Australia's transport policy mindset is dominated by an almost singular focus on the role private vehicles and road networks have in generating economic activity. The importance placed on these benefits by both parties when announcing their politicised transport funding discourages the development of productive networks that include walking, cycling or public transport in favour of quick political wins and one-upmanship.
The impact of our car-dominated transport policy is visible in the social and economic landscapes of most Australian cities. The development of our transport networks have slowly reduced travel choice in favour of subsidising car use, and given that it is our most common method of transport, makes roads projects an easy sell in any electorate. What's not so easily recognised, however, is our historical preference for cars has created a reliance on them for the generation of any meaningful social or economic outcomes.
This toxic and short-sighted form of policy development ignores the very nature of transport systems: to connect people and allow them the opportunity to participate in Australia's economy. Our transport networks need to involve a diverse range of options to extend this opportunity to participate to all members of society, ease congestion and promote productivity (every bus takes approximately 60 cars off the road).
Comments by Mr Abbott last month indicating his preference that Commonwealth funding be only available for road projects and Labor's election-heavy commitment to a western Sydney motorway exemplify this. Their positions forsake the somewhat more complex benefits associated with public and active transport-dominant networks in favour of economic rationalist arguments and ignore the relatively mature stage of urban development currently underway in Australia's cities.
There is no great need or room for large-scale road projects in the modern Australian city. Greater productivity can instead be encouraged through making our urban transport systems more diverse and smarter through integrating public and active transport infrastructure into existing networks.
Scandinavian countries including Denmark and the Netherlands have developed a 'new mobilities' approach to transport funding that reversed their historical reliance on private vehicles and is indicative of what Canberra's approach sorely lacks. Through encouraging the development of networks that are focused on public and active transport, they are recognising the importance of diversity to a person's social and economic participation. And through making themselves more accountable for delivering affordable and accessible networks that promote catching the bus or cycling, they are making their people and economies more productive.
Funding proposed recently by the Gillard government for showpiece rail solutions in both Brisbane and Sydney represents some movement toward more diverse networks. While not 'Scandinavian' in intent, funding policy that supports urban networks with integrated walking, cycling and public transport facilities shows we've taken a quantum leap forward, at least in Australian policy years.
Transport, or the act of moving from one place to another, gives people the ability to fulfil their social and financial needs and is vital in connecting the nation's communities and economies. By shifting the focus of Australia's transport policy away from cars and roads-based infrastructure, we are extending economic discussions to include how accessible opportunities are, and to whom.
Cars are important and will continue to dominate the way Australian's travel. But they alone do not constitute the extent of transport policy, nor our ability to derive productivity from networks or people. Broadening these discussions to include walking, cycling and catching public transport will make our transport systems smarter and communities more productive.
Maybe even Scandinavian.
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