Life In A Small Metal Box


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?

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.