Thursday, October 06, 2005

Learning from Perth

It's hard not to be impressed with the public transport improvements that have been made in Perth over the last 15 years or so.

From planning to close its rail system in the 1970s (Fremantle line services ceased in 1979) to restoring, electrifying, modernising and expanding the network from the 1980s, Perth public transport has come a long way. It is a credit to those involved that this was achieved despite the prevailing anti-rail mindset amongst transport planners at the time.

Where major decisions were required, the right choices were always made. The work was completed on time and on budget. Since the early 1990s, patronage in Perth has grown faster than in any other Australian city.

To tell how Perth did it was Prof Peter Newman from Murdoch Uni, who spoke last night at a well attended meeting convened by Environment Victoria.

Unlike in other states, WA has just one minister and one department responsible for planning and infrastructure. One advantage of this is that road and public transport proposals can be evaluated against one another and fairly compete for funding. The effect of this in WA has been a shift of resources from roads to public transport since 2001.

A casual observer might see the Perth rail improvements as being part of a coherent transport plan. After all it appears logical; restoring a defunct service, modernising the whole system, a new line, increasing services, some more extensions, etc. However in practice, the Friends of the Railways (in which Prof Newman was involved) vigorously lobbied for one project at a time, and had no big future vision.

Politically, Labor had been pro-rail, with one of its first acts being to restore the Fremantle service in 1983 after the FOR rallies revealed the strong public support. However since then it has been the Liberals that have moved furthest, from closing the Fremantle line in 1979 to promising a southern line in 2001. Peter also cited a change of mind by former Liberal leader Bill Hassell, who recognised that closing the Fremantle line was his party's biggest mistake and has supported rail in recent newspaper columns. Although there remain party differences (the Liberals are more pro-road and advocated a less direct southern line option), having a measure of bipartisanship in favour of public transport has been a real achievement.

Although state issues such as education, health and police are always important, rail extension was seen as 'building for the long-term' and thus had high public support. Prof Newman also said that the 2004 state election illustrated that it was possible to be pro-public transport and anti-freeway and win politically. Though to be fair, with the southern rail project decided and under construction, there were other issues that dominated debate, such as a proposed water pipeline and economic management.

The view that (at least for longish radial trips) rail was more popular than the bus substitute was substantiated with a 30% patronage loss when the Fremantle line was replaced by buses. This is despite a somewhat more frequent bus service. This loss was recouped when the rail service was restored. Prof Newman also cites the financial viability of the Northern suburbs line, with it breaking even on running cost (it doesn't pay enough to return capital costs, but neither do most road projects).

Perth has also been a pioneer with TravelSmart (direct marketing of public transport to households) and now Transit Oriented Design of suburbs. The 1997 Liveable Neighbourhoods strategy is supported by both sides of politics. It involves new developments around existing stations (Subiaco is the most high-profile success which has doubled station boarding) and also proposed stations (eg Wellard). TOD is also proposed when established tired residential suburbs are being redeveloped.

Peter Newman said that this acceptance may have drawn from the tradition of strong urban planning, dating back to Hepburn-Stephenson in the 1950s. This plan made provision for rail, but this was removed by subsequent road planners. What we have now, with a northern suburbs rail line, is more in accord with the original plan.

Another issue is that Perth did do planning well, but much of it was car-oriented, so its street layout in many suburbs is transit and pedestrian-hostile. Because Perth is such a modern city, more of its suburbs are transit-hostile than (say) Melbourne or Sydney. However it looks as if the will to reverse this is greater in Perth than in other cities. Thus planning by itself is not necessarily a good thing; the question really should be what sort of planning, as bad planning may sometimes be better than none.

Prof Newman strongly emphasises the role of private developers in developing transit oriented developments. Although he didn't mention Joondalup (which is regarded by some as a failed TOD as it didn't pedestrianise enough), he saw great possibilities for the Murdoch precinct and Northbridge (when the line is sunk). None of these would have been possible without the southern railway (direct alignment) providing a catalyst.

Here in Melbourne it is nothing for local government to be pro-public transport and advocate better services to their area. However Peter Newman noted the opposite for Perth, with little support to preserve, restore or build services from local government. There was also no help from the Federal government or transport planners. The general view was that FOR were fighting a losing battle, despite the fuel price hike that year.

The helpful factors were that there was a bipartisan city planning culture in Perth, and that original plans had a place for rail. Research was key, as was community and media support. The bureaucracy were anti-rail before 1983, but came around when government policy changed. Hence the provision of leadership from the Minister and Cabinet was essential to achieving change.

In this vein Prof Newman warned that 'If you reject the Minister and Cabinet they will reject you'. For this reason it was important to tell a story, give credit to strenghten their hand, since politics is a numbers game. Thus transport supporters should also make use of networks in business, bureaucracy and community and build supportive coalitions.

In a statement that might not go down well with local Save our Suburbs groups, Peter saw potential for co-operation between transport planners and developers, including the recently in vogue public-private partnerships. 'They do it with freeways - why not public transport?' suggested Peter. However every Melbourne commuter knows that too much private control can emasculate transport interchanges, as occurred in the 1980s with Box Hill and in 2003 with the botched Melbourne Central redevelopment.

In response to questions, Prof Newman cited the tax system's bias towards cars and driving as an area of federal policy to change. He strongly praised the recent 'Sustainable Cities' parliamentary commitee report and mentioned Malcolm Turnbull as an ally. AUSLINK has the possibility of funding rail transport, but this was so far confined to freight.

Commenting on Melbourne, Prof Newman found that people here were cynical about public transport and the possiblity of improvement. He described our rail system as good but a trifle slow. TODs on railway stations were also needed; he criticised 'some film star' (Geoffrey Rush) for opposing a four storey development proposed for Camberwell Station. When asked about service frequencies, he said this should be sufficiently frequent throughout the day not to require a timetable; a basic 15 (maybe 10) minute frequency was suggested, with 5 minute services in peak periods.

Peter ended on an optimistic note, saying now was a good time to get improved public transport on the agenda. Opportunities to be seized included local government/community interest (Peter is talking transport at the Municipal Association of Victoria conference), the recent higher oil prices and the completion of Regional Fast Rail as presenting valuable opportunities to win ministerial and government support for improved public transport in Melbourne.

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