Sean is a 23-year-old student I know who lives in Footscray in inner Melbourne. He rides his bike to uni, which gets him there more quickly than a car would in Melbourne's traffic. He catches a train to the pub with his mates and he gets it home again without having to worry about how much he has had to drink. Sean is one of the lucky ones who has the choice not to get his driver's licence.
On the other side of town, 18-year-old Sylvia lives in Cranbourne South with her family and is in her final year at high school. She wants to study engineering next year. She can do that at a TAFE college in Dandenong or Frankston. It would take her 15 minutes to drive to Frankston or it would take her 45 minutes to make the trip by bus, after getting someone to drive to her closest bus stop, which is three kilometres away. If she were to choose to go to study in Dandenong, it would take her 25 minutes in her car. But if she wants to take public transport, she would have to take a bus, then a train and then another bus, and it would take well over an hour.
For Sylvia, there is no real choice. So her No. 1 aim at the moment is to get her driver's licence. Her parents are going to buy her a car so that they do not need to keep driving her everywhere. It will be the fourth car in the family. Her elder brother uses his every day to drive to Monash uni at Clayton. It would take him an hour and a half to get there by public transport.
The freeway he drives on is packed each and every morning, as are the roads getting on and off of it, and the pressure continues for more lanes and upgraded arterial roads at the most congested pinch points. We can give the millions of people like Sylvia and her family a choice: we can go down the tired, old route of pumping more and more money into tollways and motorways that encourage more people to jump in their cars and pump out more pollution, increasing the congestion it is meant to solve; or we could prioritise the kind of transformative transport we need to bring us out of the kind of 20th century thinking that we have come to expect from this government.
Toll roads and motorways are extraordinarily expensive. Melbourne's East West Link was estimated to cost $18 billion—that is $1 billion per kilometre; $1 million per metre. Let us put that in perspective: in Victoria the average infrastructure spend each year is only $2 billion to $4 billion, so $18 billion would go a very long way to building virtually every heavy-rail project proposed for Melbourne—airport rail, Doncaster rail, Rowville rail, the Metro Rail tunnel.
We cannot afford to spend such huge amounts of money on roads that we do not need and which will not solve our congestion problems. Put simply: if you build satisfactory networks of trains, trams and buses so as many people as possible have the choice to travel by fast, frequent, reliable, affordable and safe public transport, then people will use it. If you build it, they will come. We do not need everyone to use public transport; we just need a better balance. The bit of the equation which the road lobby seems to ignore is: that every person travelling by foot, bike or public transport means there is one less car on the road. Forget more and more roads: this is the best thing we can be doing to reduce congestion.
The benefits of encouraging alternatives to cars do not stop at economic or congestion-busting reasons—the health benefits of walking, cycling and using public transport are enormous. Last year around 16,000 Australians died due to inactivity. The Heart Foundation is clear about the benefits of more exercise. In their report Move it—Australia's healthy transport options, they outline very starkly that low levels of physical activity are a major risk factor for ill health and mortality from all causes. People who do not do sufficient physical activity have a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, colon and breast cancers, type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis. Being physically active improves mental and musculoskeletal health and reduces other risk factors such as being overweight, high blood pressure and high blood cholesterol, and being physically inactive can take three to five years off your life.
We need to be doing everything we can to make it easier for people to get the 30 minutes of exercise they need five times a week to lead healthy lives. The easiest way for us to get enough exercise in our busy daily lives is to include it in our daily commute. Travelling by car does not do that; travelling by public transport usually does, and walking and cycling always does.
This is crucial in tackling childhood obesity as well. The past few decades have seen a dramatic decline in children riding to school. Currently, a whopping 62 per cent of kids are driven to school and a mere eight per cent ride their bike. This is the parents' choice, but more than half indicate they would let their kids ride or walk to school if we had up-to-scratch infrastructure.
The investment I am talking about has the support of the public. According to a report released last week, 71 per cent of people support more funding for cycling, walking and public transport infrastructure. Of course we need to keep the roads we have got up to scratch but we also have to make up for the decades of underinvestment in public transport. We need affirmative action for our train, tram and bus networks to give people a real choice based on assessment of need—social, environmental and economic—including tackling climate change.
Infrastructure Australia know this. Their national infrastructure plan states that public investment in urban transport should focus on public transport, but we know where the government stands with their roads, roads, roads agenda. Labor is trying to have a bob each way, too: they are still committed to spending billions on the WestConnex motorway in Sydney, but this ignores the desperate lack of choice faced by Australian commuters every day.
We need to get away from this outdated thinking that federal transport funding should just be about roads, yet now we see that Labor has done a deal with the government on the fuel excise indexation that does nothing to address this. The Abbott government has been holding the parliament to ransom with the fuel excise, threatening to hand taxpayers' money over to the oil companies, if the Senate would not pass the legislation. And so, as we have just seen this morning, Labor caved in.
A good result would have seen two outcomes: for some of this money to go to public transport—because if you are going to make people pay more to drive, you have got to give them alternatives—and to compensate the least well off, who will be most impacted by this tax increase. Joe Hockey was wrong—people on low incomes do drive cars, and they often have to drive the furthest because they do not have any other choice.
The Greens were negotiating to see if we could get a good outcome for people, and it is the people who have lost out because of this deal between Tony Abbott and the Labor Party. This deal fails to cut pollution and fails to compensate the least well off.
Roads to Recovery is a good program, but we have now lost the opportunity to force the government into action on public transport. We have regional communities whose existing train services are broken. This money could have helped to provide decent rail services to communities like Albury and Newcastle, and we could have had a massive improvement in people's public transport choices with a relatively modest investment in buses in outer suburban and regional communities. The fact is that investing in walking, cycling and public transport infrastructure makes sense.
After this year's federal budget continued the government's ideological aversion to anything that is not a road and contained no new funding for public transport, I held a forum in Melbourne to discuss what is next for getting our transport system back on track. I asked people to send a message to this government and I want to leave you with some of these messages. Nick refers to 'the Prime Minister's thought that there are not enough people to justify any vehicle larger than a car'. He urges Prime Minister Abbott to 'have a look at bus route 902 towards Nunawading in the morning peak'. Jim says: 'Cars are "so last millennium". We have to shift from carbon to renewables and stop choking our cities with motor vehicles.' And Jen's message sums it up: 'Don't turn Melbourne into LA. Cars and road building are bandaids. Please invest in public transport. My kids and my future grandkids matter.' I urge the government to take note of these messages and give Australians the transport they deserve.