Zeev Vinokurov: Cities can grow without gridlock

Perhaps you’ve heard of the City of Melbourne’s misguided plan to ban non-resident cars from the CBD. It’s understandable: our economy and population are growing, and the resulting congestion is costing us thousands of dollars per year individually, and billions to the economy. It isolates us from family, friends and work. But cities can still grow without getting us stuck in traffic, missing increasingly overcrowded and delayed trains, or left unable to afford property. All this is happening because workplaces are too far from residents living in the suburbs, which effectively funnels residents into the inner city for work. It must change.

First, we must unwind planning laws that prevent offices, homes and apartments from being constructed alongside each other and throughout the city. These laws also raise housing prices by hundreds of thousands of dollars. Second, instead of banning cars, charge commuters for using congested roads and trains. Third, stop supporting taxpayer funded ‘road to nowhere’ infrastructure projects. These reforms will cut congestion, grow the economy, cut living costs and reconnect us to family, friends and local communities.

Planning laws cause congestion and social isolation by preventing people from building apartments and commercial offices throughout our city. As a result, rents and property prices become dearer because not enough housing is built to accommodate demand from population growth. Indeed, Reserve Bank economists estimate that planning laws increase average property prices by hundreds of thousands of dollars. This drives residents into the outer suburbs to look for cheaper housing, even as they commute into the inner city for work. If more people lived close-by to their workplaces, commutes would be shorter.

We need multiple CBDs, not just one. Unwinding planning laws that prevent commercial growth outside the CBD will cut housing costs and rents, cut congestion and promote tightly knit, thriving urban communities.

Congestion also occurs because we pay for using roads and public transport with thousands of dollars of time every year, rather than money. Congested public roads or trains cost us no more money to use in peak times, and busier routes cost no more to use than empty ones. As a result, the Grattan Institute think tank estimates that the average Melbournian’s commute to the city is twice as long in peak time. By contrast, Sydney’s trains are less congested, but are used more widely compared to Melbourne’s because its tickets are dearer in rush hour. Congestion charges that reflect market demand for infrastructure will also encourage businesses to open in commercial districts outside the CBD. Reconnecting local commuters with local workplaces will save us time and money overall.

Congestion charges are also a fairer and cheaper way of funding infrastructure projects compared to taxes like fuel tax or stamp duty. Scrapping these two taxes could save property purchasers tens of thousands of dollars or more, and reduce petrol bills by at least a third. If we pay for congested roads and trains with money rather than time and taxes, we may end up paying less.

Taxpayer funded infrastructure projects also cause congestion because they’re often ineffective. For instance, the Victorian Auditor-General reported that Victorian taxpayers spent $1.5 billion to remove train-road level crossing at 18 sleepy intersections after Labor committed to removing them even though it knew they weren’t congested. Of the 10 level crossings removed by December 2017, five saved commuters a minute or less, while the remainder saved two minutes or less. Regardless, Labor spent another $2 billion to rush completing the removals before the next election.

Similarly, the Liberals have committed to building the East-West Link even though it isn’t cost effective. Unsurprisingly, the Grattan Institute claims that roads to nowhere are commonplace, and that a quarter of all infrastructure projects  built between 2001 and 2016 blew their budgets and weren’t costed before being announced. Governments have a long history of spending billions to knowingly build ‘roads to nowhere’ when they could have built efficient infrastructure instead.

Unlike governments, private companies are unlikely to deliberately waste billions of dollars on disused roads as there’s no profit in it. For an example, see Japan’s privately owned railways. They’re famously punctual, albeit overcrowded because of regulations that hamper industry growth such as limits on ticket prices and restrictions on companies buying cheaper European trains. Historically, America also enjoyed profitable, affordable private rail and tram services until around the middle of the last century, when red tape and taxpayer subsidised road expansions bankrupted them. Effective and affordable private infrastructure is possible.

