– 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 »

What should we do about the Airport?

Proposal for an orbital Bus Rapid Transit service

The key transport challenge at Melbourne Airport isn’t to build a rail line to the CBD. Rather, it’s how to move growing numbers of travellers from dispersed suburban locations to the airport and back again. Here’s a (speculative) idea about how that might be done.

This is a pressing issue because passenger movements through the airport are projected to increase from 26 million in 2009/10 to between 44 and 55 million by 2027/28. That’s potentially a doubling of demand within twenty years. On current settings, with 69% of trips to the airport made by private car and 17% by taxi, the outcome could either be gridlock or massive expansion of the freeway network.

Providing a high capacity connection between the airport and CBD is an important part of the answer but it won’t work for all those travellers whose journey starts or ends in homes and workplaces in the suburbs. Theoretically, they could take a train to Southern Cross and transfer there to the airport service, but they’d be unlikely to do that for a number of reasons.

First, the journey would take too long – travellers would have to walk, drive or bus to their nearest station, transfer to a train or tram, and transfer again at Southern Cross station. Second, parking is inadequate – many would seek to drive to their nearest station, but there’re severe constraints on expanding parking in built-up areas. Limited economies of scale mean it would also be hard to provide an acceptable level of security for cars parked overnight at Melbourne’s 200+ rail stations. In addition, baggage would be problematic on peak hour public transport, which wasn’t designed with this purpose in mind. There would be delays in loading and unloading trains, trams and buses at rush hour and suitcases in aisles would reduce capacity.

Trying to leverage the existing suburban rail system would, in short, be too hard. Most Melburnians would simply continue to drive to the airport, leading to worse congestion. They would apply intense political pressure to have the freeway network expanded.

I’d like to offer a different solution. I think two key actions will be needed over the next twenty or so years. The first is to restrict access by car to the airport – unless there is a positive disincentive to driving (something less damaging than congestion!), alternative modes will not be viable. The second is to move the effective entry to the airport to multiple locations in the suburbs. Here’s a broad schematic of how I think it might work:

  • Set charges that are high enough to discourage the great bulk of motorists from entering the airport or using the short term and long term car parks
  • Provide an orbital transit service running from the airport to the west and to the south east along (mostly) existing freeways – see map
  • Construct a small number of car parks with transit stations along this route, near freeway interchanges
  • Aim to operate at a frequency and span of hours at least comparable to that currently provided by Skybus.

Under this scenario, Melburnians could drive to the ring road, park in a secure facility, and board the airport transit service. It would be little different from using the current long term car park and shuttle bus – the only real difference is the car leg would be shorter and the transit leg longer (although the overall time should be faster!). I also envision that ‘farewellers and greeters’ and taxi users would mostly go no further than the nearest transit station. The idea is the stations would be the effective ‘entry’ to the airport. Read the rest of this entry »