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Right now, the writing’s on the wall for Australia’s major cities when it comes to liveability and transport connectivity.
We’ve got rapidly expanding urban populations and we need to make some choices.
Trains, buses and trams are packed to the point where they skip stations and stops. Roads and freeways are car parks during the morning and evening peaks. Outer suburban areas are poorly serviced and our regional communities are crying out for upgrades and connections.
Illustration: Matt Davidson
The release of Infrastructure Australia’s annual infrastructure priority list lays out a long list of projects that governments have kicked off or that have potential to address issues of urban congestion, preserving corridors, opportunities for growth and national connectivity.
But this list is just that - a list. What’s needed is a strategic approach and deliberate choices, so we actively shape the city we want.
That requires us to choose what kind of cities and towns we want to live in, and for state and federal governments to take leadership to get the job done.
We can choose to further embed car-dependence and suffer the health and climate impacts of vehicle pollution.
Or can we can prioritise world-class public transport and leave our kids and grandkids healthy, liveable cities.
We need serious vision and a plan to make this a reality, a plan which puts public transport investments first.
In Victoria we have some important public transport improvements under way. But these projects are just playing catch-up to meet current demand, not the future needs we face as the shape of our city changes and grows.
Victoria’s predicted population growth means that past patterns of private car use will not work. You think traffic’s bad now, imagine what Melbourne will be like when we hit 10 million people. It’s unthinkable.
Currently more than 80 per cent of trips in Melbourne are taken by car. If this continues, population growth will mean our wonderful city will be strangled by a web of freeways, off-ramps and toll roads, swallowing up vast chunks of open space, creeks and river valleys, and people’s homes.
On the other hand, great public transport gives people the option of getting out of their cars, leaving the road network freed up from gridlock for the people and businesses that need it.
Trains, buses and trams are packed to the point where they skip stations and stops.
Photo: Paul Jeffers
If we provided the great public transport to support a third of trips being public transport trips, then the need for expensive and polluting new tollways would be dramatically reduced.
It’s simple maths. One train line operating at high frequency carries the same number of people as 10 lanes of tollway traffic.
Anyone who’s been packed sardine-like on a train or tram or sat waiting in the drizzle at a bus stop knows that our city is crying out for public transport solutions that are fast, frequent, affordable, safe and well-connected.
The idea that public transport is not Melburnians’ preferred option is just not backed up by the reality. When the service is actually there, people use it.
Think about the new stations in the western suburbs like Tarneit and Derrimut, where passenger numbers have far exceeded predictions. Who wouldn’t want to hop on a quick, efficient train and avoid the gridlocked West Gate Bridge?
Who wouldn’t want to get to the airport by train from the CBD in half an hour?
Investment in public transport is also a bonus for community health - we can cut pollution and improve air quality, and help halt the devastating effects of dangerous climate change.
So what’s the barrier?
Why are our governments, of both Liberal and Labor stripes, choosing mega-polluting toll roads over public transport, when they look at the list of possibilities to unclog our cities?
Toll roads and tunnels cost billions and billions of dollars, take up massive amounts of state and federal budgets and saddle drivers with escalating tolls, with huge impacts on household and small businesses’ budgets.
Building toll roads is an easy political fix that works well in the election cycle. It’s quicker and often cheaper to build a toll road than a rail line in the short term, especially if a private toll corporation like Transurban stumps up some or all of the cost.
But the long-term costs are huge. They don’t work to unclog our roads, and leave a legacy of city dysfunction.
We’ve got both Labor and Liberal spruiking their new toll roads, whether it’s the West Gate Tunnel tollway in Melbourne (Transurban’s own brilliant idea as a "market-led proposal") or WestConnex in Sydney.
Let’s not forget that toll road operators like Transurban are in the business of making money from traffic. Their goal is to deliver shareholder profits, not public benefits.
Our transport network planning can’t be left in the hands of private toll operators.
Governments must face up to the fact that they are responsible for planning and delivering a transport network that operates efficiently and effectively, in the public interest.
This means resisting the short-term allure of a profit-motivated toll operator offering to fix congestion.
We can build a truly modern city that provides us all with world-class infrastructure. We can build a well-connected, efficient, high-capacity public transport system, giving people the choice to get out of their cars and unclog our roads.
It’s not a novel idea - cities across the globe are deliberately and decisively prioritising investment in public transport as the only way to ensure their communities continue to thrive.
We have the choice to ensure our city remains accessible and liveable into the future. For our kids’ and grandkids’ sakes, we’ve got to get our transport priorities back on track.
Janet Rice is an Australian Greens senator for Victoria.
This article first appeared on www.theage.com.au
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