Creating vibrant local communities that put people back within reach of family, friends, and their workplaces is possible. Cutting congestion is possible. But fixing our broken system demands radical reforms. Planning laws must be wound back, congestion charges should be imposed on infrastructure users, and infrastructure should be privately managed.

Vladimir “Zeev” Vinokurov is a solicitor. The views expressed here are his own. This op-ed first appeared in The Spectator. 

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19 Responses to Zeev Vinokurov: Cities can grow without gridlock

  1. Trader Perth

    Private or public?…..funny thing happened in Sept. of 1992. After years of dawdling on a bypass road around the town of Kalgoorlie local business, construction and transport companies took it upon themselves to build a bypass road over the Sept. long weekend.The council was outraged enough that they kept the road closed till early 1993. After that it was opened and seal with state and local money.Goes to show what can be done over 3 days.

  2. Bruce of Newcastle

    One fun reason why congestion will always be a problem is the speed of light.
    It’s too slow.

    If you put a stockmarket in the middle of nowhere you will automatically force the establishment of trading rooms as close as possible to it, so that orders can be placed as quickly as possible. In one microsecond, which is a long time in computer operations, light travels 300 m. So a round trip from your trading software to the ASX and back takes at least 2 microseconds if you are 2 blocks away. It’s even slower if you have to use wires rather than a microwave link. Consequently there’s a lot of money at stake if you can set up right next door.

    Hence you now have lots of cashed up millenials trading shares in a small area of a brand new CBD. Which used to be in the middle of nowhere. They work long hours so that produces lots of cafés and restaurants. People want to live near lots of cafés and restaurants. So lots of apartments get built. Soon you have a congested CBD.

    All because of the speed of light.

    A “Mysterious Antenna” Emerges In An Empty Chicago Field; Billions Depend On It (May 2017)

  3. Craig

    Advice to author, The Grattan Institute is not a reputable source of information. Try again.

  4. JC

    Good point. Why is the Grattan institute even mentioned here? They have absolutely nothing to say of any worth about anything.

  5. Deplorable

    I would have thought a smart City would ban residents cars. There is enough free public transport for Melbournians to get around so an absence of residents cars in a 10 k radius would fix all those smug inner city greens that keep banging on about global warming bullshit.

  6. Rohan

    One of the biggest issues in increasing capacity on Melbourne’s train system is the cost of upgrading the signalling and controll systems. $10 billion+

    So more people = more commuting hell.

  7. Percy Porcelain

    But cities can still grow without getting us stuck in traffic, missing increasingly overcrowded and delayed trains, or left unable to afford property

    Not in Venozdrayastan, Toots.

  8. Hasbeen

    Move ALL public servants offices at least 20 kilometres out of the city. Move most of them 40 kilometres out, & watch the CBD bound traffic, & public transport shrink.

    The businesses that depend on bureaucrat custom will have to follow their customers will have to follow them, as will all those who market to government.

    It really is that simple.

  9. Jimf

    Building satellite mini CBD’s in Australia! What a laugh! It would take 40 years, cost zillions and be 15 years over deadline. This clown who cites The Grattan (Ponds) Institute has the answer – more tolls! That’s right , government fucks up infrastructure so badly that the long suffering punters are forced to reconcile the fact that being toll-bled to death is the least worst option.

  10. Barry Bones

    What rubbish !!

    Melbourne has become more and more jammed as they keep stuffing us with immigrants for whatever reason. And instead of getting infra (which we barely get any), this jokers thinks we should pay more in congestion charges.

    Rack off mate – how bout we just ban immigrants, starting with you – problem solved !

  11. Fred

    Sleepy intersections? The author needs to get out more.

  12. sfw

    Just stop importing huge numbers of people who primarily want to settle in Sydney and Melbourne, that will have an almost immediate impact. Zeev will say that more people is good for us but he refuses to see any downside. A massive drop in migration will be the most help to the less skilled and less well off as they will have less competition for jobs and wages and/or conditions in those fields would improve. Sure those who are wealthy and use gardening, cleaning and other services will pay more but who cares?

