Common Urban Myths About Transport
Myth: More freeways will promote economic growth
Fact: In Melbourne, the suburbs with the most freeways are also the ones with the highest unemployment. The factors that make a city an attractive place to do business have little to do with how many freeways a city has and everything to do with livability factors, such as the availability of public transport.
Since the rise of economic rationalism, the economic argument for freeways has been heard more frequently than any other. This has provided the road lobby with new allies in the form of regional business groups and local MPs who connect freeways with economic growth and more jobs, seemingly as an article of faith. Rarely, if ever, is any evidence of the growth produced.
The Australian evidence is in fact very clear, and shows that the lobbyists are deceiving themselves. In the 1990s Melbourne had more freeways than any other Australian city, as well as the biggest arterial road network. Traffic congestion was lower than in Sydney and Brisbane. But Sydney and Brisbane grew economically during this period, while Melbourne stagnated. In more recent years the trends have reversed: while Melbourne's freeway building slowed a little after CityLink opened in 2000, Sydney's rate of freeway-building has ramped up beyond anywhere else in Australia. And sure enough, Melbourne's economy grew rapidly in the 2000s while Sydney marked time.
Even closer to home:
Furthermore, when the Western Ring Road opened in stages starting in 1992, average incomes in the area through which the road passes actually fell; meanwhile, incomes elsewhere (including in the outer east, which then had no freeways) increased.
(Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics)
Every new batch of economic figures reaffirms this trend. The billion-dollar cost of the Western Ring Road in the 1990s was justified through the enormous economic benefits its supporters claimed the mere act of building the freeway would bring to the region. Yet, of the six Victorian municipalities that reported negative economic growth in the 1996-97 financial year, all but one were located along the Ring Road. The exception - the City of Greater Dandenong - is one of several municipalities in Melbourne's outer east that lobbied for the Eastern Ring Road (now called Eastlink), citing the Western Ring Road as an example of the economic benefits that follow from freeway building!
This sorry tale is consistent with a British study which compared employment trends in areas served by freeways with areas that were not. No clear trend emerged: in fact, the areas without freeways showed slightly higher growth. Edinburgh, the UK city with the fastest rate of job growth, has no freeways and does not plan to build any; meanwhile freeway-rich cities like Glasgow and Birmingham decline.
It is also consistent with a 1997 study conducted for the World Bank, which found that among developed nations, those with the highest levels of car use also had below-average incomes per capita, and vice versa.
But that's not all - even when judged by the road lobby's own criteria, it is increasingly evident that many road projects in Australia aren't actually effective in generating economic benefits sufficient to cover their cost.
A good example is the east-west road tunnel proposed in the Eddington
report Investing in Transport and now billed as the
Of course, none of this stops road lobbyists ignoring all the evidence and lambasting public transport as a kind of cancer that destroys economies:
The freeway-growth case is based on the outdated theory that businesses locate to minimise transport costs. The theory might work for coal and iron ore export ports, but it is inadequate for modern urban economies, where factors like status, 'brand image' and the attractiveness of a city as a place to live dominate. New York, London and Brisbane continue to enjoy economic growth despite traffic congestion, while less congested cities with ample freeway systems lose out. Building freeways can actually be counterproductive, making the city less attractive, as can be seen in Detroit and Birmingham.
These observations are reflected in annual studies that rank the world's cities according to 'liveability'. Melbourne's claim to be the world's 'most liveable city' stems from rankings published by the Economist Intelligence Unit, which views Melbourne highly on account of its agreeable climate and low crime rate, and also relies on a fairly crude measure of transport quality. Not until 2011 did the EIU actually award Melbourne first place outright; before, it always shared top billing with cities like Vancouver and Vienna - whose transport policies emphasise high-quality public transport over cars and freeways.
Between 2005 and 2010 the EIU's outright first choice for
The other major ranking of liveable cities comes from the annual W.M. Mercer Quality of Life studies, which rate cities on a wide range of factors including climate, business environment, crime, public services, housing and leisure, and specifically consider factors such as public transport quality, air pollution and traffic congestion. Cities like Vancouver, Vienna and Zurich which top the EIU rankings also do well in the Mercer rankings. But Melbourne, despite outranking most other cities on all indicators other than transport, has never come first in the Mercer rankings. Currently it ranks only 18th in the world, down from equal 12th in 2003. That 'most liveable city' tag really depends on who you listen to!
(As of 2010, Mercer also compiles an 'eco-city' index rating cities specifically on environmental factors, including air quality and traffic congestion. The top 20 eco-cities in 2010 include Perth, Zurich and Vancouver, but not Melbourne - it came equal 25th.)
Last but not least, a 2005 report by international transport expert Peter Newman compared Melbourne (then 14th on the Mercer charts) with the other 13 most liveable cities, and confirmed the general findings:
The report concluded that Melbourne was sliding in the liveability and economic stakes with its focus on roads at the expense of public transport, a finding confirmed by Mercer rankings in subsequent years. Meanwhile, other world cities have improved their economies by doing the exact reverse - focussing on public transport at the expense of roads. It is perhaps significant that Melbourne regained its EIU 'most liveable city' status just as it took the first tentative steps toward doing the same (before the Baillieu Government gave priority to an east-west road link instead).
In short, trying to attract investment through freeways and dirty industries is a 1950s-style approach. Modern investors are attracted to livable cities, with clean air, attractive environments and educated workforces. Although freeway construction does create employment for road builders, most of the work is performed by machines. International reviews have found that public investment in hospitals, schools or public transport creates many more jobs than investing the same amount in roads.
© 2010 Public Transport Users Association Inc. (PTUA), Victoria, Australia. ABN 83 801 487 611.
Last modified: 28 August 2012