John Austen and Luke Fraser. Urbane transport policy. Part 1 of 3.

Prime Minister Turnbull made a splash on urban transport recently. He sketched a vision of ‘30 minute cities’ where residents spend on average just one hour a day travelling to regular activities like work and shopping. He also considered mass transit solutions rather than just more motorways.

This article is the first of three raising questions about where politics and bureaucracy find themselves in transport and its infrastructure – and where they might head next. In a subsequent post, more on funding and the role of the Commonwealth. For now, the PM’s focus on mass transit and 30 minute cities:

Mass transit                                                                   

There is a case for favouring mass transit systems over motorways. In this, the current Rhodes Scholar distinguishes himself from the previous PM, who was more of a roads scholar (guided, one suspects, by Margaret Thatcher’s famous views on the emasculating shame of public transport ([i])). If PM Abbott’s objective was reducing travel time to power the city economy, he had it wrong: new motorways can appear liberating, but when ‘aimed’ at major centres in cities can induce more and more cars to use them – until they soon become full again ([ii]). You can’t bust congestion just by building more motorways.

30-minute capital cities

There is a theory, based on historical record, of long-term constant average travel times in some major cities of around half an hour. But these places mostly aren’t Australian capital cities. Our cities have around 200 years of development to consider; most evolved intensively only after the advent of the motor car; they spread out and luxuriated in wide spaces. Many Australians, especially in the biggest cities, already spend considerably more than 30 minutes commuting each way every day. Data for Sydney shows total average daily travel time to exceed 40 minutes, 35 minutes on work trips alone ([iii]).

Little wonder that a 30-minute city is an attractive political stance. Even less wonder that sections of Sydney and Melbourne’s media dismissed the Prime Minister’s proposal as ludicrously ambitious ([iv]).

What can the PM do about this? Will spending enough billions on big projects break the mould and reduce Sydney or Melbourne commutes to 30 minutes? Settled economic theory around equilibriums would say no. Whether the travel time is 30, 40, or 50 minutes, attempting to change these numbers could hazard many scarce billions for little long term gain: it is difficult to drop travel times sustainably through infrastructure, least of all by roads, and by inference through housing.  Naturally, this view won’t be popular with the infrastructure industry that stands to profit most directly from massive spending. But in this respect, as someone or other said recently, Canberra is not an ATM – not for the states, not for civil engineering firms either.

So is it all hot air? No. But Prime Ministerial effort will benefit most from avoiding blank-cheque public transport evangelists and instead playing a strong and focussed hand in the game, with an eye on creating a robust Commonwealth legacy:

  • Canberra can influence better city transport design through road pricing. As distinct from charging to pay for roads, road pricing has the best potential to reduce congestion. It also can help resolve the vital but usually ignored question: which mix of transport, including public transport, gets the best results? This is especially the case if road profits are available to systems separated from car use, such as rail and bus rapid transit. Canberra can put its oar in the water here by asking for the theoretical application of road pricing in the identification and assessment of every major urban transport project proposal. An ‘as if there was road pricing’ test is a practical way of doing this today, without needing another bureaucratic study or debate on how to introduce road pricing.   Indeed, to not use such a test now entails major risks to the design, economy and amenity of Australia’s cities.
  • Distributional effects of transport projects merit closer examination. The largest economic and social gains, such as increased workforce participation, may well be reaped by helping those at the physical and social margins of our cities; in this sense, the discussion should be more about access to services and less about speed/mobility. More about the ability of the young to get to good jobs; less about pandering to the privileged few by making their drive to the CBD or holiday home a little faster under the guise of ‘congestion busting’.
  • Arising from this, as Mike Keating and Luke Fraser wrote for last year’s Fairness Opportunity and Security series ([v]), there is a need to give renewed consideration to buses in the Australian setting, including redesign of new housing developments to better accommodate buses, rather than just giving the westies a motorway, or inner city dwellers their longed-for token ‘iron pony’ (aka light rail), or some obscure minister his or her bronze dedicatory plaque on a motorway that points itself at a city centre.
  • Lastly places like Newcastle, Wollongong, Geelong and Townsville seem a much more feasible testbed for the 30-minute city than Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Among other things, unlike in the big capitals, this would not require an archaeological understanding of historical agendas for these cities, and avoids angsts such as having attractions close to where people live and not just near the CBD.
  • Higher Speed rail connections between places like Newcastle or the Central Coast and Sydney can create a much larger ’30-minute city’ and the value capture from such projects might be larger than for projects confined to Sydney’s already expensive property market. This deserves proper consideration, in contrast to the eccentricities seen in Canberra’s recent high speed rail studies.

So, lots to be done – and none of it even remotely attended to by Canberra to date. Plenty of ideas for a Prime Minister who wants to take cities seriously. But to set up a real legacy, any Prime Minister, whether Turnbull or Shorten, must ensure their Government’s actions align with a proper and sustainable role for the Commonwealth.

John Austen is a happily retired former official. He was Director of Economic Policy for Infrastructure Australia from its inception in 2008 to his retirement in 2014. Further background is at: thejadebeagle.com.

Luke Fraser is the founder and principal of a transport policy and investment advisory. In 2012 he was appointed to the board of the Prime Minister and Premiers Road Reform Project. Prior to this he was a national freight industry chief executive and provided advisory services to Infrastructure Australia. He recently authored a tax-rebate-based road pricing reform model for the SA government. The views expressed here are his own.

[i] Worth quoting, a reminiscence, albeit from the other side, from UK Hansard (2 July 2003, Column 407): ‘The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) said that the Conservatives had no policy on buses, but that is hardly surprising in view of the most famous quote of all time about the buses, delivered by Margaret Thatcher …in 1986:

A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure”.’

[ii] http://www.citymetric.com/transport/does-building-more-roads-create-more-traffic-934

[iii] 2012-13 Household Travel Survey at http://www.bts.nsw.gov.au/Statistics/Household-Travel-Survey/default.aspx#top

[iv] http://www.smh.com.au/comment/the-30-minute-city-is-a-silly-idea-but-malcolm-turnbulls-cities-policy-isnt-as-hollow-as-it-seems-20160502-gokk5e.html

[v] http://johnmenadue.com/blog/?p=3834

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