Toxic Custard newsletter transport

A (rational) conservative view of public transport

I recently read a book I bought a couple of years ago after seeing an interesting article about it: Moving Minds, Conservatives and Public Transit, by American conservatives Paul Weyrich (who passed away in 2008) and William Lind.

It’s an interesting read, providing a perspective on transport issues which isn’t often seen prominently, at least in an Australian context.

As I read (on my daily train journey!), I tweeted points I thought were worth noting, and I’ve included them all below.

There’s a lot in the book, but if I had to summarise, it would probably be these main points:

  • The current balance of car vs public transport is heavily skewed by decades of governments meddling with the free market, and providing massive subsidies to automobiles.
  • Road infrastructure is very expensive, and does not provide long-term congestion relief.
  • Urban rail infrastructure helps bring investment.
  • Investment in public transport can work towards many conservative goals, including access to employment (reducing dependence on welfare), “traditional” old-style town centres, increase in property values, reduction in reliance on foreign oil, and household budgetary savings from reducing the numbers of cars required
  • To attract choice riders to public transport, the service has to be high quality. They equate this to frequent rail services, claiming that most people won’t ride buses — though they concede buses can work well for short distances eg to get people to railway stations.
  • Old reliable technology is best (they don’t like monorails, for instance!), and more can be done to drive down costs of PT infrastructure.

Here’s all the points I posted in the tweets as I read. (Feel free to skip to the end for some more commentary about local context.)

“The rise of the automobile is not a free-market outcome. Rather, it is the result of massive govt intervention on the automobile’s behalf.”

1921: USA: $1.4 b in govt funds spent on highways, while most transit systems were privately owned with no govt assistance. #WeyrichLind

“the current division of market share between the automobile and mass transit is in no way the product of a free market.” #WeyrichLind p8

Switzerland more balanced transit/auto subsidies, enabling consumers “something of a free market choice between travel modes.”

#WeyrichLind p9 notes the minority (7%) of trips made by low-income people are on transit. And subsidies are higher for affluent commuters.

For the middle class, high-quality transit offers an…important benefit. It reduces the need to buy a new (or extra) car. #WeyrichLind p11

Quality mass transit can have a profound and positive effect on economic growth and development – and it gives examples. #WeyrichLind p14

#WeyrichLind: another important conservative goal served by public transit …is moving welfare recipients into productive employment.

Cultural conservatives (should note) mass transit’s …role in helping foster a sense of community. #WeyrichLind

#WeyrichLind p18 proposes regulation reform, including (controversially I think) watering down disability access requirements.

Conservatives point to low transit mode share, but if transit were removed, commuting in big cities would become impossible #WeyrichLind p24

“In urban areas, there isn’t any place to put more highways…(and) dissecting cities with…freeways makes them die.” #WeyrichLind p24

A better measurement than transit mode share is “transit competitive trips”, where transit is available, high quality. #WeyrichLind p24

“What has held down transit ridership is not unwillingness to use satisfactory transit, but its declining availability.” #WeyrichLind p25

“rail service is not automatically high-quality service.” Amen to that! #FrequencyIsFreedom #WeyrichLind p25

“Nothing drives (commuters) to their automobiles more quickly than an inability to trust transit” #WeyrichLind p26

“in today’s America, very, very few people have high-quality transit readily available.” #WeyrichLind p26 – Slightly better in AU. Slightly.

Some types of trips, such as shopping, have never been transit competitive. #WeyrichLind p26 – Hmm not sure I entirely agree.

Historically, transit served trips for work (commuting) and entertainment – cites baseball team “Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers” #WeyrichLind p29

Chicago Dan Ryan/Kennedy expressways carry 200K vehicles per day. Parallel railways 182K riders; if they drove, gridlock. #WeyrichLind p31

“When a rider has to wait up to a quarter of an hour (for a service) he starts thinking of getting around some other way.” #WeyrichLind p33

Hmm, this book seems to spend a lot of time claiming that “upmarket” people won’t use buses, will only use rail. #WeyrichLind

#WeyrichLind praises station parking, but says in walkable neighbourhoods it discourages pedestrians; transit-oriented development better.

“Hi-tech can be the enemy of rail transit.” #WeyrichLind p40 talking about cost blowouts, says use proven technology.

“When people travel, they want predictability, security and sameness.” #WeyrichLind p41 talking personal security, but it’s a broad truth.

#WeyrichLind p42 encourages premium/first class carriages/services. Hmmm. (Well, it is pitching to conservatives.)

#WeyrichLind p42 also floats the idea of seniors-only carriages/services to make seniors feel safe from crime. Hmmmm.

