Cars & traffic

Jun 27, 2017

Has Albo really found a congestion hollow log?

Anthony Albanese gets it wrong on traffic congestion. Australian cities need politicians who'll tell us what's really going on and what really needs to be done

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

[caption id="attachment_57918" align="aligncenter" width="932"] (Image by Joseph Bsharah via So bad So good)[/caption] The Federal opposition spokesperson for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development, Anthony Albanese, wrote last week that traffic congestion is a handbrake on economic growth. He says it costs the national economy dearly:
Imagine if each and every year, the Australian government discovered a hollow log containing $16.5 billion. We could use that windfall to boost services or reduce government debt. Or we could return the money to the pockets of families and small businesses via tax cuts. Actual hollow logs are rare in Canberra.
A whopping $16.5 billion that could be put in the pockets of families and small businesses every year? No Mr Albanese, that’s a whopper. There is no "actual hollow log" filled with glittering cash. That $16.5 billion estimate is an economic cost estimated by the Bureau of Transport, Infrastructure and Regional Economics (BITRE); it’s not actual cash that could be brought into the budget and given away as a tax cut. The great bulk of it is the value of extra travelling time incurred by personal and business travellers as a result of traffic congestion. And even if it were real cash, we don't need politicians proposing even more Howard-style “tax cuts”, especially to the tune of $16.5 billion per year that, Mr Albanese tells us, will rise to $53 billion p.a. within 15 years. But that’s not the only thing he gets wrong. He goes on to say that the losses from congestion should be reduced:
That would involve investing in better urban rail as well as roads, making it cheaper and easier for people and goods to move around our cities.
No again, Mr Albanese. Building more rail and more roads won’t reduce traffic congestion. It will allow more trips to be made in the peak period, but it won’t reduce traffic bottlenecks because induced demand will cancel the initial increase in speed and bring back the congestion. That's true for both new road and new rail investments; it's Infrastructure and Transport 101 (see Are motorways the only answer to traffic congestion?). The only way to manage traffic congestion effectively is to ration access to road space. There are various ways of doing this, but the most obvious and most efficient would be to charge road users at congested times; for example, either directly by a charge per kilometre, or indirectly by a charge on parking. Naturally Mr Albanese accuses the Turnbull government of failing to take action to address congestion. If he's serious, what he should be doing is advocating road pricing and challenging the Government and the Greens to do likewise (see Is it time to get serious about road pricing? and Is congestion charging just too unfair to bother with?). Sure, that would be politically risky, but the state of our cities demands a more honest response from politicians. At the very least, they should justify investments in transport infrastructure capacity on the grounds they enable more trips to be made in the peak at current speeds; they shouldn't pretend it will provide long-term relief from traffic congestion. It’s a fond hope of course, because so much of contemporary politics is an appeal to fixed values. It would be so much better if politicians helped us understand the full implications of our travel choices and explained that some problems can't be solved without pain.

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7 thoughts on “Has Albo really found a congestion hollow log?

  1. Phillip

    Congestion is a form rationing mechanism for road capacity.

    More ad-hoc road capacity added to the system is not the full answer to reducing congestion in peak periods. Adding those capacity in a fully built out urban environment is very costly (tunnels, bridges and resumption of properties) and the benefits gained may not be outweighed by the costs (financial and social). Induced traffic usually filled up the road capacity within a few years.
    I can envisage pay tolls and struck in a traffic jam on those toll roads is not an enjoyable experience.
    The answer lies in a portfolio of actions.

  2. rohan storey

    I’m just reading Graeme Davidson’s Car Wars, and he relates that the 1969 traffic estimates and population growth (for 1985) were way ahead of what actually occured, and also predicted a high cost of congestion dragging down ecominuc activity (and freeways were the only fix). But by 1985 the average car. commute was only 5 minutes longer than 1969, up to 35 mins. Of course the slump of the 70s had a lot to do with that, but even before that critics pointed out that assuming that the same rate of road use on the same roads was ignoring other factors that impact on road use as albo has done (like many others). Such as people moving in closer to jobs or jobs moving out closer to people to make travel times less onnerous. We also now have constantly improving PT. So congestion is probably never as bad as the projections.

  3. Jacob HSR

    Upgrade the parking meters to be able to read Medicare cards and Aussie passports.

    Require private car parks to do the same.

    Then charge people $100/day for parking if the driver has neither a Medicare card nor an Aussie passport.

    Then upgrade the Medicare cards to record citizenship status – and then restrict cheaper parking to Aussie citizens only.

    Politically feasible because foreigners are not allowed to vote.

    Do the same for Myki cards – $20 for a peak hour train trip if you do not have a Medicare card.

    1. Itsumishi

      Solving congestion with racism!?
      The damage this sort of harebrained idea would have on our tourism industry alone should be enough to set off alarm bells.

  4. Itsumishi

    @Roger – Requiring many people to travel further to decentralised environments where car travel is the only feasible option… I somehow doubt that plan would reduce congestion.

  5. Roger Clifton

    Instead of taxing the travellers, how about taxing their destinations? If each new bigger building were to pay for the extra load they impose on the infrastructure, including parking and highways, they might start appearing piecewise in smaller, uncongested towns.

    1. no chiefs

      I agree wholeheartedly. The oligarchy only profits because it can absolve itself from external costs. For example, what would happen if developers were responsible for the devaluation of surrounding properties? Markets do not exist without regulations, the only question is who gets to write them.

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