really effectively in urban areas with high densities and concentrated origin and destination points. A rule of thumb is that, to be commercially viable, rail-based systems require [400 people per hectare] and express bus systems [250]. Melbourne has an average density of [15]….
For the main part….cities should adapt to the car and the truck. Road systems are far and away more important than fixed track systems, and buses can make good use of them…. It is therefore vital that the road system be upgraded to keep pace with the demand for car transportation.
—Alan Moran, “The Public Transport Myth”, Institute of Public Affairs, October 2006

Density, shmensity: it’s all about service

Despite not sharing in Melbourne’s extensive rail infrastructure and supportive urban form, even low-density North American cities have, or are planning, viable alternatives to the car. In Toronto, for example, where the average citizen makes more than twice as many public transport trips as in Melbourne, the official transport plan has long aimed to

enhance the attractiveness of travel by transit in the Greater Toronto Area for a variety of trip purposes including, but not limited to, journey to work, and decrease reliance on the private automobile.
Transit 2020, Toronto, 1993

Vancouver, where public transport use per capita is 37% higher than in Melbourne, is on target to triple patronage by 2021 from its 1991 level. As in Toronto, this is being done by providing fast, frequent, integrated, safe and cheap public transport.

Both Toronto and Vancouver are spread-out cities, but are not using that fact as an excuse for car-dominated transport policies.

Melbourne Toronto Vancouver
Population density in 1991 (per hectare) 16.8 24.1 14.0
Share of total jobs in Central area 25% 23% 21%
Share of office space in Central area 78% 47% 63%
Share of retail sales in Central area 11% 10% n/a
Annual public transport trips (per capita) 94 240 129

Low-density Vancouver also gives the lie to the assertion that public transport in spread-out cities comes only at high cost. Its entire budget for roads and public transport corresponds to just $180 per resident, compared with $430 per resident in Melbourne.

Unfortunately, many transport planners have completely failed to make the link between quality of service and patronage. The connection is obvious to anyone who checks the statistics, and holds true in low-density cities as much as in high-density cities. As a result, low patronage on public transport is too frequently excused as being residents’ fault for wanting big backyards, rather than a fairly obvious result of lousy service provision. So when Portland (a US city with modest public transport use, though fairly good by US standards) was forced to cut some low-patronage services in the 2008-09 recession, one prominent transport planner wrote:

Four routes are to be eliminated completely, and three of these (27, 154, and 157) are outer-suburban feeders…. All serve relatively low density areas but not especially affluent ones, a reminder that density determines ridership much more than wealth does. There’s not much of an alternative for residents of the areas served…. but if good transit service were really important to you, you wouldn’t live there.
—Gareth Jarrett, Human Transit, 11 February 2010

As Jarrett well knows, residents of these Portland suburbs do have an alternative – private cars. And their decision to use them in preference to the cited bus routes was, it turns out, entirely rational. Of the three routes he named, two were ‘commuter’ routes that ran five trips a day on weekdays, while the third operated once an hour with the last bus at about 6:30pm. None of them ran on weekends. In short, they were equivalent to some of the worst Melbourne suburban bus routes. Blaming density merely serves to excuse poor design and false economies, and lets the planners off the hook when poor service fails.

If density were the key to use of sustainable transport, then of course you wouldn’t live in Portland at all – you’d live in high-density New York, which rates highest in the US for public transport use. But you might just as well consider living in Los Angeles, Miami or Las Vegas: all cities with much higher urban density than Portland. Los Angeles even has a higher density than New York when entire urban areas are compared – a fact not widely known or believed until very recently. The problem is these cities, all ‘high density’ as they are, all have lower mode shares for public transport than even Portland does!