#WeyrichLind p43 talks about shops and other services such as childcare located at stations- Happily,Melb has this adjacent to most stations

“in one city after another…once people experience high quality (public transport) service, they want more.” #WeyrichLind p50

“On the train, your time is not wasted. …And if you walk to and from the station, you get to add some exercise to (your) day” #WeyrichLind

“You can never build enough roads to keep up with congestion. Traffic always rises to exceed capacity.” – Martin Wachs in #WeyrichLind p55

“A 1.0% increase in (road) lane miles induces a 0.9% increase in Vehicle Miles Traveled within five years.” – Mark Hansen. #WeyrichLind p55

1999 study of 68 urban areas “shows the greatest increases on congestion have been in areas that do not have rail transit” #WeyrichLind p55

Dallas light rail line delivers 20% more capacity than a 6 lane freeway at 14% less capital cost per mile. #WeyrichLind p56

St Louis study found only 17% of train users did not drive or had no car. Bus: 70% #WeyrichLind p57. (Might mean most buses poor frequency)

Rail less flexible than buses, but this is an advantage. Helps spur development. #WeyrichLind p58

Rail can serve suburban job growth if that growth is along serviceable corridors. And rail can help create those corridors. #WeyrichLind p60

#WeyrichLind p61 talks about importance of high quality bus connections from rail to employment centres. Think Melbourne’s 401/601 shuttles.

“In one city after another, rail transit has brought increased investment, higher property values/rent, more customers.” #WeyrichLind p62

In first 4 years of operation, $860m Dallas light rail attracted $800m of investment around stations. #WeyrichLind p63

San Fransisco study showed proximity to BART station added double real estate value than proximity to freeway interchanges. #WeyrichLind p64

San Diego survey found perception of transit safety much better among people that actually use it. #WeyrichLind p66

Any new development, including transit, has potential to increase crime, but can be prevented with proactive measures. #WeyrichLind p67

“we must question the assumption that light rail should have an ‘honor’ fare system and barrier-free entry” #FareEvasion #WeyrichLind p68

#WeyrichLind p69 cites systems (LA, St Louis, Denver) where conversion of bus to rail has increased overall patronage by double or more.

“private vehicle travelers attracted to rail transit are disproportionately drawn from single occupancy vehicles.” #WeyrichLind p69

PT is subsidised – in US, 65% of costs come from taxpayers. But roads are also subsidised. #WeyrichLind p71

Some claim PT average load of 20% of capacity (across day) is inefficient. How many seats occupied in aver car? Usually 1. #WeyrichLind p71

Figures show investment in transit results in more users. “If you build it, they will ride.” #WeyrichLind p74

In US, transit’s ratio of public benefits to public cost ranges from 4.0 to 5.1. #WeyrichLind p75 #BCR

“Rail transit proponents need to do a better job of conveying what it is they are asking people to (support).” #WeyrichLind p75 – Amen!

“Compared to conventional light rail, monorails are visually intrusive, technically complex and much,much more expensive. ” #WeyrichLind p76

“Politics have led to inefficiencies and failures in public transit.” #WeyrichLind p78 – Yup, definitely not USA-only.

For most of the 20th century, govt policy has conspired to make us dependent on automobiles for most of our travel. #WeyrichLind p79

Market share for transit is so small because most people have no access to a satisfactory service. #WeyrichLind p80

Noise from rail? Technology can help with that. Highway noise? Difficult to control noise from so many different vehicles. #WeyrichLind p86

Most Americans have never ridden a train of any kind. Most cities lost their rail transit at least half a century ago. #WeyrichLind p92

#WeyrichLind chapter 4 is about advocating “Bring back the streetcars!” as first step towards building a new PT network. Hmm.

This chapter also has throwaway lines such as about the Left condemning suburbs. Hmm, might be a US thing. #WeyrichLind

People see small historic towns, would like to live somewhere similar: mixed use,grid streets,designed for people not cars. #WeyrichLind p94

Streetcars say “This town, this downtown, is here to stay. It’s not going to go downhill again.” #WeyrichLind p95

#WeyrichLind p96 tries to distinguish between light rail and streetcars. Not sure it’s that simple eg Melbourne.

“Streetcar lines that are integrated into the local transit system are generally more useful, attract greater ridership” #WeyrichLind p100

“The greatest threat to America’s rail renaissance is escalating costs” #WeyrichLind p101 – a lesson there for us too?

Excessive rail construction costs are due to “overbuilding, gold plating and…placating NIMBYs” #WeyrichLind p102

“As conservatives, we find America’s past attractive. America in the streetcar era (about 1890-1950)…was a great place.” #WeyrichLind p110

Streetcars “should serve the Central Business District and serve it well (remember,Americans don’t like to walk very far)” #WeyrichLind p111

Chapter 5 is called “How transit benefits people who do not ride it.” #WeyrichLind

“Most conservatives do not ride transit. Why? Because in most of America, the high-quality transit conservatives demand is not available.”

