Sydney’s traffic problems are again in the news. Anyone who commutes to the CBD regularly will know the time-consuming frustration that travelling to, from, and around the city causes. A recent estimate suggests the average motorist spends 73 hours a year stuck in traffic. Beyond personal factors, however, what effect is our traffic having on society at large?
In 1999, the Bureau of Transport Economics released a report entitled Urban Transport - Looking Ahead (pdf file 311KB). It predicted that, by 2015, congestion in Sydney would cost $8.8 billion a year. That’s $2,000 for each and every Sydneysider.
Now, a new study by the Centre for International Economics has found that our reliance on road transport (including congestion as well as accidents, pollution and so on) will cost us $24 billion a year by 2020. That’s $5,400 a pop.
And these figures cannot begin to predict the widespread and everlasting effects of cars on the environment and our health, which are beyond economic consideration. A car sitting in traffic, of course, is further polluting the air for no gain whatsoever.
Something has to be done. But where do the solutions lie? Essentially we need to, in one way or another, reduce our dependence on cars, which are hugely inefficient in terms of people moved for space consumed and fuel burned.
The first step should be to introduce a congestion charge. These are slowly becoming popular since London introduced a charge for entering the centre of the city by car in February 2003. Stockholm recently started a similar six-month trial, after which the citizens will vote on whether to keep it. Cities such as Barcelona, Milan, Munich, San Francisco and Shanghai are considering similar tolls. Singapore and Oslo are among the cities who already charge motorists to enter the CBD.
Sydney should do the same. All motorists should, upon entering the CBD, pay a toll for the use of the city’s streets. Those entering by toll-way (such as by the Sydney Harbour Bridge, tunnel or Eastern Distributor) would pay less because they don’t also congest the suburbs immediately surrounding the CBD, and those avoiding the streets of the congestion “zone” by linking up the Eastern Distributor with the Harbour Bridge or tunnel or using the Cross City Tunnel would pay no extra charge.
If the tunnel operators would be willing to share in the congestion monies, the Cross City Tunnel could possibly become free of tolls altogether. This would reward motorists for not further congesting the central city, rather than charging them to clear up the roads.
I hear your complaints that this would move the congestion to the entry points of the “zone”. But this was predicted in London by everyone from Mayor Ken Livingstone down, and failed to materialise because commuters basically decided to switch to public transport. Delays are down by 30 per cent and vehicles are travelling 40 per cent faster. Public transport would become even worse in the city itself, I hear you say. But bus congestion in London, I reply, has halved.
Lower traffic levels? Less traffic jams? Sounds good to me. Of course, there will need to be solutions for the larger numbers of people who would rely on public transport. These should include the construction of park-and-ride facilities which link up with the existing bus, train and light rail systems, as well as a free inner-city bus service.
A free “city loop” type bus service around the CBD, running every minute during peak hours and slightly less often outside these times, would also do wonders to reduce unnecessary congestion. The service could be paid for in part by extensive advertising on the interior and exterior of the buses and would allow easy travel between locations in the city, as well as allowing normal bus services to the CBD to terminate on the outskirts, not only reducing unnecessary congestion but also allowing commuters to get closer to their destinations through use of the free bus. Tourism would also benefit.
A congestion charge is, of course, the tip of the iceberg. To presume that Sydney’s traffic problems are confined to the CBD would be nothing short of lunacy. The public transport system for greater Sydney needs years of strengthening so that it becomes a viable form of day-to-day transport for the vast majority of our population. But we need to start now. And a congestion charge is a quick and relatively simple way to do it.
In the words of Jawaharlal Nehru, “The policy of being too cautious is the greatest risk of all”.