Mathew Hounsell, University of Technology Sydney’s Institute for Sustainable Futures. Image: Jamie Williams

The number of public transport trips being taken in Sydney has been grossly underestimated, analysis of Opal card data has found.

A team from the University of Technology Sydney’s Institute for Sustainable Futures has been working with data drawn from Opal travel information released by Transport for NSW as part of a wider government open data policy, uncovering surprising findings that have major implications for urban planners, developers and businesses in the city.

Mathew Hounsell, senior research consultant at the ISF, has developed a digital platform that allows users to dive deep into the data, enabling researchers to “find things we didn’t know we needed to look for”.

For example, the general assumption among researchers was that peak hours for the homeward commute were 5-6pm, however, the data shows it actually extends to 7 pm.

A major finding is that the number of journeys taken on trains within the Sydney greater metropolitan area has been greatly underestimated. The estimate – previously based on sales of paper tickets – had been around 20 million train trips a month.

In reality, the Opal data shows about 30 million train trips a month, with bus journeys adding an extra 20 million trips.

Journeys on the inner west light rail are also growing rapidly, with the circa 10 million trips in the past year already above the number of annual trips predicted for 2026

“There is a lot more demand for public transport than was estimated [by planners],” Mr Hounsell said.

He said the previous method of calculating trips resulted in a lot of assumptions made regarding planning in NSW because it was based on estimates that were far less than actual use.

The data also enables the researchers to see that the legacy of the old tram system, which is now serviced by the Sydney bus network, has resulted in a higher level of service than in some other parts of the city.

Eastern suburbs of Sydney serviced by the tram network were built as medium density, transport-oriented developments, Mr Hounsell said, because the car was still a relatively new and rare commodity when deco-style walk-up apartments were being built. These suburbs were also designed to be walkable for the same reason.

Residents of these eastern suburbs, where there is a high level of public transport availability, are frequent users.

By contrast, the more recently built suburbs of Western Sydney do not have a comparable level of public transport.

Mr Hounsell said the best public transport supply in Sydney was to the richest suburbs, which, according to the Census, also have the highest rates of car ownership.

People value public transport and will pay more to live in areas where there are good services, he said.

Another interesting trend is that ferries and light rail are extremely popular on weekends. Sydneysiders’ love of the ferry is an all-seasons affair, with Sunday trips outstripping weekday trips on routes such as the Manly Ferry from Circular Quay, even in the middle of winter.

Researchers can also see that close to 10am is when people are likely to head out from home on a Saturday.

In terms of the mix of modes, Mr Hounsell said other data showed people were more likely to interchange than researchers had thought. Bondi Junction, for example, is a major destination for people swapping from bus to train.

“We used to think people preferred door-to-door.”

Implications for transport planning

This has implications for planning of public transport as it suggests Australia could adopt a more European model of more frequent, interconnected services that involve changing modes at interchanges.

“We can build a cheaper, simpler, more effective public transport network that is very desirable,” Mr Hounsell said.

Another insight is that business owners generally assume people arrive at their premises by car, when in fact data shows the majority of customers are arriving on foot or by public transport.

That means it makes sense to make “really desirable places around our bus stops”, Mr Hounsell said.

The IGA in Enmore for example, is opposite a bus stop and has a “constant stream” of customers who have arrived by bus.

For places where the light rail network is growing, the open data will give planners and researchers an idea of what people are more likely to do, and facilitate the development of better models to predict behaviour.

“The real usage of light rail is quite high,” Mr Hounsell said.

“So in the CBD where the high priority for public transport has been turned off, we should turn it back on.”

He said more bus lanes and bus stops that connect with key feeder routes would lead to a more desirable city, one where people walk more and are healthier as a result.

The fact is “if you build it, they will use it”.

Mr Hounsell said he would like to see Brisbane and Melbourne undertake a similar exercise of opening public transport data from their Brisbane GoCard and Melbourne Myki.

“I would love to hear from Public Transport Victoria. We could make them a data set that would rival – perhaps even better – Sydney’s,” he said.

Brisbane is already starting down the path, and working with its researchers to provide information on how public transport is used in the city.

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  1. Ideally, people don’t need to commute long distances, and can live, work and do most of their activities in a small area. However, if people have to use transport, active transport is best, followed by public transport, shared transport, etc. Autonomous public transport may be helpful, but people need to work as well. Autonomous private transport may just increase congestion. Private transport with cars and roads should be the last resort in planning.

    I ride through the city every day from Redfern to get to Milsons Point. However, it is stressful and time can be spent just sitting there not moving, so I’m looking to move to live closer to work.

  2. I remember being laughed at by RMS goons at a WestConnex disinformation session when I suggested that their claims of overwhelming desirability of private car use did not reflect reality. They refused to believe that suburban trains were so popular that they were filled well over their capacity every peak hour, and did most of the heavy work of getting most Sydneysiders to and from work. “Sydney will never have a metro” they said. “The population is too spread out for it to work.” This while huge blocks of flats were being vomited up all over the place to cope with a population increase of 1 million per decade. This article shows that RMS have been making their planning decisions based on ignorance and too much laziness to bother doing basic research into how people prefer to get around town. It’s time to stop pouring public funds down the toilet of projects like WestConnex and build faster, cheaper, safer and more sustainable and comfortable public suburban railways that allow Western residents and businesses to catch up with what the east has enjoyed for nearly a century.

  3. This is brilliant! The Black Swan of research blows planning assumptions out of the water!

    The automobile fixation of 2oth Century techno-utopias – so last century
    Autonomous vehicles – do we really need them?
    Walkable, connected cities, multi-modal commutes – connect the TODs!
    Who would have thought!!