06/06/2013 - 15:33

Going nowhere fast in the city

06/06/2013 - 15:33


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Solving the city’s congestion problems may require the public to start paying the true cost of its travels.

It amazes me that traffic congestion has become such a hot topic in Perth; it is certainly the subject that attracts the most online responses to articles I have written.

Ever since the CBD’s road system was changed, traffic woes have been front-and-centre of conversations about Perth’s liveability.

At the time I thought it was a temporary blip due to roadworks, but the efforts to make the city’s streets more pedestrian-friendly and less of a thoroughfare for cars have emerged as a traffic tipping point.

Pinching the hose in the city may not have caused blockages elsewhere, but it has certainly brought them to everyone’s attention. The Elizabeth Quay development is also having an impact, which will only become worse once Riverside Drive is permanently realigned.

Readers outside the capital might think this doesn’t relate to them, but a friend who works for a big resources company said he recently missed a flight out of Perth because he failed to allow sufficient time to get to the airport. He used to live in Perth and travels here regularly.

Most of the traffic issues are due to population growth, with the hundreds of thousands of people who arrived in Western Australia in recent years changing road usage faster than infrastructure can up with it. Some of that may ease as the mining boom deflates, but the truth is Perth has matured in a number of ways and congestion is part of that.

The challenge now is to come up with affordable answers, quickly.

As I have written here many times, public transport is part of the solution but putting in trains or trams to win votes is not the way to do it. The up-front cost is one issue – the legacy of unsustainable operating costs a bigger one.

Most public transport journeys cost taxpayers twice as much as it does those taking the trip. Add in the concept of recouping the capital cost and the taxpayer pays three times as much.

I don’t think that is sustainable, especially if railway lines are being built to win votes instead of actually taking vehicles off the streets.

It is not all one-way traffic. Road users also have to pay for congestion-free roads, but as the RAC and others point out, a big amount of government revenue taken from motorists is not spent on the road system. User pays is one way of fixing that.

Perhaps road users of major highways and those who frequent the CBD ought to pay more for the privilege? Dare I suggest tolls? Or what about a scalable vehicle-licensing fee that goes up on the basis of miles covered? We could have a registered odometer check as a way of managing that, or devices on our streets to log vehicles that pass, which would allow certain routes to be taxed more.

The same has to be done for public transport. While there is a saving to the public in removing people and their cars from the roads, our trains have become as busy as our freeways. If people want a more pleasant journey, more frequent trains and better access to decentralised destinations, they will have to pay a lot more.

Many public transport users have been subsidised three times by the public: they pay a small amount for their trains and buses; they maintain a car and have access to roads without paying significantly for that benefit in terms of registration fees and petrol taxes; and the homes of those near railway stations are worth more.

It would be a brave government that moved to make transport cost-reflective. We have seen the drama caused by rising energy prices, when households started to feel anything close to what the real cost was. But energy users have little to compare to except a golden era of subsidised cheap energy – ended when we suffered a couple of brief brownouts.

At least transport consumers (the travelling public) feel the impact, one way or the other – ether in their hip pocket or in terms of time taken.

The best we can do is offer choice. Travel at the true cost or stay at home.


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