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Optimising traffic congestion requires a national approach to transport

By Ken Willett - posted Wednesday, 14 May 2003


In August 2002, Brisbane City Council (BCC) released a Draft Transport Plan for Brisbane 2002-2016. It explained that Brisbane faced serious traffic congestion without appropriate action now. BCC referred to the Bureau of Transport and Regional Economics' forecast that Brisbane would be Australia's most congested city by 2015.

The Draft Transport Plan proposed a package of measures to tackle congestion. The package included a North-South Bypass tunnel under Kangaroo Point, the Brisbane River and Fortitude Valley.

In February 2003, BCC started promoting the tunnel. Brisbane households received red cards proclaiming, "The answer to easing city congestion is BORING". Not to be outdone, the opposition proposed several tunnels, so the answer is even more boring.

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Dr John Nightingale's recent article suggested BCC politicians suffer from "tunnel vision". He complained, "The car is unquestioned and unquestionable", and accused politicians, transport planners and engineers of "pandering to car-usage".

Dr Nightingale attacked the rhetoric of the "boring" slogan, rather than the policy package in the Draft Transport Plan. BCC's plan does not pander to motorists. The same applies to the Queensland Government's Transport 2007: An Action Plan for South-East Queensland (April 2001). Indeed, both transport plans strongly favour public transport over cars, as does Dr Nightingale.

Public transport accounts for only seven per cent of trips in Brisbane, but BCC wants 51 per cent of public-sector transport budgets for Brisbane allocated to public-transport infrastructure and subsidies. Also, BCC intends reallocating more road lanes from general traffic to buses. This will follow completion of sections of orbital road, such as the North-South Bypass, but sometimes lanes will be reallocated without provision of compensating capacity. Therefore, effective allocations to public transport will substantially exceed 51 per cent.

Already, around $600 million a year is spent on public-transport operating and capital subsidies. But John Nightingale wants to increase the rate of subsidy to equate fares with the private cost (much less than social cost) of using a car.

Dr Nightingale argued that social costs of congestion, emissions and road-provision justify larger subsidies. However, economic analysts have shown that subsidising public transport is a second-rate measure compared with congestion charges that vary from time to time and place to place with the degree of congestion. For example, economic modelling by Dr Ian Parry of Resources for the Future indicated that subsidising public transport would provide only 11-24 per cent of the gains to the community of a properly designed system of congestion charges. Gains from congestion charges include shorter delays, lower fuel consumption, less vehicle emissions and more efficient use of existing infrastructure and public funds.

In addition, funding of public-transport subsidies requires higher taxes than otherwise and therefore means greater economic damage from taxation. In contrast, a well-designed congestion-charging regime could fund reduction of economically damaging taxes or more expenditure on public infrastructure and services, as well as alleviating congestion and pollution.

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The third-last sentence of John Nightingale's article recognised that congestion charges reduce congestion. He envisaged this measure would apply in conjunction with larger subsidies to public transport. However, public transport subsidies, particularly at higher rates, are superfluous when congestion charges are applied. Congestion charges would more effectively induce people to drive at non-peak times, car-pool, use other routes, ride bicycles and switch to public transport. Not only are public-transport subsidies less effective in encouraging public transport use, but also they discourage other desirable options.

Dr Nightingale, like the Queensland government, considers that not providing more road capacity is a weapon against congestion. As population and incomes grow while road capacity remains static, congestion will increase. He thinks this would induce drivers to "try something else". However, overseas experience has shown that drivers will endure an extraordinary degree of congestion before switching transport modes. It does not make sense to try to reduce congestion by letting it get worse.

Dr Nightingale correctly argued that adding road capacity makes driving at peak times more attractive relative to public transport and other travel modes and times. So, driving at peak times increases, and as population grows, roads become congested again.

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About the Author

Ken Willett is Manager of Economic and Public Policy at the RACQ.

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