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Melburnians need to get back on public transport


One of the most striking features of the COVID-19 lockdowns in Melbourne was the quiet. With little traffic on the roads, the city went eerily silent. That is now a distant memory as many people prefer to use their car over public transport.

Melbourne traffic is almost back to pre-COVID-19 levels – the proof is in the congestion – despite large numbers of people still working from home and the cost of fuel heading well north of $2. It has been a much slower return to public transport. The latest data from the Transport Department shows the network experienced its sharpest increase in patronage since 2020 last Thursday. The figure hit 63 per cent of the pre-COVID baseline – a 9 per cent rise from the same time the previous week but still far behind the return to cars.

Passengers leave a tram in the CBD on Sunday.

Passengers leave a tram in the CBD on Sunday.Credit:Chris Hopkins

Fear of catching COVID-19 is clearly a major factor in people’s hesitancy. But the risk is not what it seems. Professor Catherine Bennett, chair of epidemiology at Deakin University, believes being inside a shop or cafe for longer than 15 minutes could pose a higher risk of transmission than being on a train, tram or bus, where face masks are still mandated.

It’s an argument that needs to be heard loud, clear and often. Environmental advocacy groups have spent years trying to convince people to leave their cars at home when getting around the city. If we are to kick our reliance on fossil fuels, and rescue our roads from gridlock, leaving our vehicles in the garage will play a big part. Close to a million Tesla electric vehicles may have been sold last year, but it will be at least a decade before the new technology dominates the car market.

The state government has made a start at luring people back to public transport. Fares were frozen last year and increases this year were below inflation – they rose 2.3 per cent for the city and 1.1 per cent in the regions. The government also temporarily reduced off-peak fares to minimise crowding earlier in the pandemic.

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The Victorian Greens want to go further. They are calling for public transport to be made free for an initial one-month period and for that to be regularly reviewed depending on prices at the bowser. While free anything usually attracts a crowd, some question whether offering public transport at no cost is worthwhile. Public Transport Users Association spokesman Daniel Bowen said the people most affected by high petrol prices lived in suburbs with poor public transport services and would not be helped by the Greens proposal.

So if not free, then what? Dr Jonathan Spear, chief executive of independent advisers Infrastructure Victoria, suggested this week that there was room to lower fares for some underused public transport services. With people tending to avoid the office on Mondays and Fridays, maybe there is room for discounts on particular days.

Appealing to the hip pocket, however, is not a panacea. After being encouraged for so long to keep a safe distance from each other, for some the thought of getting on a crowded train is anathema. Bringing patronage up again will take time, but it could be fast-tracked by a concerted campaign by the state government and public transport operators to encourage people to leave the car keys at home. It would be a win for the environment, a way of relieving our congested roads and, quite possibly, a chance to save a few dollars.



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