Capital city commuting: time for a review

31 May 2011

Uneconomical choices and underperforming assets need a rethink, argues Frank Fisher.
THERE are few things humans do that are as inefficient as urban commuting in driver-only driver-owned cars, or DODOs. When potentially ten billion people seek urban commuting the way Australians do it – one car per person and 20,000 km/yr – the planet can no longer support us. Even driving cars 300 per cent more efficient than today’s Australian car fleet, we will be three time worse off…
What follows is an unconventional look at the logic of current urban commuting and how public transport could be made more attractive.
The current situation: commuting by DODO
Energy efficiency: Other than public transport ticketing (addressed below) there are few things as uneconomic as DODOs, which currently work at less than 1 per cent efficiency. For every 100 litre of petrol, less than one litre actually shifts the driver; 99+litres moves the car and enables its essential infrastructure. The average engine converts petrol to motion at about 15 per cent. But we drive cars not engines and cars are roughly 15 times heavier than the average driver, so a driver-in-a-car moves at 1% efficiency. 
Cars take a lot of energy to make, deliver to drivers and maintain over their lives – some say as much as half the energy in the fuel they use in their lives! Further, it takes energy to scrap and recycle cars and a vast amount to build and maintain the infrastructures that enable cars to move where we want them to go. These are roads, government and private support organisations ranging from registration departments to taxation offices, police, insurances, breakdown clubs, hospitals, more insurances, automobile chambers of commerce and so on. So, the DODO’s real efficiency is actually much less than 1% … but no one cares because (a) we’ve paid a lot for our cars and for putting them on the road and keeping them there, (b) virtually no one knows what efficiency means anyway and that’s partly because (c) petrol’s cheaper than bottled water and all the pollution and its consequences are invisible!
Time efficiency: The craziness of this equation doesn’t end with energy efficiency. Owning our private “gutter decorations” (the DODO’s primary occupation) means that we spend many weeks of each year engaged in earning the money to pay for the privilege. Add this to the time spent in driving, parking and maintaining our DODOs, then divide that total into the number of kilometres travelled annually, and the average speed attained is much less than that achieved by a combination of bicycle and public transport.
Driver efficiency: In the face of easy and relatively cheap rental/car-sharing, the economics of owning our cars is highly questionable. Further, using bicycles and public transport makes the journey to work, shopping etc, the only opportunity many people have to exercise-as-part-of-daily-routines. Finally, as if this inefficiency were not bad enough, Americans, Brazilians and now some Europeans and Australians, compound it by feeding DODOs biofuels made from human foodstuffs such as corn and sugar. So, in addition to using less than 1 per cent of these food-based fuels to move drivers, biofuels are themselves produced inefficiently in terms of the fuels used to make them. The fuels required for farming, refining and other processes to make biofuels can actually be as much as the biofuels themselves deliver! Madness surely?
Given all this, why urban citizens would bother to own their cars beats me. Once our generalised vehicles-for-all-purposes are disowned, one can easily afford to rent the appropriate vehicle for the odd task. For urban commuting, the appropriate vehicles are shoes, bicycles and public transport, these three being appropriate for our health, our city’s health, the planet’s health and the health of our public and private purses. 
Ticketless public transport
Even with the prospect of automated ticketing (myki in Melbourne) working “glitchlessly”, it is not hard to demonstrate that ticketing does not pay for itself, let alone make any contribution to public transport itself. Aside from the fabulous cost ($3 billion) of Melbourne’s myki and its predecessor, there are many hidden costs involved in having the public pay public transport fares. I list some below but draw special attention to some quite unrecognised costs that arise from the deliberate exclusion of our railways’ extensive real-estate assets from the public domain as a result of excluding the ticketless from railway stations. In addition to the costs of vandalism control and damage restitution, the site insecurity that breeds in deserted stations, especially at night, leads to reduced patronage. But the most serious losses arise from the site rents foregone by excluding commerce and community activity from nearly all metropolitan railway stations.
