Sea level rise is real – which is why we need to retreat from unrealistic advice

In the aftermath of 2012’s deadly Hurricane Sandy, New York launched a US$20 billion plan to defend the city against future storms as well as rising sea levels. David Shankbone/Flickr, CC BY

Mark Gibbs, Queensland University of Technology

Coastal communities around the world are being increasingly exposed to the hazards of rising sea levels, with global sea levels found to be rising faster over the past two decades than for the bulk of the 20th century.

But managing the impacts of rising seas for some communities is being made more difficult by the actions of governments, homeowners – and even some well-intentioned climate adaptation practitioners.

Coastal adaptation policies usually carry political risk. One of the main risks is when communities end up divided between those wanting a response to the growing risks of coastal flooding, and those more concerned about how their own property values or insurance premiums might be hit in the short-term by such action. For some, the biggest threat is seen to be from sea level rise adaptation policies rather than sea level rise itself.

Some organisations and governments have side-stepped the political risk by commissioning or preparing adaptation plans – but then not implementing them.

A colleague of mine describes this as the “plan and forget” approach to coastal adaptation. It’s all too common, not only here in Australia but internationally. And it can be worse than completely ignoring the risk, because local communities are given the impression that the risk is being managed, when in fact it is not.

[iframe width=”640″ height=”360″ src=”” frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen>

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Catalyst program examines past and future sea level rise.

‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions’

Coastal adaptation researchers and practitioners (and I’m one of them) must reconsider some of the common recommendations typically contained in coastal adaptation studies.

In my experience, well-intentioned but poorly considered recommendations – such as advocating for highly urbanised city centres to be relocated inland – prevent many adaptation studies being implemented.

Relocating buildings and other built infrastructure further away from the coast to reduce or eliminate the risk of flooding might sound like a sensible, long-term option, and indeed it is in some cases.

But too often, the advice given to “retreat” or relocate established, highly built-up city blocks makes little economic or practical sense. Such advice can be inconsistent with well-established engineering disaster risk reduction frameworks such as Engineers Australia’s Climate Change Adaptation Guidelines in Coastal Management and Planning.

Much to the chagrin of many in the coastal adaptation science community, cities and owners of major coastal facilities around the world are voting with their feet – largely rejecting coastal retreat recommendations in favour of coastal protection.

Major cities choosing defence, not retreat

New York is perhaps the best example of governments and individuals alike choosing protection rather than retreat.

In October 2012, Hurricane Sandy left behind a trail of destruction of more than US$71 billion in the United States. In New York alone, 43 people were killed.

In June 2013, then Mayor Mike Bloomberg said rising temperatures and sea levels were only making it harder to defend New York, warning:

We expect that by mid-century up to one-quarter of all of New York City’s land area, where 800,000 residents live today, will be in the floodplain. If we do nothing, more than 40 miles of our waterfront could see flooding on a regular basis, just during normal high tides.

Yet even after acknowledging that threat, New York’s response wasn’t to retreat. Instead, the mayor launched a US$20 billion plan to protect the city with more flood walls, stronger infrastructure and renovated buildings. As that “Stronger, More Resilient New York” plan declared:

We can fight for and rebuild what was lost, fortify the shoreline,
and develop waterfront areas for the benefit of all New Yorkers. The city cannot, and will not, retreat.

Similarly, none of the winners of Rebuild By Design – an international competition to make New York and surrounding regions more resilient to coastal inundation – focused on retreat strategies. In fact, some involve intensifying urban areas that were under water during Hurricane Sandy.

In the worst hit areas, even when given the choice of a state buy-out scheme relatively few New Yorkers chose to leave.

[iframe width=”640″ height=”360″ src=”” frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen>

PBS Newshour looks at how New York and other world cities can better protect against rising seas and storm surges.

Although not directly related to climate change, the Japanese response to the devastating 2011 tsunami is another telling example.

There, some residents did choose to relocate to higher ground. However, the government did not relocate major facilities inland, including the Fukushima nuclear facility. Instead, Japan will spend US$6.8 billion to form a 400-kilometre-long chain of sea walls, towering up to four storeys high in some places.

[iframe width=”640″ height=”360″ src=”” frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen>

In Melbourne, Australia, four local councils from the Association of Bayside Municipalities worked on the science-based Port Phillip Bay Coastal Adaptation Pathways Project to systematically identify the most effective adaptation responses. That project highlighted the effectiveness of accommodating and reducing flooding through established engineering approaches.

For example, the project concluded that while the popular Southbank waterfront in the City of Melbourne is likely to see even more common and extreme flooding in the coming decades, “retreat is not necessary”.

The Yarra River flows through the heart of Melbourne, in Australia, with Southbank on the left.
R Reeve/Flicker, CC BY-ND

More practical advice is crucial for greater action

Coastal adaptation studies and plans need to be based on practical, defensible and implementable recommendations.

That means climate adaptation practitioners need to refrain from recommending that major urbanised coastal centres be relocated further inland in coming decades, unless that really is the only viable option.

Instead, I think we can achieve more by concentrating more on how lower- and medium-density coastal communities can adapt to higher sea levels. This is a more challenging problem, as economic analyses can produce very different recommendations depending on which so-called “externalities” are included or left out in the analysis.

On the same note, adaptation studies that make recommendations without considering the impacts to present-day home-owners, or how adaptation plans are financed, can also be unhelpful.

Florida, USA, photographed from space – one of many highly urbanised coastal areas around the world needing to adapt to rising seas.

