Sydney vs Melbourne PT patronage

Last year I wrote a blog pondering why Sydney’s rail patronage is 50% higher than Melbourne’s.

This has got a fresh airing amid speculation that Melbourne’s COVID-19 spread is linked to greater urban mobility in Melbourne compared to Sydney.

I thought I’d quickly look at public transport patronage specifically.

Here it is summed up in one graph, showing 2018-19 (the last full financial year of patronage unfettered by the pandemic). Boardings for the year in millions.

Some observations and caveats:

The Sydney data is sourced from NSW’s excellent Opal data, which is updated weekly. Very good. This means some trips (non-Opal) are not counted here.

The Melbourne data is sourced from the State Budget papers, which are updated… annually. Pretty poor. The train number is based on Metro Trains, but I’ve also included half of all V/Line trips, to account for its heavy use in Melbourne’s outer western suburbs such as Tarneit. This is not an exact number, just an educated guess.

These numbers are boardings, not journeys. This means if someone catches a bus to the station, then a train to work, that’s two boardings. Of course this happens in both Sydney and Melbourne, though I suspect not to the extent of European and Asian networks where there’s a bigger emphasis on high frequency feeder and connecting services. (Census data might be worth digging into for more on this.)

Town Hall Station, Sydney

Comparing Sydney and Melbourne used to be difficult when Sydney’s population was much higher, but they’re now pretty close. As of June 2019 (which is when the patronage data ends): Sydney was 5.3 million, Melbourne 5.1 million, less than a 5% difference.

Overall, with 732 million boardings per year, Sydney is 26% higher than in Melbourne with 582 million.

Per capita, Sydney had 137 trips per person per year, Melbourne 114, so Sydney is 20% higher on this measure.

This seems to back up Journey To Work data from the Census. Unfortunately we don’t have a work vs non-work comparison, but given Sydney beats Melbourne by a very high percentage (56%) on PT work trips, it might be true that Melbourne’s PT is used for more non-work trips.

Train+Metro in Sydney had 59% more boardings than Melbourne’s trains. It’s probably since gone a lot higher (prior to COVID), as the Sydney Metro had only just opened in May 2019, and is known to have been very successful – between June 2019 and March 2020 patronage doubled. Melbourne Metro and V/Line patronage has been growing too, but probably not as fast.

Bus+Tram patronage in Sydney is just 4.4% less than Melbourne. Almost all of this in Sydney is on bus, but tram (light rail) patronage is increasing fast following the opening of the L2 and L3 lines.

If you lump in Sydney ferries with bus and tram (eg all the non-heavy rail modes together) then Sydney and Melbourne are just about equal, with just 0.28% difference.

So really overall, it’s the much higher train patronage in Sydney which makes the big difference in overall public transport use. (More on this)

Boarding figures only partly reflect mobility. A better number would be passenger kilometres (for work and non-work trips), but I’m not sure that sort of data is available.

Bondi Beach: Queue for bus back to Bondi Junction and Sydney city


What conclusions can we draw from this, apart from that Sydneysiders use public transport more than Melburnians, and particularly for work journeys?

For overall questions of mobility, you’d also need to look not just at public transport, but also car travel.

You could easily argue that movement in specific areas of Sydney is constrained by the water – for instance the Northern Beaches (subject of an outbreak in December/January, which was largely contained to that area). The Yarra and Maribyrnong rivers don’t present quite the same type of huge geographical barrier as Sydney Harbour.

At a citywide level, I’d be cautious in concluding that Melburnians are more mobile than their friends in Sydney.

But it may be true that specific groups are more mobile (younger people socialising, and the socially disadvantaged travelling further for work), but I suspect more data and analysis is needed.

By Daniel Bowen

Transport blogger / campaigner and spokesperson for the Public Transport Users Association / professional geek.
Bunurong land, Melbourne, Australia.
Opinions on this blog are all mine.

12 replies on “Sydney vs Melbourne PT patronage”

Hi Daniel,

Nice crunch of the data. I do think however you have missed what is being said when media is comparing COVID outbreaks/lockdown to ‘mobility’. You did touch on it slighting in your last paragraph that geographically Sydney Urban Area is split it to small areas thanks to the bay and rivers, this is not the case here in Melbourne. What is also different about Sydney and also lacking in Melbourne, is Sydney’s multiple ‘Activity Areas’ like Parramatta, Bankstown, Epping for example. Sydney’s heavy rail network also allows people to access these secondary ‘CBDs’ without having to enter Sydney CBD.

As we well know, this is not the case here in Melbourne. Although Plan Melbourne 2050 talks about moving to a decentralised city, we are decades behind Sydney. What this all means is that many of those boardings from Sydney are not going into the CBD. Whereas here in Melbourne everyone must travel via the CBD, conversely Melbournes vast tram network also doesn’t help.

