Brisbane transport challenges: why we need to stop politicising infrastructure

TRANSPORT SERIES: Like every other major city in Australia, Brisbane is facing enormous challenges in integrating massive population expansion and urban development with sustainable transport infrastructure and moving parts.

South Brisbane’s population is expected to treble as it takes in 18,000 newcomers by 2031, while Greater Brisbane’s will rise to 2.95 million. The Palaszczuk Government is pushing Brisbane as a flagship for sustainable developments with its $420 million Advance Queensland initiative.

Brisbane’s Lord Mayor Graham Quirk has just released a long-term transport plan that identifie 14 key initiatives to tackle the city’s congestion problems. It’s part of a suite of measures around a strategic plan intended to shape the city’s transport future.

Brisbane already boasts a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) service that’s touted as one of the finest in the world. It’s planning a $944 million urban Metro service that the council claims will increase morning peak capacity by 22,000 passengers an hour and remove 125 buses from the Brisbane CBD.

“I think they’ve come up with the word Metro without specifying what they really want to do, like an election commitment.”

Chris Hale, a transport strategist and urban economist with extensive knowledge of Brisbane’s transport history, says the Metro service is not a well thought out project.

“It doesn’t make sense,” he told The Fifth Estate. “I think they’ve come up with the word Metro without specifying what they really want to do, like an election commitment. 

“So then the real question is, what does it actually do? If it’s going to occupy the current busway infrastructure coming into the CBD through South Brisbane and crossing the river, you’re still going to have bring people from buses elsewhere and then get them interchanging onto the metro. 

“It’d be better to get them interchanging onto rail because it’s invariably higher capacity than what’s basically a fancy bus.

“I haven’t seen anything to explain how that’s going to happen. People jump on a bus and then interchange onto the metro and my question is, where is that occurring? Is it feasible? What do the various changes require for the facilities to bring that about, does that have any implications for travel time, is it faster or better, is there something that compensates for the need to interchange? 

“I don’t think we’ve seen any of those issues set out on paper.”

Hale says that the latest Lord Mayor’s plan is likely to go the way of past high profile politicised projects that are vulnerable to pendulum swings from elections favouring either Labor or Liberal parties.

He refers to the $4.4 billion purchase of a new rail fleet that was delivered two years late, cost an extra $150 million and did not conform to state disability laws. It was later followed by an inquiry that cost another $45 million – the head of the inquiry himself later resigning amidst a controversy.

Political instability has led to inferior urban infrastructure

“Normally you’d like to see a specialist explain the concept and there’s always a danger when it goes back to a political explanation or actor as the proponent,” he says. 

“Whether it’s a mayor or a minister dabbling in a project, all of a sudden they’re a transport planner and are drawing lines on maps and making announcements.

“Under the Westminster system as traditionally understood we don’t necessarily need or want ministers dabbling in projects. Their role is clearly defined – it’s to take high quality advice and to work on the governance and the regulatory issues in transport.”

Hale says that Queensland’s political volatility has contributed to destabilisation in the public service, which is reflected in inferior urban infrastructure.

“Culturally speaking, in terms of capacity the public service has never been a performer in Queensland. They’ve got a massive staff head count, but they don’t pay any attention to the qualifications or the capacity of the people that they’re hiring, or whether they have a track record in rail or public transport.

“What you would expect is people developing the public service so it’s effective, so they can be the problem solvers, they can carry out research, develop plans, strategies and project priorities so they can be acceptable in a multi partisan environment.”

He says this scenario, while familiar in other states, is particularly pronounced in Brisbane.

Photo by Rion Brodie on Unsplash

The Public Private Partnership model is basically doubling the cost of the project 

“The biggest shame about Brisbane is they’re still talking 10 years later about the cross- river rail project, which they really should have delivered by now and been able to move forward with other major rail infrastructure projects.

“They still seem to want to do the PPP (Public Private Partnership) model which is basically doubling the cost of the project. It’s difficult to understand the quality of advice the ministers seem to be getting.”

“What they need to do is look at their public transport service provision. After 6pm or on weekends or on public holidays there’s a shutdown of the city,  

“It’s touted as a new world city, but for all the retail assets, universities, TAFE etc that stay open later than 6pm you’ve got a public transport provision that’s similar to what it was in 1955.”

Other commentators are wary of parts of Brisbane’s new plan, which has voiced a range of innovative solutions including “car free days”. 

Professor Peter Newman, transport sustainability expert and coordinating lead author for the next IPCC report on international transport issues says this is not a viable solution.

“Car free days is pretty desperate. It’s good if someone else gets out of their car but that’s not going to stop you. There are all kinds of demand behaviour solutions being posited and none of them work – unless you’ve got a faster option, you’re not going to take it.”

