For a Better Brisbane

Is density destiny? Transport for Suburbia (book review)

Dr Paul Mees latest book, Transport for Suburbia: Beyond the Automobile age. Image credit: Earthscan.

My central argument is that the public transport problem is easier to solve than people think. We don’t need to demolish our suburbs and rebuild them at many times their current densities; nor do we need a fundamental transformation of human consciousness …

-Preface, Transport for Suburbia, P. Mees

Is density destiny? Dr Paul Mees latest book Transport for Suburbia: Beyond the Automobile age explores this question. It’s a very readable book, written for the ordinary person to understand. It walks the reader through the rise of car dominance ‘autopia’ and the decline of private rail, tram and bus operations. It argues that citywide density figures have been used for arguing against public transport improvements. For those who wonder just how all-pervasive this density-population-transit mode share idea is,  there is a ‘density’ comparison table in the Northern Link EIS documents on page 2-39 (italic emphasis added, link here). To be fair, it was written before the release of Transport for Suburbia.

The convenience and flexibility provided by private motor vehicle travel appears to override other
considerations, such as personal finances, for the majority of suburban residents in Australian capital cities. The demand for this mode of travel can be expected to continue in the future.

Furthermore, the form and density of most Australian cities, including Brisbane and the other major centres in South East Queensland, demand a degree of reliance on private motor vehicle travel, at least to a public transport node.

Table 2-7 illustrates the low density of settlement in the Brisbane urban area compared with other Australian cities and international cities with arguably better public transport systems and a lower reliance on private motor vehicle travel.

– Northern Link Environmental Impact Statement,

Volume 1, Chapter 2 “project rationale” page 2-39, by SKM Connell Wagner.

The table from the NorthernLink EIS shows Brisbane with the lowest density and lowest population out of the cities of London, Paris, San Francisco, Vancouver, Sydney and Melbourne. The BrisUrbane Blog intends to revisit this issue in later posts.

The book has a detailed look at ‘greener cars’ and accompanying claims that electric cars or more fuel efficient cars will make ‘autopia’ sustainable.  Mees argues that the fuel efficiency of the Australian car fleet from 1963-2006 has remained virtually the same over that period and thus fuel efficient cars won’t overall do much and also, depending on how clean the power plants are, electric cars are likely to simply transfer emissions from the exhaust pipe to the power station.

A detailed table of citywide densities are provided on pages 60-61; Los Angeles, the poster child of freeways and sprawl turns out to be one of the most dense and highly populated cities in the list (out of a set of US, Canadian and Australian cities). It also shows that LA has terrible transport mode share of just 4.7%. In contrast, Brisbane with a density far below that of LA and a far lower population has a much better transport mode share of 13.8%.

The thorny issue of private versus public is dealt with in chapter 5, with the book recommending that strategic functions such as network planning and ticketing should rest with a public authority, rather than just be left to individual operators. Chapter six examines the case of public transport in Melbourne and Toronto, and why, despite their similarities, public transport patronage collapsed in Melbourne but held up in Toronto, despite Toronto having far less train infrastructure than Melbourne.

Usefully, it takes all of these examples and proposes a general working model of what a successful public transport system looks like. It proposes a public agency in control of network planning, fares and ticketing, and a focus on network planning rather than huge density increases to improve public transport, so things like getting the different modes connecting with each other through interchanges, simple line structures, pulse timing and decent frequency.

The BrisUrbane blog feels that some parts of the book perhaps overstated some things like the timing of SmartBus at Huntingdale station (if the bus connects multiple railway lines, which train do you time for?), it is all in all a valuable book for transit and community advocates who might want something easier to read than very technical engineering textbooks. This isn’t likely to be the only transit book review for this year- The BrisUrbane blog looks forward to reviewing another transit advocacy book, Human Transit, by Jarrett Walker of the Human Transit Blog when it is released.

Acknowledgment: EarthScan publishers for allowing copyright permission to republish the book’s cover image for the purposes of this blog post. Transport for Suburbia may be purchased here. The BrisUrbane blog is not associated with EarthScan and receives no benefit or inducement for the publication of this book review.


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March 19, 2011 at 7:41 pm

3 Responses

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  1. (By similar way, I mean similar to the way Dr Mees calculated them. E.g. not weighted, but average).


    March 22, 2011 at 9:53 am

  2. Hi Alan. It’s a pleasure to have you on the blog!

    Dr Mees didn’t appear to use the concept of weighted density, but the planning profession tends to refer to numbers like Demographia which are calculated in a similar way (See the Northern Link Tunnel EIS document for a real-world example).

    It would be interesting to run the calculation again with weighted density and then test for a correlation. Density does have an impact (if you have a city with zero people, the density is zero and the PT mode share therefore must also be zero) but other things are likely to be at play too.

    There is actually a disclaimer on the inside of the Demographia ‘telephone book’ of densities which also says that ‘density profile’ does not make much change to a city’s transport because car is faster for most trips anyway. However this appears to be an assertion that hasn’t rigorously been tested yet.

    This blog believes that the ‘low density’ of Brisbane is probably more to do with the higher levels of bushland within the city, flood plain at Rocklea and ultra-low density suburbs on the fringes strongly biasing the average density number.


    March 22, 2011 at 9:48 am

  3. I’d be interested to know if Dr Mees uses the concept of weighted or perceived density in this analysis or if it relies solely on average density.

    Alan Davies

    March 21, 2011 at 6:52 pm

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