Public transport use is still down on the Gold Coast — but don’t blame COVID or commuters

Poor land-use planning and financial incentives are the Achilles heel to meeting public transport targets on the Gold Coast, an academic says.

The Gold Coast City Council’s annual transport snapshot has revealed residents are continuing to shy away from public services — patronage is down 35 percent compared to pre-COVID levels.

Griffith University City Research Institute deputy director Matthew Burke says public transport gains made in the central Gold Coast are being dragged down by the city’s northern suburbs.

“They’re almost required to do everything by car, including burning a liter of diesel to go get a liter of milk,” he said.

“We are building a very car-based suburbia to the north, with people moving in with two, three and four car households.

“They are almost never using public transport for their journeys and who can blame them? There literally is no decent public transport.”

Census data shows the Gold Coast population has grown by 23 percent in 10 years, half of which has occurred in the northern parts.

A digital impression of a train station planned for construction.
The concept design of the new Pimpama station, which is expected to be operational by late 2024.(Supplied: Transport and Main Roads)

‘Car-oriented landscapes’

Gold Coast City Council wants 12 percent of households to be using public transport by 2031.

In 2021 the rate sat at 3.3 percent.

Motor vehicle usage per household is reported at 84.4 percent, which the council aims to reduce to 74 percent by 2031.

Professor Burke holds little hope for improvement across the Gold Coast until all three levels of government address the root cause of car reliance, particularly on the new estates of the northern Gold Coast.

“Everyone looks to the transport planners to try and fix that, and it is, to be frank, way beyond transport planners to fix the car-oriented landscapes that we continue to build,” he said.

An aerial photo showing heavy traffic on a major highway.
The Pacific Highway between Brisbane and the Gold Coast is frequently congested.(AAP: Dave Hunt)

Professor Burke said scrapping federal tax initiatives such as the novated leasing of cars would remove an incentive for Australians to purchase more vehicles.

“We’re one of the only countries in the world with this innovative lease scheme that gives you a giant tax write-off to lease a company car,” he said.

The professor said planning in Queensland was also exacerbating the issue.

“Over and over and over again, we do things to encourage people to drive,” he said.

“There’s a whole heap of settings in our land-use planning, particularly at state government level in Queensland, that just continue to proliferate car oriented [developments].

“It’s not sprawl — it’s now much more sequential and orderly development, but orderly development of car-based suburbia.”

A smiling politician in a hard hat and high-vis.
Gold Coast Mayor Tom Tate says bus patronage is not where he wants it to be.(ABC Gold Coast: Dominic Cansdale)

Resurgence of light rail

An on-demand bus service is being trialled in Pacific Pines, Highland Park and Nerang to address gaps in the public transport system.

Mayor Tom Tate has acknowledged that bus usage is lower than he would like, but he says efforts are being made to improve services in the north.

“We have partnered with the state government to launch more regular public bus services across the north of our city,” he said.

“I’m confident this expanded public bus trial will be a success and the uptake of public transport in the north will continue.”

Queensland Transport and Main Roads Minister Mark Bailey says departmental data is showing the green shoots of recovery, with patronage on the Gold Coast light rail leading the resurgence.

“For the week ending November 13 it was actually at 107 percent of pre-COVID levels,” he said.

“Gold Coast light rail has been the best performing mode of public transport, patronage-wise, for the whole state.

“It was the first mode of public transport to reach pre-pandemic levels and is now the first mode of public transport to surpass them.”

Passengers board a light rail carriage.
Light rail is proving the most popular mode of public transport on the Gold Coast.(ABC News: Richard Johnson)

Matters of trust

International city design company Arcadis has found more services and a cultural shift are required before a greater number of people choose public transport on the Gold Coast.

The company’s cities director Paul Allan said people needed to be able to trust their transport options.

“It comes down to, ‘Oh, I don’t know if the bus is going to turn up — is it going to get stuck in traffic, what am I going to do?'” he said.

Mr. Allan said investment in more timely services on the northern Gold Coast would ease the uncertainty commuters faced.

“At the moment the thought is, ‘The bus is no faster, I am going to get stuck in traffic — I might as well pay for my own parking at the other end and pay for my own fuel,'” he said.

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