#WeyrichLind chapter 5 on how transit benefits non-users. The three main points:

“First, transit can reduce traffic congestion, or at least the rate of increase in traffic congestion.” #WeyrichLind p117

“Second, everyone may need transit occasionally, to get to the big football game, car (being repaired) or snow 3 feet deep.” #WeyrichLind

“Third, transit can bring large increases in residential property values…can put money in homeowners’ pockets.” #WeyrichLind p117

“If new roads are built, 66% of Americans do not think congestion on the roads will be eased.” #WeyrichLind p119 quoting 2001 study.

“Just how strong can induced demand be? Some studies find an almost one-to-one relationship.” #WeyrichLind p119 #InducedTraffic

“A 1% increase in (road space) induces 0.9% increase Vehicle Miles Travelled within 5 years” #WeyrichLind p119 #InducedTraffic

“building more roads or adding lanes to existing freeways not only doesn’t work, it also costs a fortune.” #WeyrichLind p119 #InducedTraffic

A rail line can carry more people than a 6 lane highway taking 3 times the space. #WeyrichLind p120

“traffic congestion grew at a rate of 73% higher in non-rail cities, than in cities with rail in..major travel corridors.” #WeyrichLind p121

“75% of Portland’s PT users are car owners that have chosen transit over auto use, at least for some trips.” #WeyrichLind p122

Every choice rider on transit equals a car removed from traffic…people who drive should lead charge for more transit #WeyrichLind p122

“transit reduces energy consumption, & flow of petrodollars to people who like to crash airplanes into our skyscrapers” #WeyrichLind p124 !!

“transit the most effective strategy for…improving the environment without imposing new taxes,govt mandates,regulations” #WeyrichLind p124

If Americans used PT for 10% of daily travel needs, US would reduce dependence on imported oil by more than 40%. #WeyrichLind p125

“public transit can save you money by reducing the number of cars you have to buy, maintain and insure” #WeyrichLind p126

Chapter 6 of #WeyrichLind is about winning transit referenda. Perhaps more relevant than at first glance given #EWLink referendum?

“Build deep support, not just broad support.” #WeyrichLind p133. Good point, relevant to a lot of political debate.

People want to know specifics of a transport proposal, not just vague info. Don’t say “trust us experts”. They won’t. #WeyrichLind p134

Explain proposal to the public. But there is not one “public”. The key is segmentation, and right messages. #WeyrichLind p135

Argue case with current users, workers/unions, and people who don’t and won’t use PT but who will benefit. #WeyrichLind p135

Segmentation builds deep support. People who clearly see how the proposal benefits them can become your champions. #WeyrichLind p136

Opponents of rail tend to say same things everywhere. Prepare in advance to answer them; do so immediately they surface. #WeyrichLind p136

#WeyrichLind chapter 7 is about energy independence…ways to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil.

USA largely dismantled PT systems, now almost wholly dependent on cars, and highly vulnerable to interruptions to oil. #WeyrichLind p147

Oil demand rising, supplies getting more difficult and expensive to produce. #PeakOik #WeyrichLind p149 — In 2015 we have a temp reprieve?

“a shift from cars to mass transit could have a major effect in reducing oil consumption, in addition to other benefits.” #WeyrichLind p150

#WeyrichLind p150-151 discusses a PT network that serves everyone, with mass transit, and infrequent but coordinated services in rural areas

Conservatives generally favour a level playing field. Private automobile travel is subsidised massively at present. #WeyrichLind p155

Weyrich died in 2008. “He knew that automobiles answered yesterday’s transportation needs better than tomorrow’s” #WeyrichLind p159

“More money for transit” is not enough to gain attention of public. It must be a vision of results, not just inputs. #WeyrichLind p160

“You will not hear us call for a system of monorails or maglev. We desire no new technologies.” #WeyrichLind p161

What is good urban transit? 1.Coverage. 2.Frequency. 3.Ease of connection. 4.As much as possible, rail – people prefer it. #WeyrichLind p161

#WeyrichLind p161 says “mode neutrality” ignores public preference for trains over buses, ignores the market. Hmm…interesting!

#WeyrichLind p161 reference to Vukan #Vuchic. (Search that hashtag for my tweets from reading his books!)

Timed transfer can help make up for infrequent services. #WeyrichLind p162

People prefer rail over bus, but will take “feeder buses”, eg short bus rides as part of a longer trip. #WeyrichLind p162

A good policy is “always a streetcar in sight” – because they are “pedestrian facilitators” to promote activity/growth. #WeyrichLind p163

“To make regular transit work well, as much thought needs to be given to schedules as to routes and transfer points.” #WeyrichLind p166

High-frequency service essential for streetcars to serve as “pedestrian facilitators”, spark economic development. #WeyrichLind p168

Differing types of transit should not exist in isolation. Each feeds into and facilitates the others. #WeyrichLind p170 #NetworkEffect

“Building new railways is expensive. Make maximum use of the rail lines that already exist.” #WeyrichLind p170

Where you have to employ buses, make them as convenient, quick and comfortable as possible. High frequency best. #WeyrichLind p170

“All the technologies our vision (for good PT) employs existed a hundred years ago.” #WeyrichLind p171 — Hmm maybe not signalling/priority?