This is what is being talked about when we’re here of mobility, that a Sydneysider may catch a train/bus a short distance to work in there local area, making it more difficult for COVID to spread city wide. Here in Melbourne, many must travel via the city or cross suburbs on the tram network to reach their destination, making it easier for COVID to pop up in multiple areas around Melbourne. Our orbital road network is also another contributing factor to all of this.

Might be hard to confirm, but I would guess that trams stronger off-peak patronage relative to trains/buses. Anecdotally, lunchtime and weekend trips on trams are very significant and comparable to peak loads in some areas. The routes (including the types of places they run) and service frequency of trams means they’re convenient for moving through the CBD and along major shopping streets. I would be interested to see what the breakdown of tram trip lengths looks at different time of day – especially around the CBD.

Buses in Sydney are less suited for this task, and the geography is less conducive to this type of trip, so the amount of short off-peak trips is probably a fair bit lower compared to that of Melbourne’s tram network. Sydney’s CBD is also quite long and there is nothing that can perform the same role that trams do in Melbourne, and Sydney tends to favour very high-density hubs, rather than the sprawling streets that Melbourne has.

An approach could be comparing tram frequency with tram mode share to work, against that of other modes in Sydney and Melbourne.

With a $2.50 daily cap in Sydney for Seniors within the Opal network, including country NSW, as against Melbourne’s $4.50 Seniors cap for metropolitan travel plus more for country travel might be one factor. Noticeably more inner suburban residents in Sydney seem to me to use public transport than in Melbourne. I can see they are fitter too as using public transport means more walking and there are steep hills in Sydney. I also think there is especially more street parking within Melbourne’s CBD. Maybe Sydney’s public is just better too. After a week there I managed quite well without much knowledge.

A combination of factors would lead to better train usage in Sydney, I think:
– Lack of parking in many areas in the inner suburbs and especially the CBD unless if you want to pay several tens of dollars for even an hour.
– Generally better services. Melbourne’s generally got 20-40 mins frequencies of trains outside of peak times. Most, if not all, stations in Sydney have at most 15 mins wait for a train no matter when, and the Illawarra Line is at most 5-10 mins wait for the majority of its daily operation.
– The trains themselves might also help if you are travelling long distance – Because it’s double deck, there’s a good chance you can sit all the way.
– Sydney has secondary hubs that are essentially second CBDs like Parramatta, Chatswood, or to a lesser extent Epping/Eastwood, Liverpool, Blacktown etc. Melbourne has maybe Dangenong and Footscray… Also worth noting, many of the shopping centres, like Westfields Parra/Chatswood and big apartment blocks are located within a short walk from the stations too.

Two things stood out at me as soon as I read the heading above, if you where going to compare trains vs trains. Melbourne has a good tramway network, Sydney does not. Trams do provide a popular and viable alturnative to the train.

Also, the roads. Melbourne is much better than Sydney. Sydney is deemed to have ‘nightmare roads’ compared to Melbourne. That would push more onto Sydney transport than in Melbourne.

Now, for greater public transport useage as your article is about, again, I cant help but cite the same two points.

Perhaps the legacy bus network in outer Melbourne, which is really cheap, thanks to how bus routes where constrained by the license rights of another bus operator. Did Sydney have this set up like us?

A complete overhaul, with all new bus routes, scraping all that is there, would see a massive improvement in some areas including Knox and the Waverlies as two separate areas that come to mind.

I support the theory about double decker trains. Those seats are quite a selling point on long journies.

@TranzitJim – Seems like you were triggered with the article as such:

1. We all know that Melbourne has one of the biggest tram networks in the world, and is one that other states would envy. However, this article is talking about ALL PT modes, so I’m not sure what is the point of raising that? That’s like me saying trams are inflexible buses. Quite a useless comment.

2. This is just an assumption, that the roads are worse. Provide some data around this please otherwise it is another baseless comment without any evidence. Have you considered that maybe people are more transport oriented in Sydney? Please… lets hear the other excuses – Oh, Sydney is hilly so more people use public transport.

3. And for the 3rd time, looks like you are reaching for excuses (Oh maybe its constrained by the license rights of another bus operator) hence why the uptake in buses is low. Please, scratching at the bottom of the barrel Jimbo.

At least one aspect of road navigation is more difficult. As a former resident in Melbourne and a current resident in Sydney, I can attest to that as well my friends in Sydney, some who also used to live in Melbourne. For one thing, the roads (or more spceifically, the total width for the vehicle lanes) are generally narrower on most inner city and CBD streets. The majority of the wider roads within the CBD including parts of Goulburn, Park, and the majority of Elizabeth Streets are around 20m wide. Only the southern section of Elizabeth Street and Wentworth Avenue go over 20m width. Another thing to note that the road widths aren’t consistent in its entire length – in Goulburn Street’s case, it’s 3+2 lanes of traffic east of George Street and approx 20m wide, and then its two lanes with around 15m width. Other streets (and I mean streets as opposed to laneways) are as little as 5-10m like Pitt Street. Even outside the CBD, Parramatta Road, Regent Street, Oxford Street, and New South Head Road aren’t any wider in absolute meterage terms (also roughly 20mm when I measured in Google Maps). King Street through Newtown (which is supposed to be the main route down south) would be 10-15m, not much wider than some of the CBD streets. Anzac Parade might be one of the few exceptions, as that one has around 25m.

