Myth: Roads and public transport complement each other – they don’t compete

Fact: Roads and public transport are in direct competition: each additional trip by car is one trip not taken by public transport, and vice versa. Investment in big new roads will only undermine public transport use. Investment in public transport can help take traffic off the roads – but only if road capacity isn’t hugely expanded at the same time.

Public transport advocates and planners have spent a great deal of effort explaining the way in which public transport modes like trains, trams and buses work best when they are combined into a network, with modes complementing one another rather than operating as competing fiefdoms. Because of the ‘network effects’ unleashed, improvements to bus services actually lead to more patronage on trains as well, and vice versa.

The road lobby, in the same have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too spirit that gave us balanced transport, has attempted to apply this same argument to public transport and cars. It’s not about cars versus public transport, said Roads Minister Tim Pallas in November 2007, quoting almost verbatim from an RACV policy document:

RACV does not subscribe to the cars versus public transport argument. We believe both are necessary and complementary…. To ensure the various modes of transport complement rather than compete, transport should be planned as an integrated system rather than a set of separate modes.

—Royal Automobile Club of Victoria, RACV Directions 2007

People are tempted to accept this argument also because we are naturally drawn to avoiding conflict. After all, if the organisation charged with promoting private car use says it doesn’t oppose public transport, surely that’s a good thing? So what if lots of new roads get built, as long as there’s some support for public transport too? Many of us have seen car dependence enacted as policy for so long that we try to make the best of a bad situation, proclaiming (like the curate in the old cartoon) that actually, parts of it are excellent! The notion of ‘integrated’ or ‘balanced’ transport is enduringly popular for just this reason.

This myth loomed especially large in the Eddington ‘East-West Needs Assessment’ of 2008, the most significant recommendations of which were a $9 billion road tunnel and an $8 billion rail tunnel in inner Melbourne. Not only did Eddington hold to the RACV line that the road and rail tunnels would not compete with one another: he actually urged the two be done in combination and that there is a special benefit to doing so.

I do not support – and I have not adopted – a ‘road versus rail’ approach to transport planning…. Instead of favouring one mode over another, I have looked for the right combination of modes that offer the best options for meeting Melbourne’s east-west transport needs….

my recommendations…. I believe…. deserve fair consideration as a balanced and measured response to tackling some of Melbourne’s major transport dilemmas.

—Sir Rod Eddington, Investing in Transport – Overview, Introduction, p.6.

With any package, if you take pieces of it and leave pieces behind, then you diminish the totality of what the package could do.

—Sir Rod Eddington, ABC Stateline, 4 April 2008

Yet what does it really mean to claim that roads and public transport are ‘complementary’? It could only mean that building roads actually promotes public transport use – in the way better buses promote travel by train – or at the very least, that building roads has no effect on the amount of travel by public transport, relative to the amount of travel by car. But of course this is nonsense: build a freeway, and people respond by making more car trips, including trips they may previously have made by public transport. This we know from common sense, and also from the evidence: every freeway built to date has filled with new traffic, often within just a couple of years, and led to a decline in public transport’s share of travel.

The decline in public transport mode share with the opening of new roads has been seen most clearly where the road runs parallel to an existing train line. When the Mulgrave and South Eastern Freeways were linked in 1988, figures from The Met showed that 20% of peak passengers on the Glen Waverley line had shifted to using their cars within weeks of the road being opened. So while in 1987 there were seven inbound peak-hour expresses on the Glen Waverley line, by 1995 the drop in patronage had reduced this number to two, and today there is just one.

But aside from the localised effects of particular roads, the shift away from public transport can also be seen in Melbourne-wide figures. The graph below, from the 2007 Victorian Budget papers, shows public transport’s share of motorised trips in Melbourne since CityLink opened in 2000. The graph shows mode share declining in each of the next four years – a decline that was only arrested when an increase in petrol prices and CBD employment from 2005 caused train patronage to increase significantly. Even then, mode share in 2006 remained below the level in 1999.

Mode share graph, Chart B.14 from 2007 Victorian Budget Paper 3 Appendix B, p.364

Interestingly, the 2008 Budget papers indicated that despite further strong patronage growth on trains, mode share had slipped again, from 8.8 to 8.6 percent of motorised trips. The 2008 graph seems to have tried to obscure this fact by an otherwise fairly pointless dilation of the vertical axis.

Mode share graph, Chart B.16 from 2008 Victorian Budget Paper 3 Appendix B, p.379

Subsequent Budget papers suggest that mode share may indeed be on the rise again, though the method by which the government estimates overall travel has changed. By the 2010 Budget, the former Brumby Government had gone so far as to retrospectively decide that mode share had actually been increasing all along!

Mode share graph, Chart B.17 from 2010 Victorian Budget Paper 3 Appendix B, p.381

Even an unbiased observer would have cause to question whether this is more about face-saving spin than honest re-estimation, given that all credible sources from the early 2000s (including State and Federal transport departments, and the Census) clearly show public transport patronage stagnating and car use increasing strongly in the period from 2000 to 2004. All of which is consistent with the original estimates of declining mode share over that period.

The failure to consistently increase mode share stems from government policy that continues to favour car travel and to marginalise public transport for anything other than peak hour CBD travel. If the State Government had really believed in its aim (first proclaimed in 2002) of increasing public transport mode share to 20% by 2020, an obvious way of demonstrating this would have been to rebalance transport funding away from roads and towards public transport infrastructure, such as suburban rail extensions. Yet as a recent report from the Australian Conservation Foundation shows, in the decade from 2000 to 2010 Victoria spent three times as much on road construction as on non-road transport infrastructure, and actually spent less on the latter as a proportion of Gross State Product than any state bar Tasmania.

