This is a personal post. It's riddled with opinion. But it's not an opinion I think to be unique, and I want more people to know that transport in Australia can be a lot better than it is.
I'm a vehicle fan. I love sports cars (when I can afford them), adventure vehicles, and motorcycles of all kinds; I've owned dozens over the years. I have a personal dream garage that keeps evolving, and I've been lucky to have owned some incredible machines.
But lately, it feels like driving a car or ute (what many know as a "truck") or riding a motorcycle on public roads in Australia has become a lazy scam perpetrated by the government on individuals. The government seems to be shifting the responsibility for improving public transport onto the citizens, making us bear not only the financial burden, but also the stress.
Public transport options are both poor and very expensive in Australia, making vehicle ownership almost mandatory for life in a large city. And driving in Australian cities is a miserable experience that costs us thousands of dollars a year.
The thing Australians don't realise is that it doesn't have to be like this — other major international cities do a much better job.
Public Transport in Australian Cities
Public transport in major Australian cities is OK if you're in the inner city of Melbourne and Sydney. There are a few trams, and trains that run around a loop. Generally, if you're happy to walk up to 15 minutes or so and wait around for a bit, you can get by with public transport.
However, trams are a compromise. They run on the roads, and are thus limited by traffic lights and their own road rules. They're not fast. And a full fare ticket costs $5 at time of writing — which makes an in-and-out daily commute $10 (about 6.5 USD or Euros), or the equivalent of two coffees or a cheap lunch.
On top of that, only a small proportion of Greater Melbourne has access to trams. Living in Melbourne's areas accessible by trams is extremely expensive and, due to the predominance of apartments, suitable mostly only for those with limited size needs. Melbourne and Sydney have some of the highest property prices relative to income in the world, and there is an ongoing rental affordability and vacancy crisis. Thus, most people live in suburbs and have to commute in to the city, if they need to go there for any reason (e.g. work).
Living in the suburbs would work — but public transport there is very sparse. Most people would opt to do something like drive to a local train station, fight for a parking space, and then catch the train to the city. Thus, you end up having to own a car.
Both Sydney and Melbourne have an underground train loop that serves the inner city. But it's a far cry from a metro system. The trains come less often, and there is no network of underground options to take you elsewhere.
Sydney is similar, although there are fewer trams in the central city. Sydney's extended rail network is good, but there are many suburbs that are poorly served or not served at all. There was a recent study that ranked Sydney's transport as "14th in the world", but it was only an analysis of 60 cities, and quite selective in its choice, excluding many Asian cities that have excellent metro options, for example.
One bright side of Sydney's public transport is the ferry. While expensive (minimum $A6.43 on an Opal card — about 4 USD / Euro), at least the views are magnificent.
Even if you live relatively centrally in Brisbane, public transport is not good. There's a ferry along the one river, with not bad views at some times of day, and there are buses. But there's no tram (though there once was), there's no metro, and the rail network is sparse.
So cars (or other private vehicles) are the only way to get around.
The problem is that owning a car or other vehicle is very expensive.
The True Cost of Vehicle Ownership — Financial and Mental
Owning and using a vehicle for transport is incredibly expensive — and you're paying for a miserable experience.
Here's everything you pay for when you own a car or motorcycle in Australia. None of this is unique to Australia, but some of it is higher.
Figures below are in $AUD.
- Depreciation on the value of the car: Hefty in the initial years. Tens of thousands a year on a new car. Budget Direct estimates around 50% depreciation on a car in four years. So a new $40,000 car would lose $20,000 in four years — or $5,000 a year. Of course, most people don't buy new cars (I never have), so let's write that down to $2,000/year to be conservative.
- Maintenance costs: You have to pay for your own oil changes, tires, and major maintenance, of course. This will cost you around $1,000 a year assuming nothing major goes wrong.
- Fuel and other consumables: An increasingly wide variety of cars need "premium" (RON 95) fuel, which hovers around $2 a litre. If you do around 10,000 km a year (average for a family car), this will be upward of $1,500 a year on fuel.
- Insurance: There's mandatory "compulsory third party" (CTP) insurance in every state. On top of that, most people pay for some kind of insurance. Again, this will cost you at least $1,000 a year (it varies greatly by individual, car, location, etc.)
- Registration: You have to register your car. This varies by state, but it's around $500 a year. (NSW it's about $300 a year for a small car, in Victoria about $880, in Queensland about $750, etc. — there's variance.)
- (Optional) Interest on loan repayments (if any)
So, we're already at around $6,000 a year out of your post-tax income. That's $500 out of your pay check every month — before loan repayments.
You could reduce the cost of car ownership by owning an old vehicle and not insuring it comprehensively.
On top of those vehicle ownership costs, there's:
- Traffic fines: Australia has been going crazy with infringement cameras. If you go 2-3 km/h over the limit, you will get an automatic fine in the mail for hundreds of dollars. The easy answer is "Don't speed", but it's really hard to not get caught in random places with which you're not familiar. Even if you manage to keep to the speed limit, the toll on your stress levels is high. We're not robots (yet). All my fines have been for going between 60-70 km/h in 60 km/h zones, one of them 20 km from the nearest town.
- Parking fines: There is always a sign or rule that one will misunderstand. I once parked behind another car in an unfamiliar city, thinking all was fine, before I realised later that we were both facing the wrong way. $150 fine with no contest.