Interesting para from #WeyrichLind p171 on a conservative view of PT that can’t be summarised in one tweet:

Paragraph from #WeyrichLind p171

20th century: “So vast were (road) subsidies that they drove out of business the privately owned streetcars, railways” #WeyrichLind p175

Road subsidies have “left most Americans dependent on automobiles for almost all travel, with…unhappy consequences” #WeyrichLind p175

“Had highways been forced to compete in a free market with (transit)…we would today have many fewer highways and a lot more railways” p176

“As conservatives, we want cities to work. We know highways, chop cities in pieces and leave them to die.” #WeyrichLind p177

“communities which provide existing car users with a comparable transit experience succeed in reducing VMT (driving)” #WeyrichLind p178

“As conservatives, we are not environmentalists, though on the whole we would rather not breathe smog.” #WeyrichLind p180 — heh!

“people who switch from their car to electrified rail help reduce oil imports, which improves national security” #WeyrichLind p180

#WeyrichLind p181 uses another term for “induced demand” (with respect to transport capacity filling) – “suppressed demand”.

Limited-access highways negative impact on urban vitality – contrasts strongly with railways stimulating urban redevelopment #WeyrichLind p181

Dependence on vehicles fuelled largely with imported oil is the Achilles’ heel of current foreign+national security policy #WeyrichLind p182

“corn-based ethanol takes almost as much petroleum to produce as it saves” #WeyrichLind p185 advocates less reliance on oil

#WeyrichLind finishes up with some stuff about a specific govt report that was adjusted before release, not really relevant to us.

Tony Abbott - Wants to fix congestion, but will only fund roads

As I said, I found the book very interesting, and I’d recommend it for people active in this space who are looking for arguments that are likely to appeal to conservatives.

The problem of course — and I’m sure they face this in the US just as much as here — is that there are some conservatives who don’t take a strict conservative view on these types of issues, don’t consider the pros and cons of arguments, but instead take a narrow-minded ideological standpoint. I’m referring of course to our dear Prime Minister Abbott, who has point blank refused to fund urban public transport, because… well, just because.

As Crikey remarked yesterday (Paywall): This unfathomable position is not based on economics. … The Abbott government must take a mode-neutral approach to future funding decisions and open its eyes to what other successful world cities are doing. It must embrace a nationwide public transport improvement program based on economic merit as assessed by the arm’s-length arbiter, Infrastructure Australia.

The Commonwealth government “sticking to its knitting” is ludicrous. It thankfully hasn’t been like this at the state level. The state Coalition’s continued push for the economically irresponsible East West Link was at least tempered by support and funding for public transport projects as well.

As I’ve noted before, there seems to be a lack of rational, thinking conservatives at the top of politics in Australia, at least at the Federal level — at least while Mr Abbott is running the show. Perhaps that will change, perhaps not.

But the fact remains that to those who are willing to actually engage rationally in the debate, there are strong conservative arguments in favour of public transport over roads.

By Daniel Bowen

Transport blogger / campaigner and spokesperson for the Public Transport Users Association / professional geek.
Bunurong land, Melbourne, Australia.
Opinions on this blog are all mine.

21 replies on “A (rational) conservative view of public transport”

You can also agree that many Asian countries which have capitalist economies have made large investments in railway infrastructure, Hong Kong comes to mind as well as many cities in China.

The neoliberal values in Australia, the U.S. and to a more limited extent in the U.K undermine their own values in that investment in PT makes an economy and business run more efficiently. Subsidising cars and investing in road infrastructure is also wasteful in regards to government spending (e.g. EW link) which is ironic considering these right wing governments boast that they are good at balancing budgets. I am in no way defending Labor in Victoria as their minimal investment in PT infrastructure was nearly as bad as the Liberals.

Fascinating! A perspective I haven’t quite thought about before. But apart from some of the words used to present the ideas (so the flavouring of the ideas rather than their underlying merit), it is all basic and rational, and no different to what a rational person would advocate for PT on the basis of efficiency. Then again, “prudence”, long term stability and efficiency are supposed to be hallmarks of the old conservative paradigm.

Most interesting is the way of phrasing the preference of rail over bus transit. That it is a “market” and the preference of the users is a sensible way of putting this, in terms of market-lead choice and demand. Completely changes my thoughts on approaches to buses of “(tell people to) put up with them” and “people will use them if good”.

We appreciate the review! Sorry to hear that you encounter the same ideological rigidity that we do here in the U.S. BTW, a limited number of copies of Moving Minds is available from The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation (founded by the late Paul Weyrich). Send us your address via e-mail ( and we’ll be happy to forward a copy as long as our supply lasts.