Compare that to Melbourne which has all of the CBD and inner city local streets (not laneways) at around 18-20m, and main routes from the CBD like St Kilda Road, or Victoria/Wellington/Roal Parades at 30-35m, with more consistent width throughout. Also compare how Melbourne’s main roads are laid on a grid, as opposed to Sydney, which has a road layout resembling more like London’s. Considering this, I wouldn’t be surprised if people find Melbourne easier to drive in. Which is a shame, considering how much the amenity is provided from medians when they are green spaces like in Drummond Street or Royal Parade as opposed to parking spaces like Queens Street.

Given the higher average capacity in Sydney trains (double deck, usually 8 carriages) it would be interesting to “normalise” the comparative numbers per train service.

The attitudes between public transport provision in Melbourne and Sydney are worlds apart also.

– For Sydney CBD, if you drive and park for work, you would be looking at close to $50 pre-covid for early bird parking. As such, work-trips by car to the CBD were 6% pre-covid vs Melbourne’s 20% – since it is still possible to get early bird parking for $10.Even on weekends, you have to pay for parking in Sydney CBD, whereas Melbourne is still offering untimed for free on Sundays. Evenings are paid until between 10pm-12midnight depending where you are in Sydney CBD.
– Even other hubs are expensive for parking – $25 per day in Parramatta, Chatswood or North Sydney.
– On-street parking during most of the work day in Sydney city is Loading zone only. It’s close to impossible to find an actual on street parking spot, and even if you do, it’s $8/hr.
– Beaches on the northern beaches charge $10/hr for parking in summer. Eastern suburb beaches are around the same (I believe Bondi is $11/hr but I can’t check). There’s still not enough parking, so don’t even bother trying unless you wake up at 4am.
– Every suburban shopping centre has time limited access for parking, and many local areas have no on-street parking through their main thoroughfare / promenade.
– Public transport services are frequent! There are heaps of bus routes running every 10 minutes or better all over Sydney. The B1 bus has buses as short as 2 minutes apart. There are very few in Melbourne that achieve this.
– There are services that are soo frequent that there is literally no timetable for them, not even an operational one. All the light rails, the metro and B1 are operated without timetables.
– Shopping centres are built literally on top of train stations. Stations are directly integrated into shopping centres. Melbourne was able to achieve was building a station to the car park of a shopping centre a couple of years ago.

There’s a whole book that’s recently been published comparing the Sydney and Melbourne electrified train systems (“A tale of two systems”, Alex Wardrop). A significant aspect of the book considers patronage trends over time.

My personal view is that the core reason is simply geography. Sydney’s CBD is essentially hard up against the Pacific ocean, the CBD is on a peninsular, the core of the city is split into two by the harbour with limited road crossings, and the topography is hilly. A secondary reason is the age of the city – all the main roads were laid out in the convict era, which means they weren’t systematically laid out, the land allocation was minimal, and the topography meant they were laid out like a snake with colic.

The Pacific ocean (and to a lesser extent the harbour) means that the land close to the city is more limited than in Melbourne. It doesn’t matter where you go in Sydney, the inner and middle suburbs look like St Kilda. Medium density apartment blocks with some remnant workers cottages. There’s a lot more places that look like South Yarra – clusters of high rise apartments.

Put all this together and it’s harder to drive around the inner and middle core of Sydney. There’s more people, and fewer arterial roads. What roads there are are narrow and windy. There’s rarely an alternative route. Hence the train is more attractive. And not just for people that live in the inner and middle core, but also for people who have to travel through it to get to their destination (hence the growth of regional hubs like Paramatta).

Even today geography is limitting Sydney’s geographical growth, forcing it to build up. Melbourne can easily expand to the west and the north – there’s essentially unlimited land. Sydney, on the other hand is bounded continuously in all directions except the south west. This is why there are so many battles in Sydney over the low lying land in Western Sydney that regularly floods.

I meant to also add, if you want a graphical representation of all my words, go to Google maps and look at Melbourne and Sydney. Zoom out to the 5km scale range.

1. Note the dense network of yellow roads in Melbourne, compared with Sydney. Lots of road capacity, and lots of alternative routes.
2. Note that the Melbourne CBD is fairly central in the built up area. Sydney’s CBD is way off to one side. CBD journeys, on average, would be longer in Sydney and mostly go through the same suburbs.

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