Myth: Freeways are for freight, not commuters

Fact: Freight movement has become a convenient excuse to build freeways. However, there is no road in Melbourne where trucks outnumber private cars, and the extra commuter traffic generated by new roads is an impediment to efficient freight movement. The only empirical study of freight movement in Melbourne found that, outside peak hours, there is relatively little interference to freight traffic, and most freight travels outside peak hours anyway. Infrastructure Australia has stated that freight alone is insufficient justification for major new roads.

A popular road lobby argument used to disarm freeway critics is that even if we encourage public transport for passengers, we will still need to build freeways for freight transport. This is just another fallacy, which was developed after commuter freeways first became unfashionable in the 1970s.

The 1969 Melbourne Transportation Plan treated freight as an afterthought, but in the 1980s the road lobby found it could persuade the supposedly anti-freeway Cain Government to build freeways by claiming they would carry freight and so support Labor’s economic strategy. The argument was resuscitated in a big way in the 1990s to fit the Kennett Government’s pro-business agenda, and has continued under governments of all political stripes ever since.

Kennett’s freeway planning document Linking Melbourne devoted 25 of its 71 pages to freight, in contrast to the 1969 report, which gave freight just 18 pages out of 383. But the fallacy reached its apotheosis in Bracks’ Melbourne 2030 strategy. Though it reproduced all the freeway plans from Kennett’s Linking Melbourne strategy and more, this went largely unnoticed at the time, because the freeways didn’t appear at all under ‘Transport’ but were included under ‘The Economy’ instead!

As Professor Peter Newman of Murdoch University in Perth put it, in the 1990s Melbourne was marketed as ‘Australia’s freight hub’ while Sydney was marketed as ‘Australia’s international city’. It’s no wonder tourists and investors in the 1990s bypassed Melbourne in favour of Sydney as a result! Spooked by its apparent success, Sydney in the late 1990s embarked on a programme of motorway building outpacing even Melbourne’s, using freight movement as a pretext. But after the 2000 Olympic Games Sydney’s economy slowed instead, and investors turned their attention back to Melbourne.

The only independent assessment of the freeways-for-freight argument in Melbourne was the Eastern Freeway Review by Professor Bill Russell in the 1990s. VicRoads argued that the freeway was needed as a freight route, but Professor Russell (in contrast with most other ‘studies’) examined the evidence. He found that, outside peak period, there is relatively little interference to freight across Melbourne, and that freight formed a minority of traffic on the freeway. He concluded, “I am forced to discount this argument as a prime justification for investment in the freeway extension”.

Recent government policy supports Russell’s findings: that as a practical matter, freeways are about encouraging private car travel more than about freight. Infrastructure Australia, which advises the Federal Government on transport funding, is emphatic on this point and no longer accepts freight as a catch-all justification for building roads.

Several submissions to Infrastructure Australia in the past year have continued to focus on the development of large urban motorways, presented as freight roads, when, in fact, 80-90% of the projected traffic is expected to be private vehicles. In several cases, the use of tolls to fund these roads was rejected. At the same time, the jurisdictions have asked for the Australian Government to meet all or the great majority of the cost of these projects….

Unless urban road proposals are scoped in line with the principles outlined above; and/or…. send [price] signals that will influence demand, Infrastructure Australia is highly unlikely to support the proposals for funding by the Australian Government.

—Infrastructure Australia. Communicating the Imperative for Action, report to COAG, July 2011.

Even minor policy decisions belie the idea that freeways are primarily about freight transport. Since July 2010, trucks are banned from travelling in the right hand lane on the Geelong freeway, a policy that was also considered for parts of the West Gate Freeway, Eastern Freeway and EastLink. If these had been built primarily as freight routes, it would be private cars, not trucks, that would be targeted for selective bans.

Nor are politicians shy about backing measures such as off-peak tolls to discourage freight operators from using major roads such as CityLink or EastLink during commuter peak periods, even when these roads were supposedly built with freight movement and not private car commuting as a justification:

Opposition roads spokesman David Hodgett said trucks were clogging Melbourne’s major highways during peak hour, delaying motorists.
“A lot of freight is still being moved at peak times of day … those peak periods are getting more congested,” Mr Hodgett said.
He said that if the Coalition were elected in November he would call tolling companies Transurban and ConnectEast to the negotiating table and push for off-peak discounts for trucks.

—“Coalition promises more off-peak toll discounts for trucks”, The Age, 31 July 2018

Other offical sources have been forced to acknowledge that it’s not freight driving the supposed need for more road capacity. Yet they also feel free to ignore the evidence, or use it selectively when it suits them to do so.

Much of the truck traffic generated by the Port of Geelong travels outside the conventional peak hours. Queuing of trucks is sometimes evident around the Port of Geelong. This is not due to a lack of arterial road traffic capacity, but due to activities off the road, within the wharf area or on particular industrial sites during peak activities….

[T]he Geelong end of the route…. is a significant impediment for both tourist and freight traffic which moves between south western Victoria, the south-east of South Australia and Melbourne. This completion of the Geelong Bypass will assist in resolving this issue.

AusLink Melbourne-Geelong Corridor Strategy, February 2007, pp. 11 and 17

The fact is that cars make up most of the congestion on the road system in our major cities, that won’t change. So congestion is a problem related to light vehicles not heavy vehicles…. Congestion charges in major cities have to be applied to cars before they’re applied to trucks.

Bill McKinley, Australian Trucking Association, 2009

Even the freight managers of Melbourne’s businesses seem to agree. When surveyed as part of the Environment Effects Statement for the Scoresby Freeway (EastLink) in 1997, only one business in the Scoresby corridor nominated the freeway as a priority for freight transport. Three nominated rail freight, while most focussed on the quality of the existing road network (including CityLink, which was then under construction).