Once you're done with all that mental arithmetic, bear in mind that the prize you get for all that is you get to drive in traffic, endure road rage, breathe fumes, and generally waste time commuting when you could be spending that time with your loved ones, having fun, or maybe just doing nothing at all.
We're not talking about the privilege of relaxed Sunday rides in the countryside where you might enjoy yourself. That's a small percentage of even a driving aficionado's driving.
Good public transport frees you up. You can use your phone to do anything — Waste time on social media, write emails, check in on Slack, or just text your friends. All things you cannot do while driving.
So what does this mean? Owning and driving a car in Australia means paying thousands of dollars a year for daily stress and time wastage. What else could you be doing with thousands of dollars of years and at least an hour more of your day?
More on Traffic and Parking Fines
Anyone reading this who doesn't regularly get fines probably thinks "That one's on you." I get that.
What you may not realise is that it's quite hard for non-locals and infrequent drivers to avoid fines.
Most of the time, I don't live in the cities in which I'm driving. Outside Australia, I live in places with good public transport (many other major cities) and don't drive at all. So I drive maybe for one month out of every twelve, and often in a new location.
In that new location, I have to get used to
- The local traffic (the intersections and how things "work")
- The flow of traffic — Which lanes to stay in, which to avoid (because of e.g. merging or many parked cars)
- Slopes, curves, and so on
Learning all that is quite high stress. I have to absorb a lot of information for the first time. It's easy once you've done it a hundred times — but the first time managing all that AND keeping your speed under a strict limit is exhausting.
Speeding cameras in Australia deserve an extra mention.
In theory, it's easy to not get a speeding ticket. Just don't go fast.
But it's hard to not get a speeding ticket at least sometimes, because:
- You have to go much slower than traffic to be confident you won't speed, and then other drivers may get frustrated with you and tailgate you,
- The car is a very manual device, and there are so many fluctuations — road inclination, curves, constant start-stops — so maintaining a constant speed takes a lot of concentration (it's tiring). This is particularly true of older, more affordable cars.
- Speed signs change frequently and are sometimes hard to track if you're not from an area
- Cameras are strategically placed, e.g. on downhill inclines (irrespective of how dangerous that section is), to catch you going a miniscule amount over the limit.
I'm an organic being. I can't maintain a perfect speed. Even cruise control systems don't do that, as most cruise systems respond to changes in condition after they've happened, and they don't know the speed limits.
Going 55 (keeping under the 60 limit) means going sometimes 50 and sometimes 60, then infrequently 45 and 65. It just happens. And then when I dance over the limit, I am left thinking for the next few weeks: Am I going to receive a speeding ticket in the mail?
Driving and riding in Europe, the US, and elsewhere, I get used to being able to fluctuate up to 20-30 km/h over the 100 km/h speeding limit and police not caring. On top of that, speeding cameras are few and far between — in fact, in many states in the US (notably California), speeding cameras are illegal.
Then when I come back to Australia, I have to re-adjust to the way things are locally, with only a less than 5% margin of error. It's hard to adjust.
Note: Despite my motorcycle being capable of doing over 300 km/h, the only two speeding tickets I got in Australia in the last 20 years were for going 68 km/h and 72 km/h, both on country roads about an hour from the nearest city.
How Other Global Cities Do it
Melbourne and Sydney frequently make the Economist Intelligence Unit's narrow-minded list of "most liveable cities". But they make the list despite high cost of living and poor transport infrastructure.
Metro networks in other great cities of the world put Australian infrastructure to shame.
- London has a well-established subway (the "Tube"), overland rail, and an excellent bus network.
- Paris has an excellent subway ("le Metro") and bus network, as well as trams.
- New York has the Subway and trains, both widely used. (The buses are a bit sketchier, but safe.)
- Berlin has a subway (U-Bahn), an overland rail, trams, and buses.
- Copenhagen has an excellent metro network, trains, and abundant bike routes.
London is a chaotic sprawling city, but man, have they figured out public transport. You don't even need a pass! You use your credit card (contact free, so your phone works) in the metro and buses, and their system automatically figures out if you would have more optimally been able to use a daily, weekly, or monthly pass.
Of course, not every city has good public transport. Most American cities don't. But Europe seems to get the importance of a metro, as does China — they constantly are adding metro lines in many major cities.
Given the company that major Australian cities keep, it definitely seems feasible. So why isn't it happening?
The best Australia seems to have been able to offer is the ability to drive to a train station, park there, and then catch a train in to the city. It's two-mode transport which still requires a car. The parking is always busy or not free, too.
What can we do?
Here's what I would love to happen in Australia: Improve public transport to the point where owning cars seems pointless.
People shouldn't have to own cars just to exist. It's a tax on our wallet, mental health, and time. The public transport options available to them should be so good that nobody would want to own a car. People who live in cities like London and New York often don't have cars.
The London Tube, New York Subway, and Paris Metro networks are so expansive and so well-served that they're seen as by far the more convenient option.
Yes, it costs money to build things. But — without having done the calculations — the productivity gains and improvements in the livability of the city in objective terms would outweigh it. Just figure out how to build it, Ministry of Transport — it's what you're paid for.
My only other recommendation would be to ditch the mobile speeding cameras in the middle of nowhere held by vigilante cops. But this is a personal plea that I don't expect to be met, just so I can enjoy country roads again!
Until the above happens, I don't see myself registering a car in Australia again.
I welcome your thoughts on this. Feel free to contact me privately.