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Safer roads for cyclists, pedestrians would get us back on public transport

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Lockdown is ending, and Melburnians are emerging, blinking like pit ponies. Our newest challenge is to balance the desire to recapture our lost lives with the apprehension of catching COVID-19, or infecting others.

One change people are making, not just in Melbourne but around the world, is to avoid public transport and instead drive. This makes sense for individual people making specific trips in a world with COVID-19. But at scale, it’s a recipe for gridlock.

Traffic congestion on the Western Ring Road in Melbourne.

Traffic congestion on the Western Ring Road in Melbourne.Credit:Paul Rovere

Nor is COVID-19 the only force pushing people towards driving: it is becoming cheaper as people switch to electric or fuel-efficient cars. And the Andrews government’s investment in new roads dwarfs its investment in non-driving transport options.

Now is the perfect time to pause and consider how to ensure we don’t emerge from this pandemic more car-dependent than we went in.

After 11 weeks in our sixth lockdown, it’s no surprise that Melbourne people aren’t using the train or tram all that much. But the switch from public transport to cars also happened in Sydney when it wasn’t in lockdown; patronage on public transport there was down between 25 and 82 per cent for the entire period of May 2020 to May 2021. Brisbane is similar; it’s had only a handful of single-week lockdowns over the past year, but public transport patronage has remained stubbornly low, hovering around 60 per cent of pre-COVID-19 levels most of the time. Meanwhile, driving rates are up.

Melburnians have been reluctant to use public transport during the pandemic.

Melburnians have been reluctant to use public transport during the pandemic.Credit:Daniel Pockett

Expect even more driving because it’s getting cheaper. Fuel-efficient cars are much cheaper to run, and electric cars cheaper still. They’d be even cheaper if the federal government decided to catch up with the rest of the world by introducing an emissions ceiling, or standard, for light vehicles, that ratcheted down to zero over time.

New Grattan Institute research to be released on Monday shows that an emissions ceiling would save the average driver in Australia $900 over the first five years of their new vehicle, even after paying more to buy it. If it’s cheaper to drive, we’ll tend to drive more.

Expect more driving because that’s where the public investment is focused. The biggest transport project in Victoria’s history, the “city-shaping” North East Link, will add 26 kilometres of freeway at a cost of $16 billion. The now $10 billion West Gate Tunnel is “city-shaping”, too, and will add five kilometres of freeway. Even with the $11 billion Metro Tunnel under way to improve the rail system, the weight of investment is firmly on the side of roads.



Read More: Safer roads for cyclists, pedestrians would get us back on public transport

2021-10-22 04:00:00

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