As a long-term resident of Darwin, where you can drive from anywhere in the metropolitan area to just about anywhere else in not much more than 25 minutes (even in the peak hour such as it is), it always takes me a couple of days to get used to the traffic snarls of Sydney and Melbourne. Sydney’s traffic especially is vastly worse than it was when I lived there over 30 years ago. Moreover, public transport doesn’t help all that much unless you live fairly close to a train or tram line and you’re travelling to or from the CBD. If you don’t or you’re not, then you don’t currently have any viable choice but to travel by private car. You could use a taxi or Uber for really important or urgent journeys (or if money’s no object), but they don’t provide a viable primary mode of transport for most people because they’re just too expensive.
Sydney and Melbourne frequently figure in lists of the world’s most “livable” cities, but it’s a mystery to me how that could be so. For me they’re nice places to visit but I can/could only live there if I could arrange my affairs so I don’t have to travel significant distances in the metropolitan area very often. Fortunately we stay in inner urban St Kilda when in Melbourne, where the tram connections to the city are good and we usually don’t need to go anywhere else much.
For Melburnians living further out from the city the transport picture is much more grim, especially if you live a kilometre or more from a train station and your daily commute or journey is to anywhere other than the CBD. You probably face a daily commute of 1.5 hours or more each way. Moreover, governments have done very little about this for decades as our two largest cities have grown inexorably towards a population of 5 million in each. Compare the much more comprehensive rail networks of world cities like London, Paris, New York, Tokyo or Hong Kong. Admittedly they’re each cities of more than 10 million, but they have invested in their rail networks as they have grown, while Sydney and Melbourne (and for that matter other Australian cities) have at least until very recently mostly embraced a half-baked and under-funded version of Los Angeles freeway-based private transport.
Tony Abbott as Prime Minister seemed to think that public transport was a creature of communism or the Devil (or possibly both). With Turnbull as PM we’re at least beginning to see public transport taken a bit seriously, and both Victorian and NSW state governments also appear to be starting to take investment in rail seriously. However it’s still fairly unco-ordinated and half-baked, and could be derailed in an instant with a change of government at either level. Public transport policy is anything but bipartisan but it really needs to be because the investments are long-term and very large. Is that possible in Australia’s evolved party system? How might it occur?
1. “Densification” is good if well planned but “urban sprawl” isn’t necessarily bad
It may be that one of the reasons for government hesitancy to invest in public transport infrastructure is a half-baked notion that somehow urban “densification” will solve the problem or at least reduce it to manageable proportions. Turnbull’s thought bubble about the 30 minute city (where nearly everyone lives within 30 minutes commute of their workplace) is part of this notion, although somewhat broader. It encompasses renewed enthusiasm for public investment in heavy rail connections (possibly high speed ones) to bring outer suburbs and even some country towns within a 30 minute commute of the CBD. It’s a worthy objective and a useful principle by which to prioritise transport infrastructure investment, but it only helps those who will be fairly close to a station and who are commuting to the CBD. Unavoidably lots of people aren’t.
“Densification” of inner urban areas and precincts surrounding larger suburban commercial centres can help, because more people will live within 30 minutes of their workplace one way or another. A recent correspondent to Darwin’s NT News suggested cynically that densification was just a scam to justify developers and their politician cronies maximising profit by cramming as much development as possible into the smallest available space. While that’s certainly a danger, good planning can avoid most of the downside and accommodate the undoubted desire of many urban professionals and members of the “creative class” to live in a densified urban village environment with all the facilities of the modern cosmopolitan city close at hand. Indeed that’s exactly the sort of place where Jen and I choose to live when in Melbourne.
But there are also lots of people (almost certainly a significant majority) whose revealed preferences indicate that they prefer to live in a house where they can have a dog and a garden and room for the kids to kick a footy in the backyard or the park round the corner. Moreover, they’re willing to pay the price of a longer daily commute for those advantages, and mostly don’t care all that much if they’re not within walking distance of a trendy café and shopping precinct but instead have to drive to the nearest Westfield Shopping Town.
