1 Sep 2009

Life In A Small Metal Box

By Jason Whittaker
Asian cities demonstrate the starkly different consequences of relying on cars or investing in public transport. Now we're rapidly following their bad examples, writes Jason Whittaker
Singapore is sometimes accused of being a sterile city. Although people who describe it that way may mean it unkindly, what this description reflects is that Singapore is chaos-free. The city moves to a steady daily rhythm — no mess, no fuss. An underground rail network renowned for its clockwork reliability moves 4.8 million people around the island every 24 hours.

There are other good reasons to avoid driving a car in Singapore. Private vehicles are sold on restricted and expensive permits. Singapore was also the first city in the world to implement electronic congestion tolling in the 1970s, slashing traffic volumes by more than 40 per cent when a cross-city drive became an expensive proposition. Rush hour is a non-event and the roads are filled with buses and taxis. The wide, leafy boulevards of the Orchard Road shopping strip signal that this city belongs to pedestrians.

But take a 45-minute flight to Kuala Lumpur and you'll encounter a very different city. If you want chaos, Malaysia's bustling capital is your city. There's no peak hour here either — traffic is permanently gridlocked in a haze of exhaust fumes. Pedestrian crossings are generally ignored. Motorcyclists mount crumbling footpaths, dodging pedestrians to get ahead. The public transport system isn't bad, but it seems to run at capacity — and there are no incentives to use it. No matter how long the commute, locals aren't about to give up their cars.

The example of these two cities presents urban populations here in Australia with a choice. Our cities aren't quite as congested as Kuala Lumpur, but there's no question which of these two examples our major cities will resemble if current transport policy is maintained. A lack of planning, and more importantly, a lack of long-term vision, is condemning our rapidly-growing population centres to the same choking fate as Kuala Lumpur.

We share the same unhealthy addiction to the automobile as our neighbours in Kuala Lumpur. Movement in our cities is now dominated by cars. And they're holding the economy and our way of life to ransom.

However, as many disgruntled cabbies rightly argue (as we while away the time stuck in Sydney's abominable traffic, the meter ticking over furiously), you can't expect people to leave their cars in the garage if you don't provide an effective alternative. In the Harbour City it's hard to know what's worse: the long, crawling car commute, or a packed, predictably late train (which you had to drive to the station to catch anyway). About three quarters of the commuting population choose the lesser of two evils and sit behind the wheel, according to the latest figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. You can't really blame them. Although Sydney has the most patronised public transport network in the country, the figures for 2006 showed that this network only carried 26 percent of total commuter trips to work or study. Despite the population boom in our sprawling cities, public transport use nationally increased only marginally from about 12 percent in 1996 to 13.5 a decade later.

The city will always have its breathtaking views. But turn away from the harbour at Circular Quay and you see evidence of contemptible neglect and short-sightedness by successive governments — and a concrete trail of urban planning failure. An ugly expressway blights the vista, slicing the city from its best assets; narrow, pedestrian unfriendly streets are clogged with honking cars and toxic exhaust; public transport systems are already in meltdown, carrying passengers to sprawling outer suburbs only sparsely served by transport infrastructure.

The State Government now wants to build a new $5.3 billion metro subway against advice from public transport experts who say the money could be better spent improving existing services. Either way, the Government can't win. It certainly can't hope to fix the public transport system and transform a commuter culture in one fell swoop, after previous governments had neither the courage nor the conviction to even start the job.

And Sydney is not alone. Cars rule every major Australian city. It's a dangerous dependency fuelled by a fatalistic conviction shared by vote-buying politicians and influential motoring groups: that we will eventually solve city congestion if we build enough roads. With few exceptions, public transport systems have been ignored. Across Australia, public transport is chronically under-funded and over-stretched.

The urban planning blueprint for any major city is foolproof: build it and they will come. Good, efficient, integrated public transport will encourage commuters to leave their cars at home. Brisbane's council and the Queensland Government have invested significantly in new bus corridors — one of the few recent examples of significant infrastructure investment in public transport — which is driving growth in patronage faster than they can build more busways. The Brisbane City Council reports bus patronage has grown some 40 per cent over the past four years, with predictions it could rise by another 120 per cent by 2018 as the Brisbane region attempts to accommodate an expected 600,000 new residents over the next two decades.

Congestion comes at enormous cost to business and the economy. The latest figures from the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics — and this was back in 2005 — put the economic impact of avoidable urban congestion at almost $10 billion annually. The Bureau's guesstimate has that cost rising to $20.4 billion by 2020, with about $7.8 billion of that in Sydney and $6.1 billion in Melbourne.

