Greens transport policy
The Greens transport policy for the 2016 Federal election

The Fairfax press gave it two sentences at the very end of an unrelated report, so unless you read The Australian, you might not be aware the Greens announced their transport policy for election 2016 last Thursday.

In Vision for a clean transport future, the Greens are promising to spend more on cycling, on improved road safety, on accelerating the take-up of electric vehicles, on “fast-tracking” High Speed Rail, and on “depoliticising” the selection of infrastructure projects. Interestingly, while the policy says funds would be taken away from “polluting toll roads”, it also promises to “invest an additional $250m in arterial road works”.

The glamour initiative though sounds a bit like Labor’s $10 Billion “concrete bank”. It’s a promise to spend $10 Billion over four years on priority public transport projects, including:

  • Heavy rail:  $1bn for Airport Rail in Melbourne and $2bn for Brisbane Cross River Rail.
  • Light rail:  $1bn for Sydney light rail connections; $500m for MAX Light Rail in Perth; $500m for the AdeLINK tram network; $82m for Hobart Light Rail; and $400m for Canberra Light Rail stage two.

These sorts of projects are necessary, the Greens argue, because “people are spending too much time in traffic”. Australian cities need a “world-class public transport system to fix traffic congestion” and “take the pressure off our congested roads”.

So is the whole package any good? The die-hards won’t brook any criticism, but for a party that isn’t constrained by having to appeal to a broad base of voters, I’m disappointed in the Green’s transport policy.

It’s at best naïve and at worst dishonest to claim public transport will “fix” congestion. No, it won’t do that anymore than adding road space will. That’s the sort of cynical politics that puts voters off the major parties (see Are motorways the only answer to traffic congestion?).

It’s hypocritical to promise to improve project selection yet at the same time promise to fund a raft of projects before they’ve been independently assessed. Here’s what the Greens’ policy says:

Federal, state and local departments and agencies seeking federal funding would be required to develop a project proposal. The proposal would include an assessment of the project’s merits. In the case of large projects, this would be a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis that takes into account economic, social and environmental impacts.

Yet of all the projects in the $10 Billion public transport initiative, only Brisbane’s Cross River Rail is in Infrastructure Australia’s High Priority category and, moreover, none have an assessed business case (see also Is the Australian Infrastructure Plan on the money?).

There’s no evidence that the projects the Greens are promising to fund are the ones that should be given priority. How is it that Melbourne Metro doesn’t get a mention, yet vote-bait like Melbourne Airport rail does despite there being no public cost-benefit analysis? This is a grab-bag of projects selected for their political appeal rather than because there’s strong evidence they’ll produce good outcomes (see Is is high time Melbourne got a rail line to the airport? and How cost-effective are new rail transit projects?).

High Speed Rail exemplifies the policy’s commitment to political window-dressing over outcomes. It would require a subsidy of over $100 Billion yet it merely replaces one form of public transport with another; it would be regressive; and it would be extraordinarily expensive way of reducing emissions (Is High Speed Rail our national boondoggle?).

Providing generous subsidies for electric vehicles is premature while 86% of electricity in Australia is still generated from fossil fuels, predominantly coal. This funding would be better applied to encouraging cleaner cars of all types and to getting the power source “right” in the first place i.e. clean electricity projects (see Are electrical vehicles a game-changer?).

The biggest failing of the Greens’ transport policy, though, is the absence of policies to suppress, or “tame”, car use. Without positive measures to manage demand (e.g. increasing the cost of driving), the promised public transport initiatives will have a trivial effect on the level of car use (see Will simply building more public transport seriously suppress car use?).

It’s as if the Greens are pretending cars don’t exist. It’s as if the party’s unaware that 90% of motorised capital city travel in Australia is made by private vehicles, and that urban car travel is growing by more than a billion kilometres a year (see Will politicians ever do anything real about cars in our cities?).

It’s not all disappointment though. On the positive side, the promise to “establish an annual $250 million Active Transport Fund for cycling and walking infrastructure” is a winner.

It should be bigger though – much bigger – given the cost-effectiveness of cycling and the mode share it’s already captured e.g. more weekday trips are made by bicycle in Melbourne – including in the inner suburbs – than by tram (see How important is cycling in Australian cities?). Some of the funds allocated to dubious projects elsewhere would be better utilised for cycling.

The Greens won’t win government, but the party has a disproportionately large effect on the progressive end of the political debate. That’s why it’s important it makes the effort to develop a comprehensive, mature and morally honest transport policy that sets the standard for what should be done in Australian cities.

It’s not that the Greens call for investment in public transport is wrong; there’s no doubt our cities need more. $10 Billion is realistic but it isn’t a lot compared to the scale of the national task; so it’s vital it’s spent on projects that give bang for the buck, not wasted on flag-waving boondoggles (see How cost-effective are new rail transit projects? and How should transit proposals be evaluated?). And most important of all, the reality of cars cannot continue to be ignored.

The idea that any project is OK so long as it’s public transport is wrong; bad projects are a waste irrespective of what mode they are. The potential of a bad mega project like HSR to drain funding from other areas of government – not just transport – for no benefit is a clear illustration.