My first (and last?) car.

I have a theory.

I think young people in Melbourne find a lot of their travel needs are met by public transport. They get the train to school, uni, work. They get the tram to head out at night. They have a bike that they use. They may even get a bus down the coast every now and then.

But then a strange type of trip starts cropping up in their schedule, and they can’t do it by PT. Maybe they need to get to a relative’s house that’s far away. Could be they’ve got a new job that requires them to be there before the trams start. Or they’ve started surfing and they want to go down the coast a lot. Whatever the reason, they get tipped over the edge to buy a car by this one trip.

Then, everything changes. The car just works out being easier. The 10 x 2-hour ticket is much less seen.  The bike rusts.  :(

If my theory is right, more half-empty late-night train services, and more trains to places that people don’t often go to (cross-town / the coast / the airport), could dramatically decrease that first-car purchase. This would lock in the punters to catching the tram/train/bus a lot more.

People look at half-empty buses and see them as a waste, but they are part of a bigger ‘system’, and if they stop people buying a car, they may have a purpose.

Young people are the obvious target for being ‘locked in’. In some ways, that fact that young people can’t drive until they are eighteen is excellent for public transport. It gives a big group of people who are not irrationally biased against PT and would consider continuing to use it if it met their needs cheaply.

So, I would like to do some research here: why did you buy your first car?

For a specific kind of trip?

For the general sense that you needed one?

To impress the ladies with your sick mag wheels?

And did having a car cut into trips you were previously happy to do on PT?

Pop your answers below!

Personally, my first (and current) car is a distinctly crappy 1988 Hyundai Excel (see above), which I obtained for free, from a relative. I got it, and got my driver’s license, because I had no other way to get from Canberra, where I was living, to Perisher, where I was skiing each weekend. The first Monday after I got my license I rode my bike to work, telling myself I would not start becoming a driving commuter. Then I drove every day for the next two years…

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Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

19 thoughts on “My first (and last?) car.”

  1. I grew up in Canberra where the PT is appalling and you can get your licence at 17 – so it was natural to get a car as soon as you could. Then I moved to Melbourne, sold my car and was quite happy for 4 years. Then my job made me get a car and now I drive far more than I need to, but I’m still happy. I think once you have a car and a bit of disposable income they are hard things to get rid of. Once you’ve paid the rego you may as well use it right?


  2. I had a car from the day I turned 18. I lived in country vic so it was pretty much required. But I moved to Melbourne 2 months later and drove all the time. Even to the local shops (150m!!). But I’ve been car free for 3 years now and just don’t think about it. If I want to go somewhere, I just jump on my bike and start riding. I do live with my girlfriend who has a car mind you, so for camping trips, festivals etc I can still load up and roll out. I rarely use it in Melbourne though which I like. I don’t think of it as mine, so it’s only when I can’t use PT or bike that I ask to borrow it. I wish festivals would organise more PT for the punters or some incentives for them to use it.


  3. My university was only on bus routes and the service was poor. Even though I’d spent all high school working out how I was going to get my P plate before my 18th birthday, when the time came was too busy and it wasn’t until 18.75 years I got it.

    When I got my first car I would have still used it for recreation only and PT for my main uni journeys if the bus service wasn’t so bad.’

    Good topic though. Uni students who did not have a bad experience with the buses might have delayed their first car purchase for many years. The governments who built unis in car-only locations know what they were doing.


  4. I did feel a bit funny about the ‘ladies’ who drove and I didn’t – OTOH most of my ‘ladies’ didn’t drive or own a car until well after I did, and I taught a few. But I do remember depending on the lifts of young women and feeling funny about it – hard to act the man when then girl is driving.

    Then again, never bought a car I thought a woman would like to see me in – always bought comfort cars. I spent a lot of time driving and didn’t want cars with no mod cons or sense of comfort in them, even if slow.