The table below gives the overall urban density and the public transport mode share for journeys to work in a selection of US and Australian cities. There is some relationship evident between density and public transport use, but it is weak and unconvincing, to say the least. Some other factor must be at work to explain why Brisbane, for example, has three times the rate of public transport use as LA despite being just one-third the density. That factor is good-quality service, which is present in Brisbane (at least in peak hour) but virtually absent in LA. Although we haven’t included Canadian cities, they do even better: Ottawa with 17.2 people per urban hectare has almost the same density as Miami, but differs from Miami in having one of the highest-quality bus systems in the world. Its 21.2% of journeys to work by public transport exceeds that in Miami more than fivefold!

City Overall
density (/ha)
Travel to work by
public transport (%)
Los Angeles 27.3 4.7
New York 20.5 24.8
Las Vegas 17.7 4.1
Miami 17.0 3.9
Denver 15.4 4.4
Chicago 15.1 11.5
Sacramento 14.6 2.7
Phoenix 14.0 1.9
San Diego 13.2 3.4
Washington DC 13.1 9.4
Portland 12.9 6.0
Boston 8.9 9.0
Sydney 20.4 21.2
Melbourne 15.7 13.9
Adelaide 13.8 9.9
Perth 12.1 10.4
Canberra 10.6 7.9
Hobart 10.3 6.4
Brisbane 9.2 13.8

Source: Extracted from Mees, Transport For Suburbia (2010), Table 4.1

This does not mean, of course, that sensitively applied encouragement of medium density housing is not worthwhile. Vancouver certainly introduced more ‘medium density’ housing under its Liveable Region strategy – but by this they meant the one-sixth-acre blocks that have been traditional in Melbourne for over a century. (What our developers have called ‘medium density’ would be recognised as ‘high density’ overseas.)

So carefully targeted land-use measures will help, albeit marginally. But the real challenge lies elsewhere.


13 Responses to “Myth: Viable public transport requires high population densities”
  1. Evil Eye says:

    TransLink’s transit planning is based solely on urban myths, no wonder it is going bankrupt.

  2. rico says:

    Some nice articles today. Meese has a lot of good points but his statements about density need some minor adjustment. At the risk of offending Zei here is a link to Humantransit for a much better description than I could write. Well worth the read including the comments.

  3. zweisystem says:

    Sadly the chap from human transit is not a transit expert and some of his musing, though rather quaint, are somewhat dated. He tends to write in support of the anti-LRT crowd and as such, much of his posts are just that opinions, not fact.

    I wonder how much Translink pays you to troll the RftV blog?

  4. Myrtle Macdonald says:

    Equitable public transport service is a right everywhere, whether in densely populated urban areas or in rural areas. Scattered people require steady means of safe travel as much as the densely populated. There are a million people living south of the Fraser River in BC from Richmond to Harrison and Hope. Vancouver, BC and Bellingham and Tacoma/Seattle, Washington, increasingly send their air pollution up our Fraser valley. Air quality checking stations are few and far between and they lack modern scientifically sound methods to check on the fine particulates and the not so fine fumes, smoke and dust stirred up by SUVs and heavy trucks. Traffic is heavy night and day. Cost of highway maintenance and widening of highways and bridges are unjustly a large part of government budgets. The polluted air causes health problems for nearly everyone from irritated eyes, frequent colds, blocked middle ears, sinusitis, laryngitis, asthma and cardiac problems, etc. Mountain scenery would be seen clearly and enjoyed from an interurban light railway running hourly in both directions. Ministry of Transport study was wrong to compare the light weight 99 km interurban with heavy rolling stock. The Leewood Proposal estimates costs at one third that of an 11 km skytrain. The right of way on the Southern Railway belongs to the people of BC. The existing track passes near several university campuses. Students, college faculty and support staff, commuters, farmers, elders and tourists to Cultus Lake and Harrison would enjoy a tram = light rail train. The gas tax paid by one million people living in this area should be spent in this area.

  5. the Ragnore brothers says:

    You bit Rico, two postings with a contradictory view point; the Blogger playing Devil’s advocate and you swallowed.
    What a muppet

  6. rico says:

    Just because I disagree with a lot of what Zei writes and posts does not mean I disagree with everything. Mees makes a lot of good points about why some transit is sucessful in lower density areas and some not. That said he also misses some important aspects of density that have a huge impact on transit. That is why I linked to the Human Transit post, very good read…..nothing about technology so even Zei could read it without having a fit.