However, their willingness to pay the long commute price isn’t unlimited, and if they can’t get to work in an hour or so on average by public transport they will inevitably jump in the car and drive there instead, despite the cost and stress. Hence the burgeoning traffic snarls in Sydney and Melbourne and misguided attempts to relieve the situation by getting developers to build new and expanded tollways at vast expense and disruption of existing communities.
2. Freeway/tollway extensions or widening don’t help
By and large, additional investment in freeways and tollways doesn’t actually help. It just moves the existing traffic jams a couple of kilometres further down the road, and speeds the average commute by three or four minutes for a few years, until enough additional cars have been attracted onto the roads to slow it back down again.
“Orbital” tollways like Melbourne’s Western Ring Road can help a bit, because they facilitate journeys to places other than the CBD, which are not facilitated by existing radial heavy and light rail networks. However, like both heavy and light rail, they are very expensive and require extensive demolition of parts of existing en route communities.
3. Radial heavy rail to/from city CBD is necessary but not sufficient and very expensive
As already noted, renewed investment in both heavy and light rail is certainly part of the solution. It’s good to see that the Turnbull government is apparently funding the Melbourne Metro and Sydney Metro rail projects as part of its Asset Recycling Initiative, after Abbott’s complete opposition to any federal government investment in rail. It’s also good to see the NSW government investing in rebuilding part of its tram/light rail network that was dismantled in the 1960s in one of the most idiotic examples of short-sighted government vandalism Australia has seen. It’s less pleasing to see that they’re needlessly chopping down lots of large beautiful trees around Moore Park as part of that project.
4. Facilitating “orbital” travel/commuting (cf to and from CBD) is critical and tricky
However, all existing and mooted heavy and light rail projects are radial from the CBD. They do little to facilitate travel between suburban commercial centres unless they happen to be on the route to the CBD. Even then the vast majority of travellers will need to change trains/trams or buses to get to their destination, leading to travel time much over an hour. How can those journeys be facilitated in ways that allow people not to drive their own car?
Light rail/trams may be a useful part of the transport mix for this sort of journey, at least for trips between large suburban commercial centres. Mostly even light rail is only viable for routes to the main CBD, and opponents of the current Canberra light rail project argue that it isn’t viable in such a small city even for trips to the CBD. Nevertheless in cities like Melbourne and Sydney there might well be enough potential patronage on routes between larger suburban commercial centres to make light rail a sensible investment. What is needed in all these decisions is rigorous and apolitical cost/benefit analyses for all proposals by a body like the Infrastructure Commission. Whether federal involvement in funding can reduce the state pork-barrelling and impose comparative cost/benefit analysis as the norm is questionable but worth a try at achieving a measure of bipartisanship over time.
Dedicated busways may be a better, more flexible and affordable choice for expediting “orbital” commutes, especially as electric buses and driverless technologies are developed and improved. A dedicated busway can facilitate high speed travel between suburban centres, and then descend into the normal streets through the commercial centres themselves, saving a substantial part of the construction cost and community disruption that would otherwise occur.
5. Funding public transport infrastructure – value-capture and congestion levies?
The big problem with all of these solutions is that they are costly. Governments are resistant to raising general taxes to pay for urban infrastructure, and public borrowing has somehow become anathema, although perhaps that is slowly changing
Maybe value-capture levies or taxes (which I discussed recently in the context of the Sydney-Melbourne Very Fast Train vision) could be part of the solution, especially in the context of “densification” rezoning strategies by governments. If rezoning permits a developer to build a high rise development which yields a profit of (say) $10 million instead of just $5 million under the old zoning, the developer would be required to pay a value-capture/betterment levy of 20% of that increase in value over a period of 10 years from completion of construction ($100,000 per year).