    As for roads well fewer people will soon reduce the traffic to tolerable conditions. Funny how Melbourne managed to build some great freeways in the 60’s and 70’s and these freeways weren’t really crowded until the early 90’s, thr growth in population was slow and manageable. Massive increases in population through migration is deadly to culture and living standards, but those at the top don’t care, they really aren’t affected by it except maybe by the traffic and if they can get ordinary people off the road by taxing them they will be happy, they have the wealth to allow them to live as they like.

    I’ve nothing to say about how our imported diversity enhancers have caused many Melbournians to no longer feel safe at home or on the streets.

  13. John Constantine

    Having choppers transport our elites from fortress to fortress while robot peacekeepers wade through the rank soup of proles boiling away on the open badlands that are the public streets of Big Australia.

    Presidents turnbullites-snow await this glorious day, when they can worship Stalin from a great height.

    Easier to spit down on the crowd from a chopper than from the roof of a skyscraper fortress because of swirling updraft.

    Comrades.

  14. sfw

    I suppose a condensed version of Zeevs solution is to make the proles pay until they can no longer afford to drive and therefore the roads will be available to those wealthy people who deserve uncrowded roads.

  15. Tel

    By contrast, Sydney’s trains are less congested, but are used more widely compared to Melbourne’s because its tickets are dearer in rush hour.

    Try riding on a Sydney train at peak hour, they are not only congested they are literally full, as in officially reached “clown car” capacity. If a Sydney train was a live meat export it would be shut down by now for being unacceptable cruelty to the cattle.

  16. Tel

    Planning laws cause congestion and social isolation by preventing people from building apartments and commercial offices throughout our city. As a result, rents and property prices become dearer because not enough housing is built to accommodate demand from population growth.

    For this one we have a clear comparison to Sydney: the CBD in Sydney has much more relaxed planning laws… yes you have to know all the right people, but that happens frequently enough such that a lot of new buildings have gone up, I would guess perhaps 50% or more of the current buildings went up in the last 20 years. Plenty of seriously big construction projects, yes you can get your choice of newly constructed commercial office in Sydney, and yes there are plenty of residential apartments available as well, often quite close to the offices. So clearly planning laws have not obstructed Sydney’s upward growth in any way.

    Congestion? Typical working week at lunchtime the streets are packed, there’s people everywhere and usually also walking in every possible direction. Not currently improved by Sydney’s stupid tram envy project but too late to change our minds over that one (at least they aren’t building another monorail).

    Property prices? One of the least affordable places to buy property in the entire world, and so there’s been only a small downturn in the price of Sydney apartments. Not looking like any imminent property crash, perhaps at most it will dip a little.

    So the answer is that we have exactly tested the scenario in question and no planning laws do not create high property prices and congestion. I’m not sure about “social isolation” I would argue that’s largely an imaginary metric at best and not really measurable in any meaningful manner.

  17. Motelier

    But, but, but!

    The green left smarties (yes, yes, I know) have telling us for years to tele-commute to work. One has to ask if tele-commuting is the answer, why are we experiencing “gridlock” and overcrowded cities? The NBN was built to be the backbone of the Australian economy and enable the new economies to prosper.

    Just think of the benefits of tele-commuting. Get out of bed, shower, get dressed in snappy casual clothes (every day is casual Friday), eat breakfast, switch on the computer thingy and go to work.

    Pretty sure the upside is all good, even monty would agree with me..

  18. I doubt there is an answer to this that is achievable.
    There are too many vested interests in the old model to allow a workable solution.
    It must be allowed to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, just like we had to allow the USSR to fail.

  19. nerblnob

    Typical white collar view sees transport infrastructure only in terms of commuters.

    At least, or more, important are freight and commercial journeys.

    That’s what the billion dollar non tunnel would’ve helped with, improved heavy and light goods and services times across Melbourne and taken heavy vehicles off the hipster streets. You’d think they’d be all for it ( perhaps they would’ve been, had the money not come from Tony Abbott)

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