  5. My first car was a Subaru Brumby and I bought it because I live in Canberra and you can’t function here without a car, and because I wanted to do lots of driving trips, including to WA.


  6. My car is a hand-me-down and if I hadn’t been given it, I would be car-free today. But, to be honest, I’m really glad I have it. Melbourne is great with PT, Canberra is great with bikes but Brisbane is just terrible. The city has a severe bridge shortage and a crazy winding river: a destination 2kms distant as the crow flies can take 40 minutes traffic filled driving. Consequently the city and surrounds have an entrenched car culture – restaurants are located in pools of car parks, cafe conversations are out of the question when all vicinal roads are roaring with fast moving vehicles. Forget environmental impact, what about the loss of street culture?


  7. thanks for the comments! lots of non-melburnian car stories – maybe the melburnians haven’t got cars!

    please keep the anecdotes rolling in – I would love to get a good size sample of people’s experiences.


  8. my car story is similar to many – from a relative, i just paid for it to be fixed up. In melbourne it was super for work and suburb-dwelling friends, but once living inner i biked and walked like it was goingout of fashion. In Perth i have no car, and it works fine – but my friends have cars asm does one of my housemates, and when i have a hire car for work i love it. What i like best about not hving a car is that it’s partly an accident, but i get to get on my environmental high horse and feel good about myself. :)


  9. I got mine from a relastive when in 2nd year uni mainly because it was $500 and I figured I’d need one eventually.

    did a combination of trips to uni either train/bus (to Monash Clayton), rode my bike or drove probably about 50% drivign and 25% each the other two depending on how I felt on the day.

    I never drove ‘out’ because I always wanted to be able to drink.

    I now am very much like Dan – I live with my girlfriend, she has a car that I think of as hers and only drive in worst case scenarios – that 1 random trip to nowhere at an odd time that isn’t suitable for PT.


  10. 29 years and still yet to ever ‘own’ a car. I borrowed a dodgy Subaru Sportwagon with a broken heater for 4 months in the Snowy mountains (in winter) but that’s all.
    Like Dan and Lachie, I have a car that lives at my house but isn’t mine ;-), but even then, it gets one 15 min trip per week, usually.
    My sums go that given the cost of rego/insurance/petrol/maintenance, that’s a lot of taxis and train fares…
    Would be interesting to see how that went without the car parked out the front, though…


  11. I bought my car, a 1996(?) Ford Mondeo second had from my dad when he got a new car and I was moving to Canberra. While I lived there I drove to work almost every day.

    I couldn’t afford to have a car before that living in inner city Melbourne as a uni student.

    Now back in Melbourne, I use PT for work and going out, and I mainly use my car for trips out of town, and for grocery shopping.

    I’m sure it’s not cost effective, and I thought about selling it but I use my car enough that I can’t convince myself to do it.

    Not sure if I would have bought a car if I hadn’t spent some time in the Can – evidence from other Melb based friends suggests yes.


  12. I grew up in Auckland and got my first cheap jap import just before my 16th birthday. I actually had the car a few weeks before I had my learners licence.

    I used it to drive to school, and later to work, not to mention for just about any other need. Havin a car meant I would no longer catch the bus to one particular mall that used to be reasonably easy to get to by bus (still 45mins on the bus vs. about 10 in the car). Except for that and walking to school, all other trips would usually involve being driven by the parents anyway, so my PT usage did not actually drop much.

    In Auckland the ‘general sense of needing a car’ is not so much a perception as a near-fact.

    Interestingly, after high school I started to take the bus to university in the CBD, as it was faster than sitting on the congested Northern Motorway, and cheaper than paying CBD parking. After moving to a city fringe flat I would catch the bus to work in the CBD, but kept the car for all other trips.

    Now living in Melbourne, I use PT to get to work, the city, most entertainment and to visit friends who all live near a tram or train. I can borrow a car on the weekends or evenings from a housmate, which I do for trips that aren’t so easy on the train.


