At Socialist Alliance’s national conference in 2010, we adopted a draft Public Transport policy. In the pre-conference discussion I wrote that the drafting process needed to continue beyond the proposed draft (see Alliance Voices, vol. 8, no. 9, “Steps towards a Socialist Alliance sustainable transport policy” ), which was then put up and adopted as the draft.
Below is a (rather delayed) redraft. Its rationale is what I discussed in my earlier contribution, except that I have, after all, tried to discuss the roles played by different advocacy groups.
A further motivation for the redraft is that it should more fully reflect our experiences in public transport campaigning—that is, not only in the metropolises but also in regional centres. Of course, over the last three years several branches have had more experience in public transport campaigning (whereas our campaigning in Cairns eventually went on the backburner, although we are looking to revive it in the coming year), and will hopefully be able to contribute further to the policy’s development from that.
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Sustainable Transport Policy
Transport is a key feature of our society. How people move around and goods are transported shapes our urban environments and affects our impact on the globe. It also conditions who we can know, what we can do and how we experience the world.
Given the wealth we can produce, people’s mobility to meet others, engage in suitable work and learn about the world, and their access to a reasonable variety of goods and services, are now rights. Providing transport without creating greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change, or other pollutants, is a necessity.
An extensive and efficient transport system can be created. If powered by renewable energy, it will also be sustainable. Moreover, comprehensive city-wide and national networks achieve the best economies of scope and scale. In particular, rail beats road because, although its construction costs are high, it moves people and freight much more cheaply if well-utilised: therefore, it is less expensive over the transport system’s life-cycle.
This potential is not being realised. Transport today is environmentally destructive and often inefficient. The road network is extensive, but its use is fragmented because this is dominated by privately-owned and driven cars. The production of our transport networks, its vehicles, and their power or fuel is also parcelled out among a number of corporations. These benefit from a continuing commitment to fossil fuel powered transport, which maintains the value of their existing investments, and from the higher expenditure on transport, which gives them greater scope for making profits. Capital also benefits from working people not seeing the success of a collective and cooperative, compared with the individual and atomised, solution to a social issue.
Socialist Alliance believes immediate action must be taken to reverse the heavy reliance on private transport in Australia. We call for a ‘supply-based’ buildout of comprehensive public transport networks. The ‘demand-based’ approach to determining public transport provision, where individuals are supposed to express their demand to consume it before it exists. As well, since this decision will have been made by the public, the public should be the beneficiaries, to the exclusion of corporate ownership and profit.
Our community should create sustainable transport systems which meets the needs of our planet and its people. Social mobilisation to change national, state and local government transport policy will be central to achieving this.
Under capitalism, transport systems have sometimes represented an opportunity for individual capitalists and corporations to gain profits through providing infrastructure, vehicles, or services, as well as opportunities for the wealthy to reside away from urban squalor and to visit exotic locations. But the systems have also provided more general benefits for capital, through access to raw materials, to workers to be employed in business districts and industrial zones, and to markets for goods and for services such as mass entertainment and tourism, as well as being a means to conduct military operations.
Satisfaction of these more general interests of capital required transport provision beyond the higher volume, and thus more profitable, routes in which individual capitals would be willing to invest. There is also a tendency towards ‘natural monopoly’ in many transport routes (at least according to the type of system, such as road or rail, one or another of which has had lower production costs at different times): the capitalist who controlled each transport route would seek to exploit that monopoly against all the other capitalists.
Thus, while much of the early development of transport systems under capitalism (on land, through canals and interurban rail) was in private hands, the capitalist state came to play the major part in transport provision, in particular, by running railways and other urban mass transit systems, funding road networks and licensing, if not owning, airlines and airports. By the middle of last century, only road freight and manufacturing passenger vehicles remained as major arenas of private capitalist production in land transport.
Capitalism, however, is capitalism. In it, the goal of companies to make profits rules. In the latter half of the 20th century, corporations, which in land transport were principally the automobile manufacturers and trucking and road construction companies, either directly bought up and limited or closed down competing transport networks (as in the case of the Los Angeles streetcars), or were the main influence on government transport policies. Cars built for mass consumption in urban transport, and intercity highways, squeezed out other transport systems in advanced capitalist countries. Moreover, with the rise of neo-liberalism from the 1970s, the residual state-owned networks became subject to corporatisation and fire-sale privatisations, backed by state subsidies and lax safety and planning regulation to provide profitability to the corporations that took them over.
The power of capital means we now have transport systems that are profitable for corporations but inefficient for our community. This problem is not expressed in capitalist markets because many of the costs of privately-owned systems, including those incurred by its consumers, are not imposed on the companies which control our transport networks.
