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More tunnels and roads will encourage more cars and cause more problems

By John Nightingale - posted Tuesday, 13 May 2003

Brisbane doesn't have a traffic problem. It has a commuter journey problem. Anyone arriving from a significant metropolitan city, whether Sydney or Melbourne in Australia, or London, Paris, New York in the west; Bombay, Shanghai, Beijing, Tokyo in the east, laughs at the so-called traffic jams in Brissie.

What gets up the Brisbane commuter's nose is having to go a long way around to get anywhere. Two reasons for this appearing to be a traffic problem are the River, and the Car. Only one problem is on the average commuter's radar screen: the River. The Car is unquestioned and unquestionable.

The answer to the perceived problem is obvious: more River crossings. Bridges might be a bit out of fashion, as they must come down in someone's backyard. But a tunnel, well a tunnel doesn't come down anywhere, it just burrows along until it pokes its head up in the middle of, guess what, a road.


So we have the incumbents at City Hall proposing a North-South Bypass from the South-east Freeway to the Inner City Bypass. In opposition, the unlikely-ever-in-the-foreseeable-future-to-become- incumbents propose nearly five times as much tunnel, joining everybody's drive to every possible destination without coming up for air!

Why do politicians and planners rush to find more ways to accommodate cars when there is a journey problem for commuters? Why do they think the future has to be just an extrapolation of the past? A few examples of the development of transport give the lie to the notion that the past is the best guide to the future. The most spectacular are examples of airports - London and Sydney.

Forty years ago planners in both cities were convinced that there would be a need for a fourth (London) and a second (Sydney) airport, as existing capacity was going to be used up within the coming 20 years. In both cases, political and financial pressures prevented planners' dreams from being realised. And in both cases, this was just as well. Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted are coping quite nicely, thank you very much, and Kingsford Smith might look crowded, and be a nuisance to some Sydney-siders, but it has still got plenty of capacity left when properly utilised. In both cases changes in behaviour of both people and airlines and changes in technology (planes, runways and air-traffic control) have meant that the 1960s extrapolations of demand are now obviously ridiculous.

In the case of cars, we know that expanding avenues of usage - more roads, more parking spaces - simply makes dreams, and nightmares, come true. Pandering to car usage creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. If Brisbane wants to continue to pander, then tunnels are just the thing. But if ultimate gridlock is to be avoided once all these new roads are full up, the thing is to not build them but make congestion a market signal to commuters to try something else. At the same time, planners, and not simply the star-struck engineers who love making big things, can look at ways to help commuters make these decisions. And it should not be too hard to see how they might do it.

At the end of last year, the Australian Bureau of Statistics published an important summary of Brisbane, A Social Atlas based on the 2001 Population Census. There we find 36 maps of Brisbane showing demographic characteristics. We see that population density is generally low, with some highish density near the CBD but nothing compared to cities elsewhere in the more crowded world outside of Australia. But most rapid population growth is in lower-density areas, spreading the city's population more.

When current transport arteries are matched against rapid population growth, only the freeway and partially the busway serve the South-east toward and beyond Logan City, until Beenleigh. The area between this artery and Cleveland, traversed by the Gateway freeway, has nothing special to attract commuters away from their cars. When we look at users of public transport, it is no surprise that they are concentrated in the old middle suburbs and those served by rail. Those who travel to work by car, 75 per cent of employed people (90 per cent travelling alone), are concentrated in the outer suburbs, including those that could be well served by rail.


So, what might be the obvious inferences to draw? First, people do travel by public transport if it is well developed, as in the inner suburbs. Second, there is some transport infrastructure that is grossly under-utilised. The busway is a good example. Rail infrastructure exists in many, though not all, growing areas, the major deficiency being the arc between Logan and Cleveland.
Why is public transport under-utilised? It is purely a matter of political choice:

  • Fares do not take account of the overall benefits to Brisbane of public transport usage. So, less pollution, less costly road infrastructure and congestion costs, are all tangible benefits that justify subsidising public transport.
  • Frequency of service matches historically low usage, rather than encouraging future usage. Why would a commuter try to use a service that doesn't match her needs?
  • Co-ordination of public transport modes: bus doesn't match with rail in any overall way, through-ticketing is not available, terminals and interchanges are distant from each other (Indooroopilly and the CBD are two examples), planning for future infrastructure (why build a busway that is ultimately limited in capacity and has potential for redevelopment for light rail only, rather than a proper railway line?).

Will the tunnel, or any tunnels or more super roads, relieve the problems of Brisbane transport? No way! Encouraging car use is discouragement of public transport use. The chimera of creating excess capacity for buses to use (the planners' sop to public transport in the tunnel plan) is simply that. The tunnel goes in, more people use their cars as it becomes more convenient in the short run, buses are squeezed out by congestion, and the status quo is maintained. Carrots and sticks are both needed to change behaviour. The carrot of better public transport at prices that match the apparent cost of using a car (much less than the actual cost), plus the stick of congestion, and congestion charging, can transform Brisbane's commuter behaviour and remove the need for expensive, over-engineered roads.

Tunnel vision, as Councillor Prentice put it with unconscious irony in her press release about the Liberal Party's five-tunnel plan, is simply that. Let's open our eyes to something showing more breadth of vision.

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This article was first published in The Brisbane Line, e-journal of the Brisbane Institute, which is a member of National Forum.

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About the Author

Dr John Nightingale is a retired economist now associated with the Brisbane Institute. He has published in industrial economics (in particular, telecoms and technical change), evolutionary economics, history and philosophy of economic thought, and even agricultural economics.

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