Stuck on freeway car parks
March 26, 2005
WHEN Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore was a mere city councillor back in the late 1980s, she would often ride the bus as it ran the length of the central business district, from Central Station to Circular Quay.
It was usually a 12-minute trip, but on a bad day it could stretch to 15 or 18 minutes. The same 2km journey today is a grindingly slow ordeal that can last up to 40 minutes.
Sydney's streets are choked with traffic as more and more workers, shoppers and tourists pour into the downtown every day. It is common to see lines of buses - sometimes up to 20 - clogging the streets, edging around each other, jostling for road space with cars, taxis, delivery vehicles and couriers on bicycles, all desperately trying to stay on schedule.
In the surrounding residential neighbourhoods, passengers jostle each other to get into work. Moore says that at one bus stop each morning she watches a ritual scuffle as 40 people try to board. Every day, 7400 government buses and hundreds of private coaches move through Sydney. It is starting to resemble certain Asian cities - but it is more like the smoggy, perpetually jammed Bangkok rather than the sleek and efficient Singapore.
Apart from the white-knuckled, teeth-grinding frustration of being trapped in this gridlock, the economic costs are huge. According to a report for the Business Council of Australia, by Sydney consultancy Port Jackson Partners, urban road congestion costs Australia a staggering $16 billion a year or 2 per cent of gross domestic product.
"It is forecast to increase significantly," the report concludes, pointing out that by 2015 the cost of congestion will have almost doubled to $29.7 billion. "This is a cost to the entire Australian economy and our lifestyles."
Sydney's pattern is being repeated along the eastern seaboard. Journey lengths are increasing and speeds are falling in Melbourne, even with its integrated train, bus and tram system. The BCA report predicts congestion in Melbourne will double by 2021, while the average travel speed across the city will fall from 19.7km/h to 15.2km/h.
Brisbane and the burgeoning Gold Coast, a little more than an hour to its south, are starting to experience the full urban horror of freeways and bypasses that become barely moving car parks during peak hour.
According to urban strategist Peter Newman, of Murdoch University, the average journey between work and home in an Australian capital city is 64 minutes a day, exceeding the international average of 60 minutes.
Newman, who is also the NSW Government's Sustainability Commissioner, an independent statutory officer reporting to state parliament, says in centres such as downtown Sydney, it is quicker to walk than to ride a bus.
"Obviously, this is not the way transport is supposed to operate," he says. "But across Australia we are heading towards the Bangkok model and that's pretty frightening."
In the past 60 years, train journeys in urban Australia have plunged from 50per cent of all trips to about 4 per cent. As a result, state governments have allowed their rail systems to deteriorate, as evidenced by breakdown of Sydney's metropolitan system during the past three years.
The BCA report criticises this lack of investment in mass transit, arguing: "The CityRail system is configured in such a way that, until major investment occurs, poor reliability will continue to encourage people to prefer using cars."
Without the rail system, which brings 200,000 people into the centre of Sydney each working day, Newman offers some sobering facts. "To make up for it," he says, "you would need 65 lanes of freeway and 520 car parks the size of the Melbourne Cricket Ground or 1042 floors of a multi-storey parking lot."
Moore, with sections of the Sydney business community behind her, is agitating for a $1.5 billion light-rail system that would radiate 10km from the Sydney CBD on five lines, much like Melbourne's tram system, carrying 50 million passengers a year.
A Sydney City Council report, by transport consultant Garry Glazebrook, says business would be a main beneficiary. He cites the example of Dallas, Texas, where, after an initial outlay of $US860 million on a mass transit system, developers had invested almost $US800million along the routes.
These measures are the carrot in reducing urban congestion. The BCA study also urges a stick that has proven effective elsewhere - a congestion charge on traffic entering or parking in the CBD.
Using modelling provided by the Victorian Department of Infrastructure, the BCA report finds that in Melbourne a congestion charge would cut the number of vehicles on the road and increase the average speed to 22.7km/h. The report concludes: "If a congestion charge is imposed on the Melbourne CBD, then the congested vehicle hours return to more acceptable levels, while the average travel speed actually increases to higher than 2001 levels."
The report does not prescribe a particular type of charge, such as the pound stg. 5 ($12) daily fee for cars entering central London that has cut traffic by 15 per cent and congestion by 30 per cent. It does suggest an inner-city parking charge.
"We are not advocating any particular type or level of congestion charge," it says, "simply ... demand management. While no one wants to pay a congestion charge, each individual's stance will depend on how they value their time otherwise lost in traffic congestion."
The BCA's report is a provocative reminder that for all the talk of being 21st-century cities, our metropolitan areas are, instead, formless and congested - and a long way from the hi-tech urban models of Singapore and Hong Kong.
Cost of traffic congestion in 1995 - 2015 (Billions of dollars)
Source - The weekend australian Mar 26-27 pg 27