Hunter's love affair with cars

THE number of vehicles in Newcastle per head of population has grown at twice the state average in the past five years while public transport patronage continues to decline, statistics show.

The city's long love affair with cars has grown stronger, with the figures showing more people are turning to private transport.

Read The Herald's editorial 'Loving the motor car' by clicking here.

A Newcastle Herald analysis of Australian Bureau of Statistics regional snapshot figures show the Newcastle Local Government Area recorded population growth of 4.5 per cent between 2006 and last year.

At the same time, the number of registered motor vehicles in Newcastle grew from 626 to 667 per 1000 people, or 6.5 per cent.

The Maitland Local Government Area recorded similar growth in vehicle numbers. By comparison, the number of vehicles in the Hunter grew by 5.3 per cent. The state average was 3 per cent.

The greater Sydney region recorded population growth of 6.8 per cent between 2006 and last year but vehicle numbers only grew by 1 per cent.

Despite above-average vehicle growth in Newcastle, efforts to entice more people to use public transport have been mostly unsuccessful.

State Transit Authority figures show Newcastle Buses lost 252,000 passenger boardings over the past three years.

Bus boardings dropped from 11.89 million in 2008-09 to 11.64 million in 2010-11. New rail patronage figures will be released in the new year but they have been static for the past decade.

"Until such time as we have a decent public transport system we are going to force more and more congestion onto the roads," Hunter Independent Public Transport Inquiry author Edward Duc said.

"Patronage of public transport in this town is appalling . . . but people are not going to use the system if it doesn't work."

Newcastle lord mayor John Tate said developing an effective public transport system was essential to the city's future.

"As a city grows so does the public transport system but we've got the reverse here," he said. "We've got a system that encourages people to go and buy a $3000 used car."

The state government is widely tipped to announce that the Newcastle rail line will be cut at either Hamilton or Wickham in the new year.

Newcastle MP Tim Owen did not comment about speculation on the rail line's future for this article but said the government was determined to make Lower Hunter public transport more attractive and accessible.

"We are trying to provide a public transport system in the city that allows people the opportunity to get to more destinations so we are not just running heavy rail into Newcastle," he said.

"It's about what do we want to do that allows people a better opportunity to get around the city. You could argue that buses provide that, but I don't think our bus system is particularly well structured. It needs to be more hub and spoke than the matrix system that they have."

The findings of the Hunter Independent Public Transport Inquiry, which the Herald has sponsored, are due in February. The report will contain recommendations on ways to improve public transport in the Lower Hunter.

THE FAMILY

WITH busy lifestyles taking them in different directions each day, it’s easy to understand why the Hilkmann family of Thornton use four cars.

It is a common scenario for families living on the outskirts of Newcastle who have become dependent on cars to meet their daily commitments.

Peter Hilkmann is a service technician who travels between the Central Coast, Taree and Mudgee.

His eldest son, Matthew, works at Beresfield industrial estate while youngest son Cameron works in Sydney and travels home on weekends.

‘‘Getting to Newcastle is OK but if you want to get from Thornton to Charlestown or Adamstown then public transport doesn’t work,’’ he said.

Mr Hilkmann’s wife, Maureen, commutes to Newcastle on the train daily.

Mr Hilkmann said he supported improved public transport, however, it had a long way to go before it could provide a viable alternative to the car.

‘‘In Europe and Hong Kong the public transport system is fantastic because you can catch a train or a bus every five minutes whereas over here it takes longer and we are more spread out,’’ he said.

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