Too much of our freight is expensively idling in traffic, adding to pollution, blowing out delivery cycles and ultimately sending up the cost of goods on the shelf. There are serious concerns in the transport sector about how existing infrastructure will cope once the near-recession it very well had to have has run its course.

Just ask Woolworths. The nation's biggest retailer is responsible for some 25,000 vehicle movements every week, 80 per cent of which are in metropolitan areas. It spoke recently at the 2009 Infrastructure Colloquium of the need for better public transport links, not necessarily to help customers reach supermarkets but simply to get cars off the road to free up the all-important "last mile" of the urban freight network.

The social cost of congestion may be even greater. Our cities will become increasingly unliveable. They will be less inviting places for work and recreation. The air we breathe will become more dangerous to our health. Our work/life balance will be further disrupted as we spend more and more time in our cars and less time at home.

The question for us as we look at the different paths taken by Singapore and Kuala Lumpur is simple: How long do we want to spend wasting our lives in traffic, watching the bumper-bar in front of us?

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Jason Whittaker
Posted Wednesday, September 2, 2009 - 09:45

A footnote to this piece in regards to public transport... Along with the desperate need for investment in public transport, we should also examine the role of the private sector in delivering these services.

Many will cite the privatisation of train services in Melbourne and Sydney as a great example of why public transport should, fittingly, be in public hands. Yet consider the enormous investment announced yesterday by new rail operator Metro Trains Melbourne (http://www.news.com.au/heraldsun/story/0,21985,26014960-661,00.html). To me, this seems like a really well-drafted contract that requires minimum investment by government while holding the private operator to upgrading services and infrastructure. MTM will spend hundreds of millions of dollars improving stations, upgrading air conditioning systems, improving reliability, etc.

Queensland Premier Anna Bligh copped enormous criticism for attempting to sell-off Queensland Rail's freight interests. But perhaps the really courageous decision would be to sell-off the passenger division, too. There's a strong case to be made that a private operator would drive the sort of investment in the network we desperately need; the sort of investment government is simply not willing or able to make right now.

michael r james
Posted Wednesday, September 2, 2009 - 17:18

mr james
Good article, except for a few of your suggestions towards the end.
I do not know of anywhere that private for-profit companies have successfully constructed or run a major public transport system. From Paris, NYC, Tokyo to London, Singapore, Hong Kong etc. There have been various times when private companies were involved (notably London, NYC). The worlds first underground railway, the Metropolitan in London, was indeed private but after explosive growth and ultimate chaos and bankruptcies from competing companies etc. the whole shebang was nationalized. Ditto the main railways. The failures of both London Underground and BR simply reflect failure to invest. I agree with Shakti that PPPs are a sham. Governments can raise the cheapest money while anything else must necessarily be more expensive and ultimately sacrifices service for profit. (In the case of the Macquarie model, grotesque profit.) Worse, any discussion about PPPs or such like, acts as a huge distraction because people simply must accept that public transport costs big bucks but is the only solution. As we in Brisbane are about to discover when the $10B of tunnels simply create more traffic, more congestion etc. (Unfortunately we might have to wait almost a decade for the lesson to be learned.)
The fact that Anna Bligh gets flack for proposing to privatize QR Freight merely shows that Queenslanders do not have the attention span to understand this. Indeed I believe it should be privatized but only on condition that 100% of the proceeds be put into public transport (and that control of the rail network remains totally in public hands--witness the UK debacle if not.) Incidentally Newman's Council has almost nothing to do with the Busways (other than running the buses that use them) and while a lot better than nothing, we now have the curious situation of busways partly duplicating rail lines, and at great expense. From my eerie high above the RBH I overlook the new busway which arches over a railway line--that QR has steadfastly refused to be allowed to be used for passenger rail. It is this nonsense that must stop. QR Freight should be sold, QR passenger and rail network must be merged with all other public transport to create a single integrated SEQ authority, with a powerful czar with a powerful mandate for public transport (QR couldn't give a damn, passengers cost them money and freight is the only profitable side and that means the mining industry.)

Posted Monday, September 7, 2009 - 15:52

Tasmania's railways have been closed due to being privatised. Admittedly there were only freight trains, but there is no doubt the owners had little interest in aiming for a healthy transport system when they could sell it and so rid themselves of the headache.

Jason Whittaker
Posted Monday, September 7, 2009 - 17:13

I agree on the Tasmanian point, salamander. And the same happened in Victoria: Pacific National were given the infrastructure lease with almost no incentive to actually invest in the track. This is crumbling infrastructure that requires significant investment for very little return serving rural industries.

Metro rail is an entirely different proposition. The infrastructure is far from perfect, but the system makes money and there is incentive to invest in the network.

I'm not saying private operators are the answer. I'm simply making the point that the private sector is often the only party willing to invest anywhere near the amounts needed.

Jason Whittaker