The Shift to Public Transport is Way Off Track

Last Updated Jun 14, 2011 5:34 PM EDT

While the federal government is planning on using taxation to drive us into a low-carbon future, it seems to be doing very little to drive us off the roads.
According to the government's own statistics, motorists account for 13.5 percent of Australia's total greenhouse gas emissions. Okay, it's probably not as big a part of the total picture as you might have expected. But there other reasons to get us off the roads, particularly in our capital cities. Congestion is a big one. In NSW, according to the RTA annual report, urban peak traffic speeds average just 30 km/hr and we can expect that to decrease as more cars are piled onto the roads. And as journey time increases, we'll be looking at bigger losses in productivity, not to mention more time away from the family.

So why do we have this love affair with the car? Obviously it's all to do with convenience and, relatively speaking, it's cheap. If we add up how much the RTA spends building and maintain roads, to how much we all spend on fuel, then driving works out at about $2 for an average car trip (10km according to the Bureau of Transport Statistics). Compare that to the $2.50 per journey achieved by buses operated by State Transit (with minimal government subsidy) and the average rail fare of $2.28 (with a further $8.33 in subsidy). Why wouldn't you take the car when it doesn't cost any more?

If the government wants to change behaviour there needs to be a price differential. It could start by reducing the "subsidy" it spends on motor transport. There's an urban myth that what we spend licensing our cars doesn't find its way back into our roads. That's just not true. Last year the government spent three times the amount raked in through vehicle taxes funding the RTA. If that's not a subsidy, I don't know what is.

Meanwhile, the cost of running RailCorp, which operates trains across NSW, has increased but support from the government has not kept pace with that growth. Last year, while the government contributed 88 percent of the RTA's funding, it only contributed half of all RailCorp's income. A big difference could be made by getting rid of the subsidy for the RTA and using all that money for public transport. After all, government subsidies for the RTA are double the support given to public transport in NSW. Private cars should be just that, privately funded and properly costed, otherwise public transport doesn't stand a chance.

If we look at total spend on car transport, the RTA represents just a faction of the total amount. The cost of fuel (at least $2,000 per vehicle, driving an average of 15,000kms) represents a further $11.7 billion or so. Add that to the RTA budget and the people of NSW are spending at least $15.5 billion just to drive their cars. Yet we spend just $3.2 billion on Railcorp for train services across NSW.

Getting rid of a subsidy for the RTA is politically a hard sell. Funding RTA projects purely by vehicle taxation would mean a threefold increase in fees. But something needs to be done. According to the NSW Transport Data Centre's 2008/09 Household Travel Survey, 69 percent of all trips taken by Sydneysiders are in the car --- only 5 percent are by train, and it looks like that proportion has not budged in the last decade.

It's unlikely that we'll wear a tripling of road tax, so such a move would force the RTA to spend less building new roads. That's also a politically difficult move, but it's a shift that has to happen. Time and time again we learn that, if you build a new road, it fills up with cars --- capacity creates demand. Right now, for example, money is being spent building a third lane on the M2 to Sydney's north west, an area poorly served by public transport. A rail link out that way has been on the cards for years with ground yet to be broken.

Trying to arrive at a cohesive approach to this issue is particularly problematic for NSW, with a multitude of transport authorities all with competing objectives. The RTA's objectives are to make the roads better, not to look for a sustainable transport policy that includes all forms of transport. Even in the public transport arena NSW is split between multiple bodies, including RailCorp, State Transit, Sydney Ferries and Sydney Metro. Wouldn't it be refreshing to have a single authority responsible for all modes of transport --- public and private --- so we can enjoy an integrated approach to planning and operations?

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Read more By The Numbers articles by Phil Dobbie here.