Sunday, July 23, 2006

Car worlders, pragmatists and hostages

A set of guidelines (pdf 114k) for intending commercial sponsors provides an interesting insight into how Metlink, Melbourne's public transport marketing body, sees the world.

In brief, Metlink divides society into those who are 'car only' and those receptive to using public transport. This second group is divided into those who choose to use public transport and those who use it for lack of other choices.

This is pretty standard stuff. It identifies extremes of people who (i) will always drive no matter how good public transport is and, (ii) captive riders who will always take public transport no matter how bad it is. The critical middle are the 'pragmatists' or 'choice passengers' who can be wooed either way.

However the guidelines also contain some assertions that I think are shaky. There is also no mention of other factors at least as important as the coarse age/sex demographic groups used.

For example, 'pragmatists' (which must be a key target group for any marketing) are described as being in the lower income range. Unlike 'car worlders' they are not described as having higher than average educational attainment.

No one disagrees that 'captive passengers' are likely to be low income. For these people public transport's social role is critical.

However I do not think that the explicit income or implicit education generalisations about 'pragmatists' hold much water. Disturbingly this positions public transport as a a residual service for low income earners with limited appeal for others.

I would encourage anyone interested in the topic to get an ABS Social Atlas and look at the following three maps: (i) Percentage of people with degrees, (ii) Higher income households, and (iii) proportion of people who commute by public transport. Train and tram network maps will also be helpful.

What do these maps show? Most striking is that there is a fair degree of overlap between education, income, transport services and patronage. People with high formal education live in much the same suburbs as the high income people, ie within 15km of the CBD.

Given high (and increasing) average incomes of inner-suburbia residents can't all be 'hostages'. Given their public transport usage habits they can't be 'car worlders' either. Therefore, they must be 'pragmatists', willing to use it when it suits their needs. And because there are more services in inner suburbs than outer suburbs, this is the case for a greater percentage of trips. Which is reflected in the modal share statistics. Thus there are heaps of 'pragmatists' that are likely to be neither lowly educated or low income.

Now onto other important factors.

One has got to be family structure. The economics of car ownership are worst for single people and best for families. A family can be driven for the same cost as one person, whereas public transport fares are largely 'per capita'. Then there's the practicalities, including strict time deadlines or carrying equipment. In contrast the single person for whom car costs are a larger proportion of income may find public transport more attractive. The concentration of single people in inner suburbs and families in outer suburbs only reinforces this due to better transport nearer the city.

Another is geography. I have already discussed the inner suburbs. Outer suburbs in Melbourne comprise a mixture of the following (i) old rail-based hubs with large populations of low socio-economic 'transport hostages' in suburbs up to 3-4 km away (eg Werribee, St Albans, Broadmeadows, Noble Park, Dandenong and Frankston), and (ii) Newer car-based suburbs with no rail and only a limited bus service. These areas have low rates of transit usage, have many people with trades qualifications and higher average incomes than the first group. Examples include Knox and newer parts of Frankston. Though not strictly outer, the City of Manningham is also car-dominated. Manningham excepted, these suburbs are neither highly degreed or earn the top incomes. If all these areas comprise a large number of 'car-worlders' then factors other than income or education must be more significant.

What are my conclusions?

The first is that Australians tend to be pragmatic by nature. Where public transport is good (inner suburbs) they will use it. Where public transport is poor (outer suburbs) they won't. Our pragmatism is good news since it reveals potential for patronage growth if choices are broadened.

Secondly, 'pragmatism' is distributed across all income and education groups and there are no grounds for it to be regarded as a lower income trait. Doing so is selling public transport short. However I would link pragmatism with intelligence!

Thirdly, classifying people by age, sex and income, though old staples of market research, may give inadequate results compared to geographic and household living patterns which may have a greater bearing on transport use.

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