Steps towards a Socialist Alliance sustainable transport policy

Steps towards a Socialist Alliance sustainable transport policy

I want to thank Graham Matthews for his work in producing a full-length style public transport policy draft for Socialist Alliance. Nonetheless, I suggest we may need to continue the drafting process for this policy area beyond the conference.

I believe the draft has a number of problems. In suggesting this I’m drawing substantially on our experience of sustainable transport campaigning here in Cairns. I will try to relate some of that experience as responses to the policy draft. I apologise for the point format of this contribution.

1. Our policy should be a sustainable transport policy (active transport: farm and remote area vehicles, etc), not just a public transport policy. Of course, public transport is the centre of any sustainable solution to transport provision and also the term “public transport” is much better understood popularly than “sustainable transport”. The presentation of our policy must take that into account. But our thinking about the policy should be at the broader level.

One problem in the draft related to this is that the draft doesn’t explain why the private provision of transport is so inefficient. We could note that the production of transport infrastructure is highly socialised. Much of what efficiency the private operation of transport might claim relies on the unpaid labour used to drive cars.

But transport infrastructure is also subject to both a tendency to “natural” monopoly (on land, for example, one route will typically be most suitable) and capitalist monopoly (sufficient capital is available for road or rail construction, but not both). The advantages in both forms of monopoly road transport has generally been granted makes perceiving that for the community the provision of public transport is itself cheaper in the long run than the provision of private transport, in addition to the higher externalities of private transport (congestion, accidents, etc) difficult.

One area of transport where the “natural” monopoly is weaker is long-distance (but not overseas) travel. In this case air and land travel compete. However, we know there is no competition on environmental grounds: a renewable energy rail system wins over flying, hands down. So an environmentally sensitive Very Fast Train (VFT) network is needed to replace domestic air travel (a rail system slower than that would probably struggle to win popular support as a substitute). Obviously beyond Adelaide-Melbourne(-Canberra?)-Sydney-Brisbane, distances are increasingly prohibitive, but north of Brisbane there are already are many as 80 daily domestic passenger flights into Cairns alone, as well as others to Townsville and various resort islands, etc.

Another thing I think we should say is that car dependence is a recipe for corporate wealth, as well as poverty.

2. The draft policy doesn’t directly formulate of the fundamental character of our solution to urban passenger transport. It needs to state Socialist Alliance stands for comprehensive public transport across all significant population centres, down to the regional and rural level, across the country.

3. Following on from this, the draft policy doesn’t outline the principal mechanism for the success of public transport systems – that they provide the basis on which people can abandon car ownership by providing them with the quality transport services they need for everyday activities not only in a particular city or town, but also for when they have travelled to another city or town.

Our policy should also state targets for public transport use. For example, Cairns Action for Sustainable Transport (CAST) has a target of at least 40% of powered passenger trips by public transport in Cairns by 2025.

4. The draft’s proposals for public transport technologies are not properly grounded.

The basic rule for public transport technologies is the more expensive systems to construct (rail and in particular heavy rail, compared with bus) is also cheaper to run per passenger-kilometre over its life cycle so long as the vehicles are relatively full. Because the life cycle of a public transport system is long — 50 years or more for rail — the lower running costs are the key to community economic savings.

The determinants of a public transport system’s utilisation are the total population of the area covered by the public transport system, the population density in the catchment area of routes (typically 400-600 metres from stops, with higher distances for rail), and the rate of use. Rate of use is primarily determined by the frequency and comprehensiveness of services, especially if this at a level which allows for reduced car ownership, and only secondarily by cost (unless fares are prohibitive). A culture of public transport use is also important, but that tends to follow the provision of services.

So, for example, the Queensland transport department presumes a typical suburban population density, although it discusses “transit-oriented nodes” as well, and a rate of use rising to 10% a generation from now (!), and therefore determines light rail should not be built for a cities with a population with less than 500,000. Given those parameters, that’s reasonable, but 10% is only a residual system.

A higher rate of use percentage such as CAST discusses makes light rail viable for cities of about 200,000—that is, cities that would have that population in the 10-15 years needed to build the new public transport systems. A similar calculation could be made for trains and buses (which could operate as comprehensive systems even in small towns). A city’s historically-established public transport technologies should not be ignored, however. Also, the capacity to link up regional passenger services with light rail in an urban area (through “dual-mode” vehicles), especially where there is otherwise underused rail infrastructure, should be taken up with regard to places like Cairns, and perhaps Geelong.

5. The draft presents very few positive examples, particularly from Australia. Probably the most useful ones are the saving of the Fremantle rail line and the building of the new rail lines (Northern, Mandurah) in Perth. According to a discussion I had with Peter Newman (Curtin Sustainablility Institute) trips by train there have risen from 7 million to 105 million in the three decades or so of improvements in the train network.

Also very useful to have would be a critique of the busway system in Brisbane. The state’s transport department claims is a raging success, but there are also many anecdotes about that are not so praiseworthy.

6. I feel the draft does not adequately discuss the role to be played by making public transport free to use.

The key reason for making public transport free is not to increase use. Use will not increase significantly unless substantially better services are also provided.

The reasons to provide public transport free to the user are:

  • Convenience. People can simply hop on and off without worrying about having money or tickets (or being bugged by ticket inspectors). Also, service speeds (that is, of buses) would improve.
  • To save the costs involved in operating and policing the ticketing system. The funds for a public transport system can be collected simply as part of taxation. This is the most efficient way to collect and issues the funds public transport services require, as has been shown for health care funding (but this should not take the form of a special levy). However, unlike health care, which can be provided universally, it is not possible to make public transport available in the smallest towns and to isolated farms: part of the revenue spent on transport should support the purchase of electric or hybrid vehicles in those areas.
  • Having made the decision socially to encourage public transport use, with the aim of providing it universally (at least in all the principal population centres), there is no reason to restrict its use and good reason to indicate our political commitment to public transport through abolishing fares. Prices, such as public transport fares, are a means of allocating and rationing use, limiting demand to supply. Given the environmental and social benefits of public transport use, if demand exceeds supply we would want to see supply increased. 

The last argument is the main response to those such as the Public Transport Users Association (PTUA) in Melbourne who argue a low fare should be charged to raise funds towards the further expansion of public transport.

In this section, the draft also has some inconsistencies. In particular, it calls both for a general payroll tax, and also one specifically for the CBD, on establishment with 10 or more employees. But I also think the demand should be for income tax rather than payroll tax to be the source of funding. The latter tax might make sense when all or nearly all those who work are employees (because there are far fewer employers than workers, so less places to collect money from), but otherwise the self-employed simply avoid paying, while larger companies will look at subcontracting more and more favourably to avoid payroll taxes.

On the issue of special levies on developers, something along these lines is favoured by Newman. For him, this is a kind of public-private partnership, in that private funds go into the pot available to build and run public transport, without the right to interfere in how the public transport system run, but with rights to development at or near stations.

Although this would not go into a policy statement, I think Socialist Alliance needs to develop an understanding of the roles played by different groups advocating for public transport. Seen from afar, the PTUA is the best-established but also fairly conservative. This year it’s teamed up with the ACTU etc, to produce a booklet. Yet the PTUA also produces a mass of valuable material. In CAST, Socialist Alliance has credibility through its activists (more so than as exponents of the party’s positions, as such), but there is still a somewhat broad range of opinion about what the group should do, role for capital, etc. If other branches could offer insights this would help.


On the basis of the above, I believe Socialist Alliance still needs to do some thinking about its transport policy. I think it would be better to take another six months to complete the drafting process and put a final draft up to our national bodies.