It goes well beyond the usual sod-turning and ribbon-cutting of wasteful new roads in marginal seats. Now questions are arising which will determine whether Australia remains among the top economically prosperous nations or, whether like Argentina a century ago, we squander our advantages and drop on the scales of international performance.
Politics and ideology are now infecting at least five key transport developments in Australia in a way that just does not happen in most other developed countries, whether their governments are left, right or centre.
The five are: the balance between public and private transport; the transition from fossil fuels to electricity and other new technologies; the balance between national and state and local interests; the modal balance between road, rail, air and sea; and safety.
The balance between public and private transport. Sydney and Melbourne are both approaching five million people. Alas, in the absence of any sensible policies for sustainable population, that is bound to get worse. It mans these are big cities on developed-world standards but their transport systems do not reflect that. To some extent the same can be said of Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth.
Very few developed countries have five cities of more than 1 million.
Compared to developed Asian countries Australia’s use of public transport is woeful.
Australian cities are dominated by inefficient car journeys. In Tokyo only 12 per cent of journeys are by private car, in Seoul 23 per cent and Singapore 29 per cent. The Australian percentages are Sydney 64, Melbourne 74 and Brisbane 77. In Seoul, 66 per cent of journeys are by public transport. In Melbourne and Brisbane it is just 18 per cent.
The environmental and economic costs of those Australian percentages are unsustainable given the amount of fuel required to bring up to half a tonne of car with each person on a journey.
In Australia, Coalition Governments, state and federal, imagine that their constituents favour private transport and Labor Governments imagine that their constituents favour public transport. This, unfortunately, is reflected in their spending priorities and in their public statements.
Both have to change their thinking. Building new roads, which carry about 1500 people an hour, results in them getting quickly clogged. Rail takes about 50,000 people an hour. Suburban light rail takes about 10,000 people an hour. Buses take about 5000.
The critical point is that you improve public transport not to please a constituency, but, ironically, to improve the road network without building new roads or freeways. The more people you pull off the roads, the more efficient the roads become.
Congestion costs Australia about $17 billion a year. Building more roads will not solve it. Sydney and Melbourne need expanded rail networks to the newer west in both cities, not more freeways.
Anti-tax Coalition governments oppose congestion taxes. In Singapore, Taiwan and Japan, conservative governments have imposed congestion taxes, got cars off roads and by pouring money into public transport got people into it and at the same time got more economic value out of their roads as a free spin off. They became the Asian tigers and unless Australia improves its transport mentality, by comparison we will become slow-moving sea slugs.
Now to transport technology. Political donations by the fossil-fuel industry to both sides, but more so the Coalition, has perverted not just energy policy, but also transport policy. During the past election Coalition vilified electric vehicles.
Australia is in danger of being left behind and Government inaction will result in Australians being denied the earliest possible take-up of more efficient, cheaper and less polluting electric vehicles. Simplistic comparisons of purchase prices are misleading. Lower running and maintenance costs of electric vehicles and lower pollution must also be considered. The tragedy is that the Federal Government refuses to recognise the inevitable and is acting as a brake rather than accelerant of the change which if done well would benefit all of us (except those in the fossil industry).
We could slash the $30 billion a year import of petroleum products for a start.
Electric cars, of course, would mean more people wanting cheaper renewable electricity – so the fossil industry and their political payees oppose that.
People will make their own economic choices whatever government do, and will move to electric vehicles. Governments should put aside their ideology and donors and make that transition smoother in the best interests of Australians generally.
The other transport technology being suppressed by ideology is telematics – computer collection and distribution of data about individual vehicle travel, in particular where and when.
The technology is here. It could be used to impose fairer charges according to use rather than registration and fuel taxes. Fuel taxes are unfair because the wealthy can afford newer more fuel-efficient vehicles and fuel-free electric vehicles.
But post-election politicians are now even more shy of any tax changes.
Telematics help enforce safety rules about heavy-vehicle driving hours and speeding. They could also be used for cars. But politicians reserve big brother for monitoring the media for “breaches of national security” rather than for practical safety enforcement.
And ideology and politics also entered the fray when unions used heavy-vehicle safety regulation as a weapon in a fight for higher pay. Reasonable as the fight might be, it was the wrong forum. Similarly, moves to greater maritime freight between Australian ports is consumed by owners wanting cheap, exploited foreign labour and unions wanting overpaid and over-regulated Australian labour with no hope of a sensible middle ground.
Moreover, the states jealously guard their traffic enforcement role and vehicle taxing regimes, so sensible reform gives way to federal-state rivalry.
Telematics can improve efficiency by monitoring minute-by-minute congestion and providing real-time advice to drivers to avoid it and generally advising about best routes. But again politics intervenes when local governments imposing haphazard restrictions on heavy vehicles out of all proportion to the cost of detours.
An efficient transport system makes use of the best mode for each journey and develops each mode accordingly. But political donations and political power grabs and will favour existing modes. So road and air have until quite recently stunted the growth of rail.
Even so we dither over a very fast train. Spain is poorer than Australia and Madrid and Barcelona are significantly smaller than Sydney and Melbourne, yet there is a very fast train service between them (2 hours 30 minutes) 19 times a day over much the same distance.
Lastly to safety. We pour vast amounts of money into new roads and bridges and for the upkeep and improvement of existing ones. Voters love it. We all use roads. But crash victims have little political clout, as we are seeing in the ACT and other jurisdictions as compensation regimes are whittled away.
Few people appreciate the true cost of road crashes. Each year they cost Australia more than all the new roads and bridges and upkeep and improvement of existing ones combined – $27 billion as against $21 billion, aside from the human cost.
Yet we build ever more roads and freeways, dangerously pitting ever more tracks against cars and jam urban roads to breaking point, not even factoring in crash costs when deciding between road and rail development.
To have a strong economy, rather than just talk about it, Australia must remove ideology and politics from transport decisions, otherwise we will fossilise in the late 20 th century while other countries move to a brighter future in the 21 st.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times.