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Is the [WA] Greens’ Transit City a good idea?

Crikey- The Urbanist, 27 June 2016
A “dispersed network” is the smart approach to public transport but politics means the Greens’ Transit City plan for Perth leaves most of the important questions unanswered.

Kudos to the Australian Greens for publishing election policy statements that provide specifics about what the party’s promising voters. The downside of course is we get an idea of the failings of proposals as well their strengths.

A media statement released by the party last Friday, Greens ‘Transit City’ plan beats gridlock, provides a timely example. The party’s Plan, Transit City: a WA 2.0 Project, promises $9.6 Billion over 15 years to build:
•71 km of (orbital) rail line
•65 km of light rail line
•283 km of Bus Rapid Transit lines
•811 km of high frequency priority bus routes.

Greens Senator Scott Ludlam says the Plan prioritises spending on networked public transport and would save commuters up to $1,500 a year if they used public transport instead of cars.

Although none of these projects are on Infrastructure Australia’s 2016 priority list, the objective is a familiar but sensible one; to create a “dispersed network” or “grid” of frequent services enabling public transport users to go anywhere in the metropolitan area by interchanging between services. I’ve written on the advantages of this approach before e.g. see How can public transport work better in cities?.

Given that Melbourne’s 9 km Metro tunnel is costed at $11 Billion (nominal) and Brisbane’s 10 km Cross River Rail tunnel at $6 Billion, this looks like the bargain of the century. This is politics though, so it’s no surprise there’s a number of serious questions about how it would work.

First, the costings look optimistic. The Transit Plan says the promised 71 km orbital heavy rail line can be constructed for $47 million per kilometre while the promised light rail can be built for $68 million per kilometre.

How is it that heavy rail – with land acquisition, stations, rolling stock and more demanding curves and grades – costs less than light rail? The heavy rail number isn’t convincing; it’s derived from a selective handful of “simple” past and proposed projects including the Perth-Mandurah rail line tendered in another era i.e. way back in 2004 (see also Is it time to ramp-up infrastructure spending?).

Retrofitting 71 km of orbital rail line with stations and bridges over freeways, roads and waterways is arguably cheaper in Perth because of favourable geology, but the idea that it can be inserted in existing suburbs for just $47 million per kilometre seems more about politics than reality.

Second, a related issue is there’s no estimate of operating costs; there’s no indication of what the ongoing costs would be and what impact they would have on the State budget each year. Over a thousand kilometres of high frequency rail and bus services will cost a lot to operate.

Third, whether the capital and operating cost of the Green’s Transit Plan is worth it will depend on the benefits, but that brings us to a key weakness in this document.

While the rhetoric of the Plan implies a massive shift from cars to public transport, there’s no calculation of the expected change in patronage or the likely mode shift from cars to public transport. There’s no estimation of the expected benefits! Obviously then, there’s no indication either of who would – and who wouldn’t – get the benefits.

That’s a major omission because as I’ve noted before, even massive new investments in public transport generally have a tiny effect on mode shift. They mostly replace existing public transport services (e.g. see Will simply building more public transport seriously suppress car use? and Should cycling get a huge increase in funding?).

It’s especially likely to be the case in a city like Perth. It’s not Zurich; Perth has the lowest population density and the second highest car use of any mainland capital city. It’s a car-based city with a post-war tradition and culture of private transport.

Even on the basis of the $47 million per kilometre cost estimate assumed by the Plan, the proposed higher frequency orbital rail line in Perth’s outer suburbs would cost $3.3 Billion to build. The promised 65 km of inner city light rail would cost $4.4 Billion at the $68 million per kilometre assumed in the Plan.

Melbourne already has a high frequency suburban orbital pubic transport service; the SmartBus. Sure, it isn’t as comfortable as a train and not as fast, but it only cost circa $20 million to set up. In fact, Melbourne doesn’t have one orbital route, it has three of the them at different radii from the CBD i.e. Route 901, Route 902, Route 903.

It’s instructive to note that although it’s the largest streetcar system in the world with 250 km of double track, Melbourne’s trams account for just 1.5% of all weekday trips in the metropolitan area. Even in the inner suburbs, Melbourne’s trams account for only 4.5% of all trips (see Should cycling get a huge increase in funding?).

Fourth, the major weakness of the Green’s Transit Plan is the absence of any mention of the only action that might encourage Perth travellers to shift from cars to public transport on some sort of scale – making cars much less useful. The obvious candidate is pricing; in particular congestion charging.

But that’s too difficult for politicians, even for those on the progressive side of the political spectrum. It’s much easier to promise to spend massive amounts on infrastructure that, by itself, will have at best a tiny impact on car use.

The idea underlying Transit City – creating a “grid” of frequent services – is the right direction to be going with public transport. It’s important though to understand that the pay-off is mainly better services for those who use public transport.

It won’t drive mode shift away from cars on a significant scale in Australia’s low density cities unless policies are put in place to make cars less competitive. In their absence, more emphasis on frequent, priority buses is a more efficient and more equitable use of scarce public funds – especially at this early stage – than retro-fitting 136 km of rail.

This election is showing that politics is a cynical game all the parties are prepared and willing to play; but for a party that emphasises how different it is from the old guard, the Greens should be leading the way on the difficult – and sometimes “unsexy” – actions needed to make a real difference to Australia’s cities. We need to eat, but Transit City needs more time in the oven.

Is the Greens’ Transit City a good idea?

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