Freight transport solutions suggested by local business
(Scoresby Freeway Environment Effects Statement, 1997)
Scoresby Freeway1
Better rail freight3
Local road improvements14
City Link / SE Freeway10
No suggestions38
Total surveyed72

(Source: Scoresby Freeway EES, Supplement G, p.37)

The only outcome to be expected from building more roads for freight is to encourage all the freight that still moves by rail to go by road instead, leading to more big trucks in residential areas. A case in point is the former Ford factories in Campbellfield and Geelong, which were directly connected by rail. For decades, materials travelled between the two sites on freight trains, but after work was done in the 1990s to widen the Geelong Road (while the railway was left to decline), Ford switched to using B-triple road trains instead.

More recently, in January 2007 a rail freight shuttle service operated by CRT Group between Altona North and the Port of Melbourne was forced to close, due to inability to compete with state-subsidised road freight. As a result of this latter closure, residents of the western suburbs endure an estimated 3500 more truck trips a day through their streets.

Freight is also subject to the ‘induced traffic‘ effect: new roads can increase freight traffic even when there’s no more actual freight to be moved than before. For example, many large retailers have their main distribution depots in the western suburbs, where land is cheap. But many of their customers are in the eastern suburbs, so they also maintain secondary depots in the east because it’s not currently worth their while to truck all their stock to the eastern suburbs from the other side of town. If new roads make it cheaper to move freight from the west to the east than to maintain a second warehouse, retailers will switch to trucking everything from the cheap depot in the western suburbs. Melbourne’s liveability will have been sacrificed for a marginal increase in shareholders’ profits.

Official figures confirm this induced traffic effect: while total freight tonnage in Australia increased by 70% in the 20 years from 1986 to 2005, the total distance over which freight is moved (tonne-kilometres) increased by nearly 140% – twice as rapidly.

Induced freight traffic can also result if freight is being carried less efficiently. A survey by the Port of Melbourne Corporation in 2004 found that although the average capacity for trucks using the port is 2.12 TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units), the average loading of trucks was actually just 1.05 TEUs. In other words, the average truck is less than half full. In its submission to the 2005 Melbourne congestion inquiry, the Corporation stated that:

There are significant opportunities to reduce the number of truck trips required to handle the existing container movement task to and from the port…. [However,] improving the utilisation of trucks is [currently] not a high priority since the stevedores do not bear the costs of most road truck empty running, nor the congestion additional movements cause.

—Port of Melbourne Corporation, submission to the VCEC Inquiry into Managing Transport Congestion, 2005

A frequently-heard variation on the freight fallacy is that no matter how much ‘household travel’ is shifted to public transport, freeways will still be needed for ‘business travel’. But Professor Russell’s findings apply just as much to general business travel as to freight: journeys for business purposes are vastly outnumbered by personal trips, and outside peak hour (when most workers are travelling to or from home) are relatively unimpeded. The more personal travel is shifted to public transport, the easier it becomes to accommodate any kind of business travel on the existing road network.

This is recognised even by those businesses surveyed above for the Scoresby EES, who when asked about passenger transport solutions overwhelmingly nominated public transport, followed by local roads:

Passenger transport solutions suggested by local business
(Scoresby Freeway Environment Effects Statement, 1997)
Scoresby Freeway3
Better public transport27
Local road improvements11
No suggestions28
Total surveyed72

(Source: Scoresby Freeway EES, Supplement G, p.39)

Another appeal is to the so-called ‘cost of traffic congestion’. Linking Melbourne claimed that congestion costs the community up to $1.8 billion per year, with 70% of this cost borne by industry and business. If this were true, the logical response would be to segregate freight from other traffic so it can avoid congestion. The least logical response would be to encourage a massive increase in commuter traffic, which holds up freight. But this is exactly what freeway building does!

The suggestion that congestion ‘costs’ vast sums of money is bunkum according to Melbourne road engineer Bill Saggers, and patently absurd in the words of leading British transport specialists:

The costs of congestion are measured from the difference in journey time under ‘ideal’ conditions and in reality….The definition [of ‘ideal’] chosen is that condition where the driver is unimpeded by any other driver, in effect where [s]he is travelling in the dead of night (say 3am)….These are patently absurd conditions….The cost of congestion is therefore an invalid concept in an urban area.

—M.J. Mogridge, Transport Studies Group, University College London, 1990

I have to say I cannot endorse statements of the form congestion costs the economy £15 billion a year, updated from time to time by inflation, implying an annual dividend of £1000 waiting to be distributed to each family. This is a convenient, consensual fiction. It is calculated by comparing the time spent in traffic now, with the reduced time that would apply if the same volume of traffic was all travelling at free flow speed, and then giving all these notional time savings the same cash value that we currently apply to the odd minutes saved by transport improvements. This is a pure, internally inconsistent, notion that can never exist in the real world. (If all traffic travelled at free flow speed, we can be quite certain that there would be more of it, at least part of the time saved would be spent on further travel, and further changes would be triggered whose value is an unexplored quantity). It is a precise answer to a phantom question.

—P.B. Goodwin, Professor of Transport Policy, University College London, 1997

If congestion imposes such a high cost on freight, why did so many truck drivers in the 1980s drive around the Westgate Bridge, increasing their travel distance and congestion, to avoid a toll of $1.80? And why is King Street still designated by Melbourne City Council as a major freight route, despite the fact it runs parallel to CityLink? So much for the economic benefits to freight!

In the words of Fred Kent, president of the Project for Public Spaces in the US, congestion is healthy. It means something is going on.

Last modified: 3 August 2018