OP ED – Have we backed the wrong horse in the Transport Stakes?

By Roads Australia President, David Stuart-Watt

Australians famously love a punt.

At the end of the 19th and into the early 20th century, our state and national leaders took a punt on rail. In fact, as a nation we were, at the time, among the world’s leading investors in rail infrastructure, both regional and suburban.

After World War Two, as our cities grew outwards and cars became more affordable, our investment focus switched to roads.

Hindsight is, of course, a wonderful thing. But today, as we sit in long lines of traffic and contemplate what it will be like when another one or two million people drop into the rat race, more and more of us are probably wondering – have we backed the wrong horse?

Late last year, Roads Australia led a delegation of public and private sector leaders to Tokyo, Seoul and Singapore to get a better understanding of how these cities are coping with population growth, transport and livability.

The conclusion we drew is that ordinary Australians, businesses and governments require an urgent and major change of mindset if we’re to maintain both our standard of living and our sanity.

In essence, the Australian love affair with the car needs to come to an end. In its place, we need to invest massively and exponentially in the renewal and expansion of our public transport infrastructure and modes.

In the Asian cities we visited, public transport thinking, investment and culture has dominated the strategic agenda for generations.

In Tokyo, for example, 51 per cent of journeys are via public transport, 37 percent cycling/walking and only 12 per cent by private car. Public transport journey share in Seoul and Singapore is even greater – 66 and 59 per cent respectively, with private car usage at 23 and 29 per cent.

Contrast those stats with Sydney and Melbourne, where public transport accounts for only 27 and 18 per cent of all journeys respectively, and private car 64 and 74 percent.

More pointedly, our northern neighbours are intent on decreasing the share of private car journeys even further, with forward investment priorities focused squarely on supporting the further expansion of mass transit. (In Singapore, the MRT network will grow by a further 75 per cent by 2030).

What’s more, the rail-based mass transit systems in these Asian mega-cities have been planned and built as strongly interconnected grid networks characterized by high frequency, fast, affordable, safe and reliable services.

Again, the contrast with our radial suburban rail networks couldn’t be greater.

So, when it comes to transport strategy in Australia, our long-term focus has to change. And fortuitously, we’re seeing evidence that this is happening.

State governments are investing record amounts on public transport in Sydney and Melbourne, and others are following suit.

But is it too little, too late?

The reality is we need to increase our current level of spending if we’re to have any hope of catching up, let along get ahead of the game.

We’re talking about a fundamental, generational change in transport thinking, planning, spending and delivery. We won’t see results overnight, but we have to stay focused on the end-game.

All of this might sound surprising coming from someone who’s made his career in the road industry, and who heads up an industry association whose members design, build, operate and maintain our road assets.

In truth, this isn’t an ‘either/or’ question. Our current investment in roads is warranted and will continue to pay dividends in the future, particularly as we see the development and roll-out of driverless bus and rapid transit technology and – of course – autonomous vehicles.

In fact, if I were a betting man I’d happily have a dollar each-way on both road and rail, working in tandem, as essential and effective components of our transport future.

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