Good adaptation strategies need to acknowledge the real political risks involved with any change involving people and property. Along with making recommendations, they also need to lay out an implementation plan showing how individual and community concerns will be taken into account.

So far the climate models have done a good job in estimating the likely future sea levels. The same cannot be said for our adaptation responses.

But if you’re looking for examples of how we can be better prepared for growing sea level risks, initiatives such as the Port Phillip Bay Coastal Adaptation Pathways Project and the Queensland Climate Adaptation Strategy (currently under development) seem to be heading in the right direction.

The Conversation

Mark Gibbs, Director: Knowledge to innovation, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Inefficient tax slugs all homebuyers

Developers levied by local governments to provide essential infrastructure over-inflate that cost when passing it onto buyers. AAP/Paul Miller

Lyndall Bryant, Queensland University of Technology

Housing affordability is more than just house prices. It also includes ready access to public transport, schools, good road networks, and of course access to all the basic utilities. However, local governments don’t have the money to build all the infrastructure new housing estates need.

So developer charges were introduced as a “user pays” method of funding new urban infrastructure. These charges are levied on property developers by local authorities at the time of planning approval. Some think these costs are passed back to the original land owner by way of lower land prices.

But property developers claim these charges are instead added on to new house prices, with a negative impact to housing affordability. When new house prices increase, existing house prices are also dragged up, extending the housing affordability issue throughout the community.

However, new research by QUT has uncovered evidence that these costs are not merely passed on to homebuyers, but are passed on at significantly over-inflated rates.

In an Australian first, the study empirically examines the impact of developer charges on housing affordability, providing evidence that developer charges are passed on to all homebuyers in the community. So while policy makers think they are charging developers for the provision of infrastructure in new communities, the cost is really being borne by all homebuyers.

The research

This research applied a hedonic house price model to 4,699 new and 25,053 existing house sales in Brisbane from 2005 to 2011. Using diverse data sets on both housing supply and demand items, it tested the impact developer charges had on both new and existing house prices over this time.

This study has provided the first Australian evidence that developer charges are passed onto home buyers. But these charges aren’t passed on in a dollar-for-dollar fashion. Consistent with international evidence, there is evidence that suggests these charges are inflated on both new and existing homes by around 400%.

What does that mean? It means that $10,000 of developer charge adds about $40,000 to the price of both new and existing houses.

In Queensland, where developer charges are around $28,000 per new house, this one fee alone could be responsible for over $110,000 of the house price. Over the term of a 30 year mortgage, this could be costing homebuyers in excess of $338,000 or almost $1,000 per month extra mortgage payments.

This is not to say developers are profiteering. The competitive nature of the development industry ensures developer margins are kept within a range reflective of the risky nature of property development. Developer fees are a supply side cost that often aren’t locked in until many years after the land is first bought for subdivision.

Demand factors, such as low interest rates and limited supply force up prices and land owners quickly adjust their expectations, asking more for the undeveloped land that will help with supply. Holding costs, time delays, limited supply of serviced land and imperfect data and models are all thought to contribute to this problem.

All buyers pay

This price inflation affects new home buyers and also buyers of existing homes, resulting in increased mortgage repayments of close to $1,000 per month in Australia.

Thus this inefficient developer “tax” isn’t being paid by developers at all. It is being paid by all home buyers across the community, even though the actual infrastructure built only services the new developments.

These findings suggest that developer charges are not only an inefficient tax, but are a significant contributor to increasing house prices and reduced housing affordability.

It is inefficient and inequitable to expect the community to pay four times the cost of infrastructure that services only new housing estates.

In the current environment of resource constraints and declining housing affordability, it’s now time other infrastructure funding models were considered by policy makers.

Lyndall Bryant is Lecturer in Property Economics at Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

An Uber for apartments could solve some common housing problems

Bringing together buyers and sellers of apartments could result in better apartment pricing and design. CucombreLibre/Flickr, CC BY

Andrea Sharam, Swinburne University of Technology and Lyndall Bryant, Queensland University of Technology

Speculative property developers, criticised for building dog boxes and the slums of tomorrow, are generally hated by urban planners and the public alike. But the doors of state governments are seemingly always open to developers and their lobbyists.

Politicians find it hard to say no to the demands of the development industry for concessions because of the contribution housing construction makes to the economic bottom line and because there is a need for well located housing. New supply is also seen as a solution to declining housing affordability.

Classical economic theory however is too simplistic for housing supply. Instead, an offshoot of Game Theory – Market Design – not only offers greater insight into apartment supply but also can simultaneously address price, design and quality issues.

New research reveals the most significant risk in residential development is settlement risk – when buyers fail to proceed with their purchase despite there being a pre-sale contract. At the point of settlement, the developer has expended all the project funds only to see forecast revenue evaporate. While new buyers may be found, this process is likely to strip the profitability out of the project. As the global financial crisis exposed, buyers are inclined to walk if property values slide.

This settlement problem reflects a poor legal mechanism (the pre-sale contract), and a lack of incentive for truthfulness. A second problem is the search costs of finding buyers. At around 10% of project costs, pre-sales are more expensive to developers than finance. This is where Market Design comes in.

Matching buyers and sellers

Market Design argues individuals will cooperate where there is an advantage in doing so. This is the premise of the “sharing economy”. Much of the innovation in the sharing economy also reflects another insight of Market Design; that markets can be constructed in different ways to serve different purposes.

Our interest here is in two-sided matching markets, which is a common design for e-commerce. Buyers are aggregated