MH370 and the coolabah tree

To be Australian is to travel: our compulsion to travel and our purported generosity to travellers from across the world represent fundamental building blocks of the Australian national ethos. Both our modern foundation story and the native traditions of the first Australians mark us out collectively as people who are culturally displaced; people who have been compelled (or whose ancestors have been compelled) to transition, whether by force or by choice. Our national songs still reflect this even if our current hard-nosed approach to immigration and asylum seekers do not:

…for those who’ve come across the seas, we’ve boundless plains to share…

…we are one, but we are many and from all the lands on earth we come…

…but no matter how far or how wide I roam, I still call Australia home…

Viewed through this prism, Banjo Patterson’s “jolly swagman” myth is quickly demystified: he was of course Australia’s first ever backpacker!

Our relationship to travel and travellers is a condition that brings us pain as well as joy. Tim Minchin’s wonderful modern Australian Christmas Carol White Wine in the Sun is a hymn to family time together and the pain that we feel when our loved ones are on the other side of the world. The political reality of the Abbott Government’s “stop the boats” rhetoric stings many of us, in part, because it so violently contradicts our national identity – or at least – the national identity we celebrate in our songs and our history. There is a profound conflict between our mythology and the reality here: these are values that are supposed to really mean something; they are supposed to be unique to us.

This relationship also infects our political consciousness in other ways, for example, on the question of QANTAS being Australia’s “national carrier” and therefore deserving of special treatment. QANTAS is one of the world’ s oldest airlines, the brand that generations have relied upon and trusted to carry them around Australia and abroad, and a living symbol of our unquenchable national love for travel. That flying kangaroo, bolstered by decades of cunningly parochial advertising, represents more than just another company now, even if in practical terms it is just another logo. There is an emotional attachment there that has been hardwired into us through our own individual trips to the Gold Coast with friends, or to Bali, or through visiting relatives in Asia, Europe or still further afield.

It is this sort of sensibility on travel that arguably makes Australians more empathetic than most when disasters such as that which appears to have befallen flight MH370 materialise. Many of us either instinctively or through experience can relate to how it feels to be suspended in a glorified metallic can above a dark ocean, worlds away from friends and loved ones, with your life in the hands of pilots, sight unseen. Most of us can feel what it would be like if a disaster happened to us on a flight: because we have ourselves almost been there, whether in reality or in our fertile imaginations. There is a reason why Australians don’t mind an episode of Air Crash Investigations: it pushes our buttons. The tabloid media may have tried its best in the last few days to focus on the six unfortunate Australians who were aboard MH370, but such is our identification with “the traveller” that we are emotionally capable of feeling the pain of the other 233 souls on board just as keenly. The sense that “it could have been us” cuts right through, past nationality, race, colour or creed.

If to be Australian is to travel, in some fleeting moments at least, to travel is to be Australian.

Is Sydney ready for “congestion” tolling?

NSW Treasurer Eric Roozendaal handed down his government’s much awaited mini-budget today, and boy has he been hit with a few brick bats in the media. Ross Gittins has effectively panned the mini-budget, commenting that it will “impress no one and win the Rees Government no friends”. One of the most contentious new measures has been a move to introduce a kind of cutdown congestion charge to two of the inner city’s toll roads. Roozendaal outlines the scheme in his budget speech [PDF]:

The Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Harbour Tunnel will become the first motorways in Australia to switch to time-of-day tolling.

The toll on these roads will be a ‘peak’ toll of $4, a ‘shoulder’ peak toll of $3 and an off peak toll of $2.50.

This is the first change to the Harbour crossing tolls in six years.

Mr Speaker, every cent of the extra revenue raised will go to buying new buses.

Despite the fact that this new measure comes in difficult economic times, I honestly think that on balance, it is a welcome step forward. If New South Wales does need more money to invest in public transport (and I don’t think this is in dispute), why not raise it through a new measure that acts as a disincentive to motorists? Why not ask the people who are causing Sydney’s ugly traffic snarls to pay for it? As Roozendaal says, the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Tunnel tolls have not changed in six years – if we really are concerned about climate change and decreasing traffic on our roads, then an increase is more than due. It is probably worth adding that the cost of the toll will actually drop by 50c per trip for people who use either tollway in off-peak times.

