Moving Australians Sustainably

Howard and Rudd on a crowded trainPublic transport groups from around Australia recently joined with the PTUA to publish a report on the role of public transport in federal transport policy. The report – Moving Australians Sustainably: Transport Policy in the National Interest – looked at how public transport contributes to a range of federal policy objectives and responsibilities.

The report found that public transport makes a significant contribution to national economic performance by helping to manage traffic congestion, by reducing the need for costly oil imports and by contributing to improved participation and productivity in Australia’s workforce. In light of this, governments that fail to support public transport could hardly be regarded as responsible economic managers.

The report also noted that greenhouse emissions from road transport are growing faster than emissions from most other sectors and that walking, cycling and public transport produce much less pollution than private motor cars. On top of major impacts on local communities around Australia, climate change also looks set to become a major threat to national security and regional stability. Climate-friendly transport like cycling and public transport is clearly in the national interest.

Major health impacts were also identified in the report. Physical inactivity – entrenched by car dependence – and excess weight were found to be major risk factors in almost all of the National Health Priority Areas that the federal government has identified as contributing significantly to the burden of illness and injury. Public transport can also reduce exposure to the risk of road trauma and thereby make a positive contribution to the main priority area that is not influenced as significantly by physical activity – i.e. injuries. With national attention on the ‘obesity epidemic’, there is a clear need for the federal government to encourage less use of sedentary private transport.

Although the federal government has claimed in the past that public transport is the sole responsibility of state governments, this is out of step with practice in all other developed nations. The national governments of most Western countries make significant contributions to public transport services and/or infrastructure. Many of these countries, such as Canada and the USA, also have federal systems of government and several national governments were like Australia in not supporting public transport until quite recently.

Furthermore, the Constitution of Australia has a specific provision that allows the federal government to contribute to the development of state railway networks. It seems therefore that there is stronger constitutional backing for federal funding of public transport infrastructure than there is for many other recent federal incursions into state responsibilities, such as health, education and water management.

Many of the changes needed to enable federal funding of public transport are minor. The federal government’s role in land transport infrastructure is largely restricted to funding through state and local governments and does not require substantial project delivery capability within the Commonwealth Government itself. The main federal land transport funding program – AusLink – could be easily broadened to include public transport infrastructure and fund projects based upon merit rather than mode. In doing so, the federal government could also encourage greater accountability at the state level.

Some changes could even save the federal government over $1 billion per annum. Elimination of the tax concession to company cars in the Fringe Benefits Tax legislation would free up substantial resources for other priorities such as public transport, renewable energy or other government services. This would also help to reduce congestion and energy use, thus further contributing to economic performance.

The chorus in support of such changes is growing – ranging from public transport user groups through to the recommendations of inquiries undertaken within federal parliament itself. It’s now time for the parties to offer a real commitment to public transport ahead of the federal election.

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This article is from our September 2007 newsletter. Please join the PTUA to receive regular newsletters.

Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA) provided valuable feedback on the health-related content in ‘Moving Australians Sustainably’ and support for the report’s release. The inter-related health, environmental and economic benefits of investment in sustainable transport are also highlighted in their own ‘Public Transport and Green City Manifesto’

See also: 16/8/2007 — Australian public transport users unite in call for federal funds (including link to full report)