Sincerely, Glen Bottoms
Executive Director
The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation

I think the bus v. rail argument is interesting.

I wonder if it’s worth doing some research into how this played out in Wellington (NZ). The reason is that many routes in central Wellington, southern/eastern suburbs, and Karori are trolleybus routes – they have a pair of wires hanging above the street. This means that (in common with rail transport) there is a clear visual indicator of the route path.

I also wonder how this plays out in Christchurch, Hobart, or any number of cities where there are no rail services (unlike Bogata, Christchurch does not have any particular designation of premium bus routes, but many bus routes do (did?) run frequently).

It occurs to me that they should paint certain street kerbs orange, to indicate flagship bus routes. To me that’s just as important as actually improving the frequencies, and I would also like to see certain bus routes on the train map (as orange lines). Of course, some roads (eg Stud Road) have red bus lanes, so the orange kerb would be more appropriate where a bus lane doesn’t exist.

A good review and it points out some subtleties of American culture. In many if not most places in the US a car is essential to get around and getting around by bus (if one is even available) is seen as a poor alternative only for those that cannot afford to have a car.

Trains, subways, and light rail such as trolleys (trams in Australian) are generally not seen as a low class alternative in the way that busses are. The article also mentioned safety and it is indeed not safe to ride the bus through certain inner city “bad neighbourhoods”.

Miami is one city that I would not ride the bus at night through the downtown areas. I lived in Miami for 16 years and I only rode a bus three or four times. Using the bus there it generally takes four times as long to get to where you are going and you are also likely to get soaked by the daily summer afternoon thunderstorms walking to and waiting for the bus. Whenever we had a hard rain (this is almost daily during the summer months) people I worked with who rode the bus would come into work soaking wet.

Thanks for this, Daniel.

Some disconnected thoughts:

As a conservative, much of this is unsurprising to me, although it’s good to see it published. A key point in all this discussion is that roads are subsidised by the government, which is hardly a free-enterprise outcome.

I’ve been worried for some time that the environmentalists have held the floor with ideologically-based support for PT, giving conservatives little apparent reason to support PT.

I agree with the claims about old technology /up to a point/, i.e. I don’t see the advantage in monorails, etc. As long as that argument is not taken too far. Modern technology has provided many efficiencies for PT, including vehicle tracking (for operations and public), signalling and control systems, improved maintenance, security (CCTV), etc.

Surely the Federal government has explained its rationale? Isn’t it something like only funding nationally-important (or regionally-important?) transport rather than city-based transport? (Which makes some sort of sense being the national government.) They are willing, after all, to fund interstate rail, so it’s not a road vs. rail bias. I’m not saying that I agree with their stance, but I think there is at least a principle behind it rather than a “just because”.

I think apparent permanence of route is an important point. Heavy rail/metro is rarely rerouted. Trams too, although Melbourne has made some changes, such as Batman Avenue. Buses are obviously at the other end of the spectrum. LIttle more than signage indicates bus routes in the field and that can easily be moved. Kiwi Nick mentioned trolley buses. They are between trams and buses—a bit more obvious and permanent than buses, but not as obvious nor as permanent as trams; how much effort does it take to move some wires, after all?

It’s often said, as here, that building more roads doesn’t solve congestion, as traffic rises to meet (or exceed) capacity, with the implication that it’s a waste of time increasing road capacity. But it’s also said, as here, that ‘Figures show investment in transit results in more users. “If you build it, they will ride.” ‘. Isn’t that just saying the same thing in a more positive way? Don’t both modes have the same issue? Perhaps not, but it’s not explained why they are different.

There are some claims cited from the book that are arguably not conservative ones: the reference to ‘peak oil’ and quoting opinions (first reference to p119) rather than just sticking with the facts.

John, with regards to Federal Government funding (or lack thereof), the problem is that under the Constitution (as interpreted by the High Court), the state governments have very little ability to raise money themselves – they rely on the feds to give them the majority of their funds. The states can’t impose their own income taxes or sales taxes, and revenue from stamp duty, land tax and payroll tax (plus optional “taxes” such as gambling and traffic fines) is small change compared to the GST and income tax. We have this quite perverse situation where although the states are meant to be responsible for things like health, education and transport under the Constitution, they are hamstrung in delivering their own agendas on these issues because of the need for federal govt grants.

So with the feds collecting the majority of taxes, and with 60% of Australians living in our 5 biggest cities, big city-based public transport projects are arguably of considerable national importance and worthy of fed govt funding – they’re certainly as significant as city-based road projects like East-West Link, which Abbott was prepared to hand over billions of dollars to help build (but he’s not prepared to help fund the Melb Metro Tunnel). So there clearly is a current bias in favour of road over PT (although I’m hoping a change in PM will change this – whether by way of change of Lib leader or by a change of govt next year).

