Public Transport Comes With Densities

Source: Thoughtlines with Bob Carr
Proud to have been chosen as keynote speaker for today’s big public transport conference in Parliament House in Canberra, sponsored by a coalition that includes rail, bus and bike groups plus local government and ( interestingly ) the Heart Foundation. The Gillard Government and its predecessor have made commitments to public transport, reviving – I said in my speech – the work of the Whitlam Government in urban policy.
Not before time. Capital cities generate 84 percent of economic growth in Australia and they are growing. By mid-century we will see Sydney and Melbourne at seven million. They won’t work without higher densities. Sydney is the only Australian city where more than half of new housing starts come in existing areas. In Melbourne it is only about 50 percent.
Here was my first proposal for boosting public transport: make sure that the metropolitan plans for our capitals mandate that, one, we increase the percentage of the population within 30 minutes by public transport of a major centre (like Parramatta or Liverpool) within the overall metropolitan area; two, we aim to have 80 percent of new housing within walking distance of public transport. Call these two ideas “key performance indicators” for city planning. They will nurture public transport. They do exist in the Sydney metropolitan plan where urban density and public transport reliance are the highest in Australia.
The Henry report recommended we move towards abolishing vehicle registration charges and fuel taxes for a system that charges drivers for distance travelled and time of journey. One of my fellow speakers suggested research towards ways of persuading private motorists that they could be better off under this model. And another speaker said marketing and politics can deliver this reform – and that we talk about distance-based charging instead of congestion charging.
Henry advocates variable congestion pricing and that heavy vehicles pay ”for their specific marginal road-wear costs.”
I reviewed the success of Bus Rapid Transit systems – designated bus expressways – which are being recognized as by far the most cost effective way of delivering public transport. Adelaide, Brisbane and Sydney offer good models. The Liverpool-Parramatta bus transit way, costing $346 million, boasts 35 stations and runs a bus every 10 minutes every peak hour. It has carved an hour off travel times. A speaker at the conference told me there was $1 billion allocated to light rail on the Gold Coast when an investment of only $50 million would have delivered an environmentally sound bus transit system. BRT gives you more kilometers of public transport.
The serious rail projects in Australian cities in recent years have been the $2 billion 13 kilometer Epping to Chatswood line, the $1.66 billion 72 kilometer Perth New MetroRail Project and the $650 million five kilometer South Morang Rail Extension in Melbourne. Heavy rail has its place where there are populations to support it – that densities argument again.
You cannot escape it.
Professor David Hensher, an advocate of Rapid Bus Transit, said that Sydney should not procede with the north-west rail project. He said that to relieve congestion it is better “to flood the system with buses”. Just a six percent shift away from cars ends congestion, he argues. And he argues that a single additional rail link – anywhere – won’t deliver the benefits that would come with more buses across the whole system. They offer flexibility and affordability. One restraint, however, is curb space. Already Brisbane is, according to one participant here, simply not able to accommodate more uses coming in from the suburbs at peak hours. There isn’t the space. A high standard of debate here.
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