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Readers will know the term greenwashing – companies or governments promoting trivial or irrelevant environmental sentiments as a substitute for hard action to minimise the impact of their goods or services on the environment.
Examples include hotels placing cards in rooms claiming that they don’t plan to wash the towels to save water, as if they have actually committed to use less water.
At the end of the day it is just more propaganda. And for this blog, the action of propagandists is repulsive but the bigger issue might be, why do people fall for it?
This post proposes the term ‘transit-washing’. What this means specifically:
Most of the population probably don’t understand public transport systems, design and theory, though they do know what they see. Some people travel overseas and see what can be done, but many don’t. Politicians exploit that gap.
A simple example. A new development is built which integrates retail, commercial and residential uses on one site. The development is at the corner of two major roads (very major) but some distance from the nearest railway station. A bus route operates to the site, but on the usual crummy levels that are common in Australia.
There are many of these, but for illustrative purposes, lets consider Monash City’s “M-City”
Its propaganda says “By creating the right infrastructure and supporting retail services, these suburbs are becoming viable alternatives to city living…It’s similar to Chadstone, Box Hill and Doncaster – these areas are all starting to change…It’s part of a pattern, I think, of the way the suburbs themselves rather being more traditional suburbs, they’re becoming satellite areas that hopefully mean less travel for people.”
This is a fairly harmless example.
The propagandist goes on to say “What Clayton lacks in public transport (Clayton train station is a 30-minute walk from Monash University), it makes up for in road networks. M-City is on the corner of Princes Highway and Blackburn Road where the Wellington Road on-ramp to the Monash Freeway is six minutes by car.” thus giving the game away.
This is just advertising copy.
The bigger question is when governments actually impose requirements on planning proposals that are supposed to address public transport provision, but really don’t, and and that deeper level – can’t.
If the advertiser had said it was easily accessible by public transport…which would be technically true in terms of there being a bus stop within walking distance…it could be easily criticised as disingenuous. But there is a deeper point.
How did such a massive development, which ticks so many of the contemporary important boxes in terms of urban consolidation, get approved when it will be so poorly served by public transport?
Even if the bus stop is literally at the door, this development will have thousands of people on site at a time, who can’t possibly have all arrived in a 50 seat bus every 30 minutes. It must be a car-dependent development.
The developer was opportunist, and in capitalism we forgive this. But at some point this isn’t down to the developer, or the advertiser. This is the fault of government.
The government, you can be assured, would have quite clearly specified that such developments should be public-transport friendly…and then comprehensively failed to make it so.
Somewhere in the planning approval documentation, is a transport and traffic study, where a consultant dutifully obtained and published the information on the passing bus route, noting how good it is…and then completely disregarded the value of a bus route in the overall transport requirements for the site. The consultant then goes on to persuade government that all this extra car traffic could be managed, as they are paid to do.
How could it be any different? The developer must get the approval; the consultant doesn’t want to lie; and neither has the ability to get the government to improve the public transport.
Do as I say, not as I do.
So many times in the life of this blog, and readers no doubt, you will see a sign, an advertisement or a claim by a politician that shows that the person who makes the claim has no real idea, nor intention, to live up to the claim.
Underlying the behaviour of the dodgy advertiser, the opportunist developer or even the craven bureaucrat or corrupt politician, is the following premise:
We all agree that our cities cannot go on with a) increasing road congestion and b) unviable public transport, when a single solution – better public transport – can remedy both a) and b) simultaneously.
But I (the pollie/bureaucrat/developer/marketer/consultant) am not intending to do it myself. You (the public) do it in my place.
How does public transport really work?
Readers over the years will have learnt the truth themselves, even if they haven’t spoken it out loud. This truth hinges on two types of cities worldwide.
There are some cities, generally well-populated but geographically compact, with excellent public transport and where PT usage rates are high.