In a recent story concentrating on Perth’s transport issues, Newman talked about the advantages of the trackless tram, a Chinese innovation he is certain provides an answer to Australian city’s transport dilemmas. 

Newman has contributed to infrastructure planning for Brisbane and says the city has undergone a much needed transport re-evaluation and infrastructure overhaul in the past 15 years.

“Cities like Brisbane were starting to deteriorate because the traffic was so bad and you needed to have more public transport. The biggest increase has been in their bus and BRT system, but they require some fundamental changes.”    

Newman’s work focuses on the urgency of getting people out of cars and into public transport. 

He maintains that autonomous transport like the trackless tram is the most efficient method of cutting emissions and maximising efficiency in increasingly congested cities. He has been pushing the trackless tram as a means of increasing the volumes of public transport conveyances at a tenth of the cost of rail, while also amplifying the value of the land its installed on. That means engaging the public sector as part-investors in collaboration with governments.

“I’m very keen to talk to business people about the future, because they need to have a 30-year horizon on their investments and that takes you fully into territory where you’re supposed to have gotten rid of all fossil fuels,” Newman says.

For Brisbane, he says the trackless tram would be a better fit than the city’s bus system.

“The bus fleet doesn’t attract development around stations easily. They’re noisy and smelly for a start because they’re diesel. If you have an electric bus it’s a big step forward, but they still sway and don’t have the ride quality of a light or heavy rail system, and for many people that is a big difference.”

That opinion is shared by Dr Geoffrey Clifton of the Institute of Transport and Logistic Studies at Sydney University, who observes population density is growing fast in both Brisbane’s inner suburban and outer greenfield developments.

“We’ve been arguing that public transport should be moving to these higher capacity vehicles which are cheaper to deliver than heavy rail, can be deployed quickly and give good coverage,” Clifton says. 

“This is a good way of building capacity quickly in a network.

 “The Brisbane busway itself was designed to get travel speeds up, but now they’ve got the problem where there’s so many buses using it there’s bus on bus congestion.”

Trackless trams would be an excellent solution

Director of Monash University’s Public Transport Research Group, Professor Graham Currie, agrees that trackless trams would be an excellent solution, but is uncertain whether they’re viable as of yet.

“They’re certainly looking extremely attractive, based on (Professor Newman’s) latest reports,” he says.

“There is a need for medium capacity public transport in Australia and light rail has long been seen as a solution, but it’s just too expensive. This is a way of getting the same outcomes using less infrastructure, which gives us a real chance to fill this gap. 

“But it’s too early yet. My understanding is that CRCC were asked to tender for the Brisbane system and declined because they thought the technology was not developed enough. You’ve got to go with what you can go with. In five years it might be working, we don’t know, it looks very progressive.”

The needs of a diverse community and people with disabilities need to be met too

Jenny Leigh, spokeswoman for Transport Development and Solutions Alliance agrees that current project planning is not adequate for Brisbane’s varied needs. Leigh works with community transport providers and vulnerable people with unmet transport and access and mobility needs.

She says it is not only ageing or people with disabilities who have unmet needs.

“You can be a completely able-bodied person and because you’ve lost your car due to a breakdown or in an accident you can’t get to your work because it’s across town.”

Leigh told The Fifth Estate that Brisbane’s urban transport planning is focused on the nine to five worker cohort and getting into the CBD.

“All the transport planning used to use an integrated regional transport plan, but even if they still use that method then they’ve consistently failed since 1999 when I started in this work. 

“There’s no concept of community transport, they see us as sitting outside of the public transport sector and they focus really on bus and rail and don’t even include taxis or Uber anymore.

“It’s not orientated to the elderly or ease of access to main providers like hospitals. It’s not focused on trying to have major attractors like universities providing some alternate non-public transport for their customers, so maybe the large attractor who creates the demand might take a role in providing some options for people.

“At a legislative level now with the advent of Uber and other ride sharing services, there needs to be greater equity in things like access to the taxi subsidy scheme for providers, particularly the community transport provider sector. 

“We pretty much exclusively transport people who are frail, aged and people with disabilities and we operate door to door services, but taxis are the only option where people who can use the subsidy scheme to get half fares so we think that’s unfair competition in the market.”

Leigh says that while Translink does provide low floor and kneeling buses and that drivers appear well trained in their use, there are not enough of them to make them viable for special needs customers.

“The issue is there’s no certainty that the next bus coming will be one of those if you’re a mum with a stroller, a person in a wheelchair or elderly.  That’s more problematic in the heat and particularly in the outlying peri-urban area. The services out there are only morning and afternoon and nothing in between –so if you’re elderly and haven’t got a car then you’re really isolated.”

Professor Currie said that some of the ideas proposed by Brisbane’s mayor seemed superficial, but might provide a basis for future infrastructure.