Congestion levies are also a part of the solution, not only to raise funds to build transport infrastructure but to create “price signals” to deter unnecessary travel during peak periods. A congestion levy of (say) 30% of the charge for travel on a tollway would be levied on vehicles travelling on any urban arterial road between (say) 6:00 and 9:00am and between 4:00 and 7:00pm.
Proceeds of both the value-capture and congestion levies would be hypothecated and required to be spent on either urban public transport or roads and other public facilities in “densified” areas.
However none of the above helps people who live a kilometre or more from a train or tram station, or whose commute/journey takes them to a place not well travelled enough to justify either light rail or a dedicated busway. How can they be provided options that allow them to leave the family car at home? If we can’t do that then road congestion will continue rising inexorably, albeit at a slower rate.
6. Multiple hire/genuine ride share taxis/Uber are critically important
I bet you knew I was heading towards something to do with Uber! When I first heard of Uber it was billed as an exciting new concept in “ride-sharing”. That sounded exciting and potentially useful, but in fact both UberX and UberPremium are just variations on a standard single passenger taxis service albeit run via a sexy online booking/dispatch/rating app and algorithms and minus the large overhead of expensive government issued taxi plates conferring oligopoly rights over paid transport of private individuals. Neither current Uber service delivers the sort of convenient and much lower cost “point to point” transport option that would be needed to lure a large proportion of commuters away from using their private car to get to work.
However two new Uber initiatives sound much more promising. UberCOMMUTE delivers an app that allows ordinary motorists to engage in genuine ride-sharing with someone going in the same direction as their already intended journey, and to charge a modest fee for it (54 cents per mile at present).
And UberPOOL allows professional Uber drivers to multiple hire and Uber users to choose the multiple hire option and potentially achieve a journey for 50% of what it would otherwise cost. Assuming an average UberX journey costs $20 (which is probably around the mark), an UberPOOL passenger could achieve a journey cost of $10 if the Uber algorithm can match them with another passenger travelling in the same direction from places where two pickups are feasible without adding too much to the journey time. That brings the fare for Uber point-to-point travel down to a level not much more than public transport, at least for people whose journey requires them to change train/tram/bus to reach their destination, and to achieve it much quicker and without getting wet or frozen walking to and from the train/tram station. And it would certainly be significantly less than the cost of commuting by private car, once you take into account tollway charges, fuel, maintenance and parking costs at a location within easy walking distance of the workplace.
Of course it won’t suit everyone, and both Uber drivers and ride-share passengers will need to develop coping strategies e.g. to drive away from a pickup if the passenger doesn’t emerge in (say) five minutes or less. One UberPOOL driver also suggests that it is unwise to accept jobs from passengers with an Uber rating of less than 4.6/5, to minimise the incidence of rude, inconsiderate or smelly passengers who are likely to aggravate the other passenger and result in the driver getting a bad rating from both passengers for behaviour that isn’t his/her fault. Given that Uber drivers themselves get delisted if their own rating falls below 4/5 it’s probably a prudent precaution. It may well be that the mutual ratings system on which Uber is based will allow this initiative to work in a way that will give a significant number of passengers enough confidence and security to induce them to leave their own cars at home.
It’s also quite possible that the price reductions achieved by genuine ride-sharing aka multiple-hiring could generate enough additional business to allow Uber drivers to make enough money from each shift to amount to a reasonable living wage without their needing to work insanely long hours.
For both UberCOMMUTE and UberPOOL (and similar competitor systems that will undoubtedly emerge) to achieve their full potential, it will be necessary for agreements to be reached whereby the genuine Uber etc ride-sharing vehicles can routinely and automatically be given partial exemptions/discounts from both government congestion levies and private tollway charges by Transurban et al. The Uber app would need to communicate seamlessly with government and Transurban computerised systems. That would no doubt be complex at the outset but entirely achievable and very worthwhile. It’s the sort of IT coding that governments should fund in the public interest.
Finally, it just occurred to me that the mix of government and private reform strategies for urban transport discussed in this post are in some ways a good example of what Nicholas Gruen calls a “nested ecology of public and private goods”.