CORRECTION: In the post Transport Master Plan (part 2): What’s missing? published on Friday 7 September, it was claimed that planning for reservations for future transport projects in the Transport Master Plan had only been done for road projects, and not for public transport projects. This was incorrect, and information on public transport corridor reservations was included further into the report. The error was due to the large size of the report (370 pages) and limited time available to read through it in detail and has now been corrected.
Before looking into what the Transport Master Plan has to say on roads, it’s worth giving some perspective on private cars vs public transport.
Roads, and the private motor vehicles that run on them, provide two major benefits over public transport. First, they are significantly more flexible in terms of timing and journey start and end points. Second, the majority of the cost is borne by the user (some costs, such as noise and air pollution, or the free use of roads, are communal costs, but these are actually quite small), whereas public transport is heavily subsidised (in Sydney the user pays 20% to 50% of the total operational costs, and none of the capital costs, of public transport).
The biggest benefit of public transport over private road transport is in capacity. Assuming cars travel spaced 2 seconds apart, you can fit 1,800 vehicles per hour per lane. Ignoring effects of delays from red lights and cars with multiple passengers, that’s 1,800 passengers per hour. A Waratah train has a seated capacity of 896 passengers, and the current maximum capacity on the Cityrail network is 20 trains per hour (which the Harbour Bridge and Eastern Suburbs Lines both get very close to during peak hour), giving you just under 18,000 passengers per hour. In other words, rail has a capacity 10 times the size of cars. To put this into context, the Sydney Harbour Bridge has 10 lanes: 2 for rail, 7 for cars and one bus lane. If you were to convert all of these 10 lanes to private vehicle traffic, then it would have the same capacity as a single track for rail.
This is not to say that there is no place for new roads in Sydney, in fact when a new road is financed and built privately, then funded via tolls in a user pays manner over an agreed period of years then the government should be building as many new roads as it can. But if the government has to fund the new road, then the question needs to be asked “will this cost one tenth of the cost of a rail line”? There was a great post about this at A State Of Mind, which talks more about this sort of concept.
The Transport Master Plan
Road projects announced in the Master Plan include the current M2 and M5 widenings, an M4 East, an M5 East duplication, an Inner West Bypass (linking the M4 East with the M5 East), an F3-M2 link, an extension of the F6 through to the CBD, a link between Port Botany and the Airport, widening of the M7 North of the M4, widening of the M4 East of Parramatta, the Castlereagh Freeway (between the M7 and Richmond) and an outer orbital going North-South along outer Western Sydney. By anyone’s reckoning, that is a big wishlist!
What we don’t know yet is the priority and the specific order in which they will be built. The M2 and M5 widenings, currently being finished up or having just started, are obviously the first cabs off the rank. And based on the 6 corridors which are expected to face the most congestion, the other projects with high priority appear to be the M4 East, the M5 East duplication, the Inner West Bypass, and the M4 widening. This should all be clarified by Infrastructure NSW when their 20 year report is released to the public next month.
However, merely building more roads is not the solution. New roads cause induced demand – more people get into their cars until eventually roads are saturated and congestion returns. Doing this will not eliminate congestion, it will only move the congestion closer to the ultimate destination (i.e. the Sydney CBD), and cost tens of billions of dollars in the process. To quote the Herald, “$10 billion is an awful lot to pay for a bigger traffic jam”.
To avoid this problem, cities like London, Copenhagen and Singapore have introduced congestion charging in their CBDs to discourage people from driving all the way into the city. And while the current government has refused to introduce congestion charging (having promised last election not to do so), they are considering 3 potential reforms that could have a similar effect:
- Distance based tolling – This is currently in place on the M7, where you pay based on the distance travelled, and is capped at $7 per trip.
- Time based tolling – This is currently in place on the Harbour Bridge/Tunnel, where you pay a lower toll during off peak hours in order to encourage a more even spread of car travel throughout the day.
- An increased parking levy – This is an existing charge on each parking space in the CBD, charged to the owner of the property that owns the space, and may be increased.
In all three cases, commuters would be discouraged from driving into and parking in the CBD during peak hour. Those who do would pay extra but receive a better travel experience with less traffic and more abundant parking, while the funds raised would go towards funding transport infrastructure. The report recommends using tolls to both fund new infrastructure and manage congestion, while reforming the tolling system to give Sydney a city-wide consistency (page 329).
If the government actually does implement these policies in order to fund the new roads that are financed, built and operated by the private sector, then they might actually achieve the goal of alleviating congestion without significant cost to the taxpayer. And if that is the case, then these are definitely roads that the state should build.