People in these cities, even if there public transport still doesn’t make a profit, do not complain about the economic burden of public transport provision, and everyone in that city has a stake in the availability of good public transport. This blog’s favourite example would be Tokyo, but you can pick your own.
Not the world’s best Metro, but probably the world’s best public transport network overall. Tokyo Metro
Let’s be very clear. It is not like Tokyo does not have freeways or the option of driving. It does, and it is expensive. And not necessary, because it has good public transport.
Tokyo 首都高速道路 road network
Other cities, including ones closer to home, do not experience this.
Whether or not they are populated or compact, the public transport usage rates are not high, the experience itself is not as good, and different people within those cities, including politicians, will complain about the economic burden, especially if they themselves have a strong personal attachment to driving their own car everywhere.
And poor public transport can hang on one or more factors: poor presentation, poor frequency, poor safety record, poor journey times or poor connectivity between modes (usually several of these together).
But even within this second group of cities is a phenomenon hiding in plain view: that some of the public transport services are exceedingly well used, and often of reasonable quality.
Critics often can’t, or won’t, see the link between these two factors.
But moving on, the rest of the services in that city aren’t well used and aren’t high quality (that connection again) and do constitute an unreasonable burden.
People will note (despite propaganda to the contrary, from both PT advocates but also the transit-washers), lots of buses are driving around at night carrying little but air. Railway stations sitting empty for long periods without trains, and what trains do run, with only the handful of people with no choice.
The Carlingford line is under used. Running trains like this all day full of air only discredits public transport among non-users.
The pattern can be simple.
A city has a CBD with abundant office employment, but unaffordable parking (for most people but not the top ones), massively congested access roads, and therefore the radial rail network (that was probably built 150 years ago and radially for completely different reasons) is extremely well used, even over used. The government might even be trying to add more capacity to the system right now, such is the demand.
The radial network did not come into being because of suburban passenger travel, but before that, when concerns of carrying agricultural produce dominated.
But outside this pattern, every other journey, peak or non-peak, non-radial, non-office, even those going against the peak direction along the radial network, will be under-utilised.
Off the radial rail network will be almost exclusively buses, almost universally far too slow and too infrequent, probably not very comfortable and with a host of other issues that make that network very unusable for all but those who don’t drive. Everyone else will probably find affordable parking and much less congestion than those heading for the CBD.
For example, a passenger going from Ringwood to Dandenong in peak times should find the 20 km journey by road, on a bus, much quicker than catching the train (using the radial rail network, changing at Richmond and stretching 50 km in total). In truth though, both options will probably take about one hour. The train may even be more reliable.
Herald Sun photo
If the only ‘cost’ to society was paying for the heavily used, CBD bound radial rail network, and all the revenue in the system was attributed to just that network, the economic burden would appear much less. But public transport does its best at every level crossing, every parallel road, and in many other situations where non-users see the system, of advertising to non-users how useless and irrelevant it can be.
Non-users are often just as likely to see empty trains as crowded ones. e-ticketing photo – Adelaide
So the contrast is: those first groups of cities where most or all of the network appears well used and economic all of the time; and the second group where the system spends much of the time making visible how it isn’t well-used nor economic, despite the burst of activity that contradicts that.
The political and bureaucratic system is confronted with the imperative: to consolidate urban development, so as to make the conditions more like the first group of cities. But without the actual improvement of public transport, which the politicians and bureaucrats are actually unwilling or unable to do, the result is transit-wash.
At the marketing level – talking about public transport options as if they exist when they really don’t.
At the planning and development level – settling for fictitious public transport but knowing most people will drive because deep down, they know nobody would catch public transport in these circumstances, because they themselves would not.
An interesting example in Melbourne is the IKEA store in Burnley. Being a cookie-cutter Swedish concept store, promoting its Swedishness for all it is worth, IKEA has signs telling customers where the nearest public transport is (despite the fact that the customers have already arrived, and the vast majority by car).
In Sweden, one could guess, there is more chance that public transport is good enough that people may well have arrived by that way.
