OUR SAY: Road transport's very public solution

Governments should stop spending so much money on roads and invest billions into public transport. Freight carriers will be the big winners

By Jason Whittaker

Happy New Year. Except if you’re stuck in traffic on Parramatta Road. Then it’s typically miserable.

Take heart as you sit waiting, idling, burning precious fuel, sucking in toxic emissions, late for that crucial appointment. You are just one of the 3 million vehicles that use the pot-holed goat track annually, a road one local mayor once described as more "varicose vein" than transport artery.

Is Parramatta Road the worst major city road in Australia? There are plenty of contenders. Try moving at anything faster than a crawl on Lutwyche Road coming into Brisbane each morning, or the kilometre-long backlog over the West Gate Bridge in Melbourne. Even Perth and Adelaide are quickly developing peak-hour bottlenecks of their own.

And the increasingly agitated cabbie you spoke to is, in fact, right — city traffic really is getting worse. Much worse.

By 2020, capital city congestion will cost business over $20 billion every year. The figure from the Bureau of Transport and Regional Economics (BTRE), based on the projected avoidable costs associated with road congestion, shows that cost at least doubling from 2005 levels.

Billions of dollars should be pumped into public transport: into railway lines and carriages, more busses, trams and ferries, even pedestrian bridges and cycle paths. Indeed, the freight industry should champion public transport. Because, to borrow the climate change cliché, to do nothing would be disastrous, to an industry that perhaps has more to lose from rising congestion than any other.

When we talk about a doubling of the freight task by 2020 it is urban roads that will groan loudest under the extra weight. Urban carriers, the direct-to-customer services, the ‘last mile’ of the transport task, is where the rubber will hit the road.

Sydney is literally choking. The BTRE says about 22 percent of CBD workers bravely travel from sprawling suburbs via a chronically sick public transport system (based on the latest 2001 figures) — the highest percentage of any major city in the country — but it’s still not nearly enough.

Why would you catch public transport in Sin City? Trains are overcrowded, schedules are unreliable, fares are rising sharply, and an incompetently managed State Government of multiple terms doesn’t have a red cent to fix any of it (plans for a new city subway have been shelved indefinitely).

Less than 13 percent of suburban Melbournites catch a train or bus to work, for similar reasons. The Victorian Government has a plan to increase capacity of the passenger rail network, but it remains unfounded and unfunded.

People will use public transport when it works. Brisbane has invested significantly in dedicated corridors for its bus network and patronage has jumped substantially. Build it and they will come — and leave their cars at home.

There is simply no place for cars in the middle of our sprawling, higher-density, carbon-constrained cities. The answer is not better roads, it is attractive public transport.

Road congestion will cost industry billions; it will effectively end the notion of just-in-time delivery; it will see our biggest, most bustling economic centres grind to a gentle halt.

Tens of billions of dollars is needed to build the public transport systems other metropolises effectively use to keep many more people moving each day. If Kevin Rudd really wants to Build Australia, public transport is the best place to start.

Should governments up their investment in public transport, even at the expense of better roads? How much is congestion hurting your business? Leave your feedback below…

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