westconnex sydney project
Sydney’s WestConnex is being constructed as a “high priority” project, despite its business case failing to meet Infrastructure Australia’s stated requirements.

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.

Congestion charging

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?

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  1. NO MORE MOTORWAYS as a transport solution they are a failed model, having not solved congestion problems anywhere in the world over the last century. In reality, motorways are the creators of congestion.
    a definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again expecting a different result.
    Motorways as a transport solution just don’t make sense for a system to move millions of tonnes of metal vehicles to move around a few thousand people. They are simply an extravagantly expensive, vast space usage, energy intensive system to move far fewer people at far slower speed.
    METRO Rail is the only sustainable transport solution.

  2. It is wonderful to read such a complete picture of the current Sydney transport problems as well as a proposed solution. The reorganisation of government decision-making to have a consultative committee with expert input (as in Paris) and not political neo-conservative economists only. It is so frustrating to see this NSW Government creating a complete mess of “our” transport systems in Sydney and waste “our” hard earned money. I’d love to hear your comments on the new road tunnel in Sydney’s North and also the Northern Metro.

    More strength to your arm Tim !!

  3. I absolutely agree with your comments regarding all transport options being considered objectively, however consultation (civic dialogue) with the self interested and the ignorant yields no worthwhile information.

    The provision of infrastructure has become a political process that has comprised the ability to provide effective and rational outcomes. It is now so entrenched in the process that we cannot contemplate a solution that does not address how people ‘feel’.

    Politicians are engaged in the process of giving people what they want, leaders give people what they need. The current environment prevents engineers and transport planners providing leadership.

    Decisions on infrastructure projects need to be responsible, accountable and peer reviewed, but trying to assess the effectiveness on a transport option based on how it makes someone feel is just futile.

    Objectivity and current consultation requirements are mutually exclusive.

  4. All of this is correct (although not popular) – you aren’t missing much at all. The recent decision to use tax payer funds to subsidise toll road motorists even further by removing their registration cost is horrible, outmoded urban policy. It is further evidence of your main point that NSW transport governance needs a more contemporary solution (or at least a return to better models as Terry says). My only hope is that removing registration cost for toll road users is a misguided attempt at transition to proper road pricing.

  5. A pleasure to read Tim.
    As has been noted recently, the hope of “land-use transport integration” along precincts like Parramatta Road seems to have been lost. City sculpting to create enlightened urban space that uplift our spirits is the opportuinty Sydney has – and could lose. We know it is ‘hard’ – but it is possible.

    On Public space and cars – civic property is a tertiary consideration under the paradigm. But is the paradigm shift imminent? Why? From the sweeping change of driverless vehicles that will be as epic for public space as the internet was for communications. “Cars” maybe the fax machine of the future –
    as we move to “mobile lounge chairs” – these devices will be as big as a butt needs to be. It’s less than a decade away, sooner according to CEOs of Intel, NVIDIA, Uber, Tesla, Google, Apple…. and really smart people like that. If we really think about what that means for transport,….

    On consultation – platforms exist for us to sculpt the city together and to see/approve changes openly. It’s just arrived in Sydney, and I need some help to roll it out if you want it open and not hidden in the back rooms. I need help. Then, the wisdom of the crowd, such as in Wikipedia, can be brought to bear on this city-shaping problem. The opportunity is for you/we/us to shape the suburb of Rivendell or Gondor, rather than Mordor with dragons on roads roaring…

    I have just moved to Sydney after rolling it out the CBR, PER and MLB – where trust, collaboration and engagement in civic development is much better. Where do I start here? (I just need to drag myself away from this beautiful Tamarama beach – what a place!)… I look forward to helping if I can.

  6. Academics don’t realise that satisfying demand is actually good. If people want to drive let them but make them pay and put the cars underground.

    Sydney’s population is increasing at over 2% per year doubling every 30 years and roads are not increasing at that rate and neither is rail capacity. This creates demand which drives traffic and congestion, yes roads fill up but in doing so satisfies demand. If reducing demand via adding congestion were good we should close roads – fancy closing the M5 now?

    Community feedback is given every 4 years and is soundly in favour of more roads and railways.

  7. The compliance approach to business cases is not unique to roads. Rail project proponents are just as guilty of producing sham analysis to get the funding they want.
    Reform 2 is by far the most important. Endless restructuring of departments never seems to change anything. The fundamental problem is the arrogance or flawed sense of responsibility that some Ministers and so-called public servants have; that is, they think it’s their job to come up with the solutions in secret and then announce them to great applause, rather than acknowledge the problems and trade-offs faced and seek creative input from the professional community in a joint problem-solving task. Most of the professional community are complicit in the sorry state of affairs as they fawn & never criticise their source of consultancy funds. Not so me – see: davidthorp.net/transport-plan

  8. There is a Minister for Regional Development. And in previous governments we did have only a Minister for Transport which encompassed roads. So none of this is as difficult or alien as one might think from the current situation. But the treating of the public with respect as contributors, rather than a problem that requires “management” is the most important step. Governments used to be exemplars of consultation, aiming to bring people along, educate them on the real problems and seek the greater good as an outcome. Now we have competing projects, not outcomes or even principles, all competing for eyeballs and not ideas. Thanks Tim for stimulating this discussion. Let us hope it leads to serious discussion.

  9. NSW transport is a mess and the state government is making it worse by encouraging developers to have a free for all land grab with no proper planning, oversight or common sense. The amount of money that is being spent on Westconnex is mind boggling and the improvements promised are unlikely to be realised.

  10. Tim, you’re thinking is quite sound, but of course, it requires a complete governance shift away from these decisions being made by politicians with very short time frames for political ends, to professional planners with appropriately long time frames.

    Unfortunately, I don’t see any sign from either side of politics that they are remotely interested in relinquishing this power.

  11. Absolutely brilliant analysis of an existent dysfunctional transport policy. His idea of absorbing RMS under the aegis of an enlarged Transport for NSW and ensuring that rail is given equal status and priority to roads is one I have contemplated for a long time. It would help NSW replicate transport operations as found in most European countries.