May 17, 2016

No time to waste on public transport – Opinion – SBS

One of the best ways to improve your performance in any endeavour is to improve your time management.

The less time you waste mucking around, the more time you have to focus on being productive – whether it is at work or study – or spending time with family and friends.

A similar dynamic applies to Australian cities, which are under such pressure from traffic congestion that they are becoming less productive by the year.

Indeed, just a few months ago Infrastructure Australia warned that unless we take action to reduce traffic congestion now, the problem will cost our nation $53 billion a year in lost productivity.

We need to act to protect economic and jobs growth, but also to protect our quality of life.

The starting point is improved public transport.

That’s why a Shorten Labor Government will invest heavily in public urban rail, including $500 million announced today for a light rail system in Adelaide.

We’ll have more to say on public transport as the campaign continues.

But the battle to lift productivity in our cities by attacking traffic congestion was well underway under the term of the previous Labor federal government.

In office, we worked with Infrastructure Australia to plan major public transport projects around the country including the Melbourne Metro, Brisbane’s Cross River Rail project and Adelaide’s Tonsley Park project.

We also allocated more than $4 billion in funding for these projects, including $500 million for light and heavy rail projects in Perth.

These projects should all be under construction now.

However, in 2013, the incoming Abbott Government cancelled the lot.

This bad decision was in line with former prime minister Tony Abbott’s bizarre view, outlined in his book Battle Lines, that Australians don’t want more public transport because they prefer to feel like “kings in their cars”.

The Coalition reallocated the investment into proposed toll roads including the discredited East-West Link in Melbourne, which has been scrapped, and the dud Perth Freight Link, which has been halted by the courts on environmental grounds.

The only Coalition toll road project still standing is Sydney’s Westconnex project, the budget for which has blown out from $10 billion to $16.8 billion.

So not only has the Coalition put the development of better public transport in the deep freeze for three years; it has also failed to achieve much progress on its preferred toll roads.

That goes part of the way to explaining why the Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show that infrastructure investment declined by 20 percent between the September quarters of 2013 and 2015.

While Mr Abbott’s successor Mr Turnbull says he wants to invest in public transport, the fact is he has retained all of Mr Abbott’s cuts to public transport.

Mr Turnbull likes to ride trains, buses and trams to get his picture in the paper, but he has not allocated a dollar of new funding.

Indeed, the only funding he has announced during the election campaign – $43 million for the Tonsley Park project in Adelaide – is not new money. It has been taken from cuts to that city’s Goodwood to Torrens freight rail project.

And, of course, the Coalition cut funding for the Tonsley Park project when it came to office.

If he wants to be taken seriously, Mr Turnbull must restore all of Mr Abbott’s public transport cuts and then outline his plans for the next wave of productivity-enhancing public transport projects.

Demographic changes facing our nation mean there is no time to waste.

There has been a clear shift the shift in the past decade in the location of jobs growth in Australia.

In previous decades, many Australians worked in the suburbs in industries like manufacturing and could afford to live near their workplaces.

But with manufacturing in decline, the strong growth in jobs is now in and around central business districts in service sectors like banking, insurance and information technology.

The problem is average income earners cannot afford homes close to their jobs in the city, meaning more and more people have to commute from the suburbs to our city centres.

It’s a tragedy that because of this problem many parents spend more time in their cars each day than they spend playing with their children.

Better roads are part of the solution, along with addressing housing affordability, encouraging people to use active transport like walking and cycling and promoting jobs growth in the suburbs.

But the central pillar in our nation’s attack on traffic congestion must be more public transport.

If we make the right choices now we will boost economic productivity in cities, which is essential to maintain economic and jobs growth.


This Opinion Piece was first published on the SBS website on Tuesday, 17 May 2016.