What if you were the Premier?Posted: May 27, 2010
Imagine you’ve just been elected Premier. You carried the electorate on a simple but radical two-promise platform: (1) to prohibit alcohol and (2) to shift all travel out of cars and onto public transport.
The Party is solidly behind you. Members agree that both alcohol and cars are bad for the individual and bad for society. You’re lauded as a reformer.
But you’ve not long been in office before you discover just how entrenched car use is in your largest city. Just 10% of trips are made by public transport and 90% of households have at least one car. Less driving would make the community better off but you quickly discover how much people like doing things that are bad for them and bad for others. You have a stiff drink.
For all their talk about sustainability, your predecessors knew the electorate loved cars. The former Premier talked-the-talk about public transport and even threw a few paltry dollars its way, but at the end of the day she didn’t do anything that would come between voters and their cars.
Eager to get started, you begin your quest to reduce car use by investing massively in public transport. You mortgage the State budget for the next 50 years in an endeavour to provide high quality, metro-style public transport across the entire city. Travellers without access to a car, like school children and tourists, think you’re God. CBD workers think you’re Gary Ablett. But you fail to notice that most of them either don’t vote or don’t live in marginal electorates.
Alarmed that there are no spare funds for prohibition, the backbench turns against you and forces you to abandon many of your grandiose plans. But what really hurts is that for all your pains, the increased investment in public transport makes only a relatively minor dent in total car use. It seems that no matter how good you make the rail, tram and bus services, Melburnites are too selfish and ungrateful to use them. As far as they’re concerned, even the best public transport doesn’t provide an effective substitute for the on-demand convenience and privacy of a car.
In desperation you flirt with the idea of providing comprehensive on-demand “mini-buses” that arrive quickly at the caller’s location and take them to the front door of their destination. But you pull back when the taxi industry cries foul and your colleagues tell you your idea isn’t that much different from the very problem you’re trying to overcome. You feel depressed.
But your spirits are rescued by the first of a number of blinding political insights that will shape your political career. You realise that public transport can never be a perfect substitute for the private car – after all, its public – so to make it competitive it’s actually necessary to actively and strategically suppress the car’s advantages.
You grasp that this is why public transport has a high share of CBD work trips – congestion undermines the cars competitiveness. But only a minority of trips are affected by congestion. So you work with the Federal Government to impose draconian excise taxes on fuel. You raise parking charges exponentially and introduce a comprehensive GPS-based road pricing regime.
This makes public transport more than competitive with cars and demand escalates dramatically. However the cost of providing the necessary infrastructure is stratospheric and it takes an eternity to build. The public complains bitterly that there’s no alternative to driving and your colleagues are once again upset that you’re draining funds away from prohibition. They don’t want to be swept from office before they’ve banished the demon drink. You can sense your days are numbered.
But you are saved by another dazzling insight. Drivers don’t tend to blame the Government for congestion, you realise, as they see it as one of the inevitabilities of modern life. But not so public transport – even though it’s been privately operated for more than 10 years, the public still holds the Government accountable for overcrowding, safety and late services (you make a mental note to award the next train and tram contracts to companies run by limelight-loving egomaniacs).
You see things clearer. You realise that while motorists impose high economic costs on society, your Government’s either not paying those costs out of the budget or they can be deferred without anyone but a few nutters noticing. You ask yourself why you ever cared.
You are only concerned about actual cash outlays. Your choices are now clear. On the one hand you can continue to fund roads more or less at the current level. After all, much of the cost of car travel is paid directly by motorists. On the other hand, you can dramatically increase funding for public transport.
You tell your colleagues that from now on you will give priority to the most challenging issue of the century – prohibiting the sale and consumption of alcohol. You release a new transport initiative that is a copy of your predecessors – only the name and the brochure have been changed.
You fight the election on the strength of your success in prohibiting alcohol. Unfortunately for you, most people don’t care if alcohol is bad for them or bad for society – they know what they like and they want to keep it.