Trial By Public Transport: Why The System Is Failing

The Age

Saturday November 5, 2005

DAN SILKSTONE

Melbourne's transport system is slowly failing, a world expert says. Dan Silkstone reports.

IN THE driveway of Peter Newman's Fremantle home sits a clean, white family sedan - an unlikely accessory for the transport planner whom critics dub "the man who hates cars".

Professor Newman, who grew up in Melbourne, is world famous in his field. When cities all over the globe look to redesign how they move their people, they knock on his door. Late last year, deep in trouble, the NSW Government knocked hard. Now Professor Newman and longtime collaborators Jeff Kenworthy and Jan Scheurer have turned their eyes on Melbourne.

Transport Minister Peter Batchelor will launch their scathing report Most Liveable and Best Connected? on Monday. It is not good reading for the man who has been Transport Minister since 1999. Professor Newman says Melbourne is slowly failing and the Government should be worried.

"Unless they act now there will be very serious problems piling on top of each other," he says. "You've got a system grinding to a halt, land use spiralling out of control, new roads that don't work because they fill so quickly, fuel prices, greenhouse gases and communities lost in the outer suburbs who are car dependent. All of these things are coming together."

Professor Newman's report comes as transport experts, big business and social welfare groups are increasingly concerned that the Victorian Government's investment in public transport is lagging far behind other Australian cities. This week, a signalling failure on the train network caused chaos - the third major transport meltdown this year.

The Government says the train system is near capacity and will soon be unable to cope with more passengers. Figures released last week show late running continues to worsen and public confidence is low.

On Tuesday, business and political leaders will meet at a Victorian Employers Chamber of Commerce and Industry forum to discuss the state's future. Among their number will be Prime Minister John Howard, Premier Steve Bracks and Treasurer John Brumby.

Inside the conference, road builders Vicroads and Macquarie Bank will present their ideas - including a new east-west road link to relieve the packed Westgate Bridge. Outside, protesters and community activists from the Victorian Council of Social Service, Environment Victoria and the Public Transport Users' Association will rally - brandishing a giant cardboard train to make their point: more roads are not the answer.

To combat the growing economic, environmental and social costs of traffic, Professor Newman says, cities must provide public transport that can compete with the car - faster, more regular and going to the places people want to visit.

Melbourne does not do this well. Its tram and bus network has an average speed of 21 km/h - less than half that of cars. Faced with tough transport decisions, most people make rational choices. Why would you take the tram if it is crowded, unreliable and takes twice as long?

The report says that compared to 14 cities - including Oslo, Vienna, Geneva, Vancouver, Montreal, Brisbane Perth and Copenhagen - Melbourne ranked near the bottom for almost every measurable indicator of public transport quality. It had below average investment in public transport infrastructure and below average service levels (measured in kilometres of public transport per head of population).

But Melbourne tops the list for the greatest length of roads per person and is also the city in which car travel is cheapest compared to public transport. Plentiful roads and relatively cheap motoring have made Victoria's capital one of the world's most driveable cities. But high petrol prices are radically changing the cost of motoring and traffic congestion is growing much faster than population.

Professor Newman says he has seen this before: in Sydney, where traffic jams grew so bad and public transport so shambolic that the Labor Government's popularity tumbled. In response, former premier Bob Carr brought in Professor Newman and later announced an $8 billion-plus rejuvenation of the train network.

"Melbourne is only a little bit behind where Sydney was," he says. "Sydney was absolutely stuck; Melbourne is almost stuck. Big business knows it and the public will soon. Clearly a new model is needed."

The old model was roads, and plenty of them. The report says that throughout the city's history, public and private funding for roads and freeways has dwarfed money spent on public transport. During the past decade, it says, projects such as CityLink and the Western Ring Road have been added to the city, as well as a host of smaller bypasses and road projects. The Mitcham-Frankston Freeway and Deer Park Bypass will soon follow.

During the same period, public transport has undergone only minor improvements in service quality and modest increases in patronage. Such transport policies have led to congestion, on both roads and public transport, the study finds.

"They have failed to relieve Melbourne from the mounting social, environmental and economic costs of ever-increasing car use, and from the prospect of future economic vulnerability as transport fuels become more expensive," it says.

During three years in the mid-1990s, roads funding outstripped public transport funding by 3.6 to one. Of the 14 cities, Melbourne had the third-lowest percentage of its wealth invested in public transport infrastructure (Vienna was the best and Brisbane second best).

In the 2005-06 financial year, the total budget allocation for new public transport infrastructure was $47.6 million. The budget allocated to run the system - including the huge subsidies paid to Connex and Yarra Trams - is $1.54 billion.

In comparison, the report says, $3.5 billion in private and government money has been spent of new roads with an additional $700 million from the state budget spent on road maintenance.

The Government's Metropolitan Transport Plan - released last year - contains a long list of public transport projects but no costings and no commitment to implement them. But 90 kilometres of new freeways or tollways are discussed, all with attached completion targets and funding commitments.

"State Government spending continues to prioritise road needs over those of public transport, walking and cycling despite there being a stated policy objective to reduce private vehicle use in favour of alternative modes," the study says.