Swedish public transport is often ‘good enough’ to get to IKEA
But not here. There is a reasonably frequent tram (109) passing nearby. It goes two directions, towards the city or towards Box Hill. But not much besides.
Australian Bollards photo
A two-stage public transport journey, say Brunswick to the City, then by 109 to IKEA, might be passable, but probably most people would look at it and refuse, instead driving what should be a textbook example of the consolidated, compact city. Brunswick to IKEA is not even 10km. It should not take one hour, but is likely to take that long.
This is not to blame IKEA. Again in capitalism we don’t blame the capitalist. They made the best options plain in their signage, and the store they have built seems a workable compromise between inner-urban compactness under high land values, and the need for suburban families to load bulky packages into their cars.
It’s not all like this. Stockholms Tunnelbana. The Guardian
The bigger question is for government. If even a Swedish company, trying its best to replicate its home policies cannot do it, how could we expect anyone else to?
Example 1: Bus lanes
This photo of Punt Road/Hoddle Street in Melbourne has done the rounds of public transport advocates as well as public documents.
The trope goes: There are more people on the buses in the photo that in all the cars shown. Yet the cars are slowing the buses down, and making them less attractive as an alternative to driving.
The bus lane, prohibited to cars, therefore gives the bus a faster run and makes it relatively more attractive to current drivers. A virtuous circle, the more drivers were to decide to catch the bus, the faster and more frequent buses would be. But does it (or more importantly, can it, happen?)
The bus starts out at a disadvantage versus the car, and it just gets worse. Your car is with you at your door, but the bus probably isn’t, you will need to walk, some distance and some time, to the stop. Your car can go when ready, but the bus won’t. It is limited to a frequency and possibly a timetable.
And you have already paid most the car’s fixed costs, you just need to pay the marginal costs of petrol and parking. The bus operator, or government, wants you to pay a share of fixed costs every time you travel. So the car journey may seem cheaper.
And that is without even thinking about comfort.
Motorists resent the bus lanes. PT advocates might see more people on 2 buses in 5 minutes than all the cars that would have been in that lane…but motorists just see empty road space. If they used that road space, then the buses would no longer be fast, people would stop using the buses, we would be back to square one, with the virtuous circle unwound.
Stud Road resentment -see this resentment blog which fails to acknowledge that the bus passengers are ‘commuters’ too. Very Liberal National Party point of view.
But one thing the bus could be, at least on that part of your journey it actually operates, is faster. Much faster. If the general traffic lanes are congested but the bus lane flows freely, the bus could gain 5, 10, 15 minutes on your overall journey. And in the case of the Doncaster routes, that can be often, but not always, true.
The CBD-bound journey from the Doncaster Park and Ride station encompasses a journey in freeway general lanes, but when the general lanes bank up the bus switches to the emergency lanes and cruises down them non-stop, gets preference through the traffic lights on the exit ramp, and but for a couple of bus stops for alighting passengers en route, has a much quicker run to the CBD than cars do.
Doncaster Park and Ride, a sop to not building a rail line to the area.
But it is not these things that will slow the bus down, but the intersections. And waiting at the lights, as the cars do, negates much of the benefit.
What would it take for this to be avoided. You could, as Adelaide has done, build special bus-only tunnels to take the bus through the intersection between one section of bus lane and another. But this would cost real money – $100 million might be cheap.
Adelaide O-Bahn tunnel, replaces poorly performing intersection and gives buses a genuine advantage over cars. But how much better a heavy rail solution would have been?
This is an example of where political rhetoric about using public transport breaks down. All the other parts of the puzzle – repurposing general traffic lanes; a bus priority cycle at the lights; can be relatively cheaply done. But who will commit to the improvements that make buses genuinely an alternative?
Politicians will claim express bus services and bus lanes are an alternative to heavy rail, but where they break down is where they always break down, that is, where the comparison between heavy rail and buses always breaks down. Can the politician defend the following:
Is the service fully segregated from traffic?