Another somewhat related issue is that conservatives have over the past 20 or so years demonised government borrowing and budget deficits, even though economists agree that its fine to borrow in times of need (provided the borrowings are used for projects that pass cost benefit analyses – which I note the Metro tunnel did but EW Link failed spectacularly). With interests rates so low, it’s crazy for Vic Labor to not borrow to build the Metro tunnel – crazy until you consider the unfair battering they would take from the Libs for borrowing and running a huge deficit.

And yet, the Libs are prepared to sign the EW Link contracts which hand over millions/billions of dollars to private companies over 30 years, but with all risk retained by the state – how is this better than borrowing?!?. And to top it off, they provide a side letter guaranteeing the developers money for nothing if Labor cancelled the project!

I wouldn’t have nearly as big an issue with conservatives if they actually were conservative in what they said and what they did, rather than the giant hypocrites we have in power now.

@John, it is true that building more roads, and building more public transport both have traffic inducement effects. The crucial differences are that public transport has economies of scale, while roads have (some serious) diseconomies of scale.

Safety: busy roads are unsafe, but busy trains are safer.
Input Cost: beyond a point, busy roads have high marginal costs, but busy trains have low marginal costs.
External Cost (hospitals, health, etc): busy roads impose high costs on society, but busy trains impose very little.
… and the list goes on.

On another note, the opinion of “old technology is king” needs some balance. John makes good points, to which I add the Internet as a way of distributing information about the system (and perhaps trip planners for navigating systems like Tokyo’s subway!).

@John, to answer one of your questions… current Federal government policy on this seems to be largely driven by the PM, and his views are described in this excerpt from his book Battlelines.

“Public transport is generally slow, expensive, not especially reliable and still [a] hideous drain on the public purse … Mostly though … there just aren’t enough people wanting to go from a particular place to a particular destination at a particular time to justify any vehicle larger than a car, and cars need roads”

See also

(Somewhere I have a longer extract, which might be worth analysing in more detail in a separate post.)

I think it’d be quite different if Malcolm Turnbull (who is often seen using PT) was in charge.

Your point on technology was also well made. I suppose my own position might be to look at evolutionary, rather than revolutionary technology, which in trains for instance means better signalling, more efficient trains, more realtime information — rather than monorails and other tech which has few inherent advantages, but is often implied to be a good thing just because it’s different.


I don’t accept your argument about state revenue, if for no other reason than the GST is revenue collected for the states by the federal government. GST is not a “federal govt grant”, and your comparison where you put GST+Income tax on the federal side is therefore flawed.

Secondly, your comment that the situation is “perverse” because the states are responsible for things like health, education, and transport implies that the states are responsible for most services whilst the federal government gets most of the revenue. This overlooks the costs that the federal government is responsible for. Here are some ballpark figures: Victoria gets about $17 billion in its own taxes, plus about $12 billion in GST. That’s a total of about $29 billion. Victoria has a quarter of Australia’s population, so mulitiply that by four (i.e. = $116 billion) for a fair comparison with just one federal cost: social security and welfare, which costs around $131 billion. So to suggest that the federal government gets a disproportionate amount of income to the point of being “perverse” is not borne out by the facts.

When I did economics, the first thing they taught us is that economists never agree, so to claim blandly that “economists agree that its fine to borrow in times of need” is suspect right from the start. The prudent thing is to live within your means, so of course budget deficits should be “demonised”. And don’t forget that borrowing means that some of your income goes to simply paying interest, not on productive results.

I agree that there is a bias against rail, but my point was that this bias may be consequential rather than inherent, at least in part. The argument goes that the road link benefits (in part) trucks taking goods on more than just local journeys, whereas the Metro tunnel only serves local journeys. So the /result/ is favouring road over rail even though that wasn’t the goal nor the criterion. To stress the point, I believe that a new freight rail link (such as replacing the height-limited Bunbury Street tunnel) would be eligible for federal money. However, even though I think the bias against rail is consequential, it is still an effective bias. Sometimes good intentions have unintended and undesirable consequences, and it’s wrong to ignore them. (By the way, I wrote that paragraph before reading Daniel’s Transport Sydney link, which is consistent with that.)

I’m not defending your other criticisms, and in fact “conservative” governments in Australia tend to be “conservative” in the sense that they are marginally closer to that side of the spectrum than non-conservative governments, so I tend to agree with your last comment.

Kiwi Nick,

I don’t dispute your first point, but my point was that the claim is often made that increasing road capacity doesn’t solve the congestion problem as though that was something that only applies to roads.

Having said that, I think unfortunately that roads often enjoy economies of scale. Compare, for example, how many new roads are built compared to rail, or how many (very expensive) signalling systems are installed compared to road traffic signals. Also, it’s claimed, probably correctly, that busy roads are safer than less-busy roads, as traffic is slowed. However, despite that, it remains true that rail is much safer.


