Region Forward Blog

Global Fridays: Does density = transit ridership?

Jan 7, 2011


When it comes to land use and transportation Australia and the United States are fairly similar. They share an expansive geography marked largely by low-density development and a few major cities (out of 239 nations and territories measured the U.S. is the 178th densest while Australia is the 233rd).

Both Australia and the United States have fewer and less advanced mass transit options than their counterparts in Western Europe and parts of Asia. This makes sense to most planners and people in general whether they wish otherwise or not. Mass transit requires a certain population density to generate adequate ridership thus making investment in transit justifiable and successful. That bit of conventional wisdom appears to be disputed by a new study of population density and transit usage published in the scholarly journal Australian Planner.

According to an article in The Age a Melbourne newspaper the study found that higher population densities did not always translate into increased ridership. At first glance we at The Yardstick have to wonder whether the quality and reliability of mass transit was taken into account in addition to simply population density and ridership.

“There is no doubt that a compact and connected urban form enhances the potential for oil-free mobility through walking cycling and greater public transport use” the report notes. “However we … argue that it is not necessary to intensify land-use across the whole city before significant improvement in both patronage and economic efficiency of public transport becomes possible.”

The authors contend that the study proves that outer suburbs can and should be provided with alternatives to auto transportation despite their low-density land use patterns. “The keys to increasing public transport use in outer suburbs are more frequent buses running at least every 10-15 minutes and not just in peak hour; better co-ordination with rail services; more convenient transfers; and fares that allow free transfers between modes.”

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