– 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 »


Is there a case for freeways?

High St Reservoir - where road meets rail!

I’ve concluded before that the most plausible scenario in the forseeable future is that cars will continue to be used for the majority of trips in Australian cities. Increasingly, these cars will tend to be powered by clean energy sources and will be slower and more civilised than today’s vehicles.

I expect growth in public transport and cycling will be much faster but the absolute number of cars will very probably still increase. It is therefore inevitable that there will be continuing pressure for new freeways.

So is there any sort of case for freeways or should all new infrastructure funding be reserved exclusively for public transport, as proposed by the Independent Inquiry into Sydney’s long-term transport needs?

The key criticisms of freeways, most of which are pretty familiar by now, are that they:

  • generate more car travel and higher speeds, which in turn produces more emissions and pollution and consumes more oil
  • promote a sprawled, car-dependent urban form – the higher speeds provided by freeways mean people tend to live further away from activities
  • undermine the viability of public transport where they compete directly
  • impact on neighbouring uses – the amenity of adjoining land uses is diminished by noise and pollution
  • crowd out investment in transit – governments prioritise funding to roads and investment in public transport is neglected
  • sever social linkages and networks when they’re superimposed on existing communities
  • cannot deliver very large numbers of people to concentrated locations, like CBDs, without becoming congested relatively quickly

In fairness, it should be acknowledged that efforts have been made to ameliorate some of these issues. Much of the investment in freeways over the last twenty years has been by the private sector. Governments have built sound barriers along new and existing freeways and the almost mandatory use of tunnels in built up areas means severance is no longer the issue it once was. Read the rest of this entry »


Does the RACV truly think long term?

Click for detailed map (slow to download)

The Age published details on Monday of what it says is a leaked Vicroads “plan for hundreds of kilometres of new freeways”.

The “plan” is actually just a map showing how Melbourne’s road network might look in 2040. Vicroads isn’t conceding that it prepared the map but it isn’t denying it either. Most of the projects are already shown on the Melway or are well known – only the outer, outer ring road and two Geelong roads seem genuinely new.

There is a heap of negative comment on The Age site. The most interesting comment however is a quote in The Age from an RACV spokesperson who says the map represents the sort of ”truly long-term thinking” needed if the city’s road system is to cope with predictions that Melbourne’s population will grow to 7 million by 2049.

I have no issue with the need to think about road transport well into the future. As I’ve pointed out before, even the most optimistic long term public transport plans envisage that the majority of travel will still be by car. While the car’s mode share is likely to decline, the absolute level of car travel – in green cars – is nevertheless highly like to increase.

But I beg to differ with an RACV spokesperson who is quoted as saying that this road plan constitutes “truly long term thinking” about the road system. I don’t see how the efficiency, sustainability and capacity of the road system as depicted in this wish-list can be assessed without having information on a host of other variables that will affect the use of road space in the future. Read the rest of this entry »


Why do major infrastructure projects fail?

Selected road and rail infrastructure projects (data from The Australian)

It was reported this week that the new Clem Jones Tunnel in Brisbane (known as the Clem7) is in diabolical financial trouble due to traffic levels that are well below those forecast.

Fewer than 30,000 vehicles a day are using the tunnel even though tolls were halved from 1 July (now $2 for a car). This compares with a forecast of 60,000 on opening, rising to 100,000 after 18 months. The operator of the tunnel, Rivercity Motorway, posted a $1.67 billion loss for the year to 30th June.

Clem7 joins a growing list of infrastructure projects funded on the basis of overly optimistic forecasts of initial usage. These include Sydney’s Lane Cove and Cross City tunnels, the Brisbane and Sydney airport trains, Melbourne’s Eastlink, and the 2,250 km Freightlink rail line connecting Adelaide and Darwin.

The Age’s Matt O’Sullivan is gob-smacked that Clem7’s transport consultants could have forecast traffic levels higher than those on New Yorks Midtown Tunnel, given that Brisbane’s population is a quarter of the City of New York’s:

“Yet traffic forecasters predicted that thousands more motorists would use the new Clem7 tunnel under the Brisbane River every day than another four-lane artery in New York linking Queens with central Manhattan.

“Running under the East River, the two-kilometre Midtown Tunnel has had about 80,000 vehicles passing through it each day. And it has been that way for much of the 70-year-old tunnel’s life. Half a world away in the Sunshine State, well-paid traffic forecasters had predicted that 91,000 vehicles daily would use the Clem7 by now and, by late next year, more than 100,000”.

What strikes me immediately is that this is not a sensible comparison. It’s highly likely the Midtown Tunnel is at capacity and probably has been for a very long time. Read the rest of this entry »