You might be right about Abbott, unfortunately. And yes, Turnbull might well be different. The catch is that Liberals see Turnbull as Labor-lite, and see little point in supporting the party with him in charge.

> (Somewhere I have a longer extract, which might be worth analysing in more detail in a separate post.)
Here you go, Daniel
“In Australia’s biggest cities, public transport is generally slow, expensive, not especially reliable and still hideous drain on the public purse. Part of the problem is inefficient, overmanned, union-dominated government run train and bus systems. Mostly though, …there just aren’t enough people wanting to go from a particular place to a particular destination at a particular time to justify any vehicle larger than a car, and cars need roads.” P174

I have a video, which I might call “Forty Nine Seconds of Tony Abbott being Wrong” (not yet uploaded anywhere) – it takes that long for people to alight from the 902 bus at Nunawading station in the morning.

John, I’d dispute two points. They aren’t necessarily “conservative”, but don’t have to be not-conservative. (

The first is that borrowing for infrastructure is not living within your means. Corporations do it, home owners do it, but especially, governments do it and have been for decades. Borrowing or no borrowing is often an argument between different economic philosophies, but not the point here. Such borrowing is usually through infrastructure bonds, that funds things that return positively to the economy, and the positive dividend provides a useful service to the community, and pays for the cost of the interest on the loans/bonds. And if you don’t set it up stupidly, it doesn’t count against government budget deficits (such as NBN), because it isn’t an “on book” debt, but something to pay for that particular project. (Of course, the current PPP model breaks this, and the government pays for a corporation to service their debt PLUS pays them a profit on top of that, which is completely retarded; it only works if the private project receives no government funding, but then the community still pays through higher fees or tolls, so it isn’t great for natural monopoly things.) This is in opposition to governments booking budget deficits through borrowing required to fund recurrent spending such as on normal health, education, defence, etc spending.

And on Tony’s take on PT/mass transit not being worth (federal) government funding, I don’t think it comes from a sensible philosophy of only supporting projects that are “nation-wide” in the way you describe (that would be a ‘sensible’ way of putting it). He has never said it in a sensible way like that, that I have heard, anyway. Instead it seems to be purely a dislike for urban rail and PT systems, because they’re seen as something akin to “socialism” and/or supporting the poor (which seems to be a refrain of this government, against people doing it harder, which is their strange ideological bent, and nothing to do with conservative politics per se, or even “economic rationalism” either). It just seems to be what he believes, against any practical evidence. And most of East-West Link is sold to urban car commuters (“the voters”), it has barely been sold on freight or interstate commerce terms. What he has said is that he ‘doesn’t believe’ enough people travel from one A to another B for mass transit to ever make sense, which is weird because Sydney has a massive rail and bus network, that’s full in peak (I believe), and so does Melbourne, especially our trams and trains, and yet practical evidence, let alone studies and theory, don’t seem to count.

“Excessive rail construction costs are due to “overbuilding, gold plating and…placating NIMBYs” #WeyrichLind p102”

That’s an interesting one. Placating nimby’s ?

I’d like to see a cost-benefit analysis of the cost of placating wheelchair advocates, compared to alternative possible courses of action.

“Mostly though … there just aren’t enough people wanting to go from a particular place to a particular destination at a particular time to justify any vehicle larger than a car, and cars need roads”

The key word you are missing the significance of, in Abbott’s quote, is the word “mostly”.

Most people are not CBD commuters, even in the major cities. And even fewer people actually live in old inner-city neighbourhoods where their idea of a far-away place to visit, is two suburbs away.

I travel around our cities a lot, and often spend 2 hours getting to somewhere that would take 20 minutes or less if I had a car. Most people don’t have the time.

Let me break down at how ridiculous this comment is

-“Public transport is generally slow,

It is only slow due to lack of signal priority, dedicated lanes and poor maintenance of infrastructure. In an urban environment public transport can be significantly quicker than taking a car especially if you factor in congestion and time spent searching for parking.

– expensive,

Someone should tell Tony Abbott that while taxpayers fund his private Limousine which does not cost him anything, ordinary taxpayers have to pay for fuel, rego, insurance, tolls parking and depreciation. This can be 5 times more expensive than a public transport ticket.

– not especially reliable,

Again not reliable because of poor maintenance and lack of capacity enhancing infrastructure which he is refusing to fund.

– and still [a] hideous drain on the public purse …

I don’t see how all those roads, parking, accidents, health and pollution costs are not a much bigger drain on the public purse. Public transport will help reduce these public costs not the other way around.

– Mostly though …
there just aren’t enough people wanting to go from a particular place to a particular destination at a particular time to justify any vehicle larger than a car, and cars need roads”

Not only the CBD but the Airport, shopping centres, Universities and other large activity centres not only need a vehicle larger than a car but need improved services of these larger vehicles,
just look at the overcrowding on the Dandenong corridor and the trams in the CBD.


