Bicycle Network: Better Transport
NSW State Election 2011
The NSW election has stimulated a flurry of transport promises and possibilities. Busways, light rail, heavy rail and of course road widening have all been put forward as solutions to Sydney’s transport problems.
Seats in the peak
Unfortunately there aren’t any solutions in transport – only choices. These choices are answers to the question – How are we going to move people around our city?
We have to find a more effective answer to this question. Each year we are gathering more and more people into cities that are limited in space and have a fixed length and width of roads and other travel corridors. All of yesterday’s transport choices are overflowing and it takes longer and longer to get around.
We also need to make the right choices. If we choose wrongly, we will suffer more congestion and have wasted lots of money.
We need to decide quickly. The cost of the inefficiency of movement in Sydney (and Melbourne) is already $3b a year. That’s quite an overhead to add to any economy. This assessment doesn’t take into account the opportunity cost of the time spent in travel that could be spent on other things nor the emotional and financial cost to individuals.
How do we make transport choices at the moment? The usual approach, and it is being followed in the NSW election, is a Eurovision song contest-style project competition. Spruikers for each project do their performance with the lead singer carolling the benefits and then the votes are counted. You will remember past winners around Australia such as the Brisbane airport motorway and Sydney’s cross-city tunnel.
We will usually make the wrong choices if we just think about projects. To get the right answer we have to think about space and money – both of which are limited. We have, more or less, a fixed space and we want to move more people around in it. We also have a number of other infrastructure investments we need to make in addition to buying transport.
The usual way we get into trouble making transport choices is by thinking of transport corridors as ‘pipes’ and believing that if they are bigger they will carry more people.
A better paradigm for transport corridors is the difference between dial up internet and broadband. Both services come down the same line but one provides substantially better performance than the other. Similarly you can radically alter the number of people that travel down a transport corridor by changing the vehicles that we travel in.
A standard 3.0m wide road lane, carries around 600 people per hour if we are alone (as we usually are) in private motor vehicles. The same lane can carry up to 3,000 people an hour if you chose other types of vehicles.
A bus is a form of transport ‘broadband’. Lets say that a bus can carry 60 people (that is a bit high but it makes for easy maths). We could get 600 people down a travel lane in 10 buses. At the same throughput of ten vehicles a minute this would use up less than a quarter of the hour. As long as we had enough buses and drivers, we could turn one lane of a road into a bus broadband lane and carry around 2,400 people - four times as many as in private motor vehicles.
Based on promises and scenarios put forward in recent elections we can compare the various transport broadband ‘plans’ on offer from the different ‘carriers’. A 40-seat bus costs $440,000. Lets say on that basis that a bus seat costs $10,000. Using this carrier it will cost us $10m to move a thousand people in one hour of the peak.
Melbourne’s new three-carriage train sets cost $20m each and can nearly carry 1,000 people. Therefore a extra heavy rail seat for the peak costs $20 000 or twice as much as a bus. A new tram or light-rail vehicle (which can carry 80 people) costs $5m. I might feel that a tram is somehow better than a bus but those additional tram seats cost at least $50,000 each – five times as much as a bus seat. Both these rail seats cost even more when you have to install a brand new line.
Based on these estimates you can see why South American countries like Columbia, which have less to spend, on more people, in less space, are buying segregated busways.
Let’s look for a moment at the big mainstream carrier, private motor vehicles. How much does a seat-in-the-peak cost from this carrier? The M5 commitment, to take one example, will cost $175m a lane. Let’s be generous and say that a thousand people, rather than 600, can get down a lane in the morning peak. If the peak lasts two hours, the extra lane has bought us 2,000 seats at an eye-watering $90,000 a seat – at least twice the cost of the next most expensive option.
Instead of widening a motorway by a lane, what if we retasked an existing lane to buses? Instead of spending $175m we could buy eighty buses for $35m and run a two-hour head to head bus service. In each peak hour this would, as we have seen, move four motor vehicle lanes worth of people. Therefore if we gave up a lane on a motorway for private motor vehicles and turned it into a segregated busway, we would get a net increase in capacity of equivalent to two additional lanes. This is the type of space and money leverage that we should be looking for.
The only carrier that I haven’t mentioned is the bicycle. When you look at the cost of a seat, bike routes are the Skype of transport. You can build a bikeway separate from traffic for $1m a kilometre. Such a bikeway, like a busway, can carry 2,400 people an hour. Let’s say the route is 5km long and will cost $5m. Let’s also cut our use estimate in half because dear reader I hear you saying ‘you’ll never get me on a bike’. That means you can move 1,000 people for $5m or $5,000 a seat. Nor will this ‘plan’ have any hidden extras like drivers, vehicle maintenance and fuel.
Now our best value choices become clear. How are we going to move people around our city? We will use every mode available and for some time most travel will be by private motor vehicle. But, where we can, we will try and develop bus lanes and bike routes that are separated from other traffic. It’s the best use of our limited space and money.
Harry Barber is CEO of Bicycle Network Victoria and the Bicycle Network that together with other bicycle organisations around Australia coordinate the national programs Ride to Work and Ride2School.
Photo from Münster Germany