Cities drowning in cars: what's the alternative?

June 29, 2009

Australian cities are growing in population and in geographic spread. Urban sprawl, encouraged by governments at all levels, is pushing suburbia in all directions.

Yet while new housing developments are funded by inflated grants and tax concessions, the extension of public transport to these new areas languishes.

The result is the worsening of a major problem for Australian cities — car dependency.

If Australia is to make a serious contribution to ending global warming, many thousands of cars need to be taken off the roads.

But when governments fail to provide adequate public transport, car numbers just keep growing. What's the alternative?

If you build it …

In its "stimulus package" announced in October, the Rudd Labor government announced a tripling in the first home owners grant to $21,000 for new houses.

The intention — and the result — was to "stimulate" the building of new houses and flats for first home buyers. Generally, new homes are built in cheaper, outer suburban areas, poorly serviced by public transport.

In its June 16 budget, the NSW state government took a further step. It halved the stamp duty on new homes valued at under $600,000 until the end of the year.

Unlike the federal government's grant that encourages first-home buyers, the NSW government's gift is mostly to property "investors" to encourage them to build cheaper housing on the urban fringe. First-home buyers are already exempt from stamp duty in NSW for houses under $500,000.

The state government wants to encourage the building of more houses. The total of new homes built in NSW each year fell from 48,000 in 2002 to about 26,900 said the June 17 Sydney Morning Herald.

… they will drive

The missing link in the governments' plan is transport. How will residents of the new homes on the urban fringe travel to work?

A study by Jago Dodson and Neil Sipe from Griffith University, Unsettling Suburbia: The New Landscape of Oil and Mortgage Vulnerability in Australian Cities, was released in August. It showed that the car dependence of the least wealthy in Australian cities rose between 2001 and 2006.

"Increased public transport investment in currently under-served areas is essential", Dodson told Green Left Weekly.

The Urban Research Centre of the University of Western Sydney (UWS), was commissioned by the Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils to prepare a report on job prospects for western Sydney until 2031. It assessed the state government's target of creating an extra 235,000 jobs.

The UWS study, North west and west-central Sydney employment strategies, was published in November. It found that one of the major barriers to job creation was the lack of public transport in western Sydney.

"It is clear that public transport in Western Sydney has suffered from chronic under-investment", the report said.

"The region's rail network has remained largely unchanged in coverage since the 1930s, while over 120 kilometres of motorway have been developed at a time when Western Sydney's population has increased dramatically. As a result the region is heavily car-dependent.

"Journey times for commuters on key parts of the rail network have actually increased over the last twenty years."

This effective privatisation of transport options also comes at a significant environmental cost. Under the federal government's proposed carbon trading scheme, such costs would largely be passed onto individual commuters.

"As climate change mitigation efforts continue and an emissions trading scheme is introduced, the residents of Western Sydney will face increasing financial pain as the inequities in decades of transport investment in Sydney become even more apparent", the study said.

Historical failure

The problem of governments failing to provide adequate public transport is not a new one.

In Roads, Railways and Regimes: Why some societies are able to organise suburban public transport — and why others can't in October 2007, Griffith University researcher Chris Harris
said the neglect had been a "policy of contrived 'state failure"'. The failure is most common in English-speaking countries going back to the 1950s and 1960s.

"It is clear that the rise of 'automobile dependency' to the levels seen in the English-speaking world — where there is often not a public transport alternative, or only a ramshackle one — was a policy choice", Harris said.

"To paraphrase the tag line to Doctor Strangelove, it was as if policymakers in all the English-speaking countries simultaneously 'learned to stop worrying and love the automobile'."

A persistent complaint from government, Harris said, is the increasing cost of public transport, both in the provision (building new rail lines, dedicated bus lanes) and maintenance. However, the negative social costs of allowing the domination of the private car are far higher.

The June 10 SMH reported on findings in a report commissioned NSW Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART). It showed that every for train journey taken, the broader community saves $6 in lower air pollution and less road congestion.

When the alternative of commuters taking their cars is factored into the equation, the real social saving goes up to $15.80 for each train trip. The average subsidy paid for such trips is $4.20. Each train trip represents a big social saving.

The problem, according to IPART, arises when the cost of extending public transport networks is factored in. The report shortsightedly argued, that to maintain the state subsidy at the same level, fares would need to rise.

IPART's recommendation for a price hike was greedily seized on by the SMH in its June 11 editorial. However, it flies in the face of the studies that show public transport patronage declines when fares are raised.

The best response would be to extend the state subsidy, mindful of the massive social saving from taking cars out of the equation.

