Roe 8 – a bad idea, or a good idea in a bad system?

This post describes events in an isolated city unfamiliar to many, but it has lessons for countless major cities around the world facing similar issues.

In the remote city of Perth, Western Australia, a campaign was waged until March 2017 against a big highway project called ‘Roe 8’.

The purpose of the project was to connect the Roe Highway to Fremantle Port with a major road across the Beeliar Regional Park. This area contains some of the best remaining wetlands in the rapidly developing Perth Metropolitan Area, with a rich diversity of plant and animal species.

The hope was to improve the flow of traffic by taking most if not all heavy trucks off the existing roads and making more room for private cars.

The project was opposed by environmental groups and was initially approved by the government environmental agency. This approval was overturned in 2015 on appeal in the courts by environmental groups, but the government in turn successfully appealed against that decision.

Construction of the 5km of road began in December 2016. This was only three months before the state election in March 2017. The opposition Labor party, who had promised to cancel the road project, was expected to win that election, and they did, by a large margin.

The new government promptly cancelled the Roe 8 project, but three months of work had damaged the Beeliar Regional Park. It was thought by many that the previous government had shown arrogance, spite and a desire for destruction for its own sake by pursuing the project when they were almost certain to lose the election. It was thought that they could have waited for the election outcome before proceeding.

In the ten months since the election and the cessation of work on Roe 8, many voices have been raised in protest against the ever-worsening traffic congestion on the existing roads running east to west across the suburbs ‘south of the river’ as we say locally.

Perth is one of the most car-dominated cities in the world. When you turn 17, you are expected to get a driver’s license and buy a car, and use it for all journeys, including those into central business districts or to major sporting and other events. The cars have been getting bigger over the years, and average occupancy of each car has been falling. Monstrous SUVs barge around with one person squatting high in the corner of each. This system has grown for 60 years, supported, encouraged and subsidised by governments of both sides of politics.

Perth people don’t use public transport if they can avoid it, they drive. Most people have never used it in their lives. They have been driven to and from school, driven to parties and other things, and at 17 have jumped straight into their own car.

The problem is that the cancellation of Roe 8 is inconsistent with this system. The system needs more roads and car parks, all the time.

The Labor party has, to its credit, done much to improve public transport whenever it has been in power. It has provided Perth with an extensive electrified rail network, probably superior to any in Australia, in quality if not quantity. When Labor took power in 1983 there were only two railway lines, both running old diesel rail cars on infrequent schedules. These were supposed to close and be replaced with busways. Now there are five long electric rail lines with more being built or planned by this latest Labor government.

The hope is that people will be tempted out of their cars to use the new trains. To some extent this has of course happened. But no measures have been taken to nudge them towards public transport. No ‘push-pull’ policy, in the sense of the pull towards better public transport being helped by a shove out of cars.

A prevalent idea is that people use cars because public transport is bad. But it’s the other way around. People buy cars because they want them, then use them because it’s cost-effective, having paid all that money, to use them as much as possible. Public transport deteriorates as a result, and the growth of the city is shaped accordingly.

The most recent report on public transport use has shown a continued decline in the use of public transport, particularly buses, which are jammed on the congested roads with all other motor vehicles with no special give-way rights. A bus is the same as a single-occupant SUV as far as the Highway Code is concerned. Nothing has been done to improve that situation.

Soon after gaining power, the Labor government made a law that motorists must leave a one metre gap when passing cyclists. This was supposed to show that the government encouraged cycling as part of the urban transport mix, to reduce traffic congestion. But the law has actually increased impatience and aggression towards cyclists. It is broken more than it is kept, encouraging contempt for law enforcement. On many roads there isn’t a metre to spare, taking into account the gap between the bicycle and the edge of the road, the width of the motor vehicle and the needed clearance between the vehicle and the lane marking. This is worse on many roads, including busy ones, which have been booby-trapped with over-width median strips and footpaths, oversized roundabouts and bits of kerb jutting into the roadway. These ‘calming’ treatments are meant to improve safety by slowing traffic down. It could be argued that the hidden purpose of the one-metre law is to discourage cycling.

Meanwhile road building and widening goes on apace, apart from Roe 8. If the new Labor government doesn’t do more to achieve a substantial shift away from private cars by the time of the next election in 2021, they might well find themselves forced to restart Roe 8 in order to gain support in that election. If they lose the election, the incoming government will likely restart Roe 8. It will be more expensive by then, and more destructive. The rehabilitation work that has been started at Beeliar will have no chance to come to fruition.

Modifying our mid-twentieth century transport system to make it more sustainable, and also to make the future with electric and self-driving vehicles achievable more easily and at less cost, will take time and effort. A government might want to kick the can down the road and play safe with voters. But it is arguable that taking strong action, and actually achieving a shift, is no more likely to lose an election than just letting things get worse.

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