    Zei actually I get paid everytime I post a good source disagreeing with you and you respond like a toddler by saying things like I am ignorant instead of posting a link or source to support your position. I get double if you just trash it without reading it.

  7. Rico says:

    And just to stir the pot, since Paul Mees (the transit expert and original source of the article above) is a fan of transit in Vancouver does Zei still consider him an expert?

  8. otak_ar says:

    @ zweisystem: Sorry for continuing here, but the discussion under “Where’s The Density? Oh, I Guess Density Is Not An Issue With TramTrain”
    ( ) seems to be locked down for whatever reason.

    I assume that your reply: “As for Karlsruhe, transit planners improved service by designing no-transfer services, in Vancouver we increase the number of transfers customers take, a recipe for transit disaster.” was also in regards to my last post.

    While looking at the Karlsruhe system map, in numerous instances I would simply have to make a transfer, in some cases even more than once. But yes, in general you don`t have to swicth at the Karlsruhe HBf every time.

    To get back to my idea of running fast service: Even in the Karlsruhe system you have the option to take the “express train” that stops only on selected main stations. With this train it takes you approx. 1:27 Hrs to travel 80 Km, compared to almost 1:55 Hrs by the regular tramtrain, at the cost of 18.50 EUR.

    I guess to elaborate/correct my statement in previous discussion, besides running REGULAR train (or tramtrain) in the Fraser Valley that stops “at every other corner”, there should be also an option to jump on express train (or tram) that stops only at the important stops along the way. Ideally it would be nice if the train starts in Vancouver and stops only in Surrey, Langley, Abottsford and Chilliwack transportation hubs). And personally I would not mind this kind of transfer knowing it got me home much faster.

    Zwei replies: if you have read the RftV/Leewood report, you would find that the proposed tramtrain service could run at 20 minute headways and definitely doesn’t stop at every corner. A 90 minute service from Chilliwack to Scott road station, is good travel time, especially with the congested #1 highway and like you, TramTrain’s success would be a direct service to Vancouver.

    It is the cost of the project that makes it viable, $1 billion for the full build, Vancouver/Richmond to Rosedale service, which makes it a bargain when compared for $20 billion+ for an identical SkyTrain service!

  9. Rowley Bank says:

    Why are North Americans, Canadians, BCer(s) & particularly Vancouverites so hung up on urban density & transit speed?
    Is it a composition of New Urbanism & Congestion Reduction?
    New urbanists have to be informed and nuanced when navigating the congestion debate, because it easily can be turned to favour sprawl.

    Todd Litman doesn’t agree;
    … increased development density tends to increase congestion measured as roadway level-of-service or delay per vehicle trip, since more trips tend to be generated per acre. From this perspective, Smart Growth tends to be harmful and sprawl tends to be helpful for reducing congestion problems. However, higher density tends to increase land use Accessibility and Transportation Options, resulting in shorter trip distances and shifts to alternative modes such as walking and public transit. Although streets in higher density urban areas may experience more level-of-service E or F, implying serious congestion problems, urban residents spend less time delayed by congestion because they have closer destinations and better travel options.

    In the series, a city that runs on itself & published by The Tyee and authored by Patrick Condon of UBC, drawing from the book A Convenience Truth: A 2050 Plan for a Sustainable Vancouver.
    A conclusion is reached, increased urbanisation & higher urban density = lower energy use; is this a theory that you subscribe to Rico?
    Wouldn’t it be better for everyone if residents were encouraged to use their cars less or better still, sell their cars?

