Say ‘nein’ to Roe: An Aussie message from Germany

JEFFREY KENWORTHY is a guest professor at Frankfurt University of Applied Sciences, Germany and professor in sustainable cities at Curtin University’s Sustainability Policy Institute.

IN a world where nearly every day we are being confronted with yet another natural disaster, severe weather conditions or new species of flora and fauna on the endangered list, one would think that consideration for the environment, on which we all depend, would be paramount.

But it seems that in Perth, construction of roads mostly bypasses these imperatives.

In 1988 I was seconded from Murdoch University to the state government to work on the road reserves review. We learned that the total land area in the Metropolitan Region Scheme (MRS) devoted to unconstructed road reserves, when superimposed in one piece, extended from the coast along Scarborough Beach Road all the way to West Perth and then along the river to Fremantle – an area equivalent to the entire western suburbs of Perth and more.

New approaches

The study revealed through hard economic analysis how such road reservations were not economically justified, never mind the environmental and social problems they cause and the future traffic which they would bring. It recommended new approaches.

That study resulted in a few road reserves being removed from the MRS. But the Roe Highway has hung around and is a relic of decades-old Perth transport planning based on constantly increasing road supply. We now know that such approaches only lead to worsening traffic situations and unacceptable environmental, social and economic costs.

Despite this new understanding of the way cities work, we still now face the threat of yet another new road destroying the environmental integrity of a globally recognised biodiversity hotspot at Bibra/North Lake. This demonstrates a serious need to re-evaluate our planning priorities and methods.

Through 40 years of research and activism, I have tried to show how cities can grow without excessive road construction, while providing a better quality of life for all. Perth has needed to grow and will still grow. That is not in question. It is the form of growth, the transport modes we use and the transport modelling results of cost savings from new roads that are at issue here.

These transport models are useful tools in creating a picture of the current transport and land-use situation in any city and can provide some good quantitative baseline outputs. They are, however, very bad predictive tools and even worse at prescribing future solutions.

In the 1960s their limited, narrow and simplistic perspectives on cities based on simple benefit-cost analyses created a freeway construction heyday. This is referred to today as “predict and provide” planning and is widely criticised worldwide as creating perpetual cycles of congestion, road construction, higher congestion and more road construction. It’s a treadmill. It has left cities in highly vulnerable states without good rail-based freight systems or decent public transport systems.

We know that such approaches are inadequate for cities in the 21st century where many other urban planning, environmental and social imperatives need to be considered. The worst aspect of the models is that they create the illusion that we can get rid of congestion by always building more road capacity. In their benefit-cost analyses, 75 to 80 per cent of the claimed benefits are supposed to come from time saved. From the 1970s onwards, as we extended the freeway north and south of the city, the Main Roads model was used to justify it in time-savings.

Those freeways become parking lots every morning and evening, showing the illusion of time-savings from perpetual road building. Roe 8 and 9 will be no exceptions. Traffic behaves like a gas and fills every available space we provide for it. Its volume increases. There is no end to it.

Yet engineers persist in treating traffic as a liquid which keeps the same volume. The idea is that a new road will maintain free-flowing conditions and result in time savings. But the roads fill. Cities are now realising they must do other things to manage demand for road space, rather than perpetually increasing road supply.

Cities like Los Angeles and Houston are full of high capacity roads and still suffer interminable congestion. Both have turned to rail rapid transit.

Property values

On the other hand, rail lines maintain their time-savings. The Joondalup and Mandurah lines were built to get past the saturated freeways and are benefitting the northern and southern suburbs with genuine improvements in travel time and enhanced property values.

It is entirely understandable that people in suburbs plagued by heavy freight traffic want relief from it and this should happen as soon as is practicable. Roe 8 seems like a quick fix, but it is not.

There is a better solution for this in the form of the proposed new port.

1960s-style road-building solutions through sensitive urban and natural environments are not supportable, not just for the obvious environmental destruction, but also because they do not produce the desired social and economic benefits.

Today we have a better understanding of the way cities work and better tools and resources to ensure we get more equitable, effective and sustainable solutions to our urban planning and transport problems.

Cities around the world are pursuing these. Building new roads such as Roe 8 is not an effective, fair or sustainable solution for Perth’s growing traffic problems.

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