Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Public Transport in Sydney: Where's the Beef?

Sydney Transport blog 2 20070102

Perhaps the Sydney Morning Herald is beginning to "get it." In 27 December editorial entitled "Planning with a Shovel," the paper noted that New South Wales densification policies promise to "clog the city with cars." The paper goes on to decry the ineffective government policies that have failed to materially improve public transport. That was vividly illustrated last year when the Herald's competitor, the Daily Telegraph showed that a marathon runner could beat the train over at least short distances. Today, Sydney's trains may run on time more often, but only because their schedules have been retarded.

However, it would be premature to celebrate an epiphany at the Herald. Its editorial writers quickly lapse into the tiresome anti-automobile ideology, charging, " Sydney must become a denser city lest it turn into a wasteful, car-dominated environmental disaster." The editorial implies that things would be better if only the state government had a better public transport plan.

Yes, Sydney is car-dominated. So is Atlanta. So is Portland. So is Paris and so are Stockholm and Barcelona. Moreover, none of them even, not even Sydney, approaches being an "environmental disaster." The Morning Herald needs to move from delusion (even hysteria) to reality. Urban areas today are cleaner than they have been in centuries. There is every prospect that they will continue to get cleaner as even better air pollution technologies reduce automobile emissions.

So what of this devotion to public transport? What would the Morning Herald have the government do? Any government? The reality is simply this. There is not a single serious proposal on the table in any of the high-income world's major urban areas that would establish a public transport system capable of replacing the autombile or even attracting a material share of demand from it. The research is clear --- mobility improves productivity and it makes people more affluent.

There is an applicable story from the US 1984 Democratic campaign for President. In a debate, Vice-President Walter F. Mondale turned to his opponent Gary Hart, and challenging his policies, asked "Where's the beef." Mondale was mimicking a phrase from a television advertising campaign in which a hamburger chain was implying that its competition sold hamburgers with not very much beef.

The same question could be asked about public transport. Why is there no beef? Because there can be none. Throughout Australia, North America and Western Europe, the automobile is the dominant form of urban transport. Today's geographically expansive urban areas simply cannot be served by public transport systems that are competitive with automobile travel, except principally to downtown.

If the Herald doesn't believe it perhaps they should run a contest and seek proposals from local experts and experts around the world to propose a feasible, affordable automobile competitive public transport system. The prize money, at whatever level, would go unclaimed.

When policymakers finally recognize that public transport rhetoric is largely without substance, then the focus can move from ideology to reality.

By Wendell Cox
Principal, Demographia (St. Louis, USA)
Co-author, Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey
Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris

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