McGill's & Alexander Dennis
South East Transport Changes from 2 December
Featured Bus Route – October 2018
DATE FOR THE DIARY - 25th November - Finchley Bus Running Day
Alexander Dennis & Lothian
Buses on Parade
The non-Inner West bus routes to be privatised
Leeds Considering Hydrogen Powered Buses
New CEO for First Group & Results for Six Months to September 2018
Alexander Dennis at Euro Bus Expo 2018
"Never let a good crisis go to waste". That motto has been said a lot lately. People in transport are scrambling to see the implications to get the future they want.
A major crisis changes how we see the world and run things. Things that were considered important are no longer and vice versa. Policies that were considered settled are no longer. Like during a war things can happen in a short time that might otherwise require decades of policy evolution.
The COVID-19 crisis has provided a new context for transport advocacy that might have been ignored in the past. The changed circumstances and a story to suit might just make decision-makers listen. Activists' motivation might be to make tomorrow's world a bit more like something they've always wanted or to grab some government funding being offered. There may be calls for certain emergency measures to be made permanent. A transport example is where people who drive cars get far more space than people who walk or those who cycle. Safety needs for separation has encouraged some overseas cities to reallocate lanes for walking and cycling. This is something that active transport advocates have supported all along and would want to be made permanent.
Governments using crises to deliver change (good and bad)
Governments themselves can use circumstances to increase their power or (conversely) shed responsibility for something they didn't really want to do. For example wartime emergency measures like national control of income taxes have proved enduring. Treasurer Keating used bad economic figures to justify budget cuts and privatisation against the wishes of his party. A mass shooting created community pressure for gun control that Australian governments acted on.
And wouldn't some love to be able to track peoples' movement through their mobile phones? If such powers are going to be enlarged the best way to start is in a limited way that can be sold as a community benefit. For example idealistic data wonk types argue that richer data could open up a new world of evidence-based based decision-making in areas such as health and transport. However, at least for the latter, other considerations are more influential. If we currently only use a tiny amount of what we already know to drive priorities for projects then having more data won't change that. In difficult times governments might escape scrutiny that they should have, whether they are making decisions affecting our personal freedoms, our finances or our future.
Mass unemployment fears
Australia has done quite well on the health side but the risk of mass unemployment looms. With huge job losses there's fears that we might be heading into a severe recession or even a depression. The COVID-19 has shut or heavily restricted many industries including international education, tourism, arts, accommodation, hospitality, food and retail. The retail sector was already struggling due to online competition and it is uncertain whether it will return to its previous strength.
Unemployment generally shows a fast rise and a much slower decline, with some people not finding work until years later if at all. Projects like the Great Ocean Road were built in the 1930s to provide relief for unemployed workers. That's proved hugely successful for tourism. Yesterday's Age discussed transport project options available to today's state government to lessen the likely jobless rise.
Australia's past responses to recessions
The Keynesian response to such slumps is for government to borrow and spend to retain jobs and confidence. Australia was one of the few developed world countries to avoid recession during 2008's Global Financial Crisis. This was attributed by our response, which in the words of then Treasury Secretary Ken Henry was: Go early, Go hard, Go households.
The approach under Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan was quite different to that of the Hawke/Keating government which presided over the early 1990s 'recession we had to have'. A depleted Labor Party had narrowly won the election in March 1990. Many Labor states, notably Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia, had their own financial troubles. Confidence was plummeting but the full force of unemployment, being a lagging indicator, had yet to hit. Labor spent the following year squabbling over its leadership. In early 1992 Paul Keating, the new prime minister, launched One Nation, a package of infrastructure and other stimulus measures.
The infrastructure program, which included some major rail projects, had value but did not obey Henry's 'go early, go households' rule. And the tax cuts were held back to after the 1993 election so the package didn't 'go hard' either. The early 1990s recession was more prolonged than other slowdowns such as in 1975 and 1982. Unemployment, in particular, remained stubbornly high for too long. Bear that in mind when you read what's next.
