Bike, tram or car? The fastest commute in Melbourne traffic

Three people smiling with white background.

Nick Place

Posted February 08, 2019

Commuter challenge: the best way to Melbourne’s CBD in peak hour.

When we first held our Commuter Challenge in 2017, a cyclist on a Melbourne Bike Share pushbike handily beat a commuter on a tram. And they were both enjoying their second coffee by the time their poor car-driving rival finally limped out of the traffic snarl. But peak-hour traffic flow into the heart of the city is an ever-evolving beast and so, 18 months later, we wondered how the commute might have changed. 

Since our first challenge, Melbourne has been ranked 25th out of 38 cities for unsolved traffic congestion, but at the same time figures suggest fewer cars are driven to work in the CBD (in fact, 27 per cent fewer between 2008 and 2018, according to a City of Melbourne discussion paper). More people are riding bikes (12,000 per day, according to Vista, a state government survey), with the daily pedal-powered peak between 8am and 9am. And anecdotally and statistically, we know our trams and trains are crowded.

Last time around our commuter contest started in Fitzroy. For this challenge, we thought we’d cross the river and add a little more range. Our three RACV employee ‘contestants’ met under the gleaming teeth of Luna Park’s giant smile, on the Lower Esplanade, St Kilda, on a Thursday.

We had planned to include a motorbike but unfortunately our designated rider was knocked off his machine in a dooring incident the night before, and it wasn’t operational on the day. The damage? A broken finger. Think rider, everybody.  

So that left three, with the clock ticking from 8.15am... and, go!

1st: Nick Daly - Melbourne Bike Share

Our reigning champ Nick Daly was back on two wheels to see if he could once again pedal his way to glory. 

Having checked the Melbourne Bike Share app to confirm there was a bike available and space to leave it at the finish line (the RACV Club on Bourke Street), he darted directly to the Melbourne Bike Share station near the fun park.  

"Bike Share has just added a whole lot of new bikes and I like the new ones better, so I managed to get one of them for the ride,” he said. 

Watching the sky for rain that mercifully held off, Nick rode along Fitzroy Street to St Kilda Road and then powered into the city. It wasn’t entirely peaceful. “There was some construction that made things a little difficult, and some unfriendly motorists,” he said. “Cars would turn off St Kilda Road by heading into the bike lane. The bike lane on that road isn’t huge either, so getting around slower bike riders can be challenging.”

One thing Nick did like was the volume of cyclists, finding safety in the crowd as a swarm of pushbikes owned their lane. He rode along Swanston, Little Collins and Elizabeth streets before turning left into Bourke Street and parking his bike in the blue rack. Nick walked in the door of the RACV Club at 8.40am.

2nd: Hannah Stephen - 96 Tram

Hannah Stephen hustled away from Luna Park to jump on the number 96 tram into the city. “I was a bit annoyed because I just missed a tram, but I only had to wait five minutes for the next one.”

She didn’t manage to find a seat on the already crowded tram and worried for an elderly man who was standing, struggling with his balance, but wasn’t offered a seat. 

Public Transport Victoria data from the day of our challenge shows the trams had a bad morning, with only 75 per cent hitting punctuality targets (more than 6 per cent down on the day before). The service runs 35,000 tram journeys per week, an average of 84 per cent of them on time, so maybe Hannah was just a little unlucky, her trip taking 36 minutes when it should take 30.

“Melbourne’s tram network is unique in that more than 75 per cent of it is on shared roads with other vehicles, which means incidents affect services on a daily basis,” is how the PTV put it. Which we think is a polite, governmental way of saying: “stupid traffic…” 

Hannah didn’t mind. “It was a cruisy ride,” she says. “I like trams, you can really switch off. I just checked some emails. Nobody talks to each other, which is fine by me. I arrived at my desk feeling the Zen.” 

Hannah crossed the finish line at 8.51am.

3rd: Amber Harrington - Mazda CX-3

Amber Harrington was the designated car driver, taking her mum’s Mazda CX-3 from Luna Park into the RACV City Club. For added adventure in the challenge, it was her first time ever driving into the CBD. 

“I went down Beaconsfield Parade, and then took Queensbridge Street and up William Street,” she said.

“The traffic wasn’t actually too bad. It wasn’t light, but it wasn’t standing still. I just cruised along, following the maps, listening to the radio and feeling pretty relaxed.”

In fact, Amber thinks the part of the journey that cost her on the stopwatch was parking at the Old Mint building. She had to weave through the car park itself, find a space, then walk a few blocks to the RACV Club, all the while eating up the minutes. The parking also cost her $18 for the day, at an early-bird rate. 

Dissapointingly, for a first-time driver into the city, Amber didn’t have to face a hook turn during her journey but confirmed that she did nervously encounter one driving home, and handled it with aplomb. 

Amber arrived at work at 9.06am.

Travelling better

The best thing about the latest Commuter Challenge, if you ask the RACV’s senior planner mobility futures, Stuart Outhred, is the choice of transport options available to our challengers. 

“It’s a big thing, being able to choose, for freedom of movement,” he says. “New technology will allow commuters to see whether tram or bike or car is the best option on a particular day. The choice may be different tomorrow for a host of reasons. St Kilda has that amazing light rail to the city, or on a bike you can choose to cruise around Albert Park Lake or take the more direct route along St Kilda Road.”

An international report on road congestion, released in December 2017, rated Sydney and Melbourne as suffering worse traffic snarls than New York City.  

Stuart says RACV continues to push government for better traffic and public transport solutions, from insisting a proposed Melbourne Metro 2 rail tunnel project be costed immediately, to a faster delivery of dedicated, separated bike lanes on St Kilda Road, currently slated to be built by 2025.

With activity in Melbourne booming, more needs to be done to allow people to move around seamlessly. “Smarter use of street space is essential,” Stuart says. “We will need to prioritise space-efficient modes to a much greater extent.” 

The stats

Bike (Nick)

Time: 25 minutes 

Distance: 7.4 kilometres

Number of slow riders difficult to pass in narrow bike lane: More than 5 

Cost of journey: $3 (Melbourne Bike Share  day pass)

Direct carbon emissions (estimate): 0 

Hassle factor (where 1/10 is hassle free and 10/10 is The Worst): 3

Tram (Hannah)

Time: 36 minutes 

Distance: 7.3 kilometres

Number of passengers offering seat to priority-seat passenger: 0 

Cost of journey: $4.30 (myki, two-hour pass) 

Direct carbon emissions (estimate): 2.847 MJ 

Hassle factor: 3

Car (Amber)

Time: 51 minutes 

Distance: 8 kilometres

Number of hook turns required: 0 

Cost of journey: Parking $18, plus a percentage of petrol, car insurance, registration, servicing, other ownership costs. 

Direct carbon emissions (estimate): 26.27 MJ 

Hassle factor: 4

Looking for a better way to commute? 

RACV’s new arevo app is a one-stop-shop journey planner integrating Victoria’s public transport networks, myki top-up, a parking locator, Uber, taxis and more. It allows users to set the fastest, cheapest or greenest route, and gives access to transport discounts including Melbourne Bike Share, Ola and SkyBus. Download in the App Store or Google Play Store, or find out more at