Predictably, both NRMA President Alan Evans and the NSW Opposition have condemned the congestion tolling concept, but the reasons they give for their opposition seem fairly half-baked. Besides throwing tee-hee slogans like “Nathan ‘Ned Kelly’ Rees”, “daylight robbery” and “highway robbery” out there, Evans’ main argument in opposition to the new measure is that Sydney does not currently have a sturdy enough public transport system for motorists to switch to. This seems to be the line that Barry O’Farrell is pushing as well, with the Opposition Leader suggesting that CityRail can’t cope with any increased utilisation during peak hour. While there is an element of truth to what both Evans and O’Farrell are saying, they are also somewhat missing the point. This new measure is being used to pay for more buses for Sydney. In other words, better public transport. In the current fiscal environment in New South Wales, assuming that we do actually want to improve the state of Sydney’s public transport, I feel that the new congestion tolling regime is quite reasonable.

So am I saying the measure is perfect? Hell no. Anyone who drives around Sydney or has done so over the last decade will know that there are several other key arterial roads that could do with a lot less traffic on them – Victoria Road, Parramatta Road, and the City West Link to name just three. Presumably because these roads do not currently have the infrastructure necessary to support a toll-based congestion charge, the traffic snarls on these three roads will not be going away any time soon – in fact, they may even increase as some drivers change their route in order to avoid the increased tolls. The measure, bound as it is to the Sydney Harbour toll roads, also unfairly targets those who live north of the harbour and work in the CBD or south of it, and vice-versa.

It will be interesting to see if we see the vigorous public objections to this charge that Ross Gittins predicted we would see if a congestion charge was introduced back in 2006. The NSW Government has not gotten a lot right in recent history, but I think it deserves a bit of kudos here for delivering a spot of tough love to motorists and indeed the motoring lobby.

That old “second airport” chestnut

Linton Besser’s story in the SMH today notes that the Iemma Labor Government’s submission to the Rudd Government’s aviation review calls for a second “Sydney” airport in Newcastle. All public submissions to the review are available on this page, and some of which no doubt make for interesting reading.

The major problems facing the Rudd Government in this area are now three-fold; guiding Australia’s largest city towards an aviation solution that adequately meets the nation’s transport needs, ensuring that any new airport constructed is as environmentally sustainable as is feasible, and overcoming the intense “nimbyism” that is bound to ferment as a result of any proposals for a new airport in the Sydney area. Despite the obvious environmental concerns associated with building a new airport, I don’t think there is any doubting that Sydney can not expect to be able to sustainably service all its international traffic over the coming decades with Kingsford-Smith Airport alone. Building a new airport perhaps just outside the Sydney basin but a reasonably short train journey away from the city is probably the correct answer, and in this respect the NSW Government may be on the right track.

My travels in London have informed me somewhat in the potential benefits of this approach: in London there are no less than five international airports within a one hour train trip of the central business district. High speed private rail links or public rail links, together with high frequency private coach services operate in combination on a 24-hour schedule between each airport and key corners of the city. While I don’t believe that Sydney needs to service anywhere near as much air traffic as London, I have little doubt that the flourishing of London’s secondary international airports have produced many good outcomes. Airports like Stansted Airport have created new jobs, stimulated the local economy, reduced the numbers of people who need to drive to and from the airport, increased competition in the airline industry and reduced the cost of airfares.

If the Rudd Government selects an appropriate location for Sydney’s second international airport, is careful to engage the local community through extensive consultation, and manages the construction and ongoing operations of the airport in an environmentally sustainable manner, this historically controversial and difficult nation-building project could, at long last, prove to be a success.

Of course it needs to happen and be a success, and not just to help service Sydney’s growing aviation requirements; for the sake of the sanity of people living within 10-15 kilometres of Mascot, something needs to happen over the course of the next decade.

The great Sydney metro dream?

Like many folks living in Sydney I suspect, I am not sure quite what to think about the Iemma Government’s grand metro proposal. Let’s consider the negative aspects to the proposal to begin with. The current government’s record on delivering successful PPP agreements is less than stellar. The project would be a massive one, taking a significant amount of time to complete, and highly likely to require the involvement and support of multiple governments. The project would represent a highly significant infrastructure investment specific to the Sydney metropolitan area, and would not really benefit all those people in New South Wales living outside this area. It is not clear what the benefits and negative impacts of the project to the city of Sydney would be precisely, in the absence of any detailed inquiry commissioned by the government. When you combine all these factors and consider them together, it would be a brave soul who does not have a doubt in his or her mind that a project of this magnitude can be carried off.

But then let’s consider the flip side of the coin. The proposed metro line would open up a fantastic and much needed transport option for Sydney’s burgeoning north-west suburban zones. The suburbs through which the metro lines pass would likely undergo something of a rejuvenation, with residential and commercial interest increasing, and traffic decreasing due to the increased use of public transport. I think it’s fair to say that anyone who values public transport and appreciates the potential economic, cultural and environmental benefits that it can bring can not help but feel a little excited about the proposal, whatever their doubts might be. The transformative possibilities that a big public infrastructure development like this would bring to Sydney are arguably hard to overestimate.