  10. Rico says:

    Rowley Banks, sorry if I misinterpet some of your post because I was not 100% clear on what you are asking but I will do my best. In a general way I do believe that increased urbanisation and higher density = lower energy use but I would caution there are plenty of ways that individual components of that equation could be faulted (for instance a very low efficency high rise building or a high density development away from other services with no street level connection and so on). So in a general way I suport higher densities because assuming we don’t just lock the door and keep everyone else out the lower mainland will grow, if it does not grow denser it will grow out and all just be Surrey/Fraser Valley sprawl and no one will want that (except maybe the developers, contrary to Evil Eye the developers make more money on single family development). When it comes to density and transit I urge you to read it expresses my thoughts better than I could myself….but I will summarize my thoughts this way the density that is important to transit is the density that is around the transit stop. So the average density of the Fraser Valley means squat to the Interurban line, what matters to potential ridership on the Interurban line is the density along the line (squat).

  11. Stewarts Lane says:

    It’s perfectly clear to me what Rowley Bank is asking Rico;

    Why are North Americans, Canadians, BCer(s) & particularly Vancouverites so hung up on urban density & transit speed?

    Human Transit is the professional blog of Jarrett Walker, a consulting transit planner.
    With the mantra, `Human Transit – How clearer thinking can enrich our communities and our lives’
    In his own words; “In a small way, my career as a public transit planner has been about creating and managing these kinds of change. I’ve led the redesign of many bus networks, developed long-range strategic plans for transit, and written policies that guide the design of transit and its role in the city”
    All OK so far;

    He has acknowledged that many ascribe to him an anti-rail bias, but insists that the goal of transit should be to provide an accessible, frequent, reliable service in the most cost-effective way possible, regardless of mode.
    I do think he has an anti-rail bias. And I think his description of the goal of transit shows why. It is far too narrow. The goal of transit should be to help build good cities.
    Transit is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself.
    It’s a means to get where I want to go, which is why I would prefer a LRT/Tramway system, running on a short headway, on separated trambahn over a slow bus system that gets stuck in traffic. Sure transit is part of building good cities because transit makes city travelling possible and without good transit you can’t get great liveable cities. But let’s not forget transit’s first priority: getting riders where they want to go in a timely manner.
    Yes, transit is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself – which is where Jarrett’s humanities environment is very visible.
    I’m not in full agreement with you on Jarrett Walker Rico, what is your view of Todd Litman & Patrick Condon?

  12. the Ragnor brothers says:

    You talk absolute bollocks Rico, you don’t answer questions asked of you, you only publicise your own agenda and your view is very clear.
    Build, build, build and make lots of money for the speculators, realtors and your political masters.
    Has it ever occured to you that many folk living east of Surrey in the Fraser Valley, don’t want to live in a high density condo environment, but would like a high grade rail based transit system as an alternative to commuting by car.
    You’re a fraud

  13. rico says:

    Reading urban and transportation blogs from north america and australia/new zealand all devote a fair bit of discussion about density (a few like RfV) seem to discuss it as a negative but most agree denser cities are better than sprawl. RfV seems to be the only transportation blog I can think of that argues density does not matter to public transportation. So I can say based on the local blogs Vancouver seems to be less hung up on density than say Seattle Portland Pheonix or Huston. I have not read enough European blogs to know how they regard density but since most towns are very dense without the same history of sprawl so…..Every European transit system I know is based on ‘speed’ to get low total trip times for medium and long distance trips. These ‘fast’ services are matched with ‘slow’ local services like trams in city centers.
    I like a lot of Patrick Cordons thoughts on urban form but think his concept of slow transit to promote ‘self sufficient’ villages within a city is not currently realistic. I am also impressed with his willingness to talk to critics and attempt to address their concerns. I am also impressed that he is willing to learn, his more recent writings are much more knowledgable than some of his earlier works. Overal I would still consider myself a critic but still worthy of respect. I don’t really know enough about Tod Litman to say for sure, but in general what I have read is general pro transit/new urbanist so he probably matches a lot of my world view.

    Ragnor bros. Of course lots of people don’t want to live in high density environments, I actually live in a low density enviroment. But if they live in such an environment they should not expect to get good service until the places that can be served efficiently by transit are served.