Asserting the obvious
Russell Degnan

Planning is quite astonishing for the number of things said without any - or with very little - supporting evidence. Partly, this is a consequence of its complexity. Very few things can genuinely be proven. Public policy making is diminished however, by the persistence of arguments barely more than assertions, propogated with hat tipping to some non-existent consensus. The actions of government, taken for a variety of reasons, become painted as poorly thought out, backward, politicised, or indentured to some all-powerful lobby group - normally 'roads'.

I'm not about to argue that those factors are not important. But they are not behind the persistent problems of our transport and planning systems. Those problems are integral to the structure of the decision making, and the nature of the problem itself. The failure of government is not to plan to improve those structures; it is only marginally a failure of decision making within them.

For commentators who wish to argue that it is a failure of governance though, the existence of some straight forward seeingly logical answers is sufficient to make their claims. It therefore matters, that these self evident claims are largely wrong, and worth puncturing them when commentators like Kenneth Davidson try and use them to shift public policy to their own pet projects.

Starting from the top, is the persistent claim that the government is contradicting its own policy:

"The thrust of Melbourne 2030 (M2030) was to protect Melbourne's liveability in the context of a population expected to grow by a million people, by concentrating major change in growth centres built on an expanded and upgraded rail network."

Ostensibly this is true, because Melbourne 2030 headlines itself as a wonderful sustainable, dense, public transport city. Read the document though, and the headlines are no more than government spin. The transport directions do indeed mention improving the Principle Public Transport Network. But they do so without touching rail, which is reserved for the Activity Centres, instead:

"The rest of the network - some 40 per cent - will be added mainly through new cross-town bus routes."

Melbourne 2030 also promotes cycling, walking, better freight links (more roads), better use of existing infrastructure (less infrastructure), a better environment, more centralisation, less centralisation... good things we all agree on. And more or less nothing where they are directly contradictory. A close reading of Melbourne 2030 allows you to argue for anything. No government policy could possibly be at odds with it, because no government policy isn't covered by it.

That some people actually oppose Melburne 2030, is both a testament to the Bracks Government's ability to deflect blame from their own policies onto a strategic (bureaucratic) planning document. An an indictment of their ability to recognise changes to the density of the city as being contingent on by social, geographical and economic conditions.

It is Davidson's swallowing of the offerings put forward by the PTUA and Bicycle Victoria that really demonstrate the problem though:

"The result of rail privatisation is poorer service, higher fares disguised by fare restructures, and subsidies paid to the franchisees at twice the level paid when the service was a public monopoly."

Comparing two eras is a difficult problem, but practically no figures show poorer service. Peter Parker demolishes the argument that things were more reliable under the Met. But privatisation seems to have made no difference either way, since the important factor here is not who runs it, but how much money goes in.

Determining who runs our transport system is a task in itself. A substantial number of functions reside not in the private operators (who are, as the title implies, just operators), but in the DOI, including the setting of fares, service levels, and the development of the network through new rolling stock and new infrastructure. Subsidy comparisons given changes in Melbourne over the past two decades are ludicrous, carrying no more weight than an alternative history scenario. That the government is correctly criticised for many things should make this obvious, but there seems to be a logical disconnect between blaming the government for a lack of new infrastructure on the one hand, and arguing the problem lies in a privatised network on the other.

Not that Davidson spares the government when they try and build infrastructure:

"The Bracks Government propagates the myth that rail is constrained by lack of capacity. Thus extra services to Dandenong must wait for an evaluation of a third track when extra services could be provided with reorganised timetables and a modest passing loop."

This is trotted out by the PTUA on a regular basis arguing that incompetence is to blame for Melbourne's problems. The statistic Davidson used (comparing transport usage across eras) is too, but as even a cursory examination of the map used should demonstrate, the congestion problems lie precisely where the network didn't have frequent peak hour trains, and where large numbers of passengers now begin their journeys (that is, Oakleigh and beyond). As this extended discussion demonstrates, there are many legitimate reasons why a third rail to Dandenong is probably1 the better option (not least because the PTUA still promotes building a railway extension to Rowville).

Not that the PTUA is the only organisation producing statistics of questionable merit. Davidson is equally naive when he takes his 'facts' from Bicycle Victoria. Commenting on Tim Pallas's decision not to close a lane of traffic on St. Kilda Rd. to bicycles, he says:

"His decision ignores research that shows that both modes of transport benefit from being separated.

"Bicycle usage is inhibited by cyclists' justifiable fear of being struck by a speeding car or colliding with opening doors of stationary cars.

Yet what research is this? Extensive research (by Forester, amongst others) shows that bicycle lanes are not much safer than riding on the road. Furthermore, lanes can deceive cyclists into thinking they are safer than are - including from stationary cars - particularly at intersections where most accidents are and most cycling lanes aren't. On-road cycling lanes are mosly psychological in benefit, which is not say they aren't worthwhile, merely that no government ever removes traffic lanes to accomodate them, because in no way are they that worthwhile.

In reality, justifying the removal of lanes of traffic for cycling is a non-starter, but this doesn't stop Davidson trying:

"The decision is not even good politics, as increased road space devoted to bicycles will reduce congestion in the central business district, and postpone the need for congestion taxes, as bicycles have outsold cars in the past seven years."

I am not sure what he is arguing at the start here. He is either saying that replacing a lane of traffic with bikes will reduce congestion, or that cycling lanes have greater throughput than cars. The former may be true, depending on where the bottlenecks are. If they are on St. Kilda Rd. (and they may be, but I would guess the Princess Bridge) then congestion will be increased on St. Kilda Rd. and reduced in the city. If the city is the bottleneck, then it may make little difference, unless Davidson believes cycling will somehow make a significant indent in Melbourne's congestion problem.

His last statement implies that he does, simultaneously entertaining the latter interpretation. This is clearly wrong. Cycling along St. Kilda Rd. makes up a tiny proportion of the number of city commuters. A lane of traffic shifts ten times the number of commuters a lane of cyclists would, and the chance of a significant shift in mode share occuring in the near future is practically zero.

That bicycles are outselling cars is an interesting statistic, but this has been true for many, many years, and the only change in congestion that has occured has been an increase within people's sheds where they mostly sit.

[1] I say probably here because I don't think extending the railway system generally is a sustainable solution. But in the absence of a serious long-term plan this is sufficient.

Sterner Matters 13th April, 2007 21:15:18   [#]