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Riding with dogs – what can it tell us about transport?

3 May 2021
From our ‘Thinking outside the box’ series
Many of us like nothing better than to navigate our city, and our lives, with our humble hound along for the ride. But if you live in Sydney, and you want to travel further than you and your dog can comfortably walk, these dog-accompanied excursions are unavoidably car bound. Jennifer L. Kent and Corinne Mulley discuss.

Sydney aspires to be a modern global city that is sustainable, livable and healthy. Part of this aspiration is the provision of an efficient and useful public transport system, enabling those who call the city home to live a life that is less dependent on the private car.  Why, then, does Sydney curtail the use of public transport for people travelling with pet dogs? Our survey estimates that there are 2.4 million dog related trips carried out in Sydney by private car each week. Surely some of these could be made by train, light rail, bus or ferry?

The survey, published in an international transport journal, examined a series of popular activities that people do with their dog. We looked at the regularity of trips such as a taking the dog for a walk; visiting the park or other recreational areas; going to dog training, cafés, bars or the shops; and visiting family, friends or the vet. Then we looked at how often these trips required a car.

On average, people walk their dog twice or more a week, but for one quarter of cases, a dog walk actually began with an outing in a car. Of the more than 75 percent of dog owners who go to a recreational area twice or more a week, 45 percent go by car. And of the two thirds of people who go to the dog park three times a week, more than half went by car.

Trips to dog parks might be considered ‘discretionary’ but other trips with dogs are not. The survey found that dogs visit the vet, on average, two to three times a year, and these are also very car-dependent. More worrying, almost 14 percent of people said that a lack of transport had prevented them from taking their dog to the vet in the recent past, and that people not owning a car were disproportionately affected. Not everyone lives within walking distance of a vet, and sometimes the dog or owner is just not able to walk.

The survey shows how enjoying and caring for a dog in Sydney – a practice proven to have positive health benefits - is a relatively car dependent affair. We believe this is unnecessary and runs counter to the city’s aspirations for global status, long term sustainability and livability.

A compromised ability to care for a dog does not have to be a negative consequence faced by those either choosing, or forced, to avoid car ownership and use. A policy solution is to allow dogs on public transport in Sydney. Although the restrictions vary between modes, overall the approach to having pets on public transport in Sydney is a default “no”. Pets (other than guide dogs) are entirely banned on Sydney trains, and on buses they are only allowed at the whim of the bus driver. Sydney ferries are a little more welcoming, but our guess is that if you’re in a position to travel most of the places you’d like to go by ferry then you’re already one lucky Sydney-sider!

Having travelled in Europe, we knew that some cities with very successful public transport systems welcome travelling hounds. But just how uncommon is Sydney’s restrictive approach to pets on public transport? We looked at pets on public transport policies in 30 cities across Europe, the USA and Australia. We found all European cities allowed dogs on public transport, while most cities in North America and Australia did not. The policies did vary, with limits on the area of the train, tram or bus a dog could travel, peak hour travel, and the size of dog. Some cities, such as Paris, demand hounds pass a ‘basket test’ for riding in a carrier or small bag before they’re allowed to board the train. Most cities charged a fare for dogs at a concession or child price. Zurich went one step further to offer an annual travel card for dogs!

So why does Australia maintain such a restrictive approach? Does it reflect attitudes towards dogs in public in Sydney? This is unlikely as Australia has one of the highest rates of dog ownership in the world, and dogs are slowly increasingly welcome in pubs, bars and cafes. We believe it says more about the way we view public transport in Australia. The way it is planned and operated is great for predictable and ‘clean’ trips - such as the journey to work. For many though, this is not the reality of everyday life. Our lives are more typically made up of ‘messy’ trips – we go to the hardware store, pick up children and groceries, visit family and friends, and, of course, travel with our dogs. For these types of ‘messy’ trips in Sydney, public transport is not convenient (or its use prohibited) and we turn to using a car.

Reducing car use means we need to plan and provide public transport systems that respond to the mess of modern life. Understanding and overcoming barriers to implementing a pets on public transport policy would be one step in this direction