Few policy proposals in the modern history of NSW state politics come burdened with so much doubt and yet uplifted with so much hope. On the slightly sceptical side, Scott Rochfort had quite a good piece in the SMH yesterday that took an interesting line on the Iemma Government’s recent track record with PPPs. This line in particular captures something quite important, I think, and something the NSW Opposition would be on to in a hurry if they were smart:

Mr Roozendaal should realise PPP stands for private public partnership. Mr Roozendaal, like his private partners, should “accept the risk” of the road, whose opening was delayed until a week after the last state election.

When two people enter into a “partnership” they usually both take responsibility if a joint venture fails to deliver. The Government so far only appears to know the concept of taking credit for infrastructure projects that have not made it off the drawing board. Such as the new $12 billion metro.

The NSW State Government has played a generally quite adversarial role in the public eye in relation to its PPPs; more than happy to portray its private partners as the “bad guys” trying to make a buck at the taxpayer’s expense. Perhaps with this massive infrastructure project now on the table for discussion, it is time to take stock and repent for the sins of the past. Minister for Roads Eric Roozendaal should admit what is bleedingly obvious to everyone in NSW; the recent PPP agreements for the Cross City Tunnel and the Lane Cove Tunnel were far short of optimal for the people of Sydney. The government should come out, and publicly admit that it should have done better. And most importantly, the government should then make it crystal clear that it will do a far superior job with this next proposal, and outline exactly how it intends to deliver on that promise.

This sort of openness and transparency is just what the Iemma Government needs at the moment if it is to bring the people of NSW along for the ride on this ostentatious metro scheme. Without public support for the proposal and a reason to have a renewed sense of faith in NSW Labor, there is no credible way forward for the government. Indeed, without the justified confidence of the people, the average punter is more likely than not to inform Mr. Iemma and Mr. Roozendaal at the next available opportunity that based on the current form guide, they’re dreamin’ with this metro stuff.

Buses from the future

When living in Sydney I did make use of the buses between North Sydney and the CBD quite often and found the service good, although this route is effectively the least onerous test of Sydney’s bus network that one can possibly conceive of. Despite this positive experience, by comparison, I have to conclude that London’s bus network puts Sydney’s bus network to shame. The ubiquitous double-decker red buses that roam the streets of London come surprisingly frequently, with the often complicated maze of available routes and stops quite well explained on signage throughout London and on the excellent Transport For London quango website. Displays at many major bus stops throughout the city provide a countdown of how long it will be until the next bus for each relevant route, and the displays are often pretty well on the money.

Probably the quality I admire most about London’s approach to public transport is that the city is seemingly not satisfied with just “good”. Whatever the quality of the service is at the current time, there seems to be a lot of political will and public pressure to continue to make the system even better, and then, after that, even better. Arguably at least some of this can be contributed to the drive of somewhat controversial lefty mayor “Red” Ken Livingstone.

The latest manifestation of this is the gradual unveiling of an advanced communication system for London’s buses. Sean Dodson explains further in The Guardian, in a report that gives you a teasing taste of the cornucopia of potential avenues for improvement that could be explored for a service so basic, political will and funding allowing. Finland’s awesome public transport system is justifiably provided as a reference to strive towards:

Passengers on routes such as the 148, between Camberwell and Shepherd’s Bush, may have noticed that each time the bus approaches a stop, a recorded voice tells them which one it is, similar to the announcements made on the tube.

Every bus and tram in Helsinki and the surrounding cities of Vaanta and Espoo are being fitted with Linux servers and GPS units. Every bus and tram in the conurbation will not only become a wireless hotspot serving broadband internet throughout the vehicle – for free – but every bus and tram is visible on a Google map (the beta version is at that uses the same real-time passenger information as the controllers in their command centre.

I actually have had the pleasure of catching the buses that Dodson alludes to in London, and the stop announcements have often proved useful for reminding me whereabouts in London I am at various strange times of the day and night. The fact that the announcements are quite frequent may well prove annoying to travellers who catch the same bus everyday, but I suppose as an alternative they could instead be flashed up on the information displays that seem to be present on most of London’s buses. Either way, the ability to know the location of the bus at any given time is a godsend for tourists or those unfamiliar with the city, or even locals who are in a part of town they are not too familiar with. Not to mention folks too intoxicated to pay too much attention to the world outside after a night out.

As for Finland, sounds like science fiction compared to what we are used to, eh? I will actually be visiting Helsinki in May, if all things go according to plan, so I will be able to report back further then on whether the Fins really are the world leaders with regards to public transport.