And this all-too-familiar disparity has continued, even while public transport patronage soared to record levels from 2006 onwards. Because this patronage surge occurred in spite of government’s neglect of public transport, our system now struggles to cope with patronage levels that are still moderate by the standard of large European or East Asian cities. Usage patterns are also highly uneven: in suburbs like Doncaster, where transport follows the ‘complementary’ strategy of building big new roads and running buses on them, public transport use and car use have increased at about the same (modest) rate, as one might intuitively expect.

Quite plainly, there is no ‘network effect’ between cars and public transport: just a ‘zero-sum game’, where more travel of one sort means less of the other, all other things being equal. (Of course population growth means all things are not equal, but if we really planned public transport with 20% mode share in mind, there would be ample room to accommodate additional travellers on an expanding system: car use need not have to grow at all.) Freeway-building doesn’t assist public transport (not even buses, as another page explains), and good public transport is designed to reduce traffic, not just be a sideshow to continued growth in car use.

To see why road lobby talk of ‘complementary’ modes really is about spin rather than substance, one only has to consider what happens in practice when a proposal involves a clear trade-off between public transport users and motorists. Take for example the RACV’s contradictory stance on bus lanes in Springvale Road with the opening of EastLink in 2008 (which were estimated to save bus passengers up to 15 minutes in travel time, but would mean one less car lane each way). On the one hand, the RACV has been quite happy to suggest the idea when it suits, to argue the ‘complementary’ benefits of reduced congestion due to Eastlink:

Once EastLink opens we’ve got that significant increase in the network’s capacity. When vehicles move off the arterial roads on to EastLink it enables us to run much better public transport on arterial roads. It allows us to put bus priority, for instance, at traffic lights and allow us to put more bus lanes in.

—Peter Daly (RACV), Manningham Leader, 4 June 2008

This support, however, evaporates as soon as there is a serious push to establish full-time bus lanes on Springvale Road.

The Bus Association Victoria has submitted a proposal to the State Government saying it is critical that traffic reduction opportunities created by EastLink are “locked in”….

But the proposal has been slammed…. Brian Negus, public policy manager at the RACV, said that while congestion was extreme, bus lanes would compound the problem by restricting space for thousands of drivers for whom EastLink was not an option.

Priority bus lane plan to ‘lock in’ EastLink benefit, The Age, 25 May 2008

(A similar bus lane in Stud Road, likewise intended to lock in the ‘complementary’ benefits of EastLink to public transport, was partly removed following objections by local motorists. Official platitudes notwithstanding, ordinary people know a cars versus public transport situation when they see one – and will vote accordingly if they can’t see themselves using the public transport that exists and aren’t given the chance to participate in decisions that affect them.)

Then there is the proposal floated by Melbourne City Council, for a modest reduction in the cycle times on traffic lights in the CBD from 90 to 80 seconds, to make them less hostile to pedestrians and trams. Since only 19% of visitors to the CBD come by car, this would be of benefit to the vast majority of people (including those who drive in, once they leave their cars and go about their business on foot). Yet the RACV has opposed this too!

RACV chief engineer Peter Daly told the Leader the move would add to Melbourne’s traffic woes and threaten the city’s reputation for liveability. “There’s no doubt that it will increase delays and congestion for people moving through the CBD,” Mr Daly said….

Mr Daly said any reduction to traffic signal times would slow the movement of cars through intersections and lead to traffic snarls. He called on VicRoads to block the council’s attempts to change the cycle times.

Move to oust motorists, Melbourne Leader, 29 May 2008

So despite all the rhetoric about not subscribing to a ‘cars versus public transport’ argument, the road lobby will still plead for their own special interests against sustainable transport initiatives if they see any potential downside for car travel.

In reality, the only non-hypocrites on this side of the debate are the old-school road lobbyists, who would prefer that nothing be given to public transport at all, and aren’t worried about who they offend. While they still deny there is actual competition between public transport and roads, they rightly scoff at the idea that they could be mutually reinforcing:

Let us separate the eastwest road tunnel from Public transport issues…. There is very little connection between public transport and road transport in Melbourne, and the eastwest road tunnel should be evaluated as a stand-alone road transport project without any consideration of separate public transport issues.

—John Cox, “Why a cross-city car tunnel makes sense”, Australian Financial Review, 8 April 2008

Ultimately it is a very simple question of what kind of transport future one wants for Melbourne: should it be based primarily on cars and freeways, or should there be a substantial role for public transport, walking and cycling (even if there’s still a lot of car travel as well)? Neither direction is set in stone: the road lobby realises this, and tries to steer policy so that the road future remains likely. To change this ultimately means realising that Melbourne has enough big roads, and that any more will simply stand in the way of the future that most Melburnians actually want.

I can imagine what Melbourne’s traffic would be like without CityLink. We’d have a rail link to the west and one to Tullamarine, running every few minutes in peak hour. We’d have trams that ran more often than once every half hour after 10pm on the weekend. Victorians in the suburbs and exurbs could ride express services into the city and across town. Stop funding for major new road developments – they will always only be a Band-Aid solution. Investment in public transport is our only hope for a sustainable future.

—Malcolm Pacey (Richmond), The Age, 6 April 2008

The reason the RACV doesn’t openly fight tooth and nail against public transport is simple: it doesn’t need to. The odd bus lane aside, government commitments to public transport in Victoria have never got anywhere near the level where it poses a threat to private car use. Should it ever come to pass that public transport in Victoria achieves the level of policy support now seen for roads – with the mode split closer to 50-50 than the present 90-10 in favour of cars as a result – it would be a very different road lobby that would be happy with this state of affairs!

Last modified: 28 April 2011