Comment: Public transport should be a priority for every government

(AAP)

The federal government’s refusal to invest in public transport, particularly urban rail, is shortsighted, illogical and will be detrimental to all Australians, writes Lilani Goonesena

Federal governments typically prefer short-term, tangible investments that the voter can see and touch; they’re always planning for the next election. Yet Australia needs long-term planning for its cities and that includes investment in urban rail.

Abbott cannot claim to be the ‘Prime Minister of Infrastructure’ and invest only in roads and airports.

A 2014 study shows that an alarming two out three Australians drive to work but only one in ten use public transport. Fifty per cent of people say this is because public transport isn’t readily available to them.  

In the ACT, the numbers paint a more drastic picture, with the 2011 census showing that 83 per cent of people, mainly in Canberra, drive to work. Public transport system is undoubtedly the culprit. A ten-minute journey by car easily takes an hour by bus and at just under $3 one-way, provides little incentive to commuters.

Yet Australians consistently say they want more funding for public transport.

The state governments of Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Perth all have planned metro rail projects they say are essential for economic growth and congestion reduction. All are asking for federal support but in vain – the Abbott government repeatedly says the states should fund their own urban rail.

Yet federal funding for roads is readily available. In September, the Abbott government’s costings pledged over $11 billion for 30 road projects but nothing for urban rail extensions or upgrades.

Which is illogical because some of these road projects are arguably just as long and costly.

Take the Pacific Highway, the primary motorway between Sydney and Brisbane. Upgrades and bypasses have been ongoing since 1988 and won’t be finished anytime soon. Successive federal governments continue to provide billions in funding. Meanwhile, a solitary train between Sydney and Brisbane chugs alongside with just one service offered a day. 

Ignoring the very real need for public transport is unsustainable. Australian cities and numbers of commuters continue to grow. Delaying this investment makes little sense.

Put simply, public transport, particularly rail, is efficient; it can move more people faster and more cheaply than private cars. It’s better for the environment and people’s health, and it’s cheaper for commuters.

Further, public transport links up smaller towns and rural areas. A high-speed train connecting Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne has been debated for many years. Periodically, it is taken down from its shelf, dusted off and argued over again. Then re-shelved due to lack of funding. Naturally, the cost only increases with time. 

If arguing for the pros of public transport fails to elicit government support, perhaps it’s useful to point out the cons of building more roads.

The Abbott government should at least appreciate the massive loss in productivity costs. A US study showed that in 2007, Americans collectively spent 500,000 years sitting in traffic, which equates to 4.2 billion hours and $87 billion of wasted fuel and productivity. And a 2013 NRMA study says that almost 40 per cent of NSW businesses reported productivity loss and fatigue due to traffic congestion.

More roads also mean increased air and noise pollution, and accidents and fatalities.

So why is the Abbott government so adamant about building roads?

In essence, roads are the ultimate expression of individuality; everyone can get behind their Beamers and 4WDs and drive where they want, when they want. As Mr Abbott says in his book, Battlelines, “The humblest person is king in his own car.”

Which says it all, really.

He doesn’t even attempt to defend the value of roads from a public transport perspective, after all buses and trams use roads too, as do freight services.  Instead, he focuses on the personal, individual need as though everyone were on the same financial playing field.

It is bizarrely out of touch with the average Australian worker.

Mr Abbott even claims that “there just aren't enough people wanting to go from a particular place to a particular destination at a particular time to justify any vehicle larger than a car, and cars need roads.”

Err, what about commuting to work at peak hour? Evidently Mr Abbott has never squeezed himself onto a sardine-packed train in Sydney.

A stretch of road may accommodate 2,000 cars but a train covering the same distance can take 20,000 people. It’s really a no brainer.

Mr Abbott has also said he wants to fund infrastructure “for tomorrow, rather than in 40 years' time.” That’s great public planning. And it just highlights that short-term, tangible results do not equate to feasible investments in Australia’s future. 

Someone should tell him that Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch