University of Sydney: Thinking public transport, electric cars and the roads we drive on

At the intersection where politics, individual egos and the public good collide, you’ll find the University’s Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies. In a time when transport is evolving dramatically, it works so public good survives the crash.

Think about how relaxed things are on the road during school holiday time. Shorter queues at intersections. Easier to find parking spots. Noticeably less congestion on usually busy roads. Yet during school breaks, there is only 5 or 6 percent less traffic on the roads.

No surprise then, that 5 or 6 percent is often a notional reference point for the people working to get more cars off the road and make public and private transport more efficient and less damaging for the environment.
One of the top five institutions in the world where this thinking happens is the Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies (ITLS) at the University of Sydney. A lot of research is done in the areas of aviation, maritime and freight, but with a strong focus on public transport related subjects like the impacts of electric cars, COVID’s dramatic effect on travel and traffic, and the changing transport needs of Australia’s growing population.

The ITLS team is made up of world-leading local and international academics, but at the centre of it you’ll find the Institute’s Founding Director, David Hensher. An economist by early training he became fascinated by the challenges of transportation and how many societal threads had to be part of any serious discussion. He’d like to bring in more of those threads.

“Transport planning has always been a space full of economists, planners and engineers,” says Hensher, a fast talking 74-year-old and master of his subject. “I think we need to bring in the soft sciences more – sociologists, psychologists, ecologists. People who would bring very different perspectives and solutions.”

There’s a sense with Hensher, that he has sat at the highest tables in the land where these issues are discussed and game-changing decisions made, though, it has to be said, not always to the benefit of the game. Certainly, what a political candidate says they will do for public transport often becomes something quite different or non-existent when they actually gain office.
Allowing that providing transport options for a city of millions is a mind-bogglingly difficult thing to do, it would be easy to conclude from recent revelations, including new trains and ferries arriving from overseas manufacturers not fit for purpose, that transport processes and goals in New South Wales need a serious rethink.

The power of relevance in transport planning
In 2021 Sydney motorists, often driving to work from lower income areas with fewer transport options, paid around $2 billion in road tolls (Hensher has estimated that Sydney has more toll-road kilometres than any other urban area in the world) yet Sydney road travel times rate poorly compared to similar cities internationally, while pre-COVID, trains were becoming so crowded it was pushing people back into their cars.

Talking about how transport happens on a planning level, Hensher cites ‘relevance’ as one of his favourite words and too often, he says, decisions lack true relevance to what is needed. “It’s what I call emotional ideology where you start off with what you want rather than what you need. And too often, what they want is a railway.”

Hensher himself believes that quite often, the solution to many of our transport woes can actually be found in the humble bus. “Buses aren’t considered sexy though,” he says. “Cutting a huge ribbon on a train makes a much better photo.”

An example he uses of a flawed rail solution is the Sydney Metro Northwest. Construction began in 2011 with the first driverless metro train completing the full journey in January 2019 between the newly gazetted suburb of Tallawong, in north west Sydney and Chatswood on the Lower North Shore. The price tag for the new line was $13 billion.

“Now, if you took that $13 billion and asked yourself ‘what kind of bus network could you build for that?’ the answer would be a very good one,” says Hensher.

Bus next to bus stop sign
Hensher believes that quite often, buses could be the solution to many of our transport challenges.

The start of the Institute
It was questions around another rail project that first brought Hensher to the notice of transportation big-wigs and the ITLS itself into existence, after Hensher was asked to do some of the heavy thinking on a Sydney-Melbourne very fast train project in the late 1980s – a project idea that has since become a perennial election blue sky goal that is quickly binned as the winning party takes office.

When that train research project got underway in what was then the Graduate School of Business at the university, it developed its own momentum with, no doubt, a fair amount of its forward energy delivered by Hensher himself. The ITLS prospered locally, then internationally, developing strategic partnerships with other business schools in the UK, India, China and South Africa. Today, much of the software and processes used by people and organisations doing this kind of work was developed at the ITLS.

The organisation is also hugely influential for its work in demand forecasting and what are called choice experiments that can identify why people make the choices they do. Recent choice experiments have suggested strongly that people will choose to own and use electric cars.

For all the benefits of electric cars, the fact they will ultimately cost half as much to manufacture and 25 percent less to run, could take some of the shine off public transport. Surveys have shown that people prefer cars for the obvious reasons around comfort and convenience. If electric cars add an economic advantage to that list (just owning a car in Sydney currently costs around $10,000 a year), then walking to a railway station on a hot day to catch a crowded train becomes an ordeal cheaply avoided.

As for driverless vehicles, which will arrive sooner or later, consider this scenario: an office worker would drive to work except there’s nowhere to park. A self-driving car could take them to work, take itself home for the day, then come back in the evening to pick up our office worker and take them home. One office worker. Four daily car trips helping to create a new generation of monster peak hours (already Sydney drivers spend more than 30 percent of their travel time stuck in traffic).

Addressing the core transport question
As new challenges appear, the core question remains the same: how do you convince people not to use their cars? The key tools for manipulating road users are usually expense and convenience.

On the expense side, Hensher has already had wide discussions on an idea that has so far only found a place in the too-hard basket. The idea is to end car registration charges and instead have distance-based charges of say five cents a kilometre, for road usage at peak times. “But politicians of all colours don’t even want to hear about the end of rego. I was once told to ‘wash your mouth out Hensher’ when I brought it up.”

On the convenience side is an idea called Mobility as a Service (MaaS) where people forgo owning a car at all and instead pay a subscription that gives them access to all modes of public transport, taxi and Uber discounts and community rental of whatever vehicle is needed. Finland has already introduced the concept with positive early results. Though direct comparisons between Finland and Australia will only get us so far, plans are already underway to establish MaaS pilot programs in New South Wales and Queensland.

“We’re all pretty excited with this stuff,” says Hensher. “We’re investigating partnerships with the GoGets, the Car Next Door and the Ubers. But the debate now is whether there is a business model and who would run these services. In Finland it’s based on venture capital.

“The thing is, the ITLS understands how to translate these new ideas into relevance. And if they’re not relevant they shouldn’t be on the table.”

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