The Government maintains that its top priorities are rolling out bus services to the outer suburbs and fixing capacity problems on the current rail network, but progress on these modest goals has been slow.

Bus services have been provided instead of long-mooted train links to South Morang in the outer northern suburbs, and Monash University.

Emboldened by the lack of rail funding, bus companies are keen to fill the breach. Proposals are circulating for local bus companies to run services from Dandenong to the city down a bus-only lane on the Monash Freeway and to convert part of Lonsdale Street, and possibly Victoria Parade, into a bus lane so Eastern Freeway buses can run from Doncaster to the city, unimpeded by cars.

The report is scathing of such moves. "Only a rail extension can realistically provide a fast, transfer-free link to the centre of Melbourne . . . these qualities are crucial for achieving a network effect and attracting significant patronage away from cars," it says.

A rail reservation has been kept down the middle of the freeway since a train line was promised in 1969 and freeway overpasses were built without central support columns to allow for the train. A train track to Doncaster, still a long-term priority at best for the Government, is mentioned in transport plans dating back to the 1880s.

In 2002, Labor set itself a bold target, to increase the share of journeys taken on public transport to 20 per cent of all motorised trips by the year 2020 (the current figure is about 9 per cent). Progress is not being made. While patronage is growing, the report finds that the increase in passengers is almost entirely the result of population growth. The number of times each Melburnian boards public transport each year has remained steady for 25 years.

The study makes clear the cause for concern. The percentage of trips on public transport in Melbourne is the fourth lowest of the 14 cities, but the places ranked lower (Perth, Brisbane and Vancouver) are undertaking ambitious public transport improvements designed to increase mode share.

Professor Newman's team has calculated that for the 20 per cent target to be achieved, the Government needs almost to treble the number of people using public transport.

Critics demand that the Government increase spending but, in truth, more is already being funnelled into public transport than when Labor took office in 1999. The sticking point is where that money goes.

The regional fast rail links to Bendigo, Ballarat, Geelong and Traralgon - central to the Bracks Government's election win in 1999 - have become the funding commitment that keeps on growing. A project initially intended to cost $80 million (with the rest picked up by private investors) has now passed $750 million and is tipped to reach $1 billion. That is before you take into account the $535 million cost of new trains.

When the draft timetable was released this year, time savings were minimal. The Government now says the project is about replacing derelict country tracks.

Added to this, the Kennett government's privatisation of public transport struck trouble three years ago, and British company National Express withdrew in financial disarray. The Government had to increase the subsidy it pays the remaining operators (Connex and Yarra Trams) to take over the whole system. This, coupled with the fast rail project, means Victorians are paying far more for essentially the same service.

The report is scathing about privatisation, saying service has not improved beyond the trends evident before the system was franchised, while taxpayer subsidies have soared.

"It thus appears questionable whether the long-term continuation of the current franchising regime is in the best interests of the community and the greater role for public transport outlined in Melbourne 2030," it says.

Professor Newman says he does not hate cars, but hates what car dependency does to cities like Melbourne.

LESSONS FROM THE WORLD

As petrol prices soar and commuting times blow out, city-dwellers are saying enough's enough. Some overseas governments have listened.

VANCOUVER

In 1995, Vancouver's local government drew up a long-term transport strategy that said traffic congestion was not necessarily a bad thing - if it forced drivers onto public transport. To help achieve that goal, the government restructured its bureaucracy, creating Translink - an agency responsible for all transport projects, including road building. The result has been a massive shift in funding, with 10 per cent now spent on roads while two-thirds is allocated to public transport infrastructure and vehicles.

DENVER

Denver, in the US state of Colorado, is one of the most car-dependent cities in the world.

But something happened recently in Denver, where traffic congestion and air polution had reached untenable levels.With help from Australian planning experts Peter Newman and Jeff Kenworthy, Denverites decided they'd had enough. Late last year, after a fiery debate, 58 per cent of voters approved an increase in sales tax to pay for a massive $6.2 billion expansion of their train and light-rail system.

ZURICH

The Swiss have one of the world's best tram networks - a system that gives trams priority over cars. In the unlikely event you did take the car to work you might have trouble parking.

Zurich has less city car parking per person than any of the other cities in the study. It also has a policy of encouraging walking, cycling and even skateboarding. The local government has an ambitious plan for 50 per cent of all trips to be taken on public transport within 20 years.

COPENHAGEN

Experts point to the Danish capital's simple service frequencies as something missing in Melbourne's transport tangle. Danes need only memorise three figures for their station (such as 14, 34, 54) to know what time services depart. At those three times each hour (for example 12:14, 12:34, 1:54) the train will be there - 20 hours a day, seven days a week.

Service frequency improves to every 10 minutes in peak times but the basic timetable stays in place

NEED TO KNOW

THE State Government has set an ambitious target that 20 per cent of all journeys in Melbourne will be on public transport by 2020 (the rate now is about 9 per cent). But public transport experts, big business and social welfare groups are concerned that the Government is not committing the funds to make this promise reality.

NEED TO KNOW MORE?

www.doi.vic.gov.au/doi/internet/transport.nsf

www.mtf.org.au

www.ptua.org.au

www.metlinkmelbourne.com.au

© 2005 The Age

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