Parents shying away from public transport – how can ECEC influence a turn of the tide?

by Freya Lucas

July 22, 2019

First-time parents are ditching public transport and buying cars in order to accommodate their child’s needs as well as their own – how can the early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector design and locate facilities to support sustainability and encourage public transport use amongst parents and carers? 


New research from Monash University has found that an increase in off-peak service frequency and dedicated caregiver parking stations could make public transport more attractive and help curb traffic congestion, as well as lessening the environmental impact of cars on the road. 


For the survey, 758 new parents were asked for their insights about their use of private vehicles, finding that while not all adults’ car use increased following parenthood, it continues to be a key point during people’s lives when public transport use declines dramatically.  


In the year prior to becoming parents, 30 per cent of respondents said they used public transport frequently. This decreased to just 14 per cent after childbirth. The number of respondents rarely or never using a car decreased from nearly one-third to less than 1 per cent. 


Parents said that accommodating their child’s needs as well as their own, the complexity of travel arrangements, time and budget concerns, a lack of parking which is convenient at bus and train stations, and perceptions of public transport being not suitable for children were some of the reasons why new parents avoided public transport. 


Living in the outer suburbs was another determining factor driving an increase in car ownership. 


The study, published in Transport Policy, found Melbourne’s new parents fell into five distinct transport categories: Transit Leavers, Consistent Drivers, Committed Multimodals, Transit Faithfuls, and Devoted Cyclists. Understanding these parent groups, and their behaviours, could be of use to the ECEC sector as they seek to better locate their services and understand more deeply the needs of parent communities. 


“A number of studies have shown that households with children are more car-dependent than other households groups,” said Laura McCarthy, a PhD researcher from the Public Transport Research Group at Monash University.


Despite having positive attitudes towards public transport, the largest group (39 per cent of total respondents), Transit Leavers, had the most pronounced decline in transit use. Frequent public transit use declined from 50 per cent pre-parenthood to 10 per cent post-parenthood. This group was mostly likely to include females and primary caregivers.


Alarmingly, 46 per cent of the smallest group, the Devoted Cyclists, were without cars prior to the study, but this dropped to just 1 per cent following parenthood. This group tended to hold strong pro-environmental attitudes, and coupled with low pre-parenthood car ownership levels, it suggests that members of this group became car owners with some reluctance.


The remaining three groups also experienced changes to their mode use, although these were more modest. 


“Each of the five groups shared different characteristics and attitudes towards travel modes.  This suggests a one-size-fits-all policymaking approach may need to be abandoned in favour of a more nuanced consideration of the public transport needs of new parents,” Ms McCarthy said.


The good news, researchers said, is that these potential policy changes don’t necessarily need to be extensive or expensive to get new parents using public transport. There is also scope within this space for ECEC to advocate for parent groups, supporting the broader community to understand the needs of new parents and families.     


“Even though some parents stop using public transport, they continue to hold positive attitudes towards this mode. Modest changes could be made to better accommodate families with young children using public transport, and potentially retain these users,” Ms McCarthy added.


The research – ‘Transit Faithfuls’ or ‘Transit Leavers’? Understanding mobility trajectories of new parents’ – was led by Ms McCarthy with support from Dr Alexa Delbosc and Professor Graham Currie (Monash University), as well as Andrew Molloy from the Department of Transport, Victoria.