Ideally, the government should make public transport free. The extra passengers — meaning far fewer cars on the road — would more than pay for the extra government spending in real social benefits.

Government cost, social benefit

On June 23, a new report, Investing in sustainable transport: Our clean, green transport future, was released by the Rapid and Affordable Transport Alliance (RATA).

The alliance consists of 17 environmental, health and union groups including the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Australian Council of Trade Unions.

The study said the federal government should direct two-thirds of transport funding to public transport and one-third to roads over the next 10 years to address outstanding public transport needs.

The direct cost of private car dependency is at least $39 billion a year, the report said. Of this, $21 billion is lost due to road congestion and $18 billion for traffic accidents.

It also said the federal government spent only $1.2 billion on rail, but $14 billion on roads between 2004 and 2009. This is a 12-fold funding difference in favour of the car.

The report's target for public transport funding is still very modest, but it would be a major boost to building more sustainable and livable cities.

Spending on roads is far more expensive per passenger kilometre than spending on heavy rail. "Road building costs can range from $3860 to $13,250 per passenger kilometre travelled for 4-lane dual carriageways whereas two track railways cost about $847 per passenger kilometre travelled [excluding] land costs", the report said.

Cities centred on public transport also spend less overall on transport. "Public transport-based cities spend around 5 to 8% of their wealth on transport services, but in heavily car based cities this is 12 to 15% due to the inherent efficiency of public transport."

Costing for public transport must also incorporate greenhouse gas implications.

"Transport is Australia's third largest source of carbon pollution providing 14% of total emissions", the report said. However, "Public transport uses fewer resources for infrastructure, vehicles and fuel than cars. Even when coal provides the electricity, trains emit half the carbon pollution of cars per passenger kilometre".

Greenhouse gas emissions from road freight haulage are projected to rise by at least 27% in the next 10 years.


Congestion is a major social problem in cities. It's not solved by building more roads. Harris argued, "roads are seen to induce more traffic and thus more roads by a variety of short- and long-term feedback processes".

The RATA report said: "Building more roads results in a phenomenon called 'induced traffic growth', where more roads initially reduces congestion but soon encourages more cars onto the roads. As a result, congestion and air pollution will get worse."

The transport crisis reflects a problem with the whole social system, but solutions are achievable.

RATA argues for a turn towards Transit Oriented Development, defined as "compact communities with a concentration of jobs and services easily reached by walking and cycling, integrated with high quality transport links".

While paying lip service to the buzz words, state, local and federal governments continue to encourage extensive (rather than intensive) developments on greenfield sites. Little thought is given to public transport.

Despite the proven social savings that come from integrated public transport systems, neoliberal governments — both Labor and Liberal — have refused to make the necessary commitment.

Planning for sustainable transport

In NSW, the Carr government commissioned the Long-Term Strategic Plan for Rail in 2001. Known as the Christie report, it backed a huge extension of heavy rail corridors in Sydney's north-west, south-west and the Hills district.

The report supported lighter "Metro" rail systems to meet public transport demand along a north-south axis.

The Christie report also recommended more integration of bus and rail transport. The report was suppressed by the government at first, and only released in 2002.

The NSW government has refused to adopt most of these recommendations. It first pledged to put some of the proposals into practice — such as the Glenfield to Leppington rail extension in the Sydney's south-west — but has since backed away, arguing that the costs are too high.

Other recommendations have been only partly carried out. The proposed Parramatta to Chatswood rail link was stopped half-way and now goes only from Epping to Chatswood.

Rather than building much-needed extensions to heavy rail, state governments are trying to wind back services and cut jobs.

The state government still persists with plans to close down the heavy rail line into Newcastle. A strong community campaign led by the Save Our Rail Coalition has frustrated the government's plans so far.

In 2004, the NSW government closed the Casino to Murwillumbah rail line in the state's north-east, despite widespread community outrage.

The NSW government is now undertaking a "review" of Cityrail stations in Sydney with the aim of rationalising staff and cutting jobs.

The Rail Tram and Bus Union opposes the restructure, which will cut services as well as jobs. The union says it will reduce staff and passenger safety on stations at night and on weekends.

The current model of development is simply unsustainable. Addicted to the profits-first neoliberal orthodoxy, governments are wasting billions in public funds on new roads and under-resourced housing developments.

Governments have a mandate to build sustainable communities — not isolated, car-dependent, over-priced and sprawling suburbs.

By reallocating spending — from the development of motorways and towards the extension of public transport — along with adequate funding for social services and jobs — real sustainable communities could be built.

The threat of runaway climate change adds a vital factor to the mix. What has been a highly desirable goal of social policy for decades, is now a priority for our survival.

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