Does the PT vehicle always, that is always, have priority over motor traffic?
Is it consistently frequent and fast?
Exaggeration to prove the point. If rail or other public transport vehicles are to achieve their best possible performance, they must be fully segregated from traffic. Seetal video
If these assumptions break down, then no matter the transit-washing, people will not use PT. But we can always pretend…
Example 2: ‘Fast Rail’
The enthusiasm for high speed rail in Australia kicked off in 1984 with Dale Budd’s VFT proposal.
The debate has never really progressed despite tens of millions of (mostly, but not all, government) dollars being spent on it. And in general terms we are little better off today than then.
The short version from the detractors is that the population is too small, and the propensity to not use rail too high. These factors by themselves are not really right.
If we compare Australian HSR with the current Texas proposal, that does have legs, two other factors stand out for more. The Texas line, to link Dallas and Houston but not including any of the numerous medium-sized cities that Texas has – just linking those two cities, it has considerably more friendly topography, but most importantly, is much shorter.
Leaving topography aside (an issue this blog covered in a series here) the shortness of the Texas proposal obviously reduces the project cost, but even that is not the crux of the issue. It is end-to-end journey time, and how it compares with flying and driving.
The Dallas-Houston proposal will absolutely kill flying, and reduce driving considerably, because it will kill the drive time, and rival favourably the flying time. In a country and state that would have much the same issues with propensity to drive, and a catchment population not too dissimilar to that of Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne.
JR 700 class proposed for Texas
This is the weakness in Australia. All the major population centres, that must be the anchors for a high speed rail system that will capture air traffic as well as road, are on the boundaries of ‘too far’ to support HSR.
Melbourne-Sydney, Sydney-Brisbane, Melbourne-Adelaide and even some of the en route segments like Gold Coast-Sydney or Newcastle-Brisbane, are too long. Already so long that very few people drive, and so long that the train does not have a killer advantage over flying.
Only Sydney-Canberra is the same sort of range as Dallas-Houston, but the population is far smaller (and that topographical problem is there). Melbourne-Canberra is also a much better shot at killing aviation, but the same population and topographical problem prevails.
Texas topography. Houston Chronicler
While HSR has not progressed, unfortunately its language has, and politicians have got away with infecting the public discourse about rail with words like ‘fast’ or ‘high speed’ when the fastest trains in Australia now, on the few good sections of track that allow it, just scrape in to the definition of ‘medium speed’ and there overall performance is still extremely poor end-to-end.
While the WAGR Prospector was the first train capable of medium speed in Australia, the first train with the silly marketing was the State Rail Authority of NSW XPT, with its chisel-nosed front and capability of maintaining 160km/h, a down-rating of the 200km/h of its British prototype.
Despite this capability, it only moved an extremely unacceptable journey time on its routes to merely quite unacceptable.
For example, From Sydney to Canberra, the five hour journey time for 250km of crowflight, was reduced to around 4 hours and fifteen minutes, slower than the bus and nothing like competitive with aviation, even counting the non-flying activities on the door-to-door journey.
Then the NSW government borrowed a couple of cars of the Swedish Statens Jaernvaeger X2000 Tilt Train, which again, as a publicity stunt, was supposed to invoke the idea that tilt technology could make a significant difference to the route. Inside knowledge is that cutting out unnecessary stops and delays en route was most of the difference, rather than transit speed. But even then, the train could not get down to road or air times.
QR had two goes at this. The first electric ICE cars were capable of 160km/h, but except for a few sections of upgraded straight track the best the cars could do was to reduce the unacceptable 12 hour transit over the 600kms between Rockhampton and Brisbane to 9 hours, better than the competing buses but doing nothing to tap into aviation.
The second go, with the electric Tilt Train, did demonstrate further improvement en route, with some excellent medium speed running mixed in with very poor running on legacy alignments. Nothing could be done to make Rockhampton run times acceptable, but shorter sections like Brisbane to Maryborough started looking at least OK, for once.
