– Do governments spend too much on roads?

Total passenger travel by mode in Australia (billion passenger kilometres) Souce: BITRE

The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) got a lot of press recently with its claim that “governments across Australia are spending at least four times more on building roads and bridges than on public transport infrastructure“.

The claim is in a new ACF report, Australia’s public transport: investment for a clean transport future, which argues for a rebalancing of the transport capital works budget, recommending that “two thirds should be spent on public and active transport measures and one third should be spent on roads”.

I agree with the ACF that more needs to be spent on public transport, but I don’t think the “roads vs public transport“ logic does justice to the complexity of the situation. There are a number of reasons why more public funds are spent constructing roads than rails.

One is that people drive much more than they use public transport. According to the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics (BITRE), Australians travel almost eight times as many kilometres by car as they do by bus and rail-based public transport. The money is going where the demand is. If you accept the ACF’s numbers, public transport is actually getting a disproportionate share of public construction expenditure. Roads are needed even if travel is confined to foot and horse-drawn vehicles. The Hoddle grid in Melbourne and the avenues and streets of Manhattan were designed before cars were invented – land has limited value if it can’t be accessed.

Construction expenditure doesn’t in any event tell the whole story. Most funding for public transport comes via operating subsidies. Although getting comparable numbers is hard, Sydney University transport academic, Professor John Stanley, estimates that in states like NSW and Victoria, total public funding for public transport and roads is probably pretty nearly equal. In his 2008 report, Public transport’s role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Victoria’s Commissioner for Sustainability noted a significant shift in funding priority from roads to public transport at the State level.

Another reason roads are important is for the distribution of freight within the metropolitan area. According to BITRE, the number of tonne kilometres of urban freight transported by road within Australia’s eight capital cities in 2007/08 was more than five times higher than it was in 1971-72. There is simply no practical alternative to road for tasks like restocking those hundreds of supermarkets that supply suburban households with food and household goods.

But most importantly, roads are also extremely important for public transport. For example, in Melbourne, the Doncaster Area Rapid Transit (DART) system, the Airport-CBD Skybus service, and the city’s three new orbital Smartbus transit services, all use buses. Because they use the existing road network, these systems do not require significant new land acquisition and construction. Some trunk lines might in time justify conversion to light rail services as patronage increases, but they too can use existing roads rather than require a dedicated right of way.  Read the rest of this entry »

Why does Canberra have more social capital?

Newly elected Labor member for the seat of Fraser in the ACT, Andrew Leigh, argues that Canberra has the highest level of social capital of any of Australia’s capital cities.

The former ANU economist contends that social capital – essentially the level of trust and reciprocity within communities – has declined in Australia. He points to declines in active membership of associations, in religious participation, and in membership of political parties and unions.

We even have fewer close friends now than in the 80s – we’ve two fewer friends who could keep a confidence and we’ve lost half a friend who’d help us through a hard time.

Andrew concludes that there are several plausible explanations for this decline, including people working longer hours, the feminisation of the workforce and greater ethnic diversity. In addition, more time spent watching television, using a computer and commuting means less time spent face-to-face with others.

Most of these changes also have benefits, so he cautions against trying to return to the past. We need new and innovative ways to build social capital. He argues that the place to look for how we might increase social capital is Canberra. This is where it gets really interesting. Read the rest of this entry »

Is unused infrastructure capacity in the inner suburbs all used up?

There was more evidence in The Sunday Age on the weekend that the spare infrastructure capacity that is widely presumed to be available in the inner city and inner suburbs has in all likelihood already been consumed.

What is unfortunate about this stubborn idea is that there are already sufficient good reasons for increasing housing density in established suburbs without having to resort to unsubstantiated and outdated beliefs.

Proposed 520 unit development, Coburg. How much 'spare' infrastructure capacity will it use?

New research by Professor Kevin O’Conner, Melbourne University, shows that the number of additional students who will be seeking enrolment by 2016 in the inner city and inner suburbs is equivalent to fourteen new schools.

However existing schools are generally at capacity. The principal of Port Melbourne primary is reported as saying “schools in this area don’t have the capacity to cope with more students….looking at my projected enrolments and those of neighbouring schools, and from what I hear about the plans for extra multistorey developments in Southbank and Docklands, we will be full soon”.

He could’ve mentioned that virtually every school within at least 10 km of the CBD already has one or more so-called temporary class rooms including, now, the two story portable, and some are using public parks for play and sport.

Unfortunately there is no credible contemporary analysis of infrastructure capacity and costs in different parts of Melbourne. As I’ve argued before (here and here), there is unlikely to be significant spare infrastructure capacity in the inner established areas. There are a number of reasons for this proposition: Read the rest of this entry »

Is Darwin really Australia’s most sustainable city?

So, who knew intuitively that Darwin and the Sunshine Coast are Australia’s most sustainable cities? These startling revelations are from the Australian Conservation Foundation’s newly released Sustainable Cities Index, which examined the country’s 20 largest cities across 15 indicators. Our least sustainable city is Perth, closely followed by Geelong.

And contrary to The Age’s headline that “Melbourne trails in sustainable cities index” and “pales in comparison with Darwin and Brisbane”, Melbourne is the 7th most sustainable of the 20 cities studied (Brisbane is 3rd).

I’ve previously looked at the inappropriateness of the Mercer and Economist indexes as measures of a city’s liveability and I think the ACF’s index is less useful. It seems to be more about publicity than useful research – a feeling reinforced by an absence of technical information on the methodology. It’s actually not an environmental sustainability index per se, but rather a mish-mash of environmental, quality of life and resilience indicators.

It includes indicators like subjective well-being, the rate of volunteering, unemployment levels and the proportion of the population with type 2 diabetes.

I’m sympathetic to the argument that sustainability connects deeply to other facets of life – as the ACF puts it, it’s about learning to live within our environmental means while maintaining social cohesion and liveability. But the fact is most readers of the newspapers that reported on this study (see here and here) think of sustainability as a largely environmental concept. I agree with them – there’s a danger that stretching the term to include liveability measures will ultimately devalue its usefulness and render it virtually meaningless. It would be more sensible to have two or three separate indexes rather than one.

Notwithstanding the confusion about what it’s intended to measure, does the Sustainable Cities Index approach its task in a sensible way? Straight off there are some worrying methodological issues. Read the rest of this entry »

Why ‘spare infrastructure capacity’ is exaggerated

Are claims of spare infrastructure capacity in the inner suburbs real?

The Age reports that there were almost 30,000 more people living in Coburg and Pascoe Vale in 1976 than there are now (The Outer Limits). The paper quotes the former Mayor of the City of Moreland, who says that increasing the population density in many areas “is simply returning suburbs to previous population levels”.

The editorialist in The Age of 20 March stated that “some ‘traditional’ inner Melbourne suburbs – such as Coburg, Pascoe Vale and Fitzroy – have fewer residents than they did 50 years ago. Current ‘in-fill’ housing is thus regrowth” (emphasis added).

The idea of course is that there is spare capacity in infrastructure and amenities that can accommodate ‘restoration’ of the historic population level. This would be a good thing because any underutilisation of infrastructure is economically wasteful. It might also minimise further ‘sprawl’ at the urban fringe. Read the rest of this entry »