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Turnbull the great leech of our trains, trams and buses

Speeches in Parliament
Janet Rice 13 Feb 2017

In parliament yesterday we heard the Prime Minister accuse the Leader of the Opposition of being a parasite. But, when it comes to public transport policy in Australia, Prime Minister Turnbull is the great leech of our trains, trams and buses. He is more than happy to try and boost his popularity by taking selfies of himself on the train or—his second favourite—bus, but when it comes to investing in public transport he is just absent. He sucking the life out of public transport across our cities and propping up the big road lobby instead.

Senator Smith wanted to talk about facts, traversing the country as to where federal investment in transport was being made. The figure that he quoted for Victoria was notable. If you look at how much federal money is going into public transport infrastructure in Victoria, you see that less than one per cent—yes, one per cent—of that money has gone to Victoria in recent years. Senator Smith's quote was very telling: $10 million towards the Melbourne Metro rail tunnel. That is $10 million out of a project for which there is an investment of $10 billion. This is how out of whack this government's public transport funding is. What is really sad and what makes it so clear is that this is just a continuation of policy by both Labor and Liberal governments over many decades. If you look at investment by federal governments over many, many years, you see there was zero investment in public transport. Since the middle of last century, overwhelmingly the money from both state and federal governments has been spent on building more and more and more roads.

I am not against roads—roads are very useful things. I am also not against cars, as much as some people in this place might think that is the case. I drive a car. But it is a matter of having some balance. The balance that we need is a balance that will give us a very different model of transport investment than what we currently have. We are at a crossroads. We can continue in the direction in which we have been going for the last 60 years, with the overwhelming investment in large, polluting roads—more and more and more of them—in the vain hope that, by building more and more roads, we will somehow solve our congestion problems. Or we can take a step back and look at what transport planners, transport academics, community groups—anybody who is looking at the future of our cities in an objective way—say: that is not going to deliver the cities that we want. So we have got a choice. We have two very different models that we have to choose between.

The model that has a much better balance between road based transport—with cars providing passenger transport—and public transport and active transport is the city that I want to live in. We need cities that have got that balance. Let us look at all the trips being done in our city and let us aim to have about an equal balance. About a third of those trips should be made by private transport, so when we need to be driving somewhere in our private cars there is the road capacity to do that. About a third of all the trips we are taking should be able to be made by public transport. And about a third of the trips we are taking should be able to be made by active transport, like walking and cycling. To me, that is the balance that would actually lead us to have much healthier cities.

But the direction we are heading in at the moment is just a continuation of the same, which is where we have nine out of 10 trips being made by people in private cars, generally with only one person in that private car. There is an occupancy rate of 1.1 person per car. That might have worked in cities in Australia in the 1950s and 1960s and even the 1970s, because our cities were not nearly as big. We did not have the density that we have in our cities now. We could build the roads to cater for everyone who wanted to drive, who wanted to be able to jump in their car whenever they wanted to get somewhere and have a relatively clear, flowing journey to get from A to B. But it just does not work in cities the size of Australian cities today.

When you have cities like Melbourne and Sydney, which are pushing five million people, the fundamental problem is that you cannot fit that many cars in without having massive impacts on how your cities function. If you are going to continue to have nine out of 10 trips being made by cars in cities of five million people, you actually have to take up about a third of the city. One third of the space of the city has to be allocated to those cars in roads and parking, and that is just swallowing up far too much of the city that should be being used for all sorts of other things. It should be used for parkland, for housing and for recreational space. But the ongoing obsession with building big, new roads means that just gets eaten away. We have the tollways continuing to eat up our cities whether it is in Perth, with the Perth freight link; Sydney, with WestConnex; or Melbourne, with what was the East West Link, and we are now fighting the Western Distributor.