But the worst of the language infection was undoubtedly Victoria.
Victoria has had three brandings for its quite unremarkable attempts to improve local regional rail routes. The Regional Fast Rail, the Regional Rail Link and now the Regional Rail Revival.
High Speed Rail on the short commuter routes need not be some over-the-top TGV or Shinkansen. This Swedish train appears quite at home on secondary routes but can do 250km/h where track allows.
Like Queensland and NSW, some targeted track improvements (well really just remedial maintenance in the first batch) and 160km/h capable stock got the state into the Medium Speed bracket. Genuine HSR is not with us, despite at least 12 billion dollars spent so far.
Worthwhile upgrade, but hardly ‘fast’
This blog maintains the resentful taxpayer and non-user is quite entitled to ask: “What have we got for all this money?” The honest answer is a barely fit-for-purpose operation on 3 of the 4 routes (Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo), and not really even that on the 4th (Gippsland).
As this blog has maintained for many years, it is not that governments have not spent on railways, it is that they have, and the results are so shallow.
That taxpayer and non-user might genuinely believe if the money had been spent on real HSR, which this blog maintains could have been quite achievable for what was spent, they might well be a user and farepayer, as well as taxpayer.
All we do get is transit-wash. And both parties are at it, though Labor is worse in some respects. The last election had the Liberals promise a high speed Geelong service and Labor made some commitments to study the thing.
HSR generates plenty of work for artists, such as this Vline-liveried high speed train, that could have been in service now if the Bracks, Brumby and Andrews Governments had their plans properly sorted.
Why isn’t it there already?
In 2006 we could have had it. A single route, from Traralgon (or not Traralgon, Morwell might have been enough) to Ballarat via Melbourne and North Geelong, a short spur into Geelong and an upgraded Bendigo line might have delivered the same result but with real HSR, 250km/h plus running, cutting journey times to half or more of what the road alternative would have taken.
Devaluing this linguistic currency might save Treasuries money, but it makes the cause of rail and public transport harder in the long run. A voting population who found a delivered project from Gippsland to Ballarat via Geelong route a game-changer, would be far more inclined to support its extension to Bendigo, Shepparton, or ultimately Canberra and Sydney.
Labor, though the Liberals are not much better, continue to try to bank on their fake fast rail, a project that in most countries would be seen as little better than just maintenance and reliability improvements, coupled with better on-board comfort and stations.
And while we do know the 2006 debacle was due to the ALP not realising how much rail costs when they promised it in opposition – they are now stuck with this pretense that their system is better than it is. Generating real resentment in Gippsland particularly, where the Fast Rail results have really not been delivered at all.
In many respects, SJ could have been a good template for an affordable but genuinely high speed rail operation. Large sections of new, high speed trackage but also integrating fit-for-purpose existing trackage, with fast but not over-the-top rollingstock like the SJ X2000 and X3000. A top speed of 250km/h held for long distances would have demolished journey times to Geelong, Ballarat, Bendigo and Gippsland, while allowing some existing infrastructure to be reused.
Transit-wash provides the fig-leaf for poor planning decisions already made. It also enables cheap and nasty transport solutions that could never deliver on their rhetoric to be counted as wins by government.
But that is merely political deceit in its simplest. The worse impact is that it takes away from future governments the ability to make the needed changes, by devaluing the important and by fobbing off the population with distractions. The public do see through this however.
Advocates need to double down on good alternatives to the transit-wash. Have them ready. Just as Beyond Zero Emissions tried to come up with a real HSR proposal, by crowdfunding, this is needed in all sorts of contexts.
True HSR in Australia might look like this Spanish example.
Faster and more reliable buses – sadly advocates cannot count on bus companies for help as they are in the pocket of the politicians. Good examples from overseas are often available to use.
This article first appeared on undertheclocksblog.wordpress.com
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