Everyone wants free money
Who doesn't like free money? Stimulus money is like live bait to a greyhound. Everyone want to hop in for their chop. Including promoters of schemes that would be found wanting if subject to rigorous analysis. A crisis can provide a means to lend credibility to schemes that would otherwise be considered batty (at worst) or poor value for public money (at best). Leaders may be susceptible to seeing big flashy projects that wow the public as solutions to their political problems. If you were suddenly instructed to come up with a plan to spend billions it would be extraordinary if none of it was wasted or otherwise misallocated.
Part of Wayne Swan's stimulus was a $900 payout to taxpayers. As intended people spent it. It added a demand that kept businesses open and people in jobs. The worth of what people bought with it, whether it was educational books or sessions at the pokies, was not really a consideration. The main thing was that it was spent.
However it would be nice that if we are going to be spending money for services and projects that they have wide, sustainable and well-distributed benefits. Especially if that money is borrowed and has to be paid for by tomorrow's taxpayers. You could argue that Keating's rail infrastructure and Better Cities transport projects met that aim even if it wasn't so good for an immediate stimulus.
Fast rail as a stimulus?
Boosters of fast rail are amongst those who see themselves as visionaries. They want many billions for their schemes. The Greens have long advocated it. As have fringe right movements (advised by a former Monash University Pro-Vice Chancellor) in the form of a maglev around Australia. Some in the Liberal Party support it as a means of decentralisation. Now Labor's jumped on board. There seems to have been more excitement about it than retaining existing ailing services such as the Adelaide to Melbourne Overland.
I'm not going to go into the merits of fast interstate rail here. This recent Iron Road blog post says more if you're interested. But I will say that its rural development potential is over-sold; really fast rail stops in a few places only and can sap regional cities of high-end jobs and services. Very high speed rail is the head of a family of what I would call elite transport projects that largely only benefit the few.
Not that this stops the commentariat writing about it. Maybe because it seems visionary, providing a sci-fi escape from sometimes mediocre existing customer experiences. For example we won't even buy a tin of paint to brighten up the existing offering, such as Skybus' dreary terminal at Southern Cross Station or sign contracts for station designs that put passengers first by minimising walking between platforms or waiting to cross Spencer Street.
Media packages from vested interest promoters make writing easy. Hence opinion pieces tut-tutting about how backward we are because we don't have airport rail are a dime a dozen. Ditto for dream-pieces about high-speed rail, UberAir helicopters or fast ferry plans. Even if we had all of them tomorrow they would make zero difference to the lives of most people and how they get around to reach their jobs, schools, shopping and recreation.
If you really want to improve how people get around you'd start with the daily trips that most people make around where they live. That overwhelmingly means local walking, cycling, bus, tram, train and car trips. For public transport that includes cheap upgrades like those described in the Useful Network series to make the network job-ready. In fact almost anything but the tongue waggers' freeway tunnels and fast rail.
You might still build the latter but you'd pick cheaper variants, especially if the work does not forestall future upgrades.
Think Switzerland and Germany rather than France. Eg medium speed but relatively frequent regional and interstate rail starting with corridors like Sydney to Canberra that surely justifies more than three trains per day. Brisbane's airport rail, badly hobbled by its erratic 30 minute timetable gaps, just needs a few more trains a day to fix. And if airlines want you to be there 45 to 60 minutes before your flight, does it greatly matter if Melbourne airport rail is a 30 minute all stations service versus a much dearer express that takes 15 minutes, provided good frequency makes the impact of a missed train minor?
Even if you signed the contracts on something big today the planning work required would mean a slow ramp-up. Which would be completely against Ken Henry's early/hard/households advice.
For that we need something else. Now.
Alternatives for a quick stimulus
Taking our minds off transport, what might a good stimulus involve? Here's my pick.
1. Be quick. Able to be ramped up in a few months.
2. Flow mostly to labour rather than capital.
3. Have wide community benefits.
Although it may have other merits, interstate fast rail fails on all three for reasons mentioned before. Bus services, on the other hand, easily meet all three.
Most adults have a drivers licence. Given the increase in unemployment (especially amongst people with recent customer service experience) training them to drive buses would not be difficult. Bus driver incomes are not what you'd call high but they are better than a lot of hospitality and retail. The longer someone is out of work the harder it is to pick up employment so the sooner you can give then a job the better. It also means people can keep up with the mortgage and all their other spending with multiplier effects through the economy.