You cannot build your way out of congestion, because if you are going to build those roads to cater for that many people, you have the city going down the gurgler in terms of being a livable space. You also have the pollution that accompanies all of those trips—unless you are suddenly going to have a massive investment in renewable energy and electric cars being powered by renewable energy. The cars in our cities today have internal combustion engines, which are pumping out those greenhouse gases that are causing climate change. If we are serious about tackling climate change, we have to deal with reducing the number of cars on our roads. Then there is the urban air pollution, not just the carbon dioxide. There are the nitrous oxides, the sulphur and the other pollutants. The more cars you have in the city, the less and less livable it is.

When it comes to investment and the lack of investment by the federal government, the other telling factor as to why it is so much more sensible to be investing in public transport rather than in our roads is just how much more bang for your buck you get when you invest in public transport. Whether it is putting in something at grade or above ground or whether it is digging a tunnel to put in a train line or a tollway, basically you can shift far more people with a public transport project that you can building a tollway to shift people at 1.1 people per car.

In fact, if you build a new rail line, the number of people who can travel on a service operating at a high frequency is the equivalent of 12 lanes of freeway traffic. It is 12 to one in terms of the number of people you can shift, for about the same cost. That is why, if you are working out where you are going to put your money and what is going to give you the most benefit in terms of shifting people around their city, time and time again, hands down, investing in public transport is going to win out, and it is not just trains either. The Greens have a commitment to investing in trains, trams, buses and other public transport vehicles. You can get so much better value out of investing in busses to solve the congestion problems in the outer suburbs than you can by just continuing to expand the road network. As I said, we are at a crossroads. We can continue to go down the path we have in the past, which leads to congested, polluted, incredibly unpleasant cities to live in. Or we can go down a path that will lead to cities that are much more livable and sustainable and where people really want to live.

I think about the young people who are growing up in our cities today, particularly people who struggling to afford to buy a house. They find themselves having to live and rent in the outer suburbs, with pathetic public transport. That is not fair on them. And you have the older generations, who are able to afford to live in the inner city and who have access to good public transport. But because the investment in public transport has not kept up with our population growth, anybody who is living in more affordable housing on the outskirts of our cities are being discriminated against. It is not fair. It is intergenerational inequity, just so that the people who have always wanted to drive their cars can continue to drive their cars. It is not surprising that the younger generation have been much less keen. They see the advantages of public transport. They know that on public transport they can sit there and work on their phone or check their emails. They do not have this obsession or feeling that their whole sense of identity is tied up with having to be able to get in their car for every journey they take.

We have a situation where it is clear that logic and sensible planning shows that investment in public transport is the direction we need to be heading in. If we are heading towards a city that has the sort of balances I have talked about—a third of trips being made on public transport, a third being made in private cars on roads and a third on bikes and walking—there is something that is a really important part of that equation, and that is that we actually do not need more roads. We have enough roads for a third of our trips to be undertaken by roads, but we need to be investing in public transport to have public transport trips that really compete with cars and to provide public transport that is fast, frequent, reliable, affordable, safe and well-networked. That is where the deficiencies are, and it is because we have had this failure of investment over the last 60 years and we are continuing to have the failure of investment by this government.

If we actually decided that we really wanted to have healthy, sustainable cities and looked objectively at where the money needed to be spent, it would be very clear and very obvious that it is in those public transport projects, whether it is in the metros, electrification of lines that are currently regional services like the Melton line in Melbourne or putting in train services like the airport. People are astounded that Melbourne, a city the size that it now is, has not got a rail line to its airport. That is where the priority needs to be. Forget about trying to build your way out of congestion by wasting money on roads like the Western Distributor and the East West Link. It is by putting money in things like airport rail and rail out to Doncaster that we can really start to transform our cities.

The Greens have got a vision for $10 billion of investment over the next four years as being what is needed in federal funding to get public transport back on track. We will continue to call upon this government and to call upon Labor governments here at the federal level and at state levels to give priority to public transport funding. The Prime Minister in particular must stop being a public transport pretender and start getting serious about making public transport a better experience for all Australians.

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