My comment about borrow was rather simplistic, but then it was said to counter another rather simplistic comment! Yes, corporations, home owners, and governments do do it, but that doesn’t make it a good idea. In some cultures, I believe, a couple getting married will be given money by their extended family to buy their home, and thus avoid borrowing. And I know of at least one large corporation that never borrowed, on principle, and it didn’t restrict them. I’m not suggesting a case can never be made for borrowing, but in some respects borrowing is done because of impatience, not wanting to wait until the money is saved up. With home owners their may be little other option, but not always. If businesses can show that they can make more money by borrowing than not, they probably have a case too, but there are many small businesses that borrow to get started, then find the income is not there, and go bust. And governments have lots of money; there should be little need to borrow other than wanting to promise something NOW in order to get re-elected. If they really could get a good return on borrowing (say borrowing to build a toll road then recouping the money from tolls) it might be a good idea, but in practice governments often borrow to build (whilst spending much other unnecessary money) with the return being from future taxes, i.e. not directly as a result of the investment.

You say that the P.M. has never “said it in a sensible way like that”. Daniel’s Transport Sydney link says “Mr Abbott later clarified his statement, pointing out that his government would still fund freight rail and interstate transport, and that it was only commuter urban rail projects that he was referring to. On his side is the division of powers set out in the Australian constitution, where the Commonwealth government is responsible for freight and interstate transport, leaving state governments responsible for urban transport.” They go on to point out what they see as an inconsistency in that stance, but the point is that the P.M. apparently /has/ “said it in a sensible way like that” (well, /something/ like that).

And yes, he may well see it as something akin to socialism, but if so, how does that gel with supporting freight rail?

Was the East-West Link not really sold on freight or interstate commerce terms? I’m not talking about how it was sold to the voters, but how it was sold to the federal government.

I agree with your point about there being enough people travelling from A to B for mass transit to make sense, and in that light I disagree with enno, assuming he is using the word “commuters” correctly, as someone travelling to and from work. If commuters were the only ones keeping mass transit busy, there would be hardly anyone travelling on public transport outside peak hours, but there is in fact many, many, people, with enough people in Melbourne now using the trains /on weekends/ to justify ten-minute services on some lines.

@John of Melbourne
It has nothing to with impatience we need infrastructure earlier rather than later not because of impatience but because this is what our modern economy requires at the present time not 20-30 years into the future.
We need capital investment such as MM1, MM2, level crossing removals, tram extensions, procuring more rolling stock and bus improvements. The return on this infrastructure investment will outweigh the cost of borrowing especially for a government with a triple AAA rating. This is why we have BCR analysis to ensure the return is positive which the EW link is not.

I would say that like the business getting a high return on an investment after taking on debt to invest in said growth, it is the same for government. It isn’t about their bottom line, tax dollars, or paying back the loans or bonds through tolls or other charges, it is about GDP growth and growth of the community. That is where the return is. And before Citylink, it’s how we funded most things. Because paying it out of surplus is silly, that means the money hadn’t been earmarked for useful activities the year before. (However, sans infrastructure debt, yes, in good times governments should run balanced budgets, including interest on servicing investment and infrastructure debt.)

Hmm, Tony (Tones to his mates, right?) shouldn’t have been so bluntly ideological in his book. That he later clarified his comments is good, but I have a feeling that isn’t because that is what he meant or believes, but because someone (media advisor) suggested it was how it should be put.

High quality is most definitely not high frequency, although it would be nice. I live in the depths of regional rail land, and as a regular commuter to Melbourne over a long period of time, including by car when I have to, it’s important for public transport to be comfortable, have features that will draw you away from the car, and be on time. I happily paid for a first class supplement card, but first class in the old V/Line rolling stock is laughable and now pretty much gone (it’s only the Warrnabool services that remain with the 1950-1980’s carriages). The only thing first class gets you is a slightly wider seat and a tray. Once the entire day consists of V/Locity units, the issues with timeliness and getting a seat rears their ugly heads.

For example, V/Line seems utterly incapable of getting scheduled regional trains into Southern Cross on time. I don’t know if it’s because there are limits to the amount of running diesel engines that are allowed into the platforms at once, or if it’s just poor planning, either way, you can reliably tack a good 10-15 minutes onto any service prior to about 9.30 am. Going home, the issue is simply seat availability. Standing for say a 10 km journey is bad enough on suburban trains, but it’s really unacceptable for 1.5 hour journeys, which is common on the Geelong line until around the 6.40, or even sometimes the 7 pm service. If anyone tells me that Geelong is only an hour away, I live near the Waurn Ponds station, and the typical scheduled service duration is 1 hour and 25 minutes, and when you tack on V/Line time, it almost always takes over 1.5 hours.

For lines like Geelong that have suburban levels of patronage, there should be suburban levels of frequency if there are to be no perks like first class or features that would draw you away from a car.

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