Myth: We need big roads anyway, even for sustainable transport

Fact: This argument is false when applied to freeways, and vacuous when applied to other roads. There is little wrong with maintaining a ‘traditional’ road system such as Melbourne had up until the 1960s; the problems start when transport planners facilitate car and truck travel at the expense of other modes.

As transport planner Peter Newman has reported, Melbourne has more kilometres of road per capita than any of the world’s 14 most liveable and prosperous cities, and spends more on roads than Vancouver (the world’s most liveable city, with a less dense population than Melbourne). Meanwhile it has the poorest-performing public transport of any of these cities. Reorienting transport policy in a sustainable direction quite clearly requires a shift in focus away from roads, toward improved public transport services and better walking and cycling environments.

Against this the road lobby likes to raise the obvious fact that buses and bicycles have to run on roads, so roads will still be needed even if there are no cars. As an anonymous speaker at a Melbourne Economics Society forum said in 2006:

89 per cent of transport (be it car, public transport, cycle or pedestrian) is by road, therefore we should have no qualms about investing heavily in roads.

The road lobby’s community outreach arm, the RACV, has made this argument into an art form. Since most RACV members would actually like to see more policy attention given to the alternatives to car use (more than 90%, according to President John Isaac in RoyalAuto in 2009), even the RACV now pays lip service to improved public transport. But it’s careful to do so in a way that doesn’t detract from its primary objective of ensuring more money is spent on roads: partly by propping up the balanced transport and complementary modes myths, and partly by appealing to the ‘roads are needed for PT’ argument.

Adequate public transport is a vital community service throughout Victoria. RACV believes that people should be able to choose the transport mode that suits their needs…. RACV advocates for improvements to outer suburban transport services, including road upgrades and enhanced bus services…. Governments should recognise that a continuous connected road network is essential to the provision of good public transport.

—RACV, Directions 2007: What’s important to our members. (Policy wording emphasised.)

Federal Liberal leader Tony Abbott has never passed up an excuse to build more roads, and duly seized on the same argument when placed on the spot in the leadup to the 2010 Federal election.

I just make the point that if we are going to have better public transport, we need better infrastructure and better roads are certainly a big part of that.

—Tony Abbott, Four Corners, 16 August 2010

But in reality this is a giant red herring. First, no-one’s arguing we should stop building all roads any time soon. Roads have existed since long before there were cars; Melbourne’s local councils were originally created as road authorities in the 19th century, before the motor car was invented. Our inner suburbs are a patchwork of streets and arterial roads extending outward from the famous Hoddle grid, all of it laid down when most Melburnians were public transport users or cyclists.

The roads we can do without are proposed new freeways and arterial ‘traffic sewers’. One doesn’t build a six-lane freeway in order to run a bus down it every few minutes, or as a cycling route. Freeways are built with the express purpose of encouraging more travel by car and truck, usually at the expense of more sustainable alternatives. The one public transport mode compatible with freeways – the express bus – fails to provide the capacity and energy-efficiency advantages of rail, and is awkward for people to access unless they drive to where the bus is, largely defeating its purpose.

Urban planning blunders, both historical and recent, illustrate the futility of organising urban development around big new roads. Consider the case of Craigieburn. In 2007 Craigieburn’s existing railway station was connected to the urban train network, fulfilling an eight-year-old promise; yet the ‘town centre’ development being planned for Craigieburn is nowhere near the station. Even while the rail upgrade was under construction, planners were approving a town centre location 3km due west, next to the proposed E14 ‘arterial road’. This road, a relic of Melbourne’s 1969 freeway plan, is envisaged to have limited pedestrian access, little or no property frontage and an 80kph speed limit – all of which make it impractical as a bus feeder route to the town centre. The E14 is quite transparently a road to make car access easier, and the siting of the town centre remote from the railway station makes public transport access correspondingly more difficult.

Sustainable transport doesn’t demand new or bigger roads: we already have a perfectly good network of arterial roads to run buses on (which, unlike freeways, are convenient to where people live and work). Traffic calming strategies together with some modest new pathways will provide a superior environment for cycling.

Neither is it seriously proposed that car or truck travel be abolished: this is another straw man erected by the road lobby. As we explain on another page, people everywhere will continue to own and use cars as long as there’s a cheap source of fuel. What first-rate public transport does is ensure that because people don’t have to use cars, growth in car travel is held in check, keeping our cities liveable while meeting our day-to-day travel needs.

For the foreseeable future there will be a need to build and maintain the ‘traditional’ road networks with which we are familiar. What we should avoid is going down the Los Angeles path of a city criss-crossed by congested, polluted freeways and ten-lane arterial roads. Buses and bikes need roads, but a modest road will do as well as a big one.

Last modified: 17 August 2010