On this page…

  1. Why do I say “Transit” instead of train?
  2. Transit saves time
  3. Transit saves money (and lives!)
  4. Transit saves energy
  5. Transit encourages New Urban developers
    — “If you build it, they will come”
  6. Developers might fund half the rail
  7. Why Sydney is adopting Metros
  8. Robot-ubers cannot compete with transit
  9. Bikes at each end
  10. A Sydney Metro Plan I support
  11. Sydney to Brisbane fast-rail may never happen if developers take the land!
  12. Public transport organisations

1. Why do I say “transit” instead of train?

I use the term transit to cover all forms of rail – and even some that aren’t! I infinitely prefer trains and trams and trolley buses to cars. But the reality is I’m starting to use the term transit because there are just so many forms of public transport that seem viable in different contexts. There are Double Decker trains, single-deck Metro’s, trams, trolley-buses, and even others. As long as they are permanent enough for local governments to design town squares around, they’re fine.

2. Transit saves time

Who wants to waste time in traffic? As city populations grow, if every family has their own green-car, how are we going to drive anywhere? There will just be too many cars stuck in traffic jams! Even bloggers on the other side of the political chasm to me get this. As Orson Scott Card (one of my favourite Science Fiction authors) states of driving each day:

It’s already a huge inconvenience and expense. I daresay most readers of this column spend most of their gas money and transportation time on two things: Shopping and commuting. And how much of that is spent just getting out of your neighborhood? Admit it: You’re sick of those drives you take every day. You dread getting in the car time after time, just to get through the day.”and later….

Remember, truly rich people have drivers take them on those tedious commutes, so they can do something better with their time during the drive. Which is what people who take the bus and the train also get. It’s only the middle class that’s suckered into wasting all those hours driving themselves everywhere. If you’re spending all your time on the road, my friends, then you have definitely not arrived.

3. Transit saves money

In Australia, the ABC Science reporter Robyn Williams ran a program 2024 Dreaming: Beyond Gridlock which commented on peak oil, the hydrogen economy, eco-cities, efficient public transport and putting them all together. Some interesting comments follow.

Citizens are saying, we want to pay for increased public transport. We see that in research by the Warren Centre where 70% of the citizens who were surveyed said yes, move my tax out of the roads budget and into public transport. Now that’s a resounding response…

…Robyn Williams: The cost of road crashes in Australia is $17 billion a year. The cost of traffic jams in America, according to The Economist is $100 billion a year, and that was in 1999. The cost of traffic jams in Australia was $12.8 billion in 1995. By 2015, long before 2024, it’ll cost us $30 billion a year – that’s six times what the Commonwealth spends on all scientific research. Can you afford it? Whatever the energy source, hydrogen, wind or whatever, we can’t, says Dave Rand, just hope to go greener and keep our vehicles.

Sally Campbell: Public transport systems cost less as a percentage of GDP than transport systems based mainly on roads. And we see that when they start to compare Europe’s current systems to the current systems in Australia and the US and it’s almost a third less in terms of percentage of GDP to operate a system mainly based on public transport. So there are massive cost savings to be had.

Robyn Williams: You’re talking about billions.

Sally Campbell: Yeah, we’re talking about billions of dollars, we’re talking about two, or three, or four a percent of GDP that we could be saving. This is huge amounts of money.

4. Transit saves energy

Online Opinion: says:-

Public transport is a far more energy-efficient and is a less carbon-intensive alternative to petrol-driven vehicles. The Public Transport Users Association (PTUA) has surveyed the energy efficiency of public versus private transport. To break the figures down: an average petrol-run car will cost about 3.7 mega-joules (MJ) per passenger-kilometre (pkm). An electric train, however, operates at a rate of between 0.04 and 0.18 MJ pkm, making train transport as much as nine times more energy efficient. Read the PTUA survey.

Many existing diesel train networks could be electrified with significant oil savings. A Washington Peak oil brief found that electrifying existing rail and converting half of the truck ton-miles would save the USA 6.3% of their daily oil use. (This article from Light Rail Now is brilliant on why we should electrify national rail grids.) Weaning off oil is what it is all about, after all.

5. Why Sydney is adopting Metros

Our Double-Decker trains were great back in the day. They carry more people longer distances. But loading and unloading times are slower as people climb up and down the stairs and negotiate their way around people staying on the train.

Metro’s have one deck and bigger doors. They’re all about getting people on and off the Metro faster. They are ideal for denser town plans with more people moving over shorter distances than Sydney’s old suburbia – and so of course are ideal for new Urbanism.

6. Transit encourages New Urban developers!

“If you build it, they will come”

First build the trams, and then the New Urbanism will creep in around and above the train stations. Peter Newman again:-

Yet in recent years there has been a revival of rail-based urban development, which brings reduced traffic, creates more walkable and lively places to live and work, and most of all attracts developers and financiers to enable denser, mixed-use development.

