I read an article in The Age the other day about the congestion problem getting to and from Melbourne Airport. There is no rail link, but the Skybus service is designed to provide a 20-minute direct shuttle service to the city. Which is great, but in peak times it’s been taking up to nearly an hour.
How to solve this? The rail link has been talked about for 55 years now, but there’s no sign of it anytime soon. A bus lane has been proposed for the Tullamarine Freeway (easy and cheap to implement) but there is resistance from the toll road operator, who wants compensation for the lane of traffic they will lose, and the airport, who want compensation for the loss in car park revenues because more people will take the bus.
There is a world in which this all makes total sense. It’s a world where it’s cheaper and more efficient to build private roads and private port facilities and run them on market logic. Such a world might exist, but I don’t think it’s the one that people experience each morning and evening on the way to and from Tullamarine. In the world I inhabit, at least in my mind, it makes more sense to start by asking what an airport is for (getting people and stuff in and out of the city as cheaply, quickly and comfortably as possible) and then working out how to make a really good one (it’s good to the extent that it does what it’s for). But my opinion doesn’t count for much.
Arguing for different choices is not the point of bringing it up though, at least not today. The point is this would never happen in Singapore, and not just because they have a different approach to these things here, though they undoubtedly do. There are pros and cons to Singaporean policies, as there are to Australian ones. It’s fun and interesting to compare, and that’s something I’ll probably do in some detail down the road.
But what they are undoubtedly much better at in Singapore is thinking clearly about the problem. My issue with the Skybus situation in this case is not the choices that have been made, it’s the lack of foresight, clarity and commitment. If you’re not going to build a rail link but you’re expecting huge growth in patronage at the airport, the roads are going to get congested. You could’ve seen that coming – why are you only looking at it now? If you’re going to privatise the roads and the ports and operate them on market principles because that’s better, then do that. You don’t get to claim ‘compensation’ in a market if the circumstances of the marketplace change. There’s something you can buy (there always is) to mitigate your losses if unexpected stuff happens – it’s called insurance. If you’re going to try to grow the city, or at least avoid losing growth to other cities that have their act together, you need airports that work well. Don’t even get me started on Sydney. This is basic stuff. It shouldn’t be difficult to work out and it isn’t. We just stink at it in Australia.
In Singapore (and elsewhere), they get the basic stuff right. You can get from the airport to the city centre by train. The trip is 18.3km, departs every six minutes and costs $1.83. The transport operator makes a healthy profit and the government contributes no subsidy. If you want to get a taxi, it costs around $24 and you can use the same smartcard you use on the train. If you want to drive yourself, you can get there reliably from the city in 20 minutes thanks to road congestion pricing that helps keeps the traffic flowing. You can pay the toll wirelessly with the same smartcard you use in the taxi or on the train. That’s just getting to and from the airport – we won’t talk about the airport experience itself. The point is they’ve thought about it, they’ve made decisions and they’ve gone and done it. Every day, the simple living fact of it makes a mockery of the way things are ‘done’ in Australia.
Whatever kind of choices you end up making, the process of thinking, deciding and doing doesn’t seem much to ask. And if the price of a ‘freer’ system is the total inability to get the basics right, is that price too high? ◾