The recent rail crisis in Sydney has drawn attention, once again, to the future of public transport in Australia. Since most Australians travel by car, the fate of the nation's public transport infrastructure may not seem overwhelmingly significant to our immediate needs. But the provision of affordable, accessible and flexible public transport services is very relevant to the future sustainability of our urban areas.
This being the case, can't we just get people to catch trains, trams and buses instead of relying so much on the private motor vehicle? Such a direct response is not as simple as it looks.
Australia's core public transport infrastructure was laid down by the late 1930s. All the major tram and rail networks were established as feeders to the central business districts — and most people commuted by these networks. The grids also determined the pace and the geography of urban development. But in the post-war economic boom, affordability of motor vehicles and the demand for housing changed that equation. In the period since the 1950s, public transport usage has collapsed in all Australian cities.
Instead of dealing with the long-term consequences of this shift in patronage, public transport was allowed to decline. Capital investment was cut back and schedules were changed, supposedly to keep pace with falling demand.
Melbourne's Sandringham rail line illustrates this trend. In 1929, there was a service every 3-4 minutes during peak hour and every 15 minutes at off-peak times and weekends. By 1991, peak services had fallen to one every 10-20 minutes and off-peak services were every 30-40 minutes. It is no surprise therefore, that patronage had fallen over the same period by 80%.
As a result, the major axis of transport planning and responses in urban areas, has been attending to the demands of the private motor vehicle. Today, approximately one-third of all urban space is dedicated to serving the motor car (roads, car parks, etc) and there is one private passenger vehicle for every two Australians. The number of motor vehicles on Australian roads has risen by almost 30% over the past 12 years alone so that today 10.1 million cars are a major — and the fastest rising — factor in the country's increasing greenhouse gas emissions.
Collectively, however, it's another matter. A key factor holding back the massive car overgrowth in our cities has been environmentalism, which from the early 1970s has sustained many local movements against open-slather freeway development. The freeways that were built were constructed at a political price, so that cities like Adelaide have shied away from such investments almost completely.
However, the market-driven politics fostered in the 1980s have shifted that agenda around. Precisely because traffic continued to worsen while public transport patronage declined, the freeway option has been revisited through a series of massive capital ventures — often ones tied to a user-pays formula such as a toll. But these expenditures are being engineered to adapt to demand rather than encourage changes in transport habits.
Urbanologist Paul Mees cites the example of Melbourne's South Eastern Freeway as indicative of the adage "build it and they will come". The opening of its final stage in 1988 was immediately followed by a sharp fall in patronage on the Glen Waverly rail line which ran adjacent to the new section. The rail operator responded to the falloff by reducing services to accommodate decreasing patronage — which in turn led to a further fall in passenger numbers.
In the meantime, congestion on the freeway rose to such a level that the traffic conditions, (which the freeway was supposed to relieve) returned to their previous state. The freeway is popularly referred to as the "South Eastern Carpark".
Such demand-led economics has also encouraged the remaking of public enterprises along corporate lines. Fares are rising while privatisation is being openly discussed and planned for. In Melbourne the urban tram and train network was privatised in 1999 when its assets were divided up and franchised to six private operators. Around the country, sections of the public transport network are being sold off, sub-contracted, or (as in the case of buses) public transport is being forced to compete for routes against the private sector.
While governments at all levels continue to employ occasional "greenspeak" to explain their priorities, a major premise of the discussion is that Australian cities are dispersed communities. This is indeed true. The post-war housing boom based on the ideal of the quarter-acre block has encouraged an urban form with densities of 15-30 dwellings per hectare. Planners are excusing inaction on the basis that such densities can never sustain a viable public transport network.
Any traveller on an outer-suburban bus or an off-peak rail service may tend to agree. Land-use patterns are arranged to suit the convenience of drivers while public transport is confined to serving those with no cars. This leads to low patronage — and low patronage is offered the reduced service it deserves.
Similarly, a bus shunting back and forth between two shopping centres with three passengers on board is no real alternative to the private motor vehicle and plays no significant role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. For public transport to be a viable alternative to gridlock, it must be patronised at levels many times larger than is presently the case.
One take on the public transport enigma is to engineer greater densities. Urban renewal programs which bring residents back to the inner city are cited as one method. However, this process also serves to drive lower-income people away from the city to its margins, as real estate and rental prices soar closer in.
Another related tactic is to impose greater densities on all suburbs by encouraging block subdivision. The population of the huge Brisbane City Council area at the beginning of the 1990s was falling as homemakers chased cheaper land prices in the nearby municipalities. Consequently, greater Brisbane exploded north and south along the coast until it stretched from Fraser Island into New South Wales. That has not impacted on the public transport services available to the people inhabiting the city's margins.
Nationwide, it is those who can afford to live in close to the CBD, who reap what benefits still exist from inner-city public transport. The further you go from the city centre the services decline accordingly. If we accept the rationale of the market then there is simply no viable future for a public transport network especially if placed in the hands of private operators.
While public transport is seen as a moderating factor on peak-hour traffic congestion, Australian cities are still crippled by the official deference being paid to the motor car. The 700,000 new vehicles sold annually help to explain why all levels of government want to pander to the demands of the automobile.
A keen argument offered by the motoring lobby is that future technology will create cleaner and more efficient vehicles and that we will be able to solve traffic congestion by being better road builders or (to note the new vogue) better "tunnellers". But the last period which saw ever more increasing outlays on road infrastructure and much tinkering with vehicle design has led to no such breakthroughs. The average fuel efficiency of the cars in this country has actually worsened slightly in the last 40 years.
Privatisation — regardless of its transitional forms — is a recipe for a further decline in public transport patronage. So-called efficiencies under the new corporate model being generated within the urban transport networks are costing jobs, pay and working conditions of transport workers, without corresponding gains for patrons (and even, as in the case of the NSW rail service, at risk to their safety).
Despite what seems to be a bleak scenario, the only solution to the massive cost the motor car is imposing on our urban existence is a public one. Our cities need inexpensive, efficient, frequent and accessible public transport. People will get out of their cars for nothing less.
[Dave Riley is a member of the Socialist Alliance.]
From Green Left Weekly, March 10, 2004.
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