Perth’s beleaguered MAX light rail project – now mothballed in favour of a bus rapid transit service – was designed to deliver precisely these benefits. But when the bus lobby sidles in and whispers “we can do exactly the same for half the price”, they get a sympathetic ear from transport planners who are trained to get people efficiently from A to B, without thinking about whether they are also delivering good urban development.

Rubber-wheeled public transport does not create dense, mixed-use urban centres. Having examined examples around the world, I have found none that can be claimed to have resulted in more focused urbanity apart from already dense third world cities where BRT’s have been successful in attracting patronage as they get people out of traffic. In the United States, the past 20 years of dramatic growth in public transport has seen light rail grow by 190% and heavy rail by 52%, while bus transport has contracted by 3%.

It is no surprise that developers, banks and governments in developed cities have returned to light and heavy rail to help regenerate urban centres, while cities with rubber-wheeled public transport continue to be dominated by cars and urban sprawl. On current trends, Perth itself could conceivably turn into a 240 km sprawl stretching from Myalup to Lancelin, most of it made of nothing but car-dependent housing – more Mad Max than MAX.

Perth’s planners know that they must redevelop and create activity centres, but they do not control the decisions on transport. Transport planners, meanwhile, do not seem to see that their choices have impacts that go beyond simple modes of transport.

Enter the private sector

Here is my possible solution, which Infrastructure Australia has previously tried to get state governments to adopt: get the private sector involved in the planning stage, as well as the delivery and operations, of any light rail project. Light rail lends itself to private-sector involvement, but only if the development outcomes being sought are built into the whole project, rather than being an afterthought.

The model for Infrastructure Australia’s approach was the A$1 billion Gold Coast Light Rail, which runs through areas that had lots of potential for redevelopment. Thus the funding was provided by a public-private partnership, with expressions of interest sought from private bidders to design, finance, build, own, operate and develop land as a basis for funding.

Government base funds and a general set of guidelines were delivered and bids were sought. Five consortia from around the world competed on this basis and included most of the world’s main consulting groups with expertise in light rail.

However, the group of transport experts (mostly main roads engineers) set up by the Queensland Government to deliver the light rail argued that they did not have the expertise to manage the land-development part of the exercise, and successfully appealed to avoid this approach. Instead, funding was delivered through an annual transport levy across the whole Gold Coast local government area.

The private sector consortia were well prepared for the land-development option but of course went ahead without it. Keolis won the tender and delivered a first-class light rail. As soon as the route was announced, developers from around the world bought up all the best sites and are now delivering them, albeit for their own interests rather than channelling back to the project.

This is the way to do it if you have tax funds to provide the capital and the operational expenses, and if you can find the initial public funding. But most politicians today say they do not have sufficient government funds for a light rail so they need to consider the cheaper bus option. Do we have to take second best?

The rubber-wheel option is never going to deliver the regeneration that many of Australia’s cities need. We need to be brave enough to go for the better option, the rail system, and that means embracing the public-private partnership financing model.

Bringing the private sector on board

To go for a full private-sector approach you must integrate redevelopment into every stage of the project. This is how you do it. Call for expressions of interest for private companies to design, build, finance, own and operate the light rail link and, crucially, make sure this includes land-development options (rather than letting in outside developers). This would help to create funds that can be used to finance and to operate the system.

Government needs to contribute a base grant and an operational fund that could be more specifically focused along the areas where the biggest benefits are felt in the corridor itself, where land values will go up most. Private expertise will ensure that the best sites are chosen for the light rail route. These land-value increases will flow through taxes into treasury and can be set aside in a dedicated light rail fund for ongoing operations and/or for raising finance (rather than instituting a city-wide levy as the Gold Coast did).

The approach, called tax increment financing, allows infrastructure to be built where it can be shown that the taxes would not have been generated without it. A bus instead of a light rail would not generate such land-value increases, and hence the extra tax dollars would not flow. For instance, Perth’s southern rail line raised land values around stations by 42% over 5 years and could have raised 60-80% of the capital cost if tax increment financing had been used.

Across Australia we should accept that there is a real choice over steel or rubber wheeled development. We can choose MAX over Mad Max. But are we brave enough to go one step further than the Gold Coast and involve private financing?

Some might object to our public transport being in private hands, but if we manage it well, this kind of partnership with private expertise can deliver beautiful cities as well as beautiful trains.

7. Developers might fund half the rail

This next point is controversial, as some might demand that only their governments fund and run public infrastructure like rail in case profits go overseas. I’m sympathetic to that argument, and in a perfect world governments would understand the long-term economic gains from New Urbanism and roll out the rail to support it, trusting in the long-term tax gains from the increased GDP and social health from New Urbanism. As Light Rail now argued:-

“As noted above, the Interstate Highway system was built with 90% federal funding; yet the current administration has cut federal funding for new urban rail from 80% to 50%. The United States once built 500 electric streetcar systems in less than 20 years. Most cities and towns of 25,000 or more got a non-oil electrical transportation system. The US did this with a population of less than one-third of today’s, approximately 3% of today’s GNP, and relatively primitive technology. We did it once, we can do it again!”

