Public transport: make it frequent, make it free

August 22, 2008

On July 28, the Sydney Morning Herald revealed internal state government documents stating that even if prices for petrol, parking and road tolls increased massively, Sydney's car use would still climb beyond NSW government targets by 2016.

Premier Morris Iemma's government introduced its "State Plan" in 2006 for reducing carbon emissions, which included the aim to boost public transport patronage by 3% (to raise total patronage to 25%) within 10 years and reduce the number of kilometres that private cars travel each day.

Despite transport minister John Watkins' July 28 announcement of a slight increase in peak-hour public transport use — from 74.6% to 75% — the SMH declared that the state government would fail to reduce car use even if it "imposed a $50-a-day city parking fee and lifted tolls to as much as $40 for the M4".

Then on July 30, the SMH again revealed that the Iemma government has been ignoring the warning signs of a congested and crumbling Sydney. A report commissioned by the treasurer warned the state government not to go ahead with its North-West Metro line, set to cost $12 billion.

According to the SMH, the report found that the 38 kilometre rail line from Rouse Hill to St James Station is too long — only passing through a high-income, low-density area that is "wedded to its cars" — and that it "will do little to alleviate the CityRail congestion crisis". The report, which argued the plan would "do more harm than good", was promptly "buried by the premier's office" one month before Iemma announced the project, the SMH revealed.

#subh = Cars vs. buses and trains

In the face of climate change, massive investment and expansion of public transport must be made a higher priority if we are to cut carbon emissions to the levels needed.

Australia has the highest greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions per person: 5.63 tonnes of carbon each year. According to David Spratt, co-author of Climate Code Red, the world environment can only absorb 0.62 tonnes per person, and it is estimated that by 2030 this will decrease to 0.32 tonnes. Transport is a major, and growing, contributor to GHG emissions in Australia — 16% of the total in 2004.

In NSW, cars carry 70% of people to work. According to the CSIRO, if Australia continues this trend, photochemical smog will increase by 71% by 2011 and particle emissions (such as dust) by 61%. By encouraging people to take the train or bus instead of their private car, carbon emissions would be hugely reduced.

However, unless there is a viable alternative, people won't simply abandon the use of their cars overnight. If this was possible, the 50% jump in petrol prices over the last six months surely would have prompted such a move.

Some have argued that high fuel prices alone should act as an agent to reduce car use, by forcing people to question our dependence on fossil fuels. But even if the majority of people agree that we must make a transition to sustainable alternatives, many cannot afford to switch.

In most Australian cities, public transport services are unreliable, frequently cancelled or overcrowded; many people do not have public transport near where they live, or services do not run when they need them; and public transport is becoming increasingly expensive.

The CSIRO asserts that to prevent disastrous outcomes, including hundreds of premature deaths from respiratory diseases, we have to put public transport at the centre of our city development plans. It needs to meet peoples' transport needs to be made a real option for the millions of people who don't use it now.

Rail transport is among the most energy-efficient modes of transport currently available. The Australian Rail Association has documented that rail accounts for only 2.2% of transport-related GHG emissions, including both passenger and freight travel. A train line, according to the ARA, is capable of moving 50,000 people an hour, compared to 2500 people an hour in a freeway lane.

Green paper

Yet alongside the NSW government's floundering policy, the federal government's "green paper" released on July 16 fails to recognise the necessity of drastically and rapidly altering our currently unsustainable transport system.

In response to the paper, David White, environment spokesperson for the Socialist Alliance, pointed out that "While the green paper includes transport in its scheme, it effectively neutralises any need to modify personal or business travel behaviour.

"The scheme just leaves our transport system in its currently unsustainable position, where millions of Australians battle daily traffic gridlock because public transport services are unavailable, unreliable or too costly."

The carbon emissions trading scheme proposed within the green paper will not reduce emissions to the level — and at the speed — needed to avoid climate disaster. What it will do, White explained, is "protect industrial polluters by offering them free permits to pollute, and excluding some industries from the scheme altogether".

Make it free

During events such as World Youth Day in Sydney on July 15-20, the government gladly put money into running extra public transport services around the clock. During the Sydney Olympics in 2000, where the government really needed people to use public transport, it was even made completely free.

ABC Online reported on April 15 that some 16,500 extra bus services and 4000 extra trains were being organised to move pilgrims, commuters and residents into and around the CBD during World Youth Day. Watkins said this increase was necessary in anticipation of 180,000 extra passengers. However according to CityRail's website, Sydney rail carries more than 900,000 passengers on any normal day.

Why not make the increases in services permanent? The NSW government handed over public funding to the tune of $108.5 million to the pope's World Youth Day visit. Surely that money would have been better spent as part of a large-scale investment to improve the appalling state of public transport across NSW.

Additionally, to jump-start the switch to public transport, it has to be free. It's what happened in the Belgian city of Hasselt; within a year of introducing free bus fares, patronage increased by 870%.

It already exists in Australia too. In Western Australia, the Central Area Transit (CAT) bus system runs free and frequent services in the Perth, Fremantle and Joondalup CBDs.

Since CAT was introduced to Perth in 1996, it has been constantly improved and expanded, with funding coming largely from a parking licence fee system. The system applies to non-residential parking within a "parking management area". All revenue from the system is legally required to be put back into the transport system.

In 2001, the system generated $5.5 million that was directly channelled into improving the CAT system as well as pedestrian and cycling facilities.

Public transport is economically viable, despite what the government would have us to believe. The substantial environmental benefits of free and high-quality public transport are not all we have to gain. There are health, social and even economic benefits as well.

The costs and benefits of an improved and used public transport system must be measured against the continuing use of private cars and freight. According to the Socialist Alliance in its 2007 call for a trial of free public transport in NSW, for every 10% switch from car and truck to public transport, the cost of air pollution, greenhouse gas emission, car accidents, traffic congestion, motor vehicle waste disposal, noise pollution and road maintenance will be reduced by at least $1.4 billion.

State and federal governments must take rapid measures to put the necessary resources into rebuilding and expanding neglected public transport networks and substantially reducing car use. The environment demands it.

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