  13. I bought my first car to get around i.e. errands, work, miscellaneous.

    I had access to PT but it was inconvenient and took so much longer than driving (like double the amount of time).

    I still get PT if I’m going out to drink etc, but driving is, in effect and non-environmentally speaking, about valuing time and independence.

    Of course, good luck to the people who are well serviced and actually use PT, but for me the difference in travel time and having to wait around for PT was frustrating and restrictive. It’s a quality of life issue. Having said that, bring on affordable and environmentally friendly cars.

    It’s quite telling that people need to be ‘locked in’ to public transport in order for it to be viable…very East German :O Perhaps PT is a vehicle for catharsis and/or pennance for inner-city lefties.


    1. Hi Nom,

      If you are who I think, we met once, at a CIS conference in Sydney, in 2004!

      Noone is saying public transport requires people to be locked in to be viable. There’s plenty of commuters who leave their cars at home. My point is that a good public transport system would try to lock people in by covering their needs… It would make good business.

      There’s nothing East, West or Unified about it. The way car users slow their consumption of PT is a result of a different fixed and variable costs schedule .

      Lastly, I’d note that although I live in the inner-city and have occasionally sent votes to the Greens, I’m yet to find catharsis or penance in Public transport. But then I feel no need for a spiritual element in my commute… ;)


  14. Hi,

    “If you are who I think, we met once, at a CIS conference in Sydney, in 2004!”

    I’m not who you think I am, which may or may not be a good thing :O, although I’m interested that you attended a CIS event (I’m assuming you weren’t picketing outside).

    “Noone is saying public transport requires people to be locked in to be viable.”

    I only, ironically, used that particular term because above you wrote:
    “This would lock in the punters to catching the tram/train/bus a lot more.”


    “Young people are the obvious target for being ‘locked in’.”

    But to your main point:

    “a good public transport system would try to lock people in by covering their needs… It would make good business.”

    Can you provide an example of a decentralised population that has a financially viable public transport system? So, not Zurich (centralised) for example.

    Personally, I’m not yet convinced it can be done, but would be genuinely delighted to see evidence to the contrary.

    It would be great to have a timely and efficient PT system, but it seems to boil down to whether or not people are prepared to pay more for it either directly through a user pays system &/or indirectly via taxes. At the moment in Melbourne, we do both with questionable results, which leads to the question, ‘how much more do people need to pay to make PT suit their needs?’

    I’d be interested to get an ex-public servant guesstimate on costs…

    The key policy challenge is for people who contribute most to carbon emissions with their longer commutes having a viable alternative in PT. So far there isn’t one.

    “The way car users slow their consumption of PT is a result of a different fixed and variable costs schedule .”

    Are you defining cost in purely financial terms? As I mentioned before, for me anyway, it’s about more than just financial cost, it’s about being able to wake up later and get home earlier as well as, for example, not having to wait around for the next train; it’s a quality of life issue. It’s probably more expensive to drive, and yet….

    Anyway, this has gone off topic from the original question, although I appreciate your responses.


  15. Hi Nom,

    [If you aren’t Andrew Norton, there must be two right-wingers in Melbourne! I’m shocked. ;) ]

    I appreciate your responses, too.

    As for a decentralised population with good PT, I know Paul Mees would nominate Toronto. I think Perth does ok, and Portland, Oregon is well-regarded too.

    You asked for an example of a ‘financially viable’ PT system. They all are subsidised, but some soak up more dough than others. I’m not across the details.

    If a private PT system existed, that might demonstrate the financial viability, but they tend to include a component which runs on tracks/rails, so they need a subsidy to compete with private transport (running on public roads).

    I reckon a subsidy is warranted, too, (or a tax on cars) since commuting in your own vehicle has significant external costs.

    Lastly, regarding your question of getting PT to the outer suburbs, that’s something I’ve been chewing over, and hope to post on in the next week or so…

    cheers, Jason


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