This is not limited to the cost-shifting involved in government subsidies for fossil fuel use and road construction and maintenance. For example, in road transport much of the land used, the unpaid time spent driving cars, the health services required because of traffic accidents and sedentary lifestyles, and the pollution (air, noise and water, including greenhouse gas emissions which are increasing by a third every fifteen years, in particular from road freight haulage) created are ‘external’ costs to transport operations. The costs of road congestion and traffic accidents have each been estimated to run into the tens of billions of dollars each year. One estimate of the environmental costs of private car transport is more than $2 billion a year. The overall cost of car travel per passenger-km is nearly twice as high as rail travel. Meanwhile, rail freight uses two-thirds less fuel than road freight per tonne of goods carried and has more than three times the environmental efficiency of road haulage.
The burden of the inadequate provision of public transport is not spread evenly. Regional centres, especially those further away from the metropolitan cities, are invariably poorly serviced. As well, where workers and the poor reside are the areas which are especially disadvantaged.
In the major cities, outer-suburban and other locations that contain low socio-economic status populations tend to have higher levels of car dependence and relatively poor provision of public transport. Public transport particularly fails in terms of: routes that link suburbs with each other, rather than the city centre, the numbers of services, which are far below system capacities; little integration between modes, particularly between rail and bus networks; and the use of local buses as feeders to the higher capacity rail systems. The residents are more reliant on private cars than more affluent, inner-city residents. Therefore, they are more vulnerable to petrol price increases, including from greenhouse gas emission tax or trading schemes. The lack of public transport in areas such as western Sydney has also been found to be a serious impediment to finding a job.
The poor provision of public transport in Australia is not the failure of any particular government. All governments, for many years, have failed to maintain and develop of our public transport systems.
In the first decades of last century, many people walked or cycled to work, trains and trams provided a radial network in the larger cities and railways reached even smaller country towns, providing freight services in particular. A long-haul rail network was largely completed by rail lines between Perth and the eastern seaboard, and as far north Cairns and Alice Springs.
Subsequently, however, freeways have been built in all the bigger cities and highways have been continuously upgraded. Public transport infrastructure and services have languished.
The faster inter-city train services developed elsewhere have not been introduced here. Many country lines and freight depots have been closed. Little effort has been made to add to the capacity for rail freight within the growing cities.
The growth of our cities has also not been matched by expansions in their mass transit systems. These systems have been reduced to a residual status, principally providing commuter services to city centres, which serves only to prevent even more severe traffic congestion. This process has taken two forms.
Beyond the inner suburbs of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, the population has increased dramatically, but rail network coverage has not. Many specific expansion proposals have been delayed again and again. General plans to increase the spread, capacity and reliability of the rail networks, such as the 2001 Christie report to the NSW government, have been shelved. Queensland governments have not even bothered, planning busways oriented to meeting city centre commuter needs instead. Meanwhile, the frequency of services has typically fallen, and journey times have often increased, in the last two decades.
Less frequently, but particularly where there has been strong campaigning for public transport and especially rail services, there has been or are proposals for significant expansions of public transport networks. In Perth, after one of the three existing rail lines was closed at the end of 1970s, the closed line was reopened, the rail network was electrified, two lines and other extensions were built, and bus routes and timetables were more closely synchronised with the train services. The number of trips by train has increased fifteenfold; even so, trips by public transport are still less than 10 per cent of all travel. The bus transit system proposed for Cairns is anticipated to lift the proportion of passenger trips that are by public transport fourfold, but again still only to 10 per cent, primarily in travel to and from the city centre. In such examples, the character of the city’s transport is not transformed: cars still rule.
The full environmental and economic benefits of public transport and rail freight can’t be achieved while these remain secondary systems. Instead, these benefits will come when publicly owned and controlled transport systems form the heart of urban transit, intercity travel and freight haulage. At the same time, workers and the poor will be the immediate and the greatest beneficiaries of this change.
Socialist Alliance proposes a sustainable transport strategic plan which will:
Socialist Alliance will develop the rail freight network by:
Road haulage will be discouraged:
Socialist Alliance will:
Public transport in our cities has suffered from more than 50 years of neglect. As a result, the existing public transport fails to meet most passenger needs. It is not available throughout each city, at all the times it’s needed, or fast enough.
People buy cars and, having acquired such major household assets, use them. Road traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions from transport has then grows exponentially, while public transport use has spiralled downwards. Then, because of the lower volume of public transport use, bus services instead of rail services, or light rail instead of heavy rail, are proposed, even though the more popular and potentially most economically effective mode of public transport is rail and, especially, heavy rail.
