The avoidable costs of congestion in Australia’s capital cities could reach up to $37.3 billion a year by 2030, a new study from the federal government’s Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics has found.

BITRE’s new Traffic and congestion cost trends for Australian capital cities information sheet identifies long-term trends in urban traffic growth and estimates the consequent impacts of that traffic growth on road network congestion levels within the Australian capital cities.

It suggests that the “avoidable” costs (where the benefits to road users of some travel in congested conditions are less than the costs imposed on other road users and the wider community) for the 2015 financial year will be around $16.5 billion, having grown from about $12.8 billion for 2010.

These costs are due to extra travel time needed, greater travel time variability, increased vehicle operating costs and poorer air quality.

The report adds that if Australia continues under a business-as-usual scenario, the costs of metropolitan congestion could rise to between $27.7 and $37.3 billion a year by 2030.

Brisbane’s avoidable costs could almost triple by 2030

Using aggregate indicators of a city’s overall average traffic condition, the study shows that Brisbane would see the largest increase in avoidable costs, rising from current levels of around $2.3 billion a year to between $4.1 and $5.9 billion.

Sydney would remain the city with the highest costs, with congestion costs rising from $6.1 billion a year now to between $9.5 billion and $12.6 billion by 2030.

Other notable increases include Melbourne, where values would rise from around $4.6 billion (2015) to between $7.6 and $10.2 billion; and Perth, which would increase from $2 billion to between $4.4 and $5.7 billion.

The study also estimates that under the expected patterns of population growth, total vehicle-kilometres travelled could increase by around two per cent a year to 2030, urban routes could take an average of about 28 minutes longer to traverse through during uncongested time (due to daily traffic congestion), and commercial vehicle traffic (such as vans, trucks and buses) could increase by around 2.7 per cent a year (due to increases in economic activity).

Estimates are sensitive to change

While the report notes uncertainty in its projections, it suggests that, nevertheless, “an appreciable increase in the social costs of congestion should be anticipated over the next 15 years under business-as-usual trends; that is, unless suitable traffic management measures are enacted during the projection period to deal with increasing congestion incidence and intensity”.

BITRE also notes that the estimates of future avoidable costs of congestion are sensitive to expected population projections, technology use and the assumed capacity added to urban transport networks over the next decade and a half. For example, if there is rapid deployment of driverless cars, the projected congestion costs could “significantly reduce”. (In the study’s projections, however, the researchers assumed that driverless cars would “only have a relatively slight impact on overall vehicle travel within the 2030 projection timeframe”.)

Greens call for greater investment in public transport

In the wake of the BITRE study, the Greens have issued a call for government to move away from investing in expensive motorway projects (such as the East West Link and $15 billion WestConnex project), in favour of investment in public transport to tackle congestion.

Australian Greens spokesperson for transport and infrastructure Senator Janet Rice said: “The old way of trying to fix congestion with more and more roads is like loosening your belt to fix obesity.

“The world’s major cities that are easy to get around don’t rely on cars. These cities have made a conscious effort to build infrastructure that gives people the option to catch public transport, ride their bike or simply walk to where they’re going.

She said public transport had for decades been ignored in favour of “great big toll roads with shonky business cases”.

“We must correct this underinvestment and prioritise congestion busting trains, trams and buses”.

Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore has also been a vocal opponent of the city’s WestConnex motorway project, telling the council in September that it would increase traffic in some parts of the city by 25 per cent.

She added that as 89 per cent of Western Sydney workers communte to work on ‘overcrowded public transport’, the project will “eat up transport funding for decades, and rob us of the chance to build 21st century transport solutions”.

New major motorway projects planned for Australia have come under attack recently, due to the disruptive nature of their construction, their perceived value for money and their ability to reduce congestion long-term.

Indeed, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that the WestConnex project, could be threatened by new research showing commuters could be put off from paying multiple tolls, leading them to slower “rat runs” through suburban streets; while AECOM paid a $280 million settlement to creditors earlier this year, after the RiverCity toll road in Brisbane went bankrupt due to lower-than-forecast users.

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