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Paul Broad and Nick Greiner, of Infrastructure NSW, think we are in love with our cars. However, for many of us the affair ended some time ago. The Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics (Report 128, 2012) examined trends in car use in 25 countries, finding that after rapid growth in the 1960s and '70s, growth in traffic per capita has consistently slowed, with many countries approaching saturation.
In the US and Britain, total car travel has actually declined since the global financial crisis. Even in Australia, which has a robust economy, per capita car use is falling. Total traffic volumes in the City of Sydney peaked in 2002 despite considerable growth in jobs and population since.
In contrast, public transport use is growing faster than population in Australia, the US, Britain and elsewhere, reflecting higher fuel prices, changing housing and lifestyle preferences, road congestion, the effects of tolls and other factors. We are no longer in the 1970s.
So why prioritise motorways over public transport? This clearly makes no sense from a sustainability perspective. Political sense? Surveys by the Warren Centre, The Sydney Morning Herald and the Institute of Transport and Logistics have consistently shown the public want the opposite.
Financial sense? Already the Cross City and Lane Cove tunnel projects in Sydney, and the Clem7 tunnel project in Brisbane have gone bust. Brisbane's Airport Link project is in trouble. The proposed WestConnex tunnel will divert much-needed funds from public transport now. Even worse, private investors in the project are likely to demand that government takes all the traffic risk, creating future government liabilities. And as with the Airport Rail Link, a future government would have to pay dearly to buy back the road.
Sense for the motorist? If the IMF forecast of $180-a-barrel oil prices by 2021 occurs, petrol will be $2.30 a litre in today's dollars. Motorists from Penrith would have to pay $70 in tolls plus $130 in petrol each week to commute to inner Sydney by car using the proposed WestConnex toll road.
By now nearly everyone agrees that we should be focusing on public transport rather than roads. But Infrastructure NSW's public transport centrepiece, a $2 billion bus tunnel under the city, also makes little sense. Light rail on George Street can remove 20 per cent of bus kilometres in the city centre and provide a convenient, street-level access system at a fraction of the cost, as detailed in the City of Sydney's "Connecting our City" strategy. Extension to the south-east will remove a further 10 per cent of buses and provide a high-quality link to Moore Park, the University of NSW and other major attractors.
Infrastructure NSW's preference for buses over rail is interesting given that in the US, according to the American Public Transportation Association, total bus-kilometres have remained static over the past 20 years, but rail use has grown by more than 75 per cent. In Britain there are similar trends – Department for Transport figures show bus use has declined slightly since 1991, but rail use is up more than 40 per cent in the past decade. The fastest growth has been for light rail – up 190 per cent in the US and more than 200 per cent in Britain since 1992. In Europe, 65 cities installed new light rail systems or expanded their existing systems between 1980 and 2007; in the US there are now 29 cities with light rail; in Australia, light rail is being expanded in Melbourne and Adelaide and new light rail systems are under construction on the Gold Coast and being planned for Perth.
The final major concern with Infrastructure NSW's plan is the removal of the cross-city rail link, and conversion of the north shore line and west suburban line as far as Strathfield to high-frequency metros. But Town Hall and Wynyard were not designed to cope with 30 trains an hour. Even if they could be rebuilt to do so, and ignoring the massive disruption to the city while the stations were closed during reconstruction, this would mean unnecessary interchanges for intercity and outer suburban passengers, at stations not designed to handle them, onto trains with few seats. Picture the poor commuters from the central coast and western Sydney having to get off a train with 900 seats and crowding onto one with 400 seats, with most people standing all the way from Hornsby or Strathfield. Shifting to metros means losing at least 40 per cent of seat capacity per hour, even with higher-frequency services.
Sydney's rail system handles 70 per cent of the total public transport task (passenger-kilometres), and 20 per cent of the total peak-hour task. It is the backbone of the city, but it is nearing capacity. Without the second harbour rail crossing, Sydney will eventually lose its crown as Australia's world city.
Unfortunately, Infrastructure NSW's report is biased against rail – the cost for the next harbour rail crossing has mysteriously doubled to $15 billion, while the cost of the proposed WestConnex motorway has equally mysteriously shrunk to $10 billion.
What would John Bradfield make of all this? One suspects he would roll in his grave. The previous government lost office by refusing to make sensible decisions on transport, which in essence means expanding the heavy rail system to cater for travel in middle and outer suburbs, and light rail for travel in inner suburbs. One wonders if the lesson has been learnt.
Dr Garry Glazebrook works at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology, Sydney, and also works part time at the City of Sydney.
This article first appeared on www.smh.com.au
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