Brisbane has some very advanced ideas, such as green bridges closed down to cycle only

“These are good ideas intended to make people think differently about things. But a lot of people won’t change their views, they’re very car-dependent. Brisbane has some very advanced ideas, such as green bridges closed down to cycle only.

“[By chance] I was in Rome on its first car free day…and it was absolutely wonderful. It’s such a great place destroyed by traffic, now you could walk around the streets and see this beautiful stuff. I think Brisbane could be different to what it is now. There’s a big value in ideas.”

Cautiously optimistic that Brisbane’s future-proofing is on the right track

Dr Clifton is cautiously optimistic that Brisbane’s future-proofing is on the right track.

“They need to have good transport cycling and walking infrastructure built in at the beginning so you don’t end up with people who are car dependent and have difficulty getting into the city centre, because the way the city is being designed is for people coming in via public transport, cycling or walking, rather than cars coming in.

 “I don’t think any Australian city is perfect. Brisbane’s got quite an extensive rail network in the inner city. It’s not carrying the same level of patronage as the rail network is in Melbourne or Sydney and is falling behind Perth and Adelaide. Back in the 1970s it was electrified and was the best rail system in Australia, but that level of investment hasn’t kept up over the last 40 years and there need to be more done to improve the rail network particularly for the inner city but also for the outer suburbs.”

Christoper Hale remains unconvinced.

We need projects that are not the creatures of [major] political parties, but are the best projects available for Brisbane or Sydney or Melbourne, as determined by a public sector hopefully advised by high quality consultancy,” he says. 

“Then you have stability, you don’t have these massive pendulum swings and highly politicised projects.

“Eventually someone’s [going to] have to ask the hard questions about the role of these elected officials and how they’ve conducted themselves, relative to what’s actually expected of them.”

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  1. Our biggest problem is distance, not method.
    Too many people are travelling too far. The most common being the home/work/home daily commute for workers.
    Until there are genuine incentives to get people to work & live closer together, we will always have huge mileage per capita to deal with.
    When people work and live nearby, we can develop local transport for each locality (in other words, decentralisation). Imagine bus routes that go around one suburb and then around the next suburb because that’s as far as most of those residents need to go.
    But which comes first: the chicken or the egg? We need to coordinate incentives and infrastructure changes together to make it work through a transision period.
    I lived in a small city in France for 18 months and regularly did not go more than 1km from home for up to a month at a time (just occasional car trips out of town when I would borrow a car). I walked everywhere. This is what we need in Brisbane: not 1 CBD but many LBDs (Local Business Districts). In other words, our city suburbs should really be a conglomerate of provincial towns, only without the isolation.
    Lets take each HUGE piece of infrastructure (such as a hospital, or a foundry, or an airport or similar public transport depot) and surround it with the supporting businesses to each one (major suppliers, education hubs, etc), and then surround them with the periferal businesses (takeaways, shops, etc) and then surround them with homes (units, houses, etc) for the workers to live nearby, and then finally surround them with the entertainment people need when not working (such as cinemas, parks, etc) so that everyone has all that they need within a few kilometres instead of travelling from Upper Brookfield to Northgate via the CBD, adding 3 hours to the daily grind for nothing.
    I have lived in Brisbane since 1972 and not only do I know most of the suburbs of Greater Brisbane, but I also know most of the major roads and many of the minor roads. Meanwhile my cousins in Paris only know the ‘Arrondisment’ that they live in (about 20 ‘Arrondisments’)and have no idea what goes on in other parts of Paris (which fits into an area from about Albion to Toowong). Clearly, we are spending too much time going too far, and this is giving us a transport burden that we don’t need to have, if only we could rearrange the city layout to keep people in a smaller radius.
    Imagine the better quality of life we would all have if we had more time and more money from greatly reduced transport needs!

  2. Cars are supremely space inefficient and a polluting form of transport, to boot. Unfortunately, Mayor Quirk believes in the 1950’s mantra “every person should be able to park in their street, drive where they are going (without delay)and park out the front.”
    This, of course, fails in a city, though it might work in a small country town.
    Bicycling is the most efficient and effective form of transport – but largely overlooked, and considered bottom in the transport heriarchy here.

    Most decent bikeways (Kedron Brook, for example) are in flood zones (the only space left undeveloped). They are not direct – they are convoluted and zig zag their way everywhere, while being disconnected from each other.
    Imagine roads for cars like that! Exactly. Roads for private cars are good plated while routes for active and sustainable travel are dismal.

    Sadly, it is political suicide to take even an inch or road space from motor cars for any other form of transport (trams, bicycle lanes, T3 lanes, even widened footpaths) in Brisbane. The city is car-obsessed and until this changes – along with the relative safety for vulnerable road users – Brisbane is doomed to death by motor congestion.