The initial boost could be doubling interpeak and weekend services on popular routes. That could be done with the existing bus fleet. Rostering could initially be done by slotting the added trips in between what currently runs, with a more integrated approach later. Basically you're working the existing bus capital harder by running a great service all day and all week rather than just in the weekday peaks.
Then there's the community benefits. Especially in the post-isolation period when people are travelling again. Households, especially in the outer suburbs, with members who have lost their jobs may not be able to run all the cars they do now. Good bus services could become an important lifeline. Especially if networks, routes and timetables are versatile enough to be job-ready.
The next stage might involve buying buses and ramping up peak frequencies on main road routes, reviewing networks and expanding coverage to growth areas. That will make buses more attractive feeders to train stations and relieve parking pressures there and at nearby retail strips. More drivers, depot staff and likely depot sites will be needed. The service increase would make public transport far more useful and reverse the per capita service decline we in Melbourne have seen for the better part of a decade.
Some may also see scope for a national bus acquisition program to create an assured demand for (say) local electric bus manufacturing. That could improve air quality in our cities and create further jobs. Electric buses have their advocates but before any decision is made they need to be proved reliable, something that not been the case during a recent trial in Canberra.
Train and tram driver recruitment would also allow service increases on these modes, particularly at times where it is currently poor but demand exists, such as Sunday mornings, evenings and interpeak on some lines.
With an ability to be rolled out quickly and wide community benefits there's a lot to be said for service upgrades. Unlike an infrastructure project they involve long-term steady jobs which would further boost confidence. And there is an immediate gain in improved services.
The cost (it's cheap!)
Compared with what's been bandied around for high speed rail, a bus service upgrade program to benefit catchments of about 15 million Australians in our ten biggest cities would be cheap. We're talking a national program of about a billion dollars per year, based on a bus costing $0.5m per year to finance and run. A national program of 2000 buses might cost $1b. New buses could be allocated as follows:
Sydney 600 buses
Melbourne 600 buses
Brisbane 250 buses
Perth 200 buses
Adelaide 150 buses
Other cities 200 buses
These acquisitions are good but don't forget that better services can and should start before new buses are delivered with off-peak and weekend upgrades working the existing fleet harder. For a few hundred million per year that would generate a disproportionate number of jobs up-front early on. That's ideal for a jobs-preserving stimulus package.
A whole-network approach would deliver further gains. These include off-peak frequency increases for suburban trains, regional trains and buses in regional cities. Key priorities would likely involve network-wide 15 minute 7-day services until last train in Adelaide/Brisbane/Perth (Perth already nearly there). Sydney and Melbourne could gain 10 minute service until last train on all lines where capacity allows, providing a metro-like service on most of their networks. More trains and coaches could be run to regional centres with local buses upgraded in our next thirty or forty regional cities, largely working the existing fleet harder.
All these would put a lot of money into peoples pay packets very quickly and make cities and states easier to get around for the small figure of $2 billion per annum nationally. That by itself is a small number in macroeconomic terms, directly enabling 'only' tens of thousands of jobs (out of the million or more a severe recession would throw out of work).
Thus scope exists for other shorter term stimulii and some infrastructure-based projects. Maybe smallish, simple and low-risk projects but hundreds if not thousands around the country. Top picks could include capacity-releasing rail duplication and signalling upgrades, thousands of kilometres of new cycleways, local traffic and pedestrian access upgrades including roundabout removals, bus priority upgrades and reviving selected neglected and underserved regional rail corridors such as Ararat - Horsham, Perth - Bunbury /Busselton and the aforementioned Sydney - Canberra.
You might enjoy these well-regarded books on transport topics
Breaking Point: The Future of Australian Cities
The Public City: Essays in honour of Paul Mees
Transport for Suburbia: Beyond the Automobile Age Paul Mees
(Sales links: I get a small commission if you buy via the above - no extra cost to you)
This item was written by Peter Parker http://www.melbourneontransit.blogspot.com
This article first appeared on melbourneontransit.blogspot.com
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