Let’s get the transport mix right in our cities

Australian Greens: Let’s get the transport mix right in our cities. 25 Sep 2014, Janet Rice. Transport & Infrastructure

I want to talk tonight about what makes a great city. How do we bring people together to work, play, go about their daily lives, have somewhere to call home and be educated efficiently happily and safely? Cities exist because they are efficient, engaging, exciting and enjoyable places to be. But the downside of cities is that people do not have all the space that they have outside of cities. The cost of land is high because there is a lot of demand for that land and the mass of people who make cities exciting and enjoyable places to be can impact on people’s ability to get around. The hustle, bustle and vibrancy can equal noise and congestion. Getting food and goods to people can create further congestion. And dealing with waste from large numbers of people can lead to pollution of our air, water and land.

Ensuring that people have got comfortable and affordable places to live, that they can enjoy clean water, clean air and uncontaminated land, and that they can get to where they need to go efficiently and affordably can be tricky and needs careful planning. And the bigger the city, the more careful the planning needs to be. If there are only limited resources available to deliver the infrastructure needed to implement these plans, then the planning needs to be even more careful to make sure that the highest priority infrastructure can be built.

I want to talk about transport in our cities in particular—the mix of private cars, motorbikes, public transport, freight vehicles, walking and cycling. They each require different infrastructure. The capital and operating costs are paid for by a mix of private and public funds. Some are low cost and some expensive. They create different amounts of waste and pollution and can facilitate different states of mental and physical health. In Victoria, the Transport Integration Act states that transport systems should provide a means by which people can access social and economic opportunities. They should facilitate economic prosperity, should actively contribute to environmental sustainability and should provide for the effective integration of transport and land use and facilitate access to social and economic opportunities.

I and the Greens are known as great advocates for public transport, walking and cycling. But it is not because we are train nerds, bike nerds and walking fanatics. It is because these types of transport make sense in meeting transport objectives. It is because of this that virtually every transport plan in every state, every region and every local government across the country have objectives that promote walking, cycling and the use of public transport, creating a better balance between transport modes and reducing the use of cars as well as encouraging the use of fuel-efficient vehicles. As a former strategic transport planner for an outer Melbourne municipality, I know that this is indeed the case.

In small cities and across regional Australia, creating a good transport mix is not too hard, because most people have got their own vehicles. They can drive, there is space on the roads and parking is not at too much of a premium. But it can be expensive and inefficient to run frequent public transport, because of low numbers of people spread over large distances. So there are equity issues. Not everyone can drive. It can be expensive for people on low incomes to own a vehicle or to drive the distances they need to. And there are, of course, the environmental issues from the pollution from driving, including its contribution to global warming.

When you get into the bigger cities, things start to get really tricky. Melbourne and Sydney are heading for five million and beyond, and pollution becomes a really big issue. There is a need for better quality public transport on equity grounds, so that everyone can get to where they need to go regardless of disability—and income becomes a big issue. But the biggest issue in big cities is space and cost. In a city the size of Melbourne, you just cannot have everyone travelling by car if they want to do that for the vast majority of their trips. The space that cars take up in both parking and road space—with, on average, only 1.1 persons per car—amounts to about a third of the land space in a city like Melbourne. That is massive. While we keep on making things easy for people to travel by car and hard to travel by public transport, and while we keep planning for cars, this land take has to continue and the congestion continues. The free-flowing road that may be there when the ribbon is cut on the new freeway very quickly becomes clogged. And shopping centres, residential streets, local roads and arterial roads get congested with massive numbers of cars, and there is no way out but to keep widening the roads, knocking down houses and taking away parkland—and the costs are massive.

You keep building those roads and they are incredibly expensive. Freeways and motorways are extraordinarily expensive. The estimated cost of the East-West Link is $18 billion. That is $1 billion per kilometre—a million dollars per metre. We need to put that in perspective. In Victoria, the average spend on infrastructure each year is only between $2 billion to $4 billion. Eighteen billion dollars would go a very long way to build virtually every heavy-rail project proposed in Melbourne—airport rail, Doncaster rail, Rowville rail and the metro rail tunnel. Put another way, $18 billion would build 900 new high schools.

We cannot afford to spend such huge amounts of money on roads we do not need and which will not solve our congestion problems. Put simply, if you build the public transport networks so that everyone has the choice to travel by fast, frequent, reliable and affordable public transport people will use it—not everyone, but we do not need everyone to use public transport. There just needs to be a better balance. The bigger equation that the road lobby do not seem to get is that every person on public transport, walking or on their bike means one less car. It helps reduce congestion and the need for new roads. If we had a mix of a third of trips by public transport, a third by walking and a third by cycling we would not need more road space—even with strong population growth.

Infrastructure Australia know this. Their national infrastructure plan states that ‘public investment in urban transport should focus on public transport’—and this is for all the reasons I have outlined. If you do a full cost-benefit assessment, public transport trumps new motorways every time, particularly when, as in our Australian cities, we currently do not have fast, frequent, affordable and safe public transport that people can rely on to get to where they need to go. We have lots of very low-hanging fruit in terms of public transport projects that can deliver lots of benefits very cost-effectively. That is why Infrastructure Australia recommended that the regional rail link in Melbourne be funded. That is why the metro rail tunnel is on the top of the Infrastructure Australia list.

Evidence based, transparent and accountable processes are key to ensuring that the best decisions are made when it comes to deciding where our money is spent. The G20 finance ministers who met in Cairns this week backed us up. They released a set of leading practices for infrastructure decision making which recommended rigorous, transparent and consistent project preparation; fostering greater knowledge sharing and transparency; and prioritising projects on the basis of cost-benefit analysis, affordability and the need for particular types of infrastructure or projects. That is the type of decision making we need. That is what Infrastructure Australia was set up to do. It is not doing it perfectly but it is on the way to doing that.

That puts the government’s allocation of $3 billion towards the East West Link in stark contrast to such evidence based, transparent accountable decision making. Given that $3 billion has been earmarked for the East West Link, we can only surmise as to why the business case that apparently has been done for the East West Link has not been released. The only reason that we can surmise is that the figures do not add up. The figures that we know of that made it into the public realm show a cost-benefit ratio where we get only an 80c return for every dollar spent.

Tomorrow in the Senate I will be asking again for Infrastructure Australia to release the East West Link business case. They now have no excuses to not release the business case. The preferred tender has been chosen, so there are no issues of commercial in confidence. The Deputy Prime Minister noted in the other place today that the business case should be released. I hope that by moving for those documents to be released, we will get them and the public can have the information that we need to support the community’s desire for much better public transport—cleaner, safer, affordable, reliable safe public transport rather than expensive, polluting tollways.

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