Of the many controversial things recently said by Dennis Cliche, CEO of Sydney Motorway Corporation, responsible for WestConnex, the only one that didn’t compel him to apologise was in my view the most significant.
Mr Cliche said he was “excited” because since the reintroduction of tolls in August there had been a 25 per cent drop in traffic using the widened section of the M4 – stage one of the WestConnex project – pushing more cars onto an increasingly congested Parramatta Road.
“What’s ‘exciting’ about that?” you might ask. Well it is “a really great story” from Dennis’s point of view, as he said, because the drop off is far less than the 40 per cent forecast. I think he means that this trend will result in more income, faster, to government when it sells its interest to a private bidder. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that for a new toll road to fill up faster really means the original modelling was wrong in terms of numbers of road users, of the time-period over which the road would fill up and thus in terms of the impact on congestion – that is to say, wrong about the very objective of the tolling and road construction. It means that congestion will return to equilibrium on the widened M4 60 per cent quicker than forecast by those bidding for public money to “upgrade” the M4 on the basis of… congestion reduction.
Fully 80 per cent of the business case for this project was premised on travel-time reduction – as all such business cases are so premised, including all stages of WestConnex. This means, as I understand, that that congestion and travel-time reduction benefit, on the basis of the trend Mr Cliche has just celebrated, will be over very quickly indeed.
To be clear, with Parramatta Road getting even more congested at the same time as the M4 returns to its previous condition, this demonstrates what most academic experts have been saying for decades: new or widened roads only reduce congestion for a short period. In due course – a few years – the problem reasserts itself.
Road-building cannot actually solve a city’s congestion problems largely because of what is called “induced demand”. Essentially, in Sydney the desire to travel by car is actually suppressed by congestion. Whenever you make it easier to travel by car, by adding more road supply, more people get in their car – often out of their public transport to do so – and quickly fill up the new road space. This result has been observed internationally and the jury both of intellectual research and of every day road users is in. The speedy return of car-users to the M4 will again prove the point.
The other global finding: only congestion charging has ever worked to manage urban congestion. This both reduces demand for roads and increases demand for public transport. While tolling is a form of road charging its objectives in this city are confused and the overall approach is piecemeal. Tolling is not being used to control traffic, reduce congestion or promote alternative modes. It’s being used to pay for road construction by cash-strapped state governments who, without a big enough tax base or political will, opt for the mode that can be funded, not the mode that might suit the city’s needs best. The tolls set are then never high enough to deter congestion (or high enough to pay for the real costs of construction or operation over the long term). When congestion then returns to “normal” someone inside government then says the answer is to widen that road or extend it!
The explosion of WestConnex from “completing Sydney’s motorway network” to creating a massive and entirely new one – which by the way has nothing now to do with Western Sydney, which is crying out for a 21st century rail network – arises out of this flawed understanding of congestion and induced demand.
What can be done?
What is to be done now? I see two areas of reform. One is clearly the process by which government prioritises infrastructure. The second is accountability to and participation of the community. The former is what experts call “infrastructure appraisal”. It is meant to identify a core urban challenge and then on evidence select the right transport option to meet that challenge. This suggests a process in which modal options are compared strategically, that is: “Will this challenge be met best by a road or a railway?”
When the preferred model option is identified a business case should be made based on the costs and benefits of the option. This rarely happens in reality in this city.
This is largely because we have a separate roads department whose purpose is not to compare modal options but to build roads. Business cases then boil down to justifications for a modal option already preferred by a siloed government department.
Reform 1: Absorb Roads and Maritime Services (RMS) fully into Transport for NSW, establish an evidence based multi- or non-modal appraisal process and redesignate the “roads minister” as a “minister for the regions”. The regions need a lot more than a road program to support them, so I see this as a win-win for Sydney and the regions.
Reform 2: Completely transform the way in which the community is engaged in infrastructure prioritisation. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say: “Involve the community for the first time in infrastructure prioritisation”, as this has never happened before. This means government needs to find a way to engage Sydneysiders in their hundreds of thousands in the process of understanding the challenges and opportunities of the city and the evidence as to which modes deliver most for the community in that context. I don’t mean “community engagement” to sell options already preferred by departments. I mean a formative and early involvement in understanding and meeting our city’s needs.
Ultimately that, in my view, will require governance reforms that on the one hand give councils more powers and an income-generating base; and also on the other, a form of metropolitan and accountable government for Sydney.
The Greater Sydney Commission is a step forward on both fronts of breaking down government silos to promote better land use and transport integration and of thinking about Sydney at a metropolitan scale.
However, its creation, I hope, is merely the “end of the beginning” of the longer journey to a London-style self-government model for Sydney, accountable to its inhabitants. Without such a model I fear that whatever the aspirations we all have, decisions will be made to us, not with us, by unaccountable government silos who, for example, prioritise an F6 extension of WestConnex to Wollongong without even considering a fast railway link, when all international evidence suggests that such a link would carry more people, faster, with greater economic and environmental benefits at less cost and, of course, cause least congestion.
I’m not saying don’t build roads when appropriate. I’m saying let’s have a modal level-playing field and a more inclusive civic dialogue so we can be assured that the infrastructure choice is the right one. Am I missing something?