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Getting the detail right on public transport

Online Opinion, 16 December 2013

The 2013 WA State Budget contained some high-profile public transport investments but runs the risk of creating a financial burden for future generations that is unmatched by the benefits. It also largely ignores walking and cycling – the lower-cost, healthier transport alternatives to the private car that can reduce the problems of congestion, pollution and our collective carbon footprint.

All stations need walk and cycle paths with underpasses or bridges linking directly to public transport so more people can walk or cycle to them. Business premises, community facilities and dense residential developments should be clustered close to stations with easy walking distance.

This type of planning is being undertaken for the planned Perth MAX light rail, but there are many places on the existing train lines where people who can see the station from their home need a car to get there. That more than 40% of the cars parked all day at some stations come from less than 3km away is indication that there is huge potential to improve cycling and walking access. Contrast this with the Budget proposal to spend $46.5million on more car parking at Edgewater Station – a cost of $30,000 per bay, which the $2 per day charge will do little to offset.

Serious money, but still just a fraction of the cost of the proposed Perth Airport rail link, is needed to complete the networks of bicycle paths and facilities that we have been waiting for since the 1996 Perth Bicycle Network Plan. The Budget provides $35 million over four years ($20 million of which was committed in the 2012-13 Budget). But according to the RAC this is the amount required every year for the next ten years for Perth and regional WA.

Budget Paper No 1 has the rhetoric when it states that "Active transport, particularly cycling, needs to be continually promoted as a viable alternative form of transport over short distances", but the funding reality falls well short of what is required.

By all means let us have grand aspirations, but let's get the planning right. The MAX light rail makes good sense as it brings passenger rail to an area that has a large number of potential public transport users. But to maximize its effectiveness, transport oriented development around the stations must be well planned and good walk / bike access provided.

The Airport rail link will only be cost effective if people other than airline passengers will be able to use it in large numbers. Also it should be an integral part of a future network providing access to the south and east and not include expensive tunneling.

Priority should be given to commit $35 million per year to completing a genuine network of high-standard shared walk/bike paths linking in to existing rail and bus stations. It was recently reported that much of the relatively small allocation for shared paths has not even been spent because local councils cannot afford to match it. Surely the State can afford to fully finance the Bicycle Network Plan, at about 10% of the cost of the airport rail tunnel plan and far greater benefit to the community.

Such projects generally deliver benefit –cost ratios of more than 3, compared to about 1.3 for the Metro Rail tunnel currently planned for Melbourne. The WA Government has not published benefit-cost studies for either of the current rail projects. This should become standard practice for all large infrastructure spends, allowing time for community input before substantial financial commitments and expenditures are made.

Let's make sure we can walk and cycle conveniently and safely to trains, shops and jobs rather than surrounding these places by acres of car parks. As shown by the obesity study reported in the 'West' on 13 August people are leaner in the well-trodden suburbs. Surely better economics plus better health is worth pursuing.

http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=15838

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