Research impact: Free public transport would mostly benefit wealthier inner-city residents

Map of Melbourne showing the VAMPIRE score (the Vulnerability Analysis for Mortgage, Petroleum and Inflation Risks and Expenditure), available via the AURIN Map portal.

The rising cost of living is causing economic pain across Australia. The soaring price of petrol is impacting not just our commutes but also the costs of goods and services. This has led to increased pressure on the government to intervene and offer some relief.

There are two popular solutions—politicians could cut or eliminate the fuel excise, or public transport could be subsidised or made free. While the idea of free public transport might seem like the perfect solution—both easing economic stress and ideally reducing carbon emissions—research from Professor Dodson and Dr Li at RMIT tells a different story.

Professor Dodson and Dr Li’s research from the Centre for Urban Research at RMIT reveals that free public transport disproportionately benefits people who live in the inner and middle suburbs. Using their VAMPIRE (Vulnerability Indices for Mortgage, Petroleum and Inflation Risks and Expenditure) dataset and the SNAMUTS (Spatial Network Analysis for Multimodal Urban Transport Systems) indicators, which are available to researchers through the AURIN Platform, they found the farther someone lives from the Melbourne CBD the less access they have to public transport. Due to this difficulty in accessing reliable public transport it’s more likely people in suburbs further away will be forced to rely on a private vehicle. This is a pattern that generally applies in all major Australian cities.

Professor Dodson and Dr Li’s research highlights these hidden costs, and it challenges assumptions of perceived solutions to urban problems. Not only does living in the outer suburbs require greater reliance on private vehicles, it also costs people significantly more. The research also showed that service workers in retail and hospitality will spend double the proportion of their income on transport costs than a professional working in the scientific and financial sectors.

Rather than removing the fuel excise or making public transport cheaper, Prof Dodson and Dr Li argue for a more equitable economic response. In the short term, targeted income assistance should be provided for those in need. A more long-term solution is to focus on providing better and more equitably distributed public transport services, making sure our transport systems don’t disproportionately benefit the wealthy and discriminate against those on a lower income.

The research we’ve done shows the value of understanding the interactions between social, economic and environmental processes in our cities so that policy can be better crafted to respond to pressing challenges.  Having AURIN as a research infrastructure resource to support access to data and enable advanced urban analysis is central to this effort. – Jago Dodson

AURIN provides access to a variety of data through our APIs and the AURIN Map. Access to this data allows researchers to run analysis across urban domains such as demographics, health, transport and economics, and arrive at research outcomes quickly and effectively, allowing impact from these outcomes to benefit the Australian people much more efficiently.

Prof Dodson and Dr Li’s research was supported by funding from AURIN and the National Environmental Science Program Clean Air and Urban Landscapes Hub. Details of their findings were first featured in The Conversation.