Corridors the key to unlocking congestion

13 September 2012

The commentary on the O'Farrell government's transport master plan has focused almost exclusively on a lack of timelines for action and any detail on where the money is coming from to pay for the projects.

While we might be nervous about the realisation of the plan, given the recent history of plans that are produced but lead to almost no action except a decision to have another plan, it's disappointing that the real intent of the plan is not given recognition by the critics.

This plan is much more of a vision of where we would like to be in 20 to 50 years; and as the funds become available, investments can be prioritised in line with the plan acting as a guide so that we avoid the adhockery of the next project, the pet project, etc.

It is time to stop focusing on timeline priorities and budgets but on establishing if the plan is what we want for our city and our state.

We need to ask fundamental questions about whether the proposed set of projects is a logical set for achieving the long-term objectives. Until the master plan goes from draft to final later this year, there is a chance to offer feedback on what might be transitional projects that can bring real benefits earlier and contribute progressively to the longer-term solution.

That feedback needs to be free of the emotion and ideology of ''train lovers'', ''bus lovers'' and ''car lovers'' and rather concentrate on the need to make Sydney a more liveable city through a wise mix of transport options.

One of the important features of the proposed plan that seems to have been given inadequate praise by the critics is the need to secure metropolitan corridors for future transport options.

It should not matter at this stage if those corridors will be roads, railways, bus rapid transit, or pedestrian networks, because without these corridors we are failing to make a statement on what sort of vision we have for Sydney.

Whether we should then proceed to a public transport solution, or a car and truck solution, is secondary, although still important. Without the delineated and acquired corridors, we have serious problems in making value-for-money transport investments and encouraging land use responses to future transport opportunities.

With such corridors in place, we can then progressively invest, including transitional investments that are relatively less expensive such as a busway system that can, if justified, be upgraded to heavy rail.

Most people start or finish their journeys in low-density suburbs.

The number of these trips is growing faster than journeys in higher-density areas. It makes sense then to invest wisely to serve all of the metro area and not just focus on the central business district. The transport plan has all the elements that can support these ideals and I hope feedback will ensure this equitable focus on all of Sydney is given high priority.

There has been a lot of media focus on the statement that the government will be considering distance-based charging on the motorway network (similar to the M7, with a cap for costs that exceed an agreed amount given the kilometres travelled).

Roads are possibly the most underpriced of all the public assets. Regardless of whether some believe that governments should provide more (underpriced) road capacity to combat traffic congestion, it is an undeniable fact that if we provide more capacity under the existing road user pricing regimes and levels, more cars will use the roads, quickly using up any additional available capacity.

The great sadness about all of this is that there is a presumption we all have the right to enter the traffic and delay all other motorists, yet not contribute to the true cost associated with delay and lost time - the curse of congestion.

The transport plan recognises this challenge. In the next 10 years, the community needs to start to understand the real necessity of solving the traffic congestion challenge. The future of public transport is also linked to this tragedy of congestion.

I believe in the adage ''to make public transport more attractive, we have to make the car less attractive, and that no amount of public transport investment that we can afford without reform road pricing will solve road congestion''.

The real success of the review process and finalisation of the plan will be when there is long-term bipartisan commitment instead of a competitive game of political point scoring.

David Hensher is the professor of management and founding director of the Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies at the University of Sydney Business School.

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