JOHN MENADUE. Cars, not immigration, are killing our cities.

Mar 14, 2018

This week on Four Corners many commentators blamed immigration for many of our ills. It was a diversionary tactic.  I think that immigration is Australia’s great success story. Many of the problems that immigration cause are the result of policy failure in other areas like housing and transport.  

Despite its problems and challenges, immigration has brought great benefits to Australia. As a result we have a much more vibrant and resilient society and economy. We are less parochial and insular. Some of the commentators on Four Corners pointed to our ageing population, but immigration is a useful way to slow down that trend.

On balance, I would favour a small reduction in permanent migration and a significant increase in our refugee program. Importantly, we need to review the dramatic increase in temporary inflows of people – 457 visas, working holiday makers and students. There is a great deal of employment abuse in these fields.

But I do worry that immigration is used as a ‘fall-guy’ when we should be addressing serious policy failures. Take housing. We have allowed tax concessions for negative gearing and capital gains that have forced hundreds of thousands of homes out of the reach of new home buyers. The Reserve Bank has just reminded us how new home-makers are being penalised through the heavy price imposed through zoning restrictions which aid existing property owners and developers. The Property Council of Australia quite selfishly seeks to prop up existing property values at a cost to the next generation. The Reserve Bank found that zoning restrictions raised detached house prices 73% above marginal cost of supply in Sydney, 69% in Melbourne, 42% in Brisbane and 54% in Perth.

We have had an appalling policy failure in house policy in this country. Immigration is part of that story but a major problem is our policy failure in housing.

The same policy failure has occurred in transport.

At almost every election, we are being wooed with stories of more freeways to accommodate more and more cars. It is self-defeating. In our infrastructure we waste more money on roads than on anything else.

There are a whole range of policy issues that we must address to curb the growing volume of cars and the damage that they are doing to our cities.  We refuse to embrace it, but we will be forced to introduce congestion taxes to limit road use.

The government in NSW has as its centrepiece a WestConnex Stage 3 development, a toll road in western Sydney. The government claims that this toll road will carry 120,000 each day by 2031. Unfortunately, Australia has a history of over-predicting the usage of toll roads. As Michiel Bliemer in The Conversation pointed out the ‘The patronage of the Sydney cross-city tunnel was estimated to be almost 90,000 cars per day by June 2006. The actual number of cars using this tunnel was only 34,000 per day. Toll revenues were therefore much lower than predicted, leading to a bankruptcy after 16 months. Similar over optimistic predictions were made for the Lane Cove tunnel in Sydney and for Brisbane’s Clem7 tunnel and the Airport Link, which also had financial problems’.

Governments and road builders have a direct interest in over-stating the value of toll roads and investment in roads.

Much worse, is the power of the motor and road construction lobby to convince governments to make wasteful road expenditures. Those vested interests are having a lend of the community, exploiting business opportunities with taxpayers and residents having to bear the cost. ‘Infrastructure’ has become almost beyond criticism or challenge. We are encouraged to believe that it is all good. It is not. The infrastructure lobby works hand in hand with government officials and ministers. The conflict of interest needs addressing. This is a swamp that really needs draining.

Congestion and pollution are killing our cities. The automobile is so convenient for all of us that we put aside the enormous problems that the automobile is creating. This is not just a problem for industrialised and wealthy western countries. It is a problem for developing countries as they upgrade from bicycles to motor cycles and then to cars.

A constant message that we all generally endorse is that public transport, particularly trains in various forms, are the answer. But it is likely to be only a partial answer. Cities like London and Paris have excellent metros or underground public transport systems, but road congestion is still horrific and it is getting worse.

Some hard-headed political decisions will have to be made about automobile congestion. That will involve decisions to curb the use of cars in our cities. This will not please the very powerful motoring lobby.

One inevitable decision will have to be to severely restrict any more new freeways Such an approach should be accompanied by a congestion tax. With a congestion tax system the higher the level of congestion the higher the rate of tax. It would provide a clear incentive/penalty for motorists not to travel at peak times.

I just cannot see our cities surviving without congestion taxes to limit the number of cars. With such congestion taxes, we will all be forced to make decisions whether our use of the car/van is worth it, whether for private or business purposes.

We will also need to address other options to reduce the number and size of cars on the road including increased sales taxes, registration fees and the fuel excise. In almost every respect these imposts are much lower in Australia. In Denmark the sales tax on motor vehicles is 143%, in Finland 53%, the Netherlands 48% and Sweden 30%.  In Australia it is 10%

One feature of most European cities is that their cars are much smaller than ours. That reduces both congestion and pollution. To take a local example, a Toyota Hilux 4×4 emits on average 4.6 tonnes of CO2 each year compared with a Toyota Corolla of 2.3 tonnes of CO2 each year. These larger cars not only pollute more and congest our roads, but also dominate parking facilities.

We can’t keep putting off the debate about limiting the growth and size of cars in our cities. They are making city life more and more difficult and unsustainable. Public transport is only part of the solution. We have to limit cars on the road. Only in quite exceptional reasons should any more freeways be built. It is a vicious circle with more freeways encouraging more car use and really only shifting the bottlenecks.

We need to break free from our own addiction to the car and the power of the vested interests in the motor and construction lobby.

We must limit cars on the roads at peak times as well as building public metro systems. Paris and London show us that we need to do both

Policy failure in transport in our cities is blatantly obvious. It would be a great mistake to scape goat immigration.

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