Socialist Alliance proposes instead that public transport systems will be the principal passenger transport networks in our cities. Its commitment is to provide comprehensive services, all day, everywhere, fast and frequent. With that, households can reduce the number of cars they own: many people might even abandon car ownership altogether.
With comprehensive public transport services, the proportion of trips by public transport should increase dramatically. For example, at least 60 per cent of powered passenger trips in the large capital cities and 40 per cent in other capitals and large regional cities should be by public transport. This proportion of public transport use will involve higher utilisation rates for all public transport modes. Rail systems can be renewed, extended or built in all larger cities as the basis for comprehensive networks, while other regional centres should also have comprehensive public transport networks based on buses. The precise mix of modes used must take into account existing systems, including train lines in the large regional cities, which might make use of dual-mode rail in addition to existing heavy rail.
Thus, Socialist Alliance, as a crucial measure to reduce Australian greenhouse gas emissions and as an urgent priority to reverse the growth of social and economic inequality, will immediately implement a massive public sector program to provide the public transport infrastructure and services that are needed. Such spending must be socially accountable to residents and workers (see section 3. Strategic Planning, above).
Socialist Alliance will ensure that the government spending on public transport carries out:
The provision of urban public transport without imposing payment for its use through fares has a number of advantages. For example, using the service is more convenient, the cost of collecting and policing the payment of fares is eliminated, and no time is wasted by drivers on buses collecting fares. Moreover, while the main driver for increased public transport use will be the provision of comprehensive public transport services, free public transport in the context of a commitment to expand public transport will encourage as many people as possible to use public transport. This has been shown by, for example, the introduction of free public transport in the Belgian city of Hasselt from 1996. After all, network planning means the decision has been made to provide the public transport services: there is no reason to ration and reduce public transport use by charging for it.
Of course, while households would save money through using increasingly comprehensive public transport systems free of charge, the public expenditure to provide the services (less the savings from reduced air pollution, road congestion and road construction, and the withdrawal of tax concessions for company cars and other fossil fuel subsidies) must be funded. Once comprehensive public transport systems are in place, funding the public transport system through progressive income taxation (with rebates for the residents of rural and remote locations not covered) would certainly be justified, because the service would be universally available and in general use. Throughout the period of expansion of public transport systems, funding from general revenue will be supplemented by levying developers who will be advantaged by new or improved opportunities around public transport hubs.
Socialist Alliance advocates:
Public transport is a public service. Whether it allows workers to get to and from work, people to travel to shops, hospitals, to see family/friends or for recreation, or the cheap and efficient movement of goods, its provision is a social obligation. Communities’ access to adequate public transport will also tend to reduce the use of private cars, road freight and domestic air travel and, therefore, emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants.
The Socialist Alliance believes that the public sector, backed by governmental power, must seek to provide the most modern, low-carbon impacting and far-reaching public transport possible. Privately-run public transport has proven to be a dismal failure: private bus routes invariably operate at minimal service levels; in Melbourne the government subsidy to the privatised tram network has been greater than what it ever was to the network when it was part of the public sector; in Britain the decline in rail safety has cost lives. Private operation of public transport has created government-guaranteed corporate profiteering. Public transport must not be run for profit, but in the interest of commuters and residents, to minimise ecological impact and maximise service delivery.
In the face of the neo-liberal capitalism, which privatises publicly-owned community assets and imposes market regulation in order to extend the arena for profit-making, major advances in public service provision such as Socialist Alliance has proposed here will only be achieved by large, sustained and determined public campaigns. To date in Australia, however, our experience of campaigns for sustainable transport is more limited:
Socialist Alliance will help set up a national campaign for comprehensive public transport, which builds on the progressive elements of past campaigning and seeks to resource and support actions at the local level. Socialist Alliance proposes the campaign should advocate the following as the basis for a not-for-profit public sector comprehensive public transport system:
The Socialist Alliance transport policy incorporates its members understanding, developed through their involvement in public transport activism in Melbourne, NSW and Cairns, in preparing articles in support of public transport for Green Left Weekly, and other research.
Rapid and Affordable Transport Alliance (RATA)
Paul Mees, Transport for Suburbia: Beyond the Automobile Age, 2010 [summary by Jacob Curtis]
Chris Harris, Roads, Railways and Regimes: Why some societies are able to organise suburban public transport — and why others can’t, October 2007
Garry Glazebrook, Thirty Year Public Transport Plan for Sydney [2006??]
Jago Dodson and Neil Sipe, Oil Vulnerability in the Australian City, 2005
Jago Dodson and Neil Sipe, The New Landscape of Oil and Mortgage Vulnerability in Australian Cities, 2008