Tickets require public transport users to be “validated” before entering the system. To viscerally impress this requirement upon passengers, we surround our stations with high fences, cutting them off from commercial and community use. Unstaffed buildings, often quite handsome, are locked and vandal-proofed. And, as if to say “no station is sacred”, the very open friendliness of pre-myki Southern Cross in Melbourne is now ruined by fences and barriers erected where never intended. Staffed stations themselves are underutilised. The associated losses are not simply directly financial, they also manifest as losses to community and personal amenity. Instead of being friendly islands of community, stations have become isolated black holes, literally avoided as such, by late-night travellers.
In the absence of totally “free” public transport, an enlivening alternative to the present vacuous, destructive, fare-collection-related employment schemes, is the public transport levy, or PTL.
By having an annual Medicare-like PTL collected from all urban wage-earners, we’d know we’d paid something toward our urban public transport, have that incentive to use it and then be able to climb on, free of demeaning encumbrances like barriers and ticket inspection. Indeed, where machines do the inspection, the demeaning impact is of great concern. To argue against the veracity of machines takes determination. More, our tacit permission to be tracked (financially, and more worryingly spatially) raises questions about the openness of our democracy.
Here is what a PTL could provide:
• public transport free at point of access with all the liberation that that would imply.
• shedding some of the taxes that are currently used to pay for public transport.
• free public transport for rural visitors and tourists, just like public water. Along with fast and regular rural rail, this would provide an incentive to use rural public transport to commute to the cities.
• a built-in incentive for urban residents to use public transport. The annual payment would remind us that we’d paid and therefore that we may as well use what we’d paid for.
• an improvement in the status of travel on our metro-systems, which would no longer be seen as the DODO’s “poor cousin”.
• a dramatic decline in the deaths and injuries from crashes and the many diseases directly attributable to DODO-commuting (in Melbourne some 600 deaths annually).
• a friendly, welcoming system where the stresses associated with requiring a ticket, along with the threats associated with not being able to produce one, have been removed.
• removal of favours to those wealthy enough to afford congestion taxes such as city parking fees (often paid for by others) and fines, thereby avoiding the resentment such favours generate.
• the usual Medicare-like support for people for whom the levy would be an excessive burden.
• removal of barriers to the poor to use public transport.
• the “disarming” of the public transport system with transit assistants replacing “fare police” and the return of the space and vacant buildings around platforms to commerce and the community.
• a welcoming and attractive system, partly arising from the greater density of users that a ticketless system would bring.
• removal of the threat to monitor citizens’ movements by tracking us through the electronic systems.
• enhanced participation rates. These would provide the political constituency for dramatically improving the current carrying capacities of our metropolitan transit. Relieving rail-congestion is, especially in the long run, cheaper and healthier than relieving road-congestion. Consider the neglected costs of making good the planetary damage caused by global warming and the many other negative pollution and land degradation effects of DODO commuting. Currently these are not priced and go unpaid by present generations.
• a more open and equitable system in which payment for the system was overt rather than covert as at present – where real payment for public transport comes from consolidated revenues. An annual PTL bill could indicate the proportion of the total cost of metro-transit that the levy actually covered.
It must be recognised that dramatically increasing the capacity of our urban rail systems is no small feat. It will cost billions, take time and create substantial public disruption. Indeed, an argument against the PTL is precisely the government’s fear of overloading the current system. For all that, we live in a representative democracy and the government requires constituency before it acts. So overloading the system is a language it can hear.
One of the most valuable implications of a PTL and a dramatic improvement in public transport availability would be the support that it would give to the effectiveness of the bicycle-rail collaboration. Long ago, Melbourne’s Alan Parker pointed out that the fastest, cheapest, healthiest and most sustainable way to get around much of the metropolitan area was a combination of bicycle and rail – that is, bicycle to and from rail. This requires improved bike parking facilities at stations and an improved capacity to carry bikes on trains. With bike-rail, our cities become “translucent”. No peak hour traffic jams, no parking problems, no need for fuel and maintenance, no depreciation on the car, no speeding fines and, most of all, two to three times faster than the DODO because there’s no time wasted earning the money to pay for it! •
Frank Fisher is a professor in the Faculty of Design and the National Centre for Sustainability at Swinburne University of Technology
Photo: BeardPapa/ Flickr

Geographic Coverage