But most governments seem to be complaining of budgeting constraints and don’t have the education to understand the important benefits of New Urban principles to know they will eventually recover their losses. This led Peter Newman to propose having the private sector to fund half the rail.

Government may chip in, but government funding should be more than matched by land development-based financing from the private sector. There are a range of methods for estimating how much money can be made from investing in the land around stations, and how much money goes into government coffers from the increased land value.

This model would not only enable federal, state and local money to go much further but it may even need very little government capital, just support for the process of land development as the driving base.

The alternative will be to continue seeing rail projects as welfare rather than the market-oriented opportunity they have now become in congested cities. In the present government-funded system investors come in and take windfall profits from the land around stations, thereby capturing much of the economic value created. This approach finds a way of recycling such value into the building of rail lines as well as the dense station precincts.

These rail projects would provide much needed transport infrastructure, but also provide the basis for reinvigorating our cities over the next 30 years.

9. Robot-ubers cannot compete with transit

Everyone imagines robot-ubers or computer driven taxis becoming so cheap (without the driver’s salary to pay) that these replace public transport systems. I disagree. A new congestion threat is that robot taxis could prove so cheap to hire that they risk increasing traffic congestion in denser downtown areas. Jarrett Walker writes on this topic frequently. His main point is that autonomous vehicles are fine in places where there’s enough space for them, but dense city cores are already congested and can’t support an increase in vehicles, regardless of whether or not they are driven by humans. It’s a matter of space and geometry: you can fit vastly more people into the efficient space of a train than you can if you wrap them all individually in meters of robot-cab.

As Professor Peter Newman said:-

Rail is needed in all of the world’s cities as it can enable travel time savings and space efficiencies no longer achievable by car and bus. Rail can carry 20 times as many people compared to a single lane of freeway and five to 10 times that of a bus way.

Elon Musk knows this, and this is why he has the Boring Company to try and create an underground 3d network of car-sleds to solve traffic problems. But again, the laws of geometry will require many more tunnels for cars that the cost will skyrocket! It’s people in shared carriages vs people in individual cars trying to mimic trains. It’s physics and geometry. Cars cannot compete.

9. Bikes at each end

Ever caught the train, only to wish there was a bike at the end of the trip? Ever had a bus ride that stopped just a 500 meters short of your destination? Ever wanted to use a bike, but hated the idea of taking it with you on a train, or worse, having to service the thing? Or maybe you just don’t have the money to buy the bike you’d like in the first place? This exciting new public hire system solves all of these issues! It’s dirt cheap, mainly installed, serviced and paid for by advertising agencies, and it’s called Velib (see wiki).  The Age (July 2007) reports that:

The councils in Melbourne and Sydney have also held talks with outdoor advertising giant JCDecaux, which is paying the full costs of the Parisian scheme in return for control for a decade of 1700 city-owned billboards.

To get a swipe card to use the Velib bikes, people can pay a 29 euros ($A46) annual fee or take up a daily or weekly credit card subscription for one or five euros. The first half-hour is free, but then the fees kick in and rise steeply to encourage quick turnover.

As Vox says, if cycling can happen in New York, it can happen anywhere. Dedicated cycling lanes generate commercial income, prevent accidents, and can actually increase traffic efficiency.

10. A Sydney Metro plan I support

11. Sydney to Brisbane fast-rail may never happen if developers take the land!

The modelling indicates the land corridor is valued at $13.7 billion at today’s prices but will balloon to $57 billion by 2030.

“Failure to protect these corridors now will increase their cost in the future and could put a complete network out of Australia’s financial capacity,” the report warns. It forecasts an 86 per cent chance that Australia will need a very fast train by 2030, rising to 93 per cent by 2050. It argues that high-speed rail would open up new opportunities for regional development, tackle the population problem and reduce congestion, which costs the country $10 billion a year in lost productivity, a cost that is projected to blow out to $20.4 billion by 2020.
SMH September 2010 – Fast Rail could overtake new airport


12. Public transport organisations to browse

International Association of Public Transport
An international organisation for public transport authorities and operators, policy decision-makers, scientific institutes and the public transport supply and service industry.

UNEP Energy Group: Transport
Read about the UN’s initiatives in establishing energy standards for public and private modes of transportation

Next page: common objections to New Urbanism:

  1. That’s so typical of Nazi Greenie Control Freaks telling us how to live!
  2. It’s just lefty propaganda — suburbia is the American way
  3. Cities are ugly!
  4. What do we do with the vast suburban areas we’ve already built?
  5. How do we pay for all this?


2 Responses to Rail

  1. Jim Baerg says:

    There is another transport technology that can be run directly from the electric grid, either for cargo transport:
    or passenger.

    Of course the electricity can be from some non-fossil source like nuclear.

  2. Jim Baerg says:

    Version with type fixed
    There is another transport technology that can be run directly from the electric grid, either for cargo transport:
    or passenger.

    Of course the electricity can be from some non-fossil source like nuclear.

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