A major problem lurking in the shadows of our booming economy is the burgeoning cost of traffic congestion in our major cities. Up to date data is hard to come by but the oft quoted 1999 Bureau of Transport Economics (BTE) report Urban Transport - Looking Ahead is still relevant and paints a grim picture of the hip pocket impact of traffic congestion that awaits all of us if our leaders do not act soon. The following table derived from this report tells the story.
||Congestion cost 1995 $ billion
||Congestion cost 2015 $ billion
||Congestion cost per capita 1995 $
||Congestion cost per capita 2015 $|
(In Brisbane, the cost per family in 2015 will rise to a pay packet crunching $12,000 per family per annum - after tax!)
These gloomy predictions were based on projected congestion trends in the late 90s and it is likely that transport infrastructure upgrades now under way in major cities will go some way towards reducing these costs, at least in the short term. Improvements in public transport infrastructure (rail track and busways) and a consequent boost in public transport services will also help. It is clear however that we will not be able to simply build our way out of the problem. We need other incentives to prevent overloading our transport networks.
What then are the underlying causes of the congestion problems we are now facing?
Lack of investment in transport infrastructure is an obvious target. No doubt the healthy economy and consequent high employment rates have an influence, while "just in time" inventory control and courier services boost the numbers of commercial vehicles. Delays due to traffic incidents which take too long to clear are another factor. But it is our underlying preference for private motor vehicle use that is the main cause.
Critics of private motor vehicle use often refer to our "love affair with the car" and assert that it is the reason why public transport usage is declining as a proportion of overall travel. This is a convenient but inaccurate aphorism - our real love affair is with the convenient personal mobility afforded by the private car - and we are clearly prepared to pay a premium for it. This mobility is not a privilege that we will easily forgo.
Even significant increases in fuel prices, parking charges and so on, seem to have little long-term impact on our choice of travel mode. It will certainly take more than pious appeals to "consider the environment - take public transport" to get us to switch from our cars. Most of us think it is a good idea - for other drivers - to switch, so we can have a congestion-free run!
So how to convince motorists to forgo the convenience of their personal chariot and mend their wicked ways?
As well as ensuring that comfortable and accessible alternatives are available, I believe the solution must be via the hip pocket nerve, through a user pays system of road use charging which makes those responsible for traffic congestion pay for it.
Current charging regimes for use of Australia's roads include vehicle registration charges, compulsory third party insurance charges and a range of fuel excise charges (a clumsy surrogate for a road use charge). None of these are linked to congestion costs. The registration and insurance costs, in particular, are patently unfair. A pensioner whose car rarely leaves the garage pays the same fees to access the road network as a commercial driver travelling 100,000 km a year.
A charging regime based as closely as possible to actual road usage would be much fairer and could be structured to reflect the real cost to the community of travel on congested roads. The idea is not new. A few cities have implemented various forms of congestion pricing, including Singapore, Orange County (California State Route 91) and the cities of Trondheim, Oslo and Bergen in Norway, while London has had a congestion pricing scheme in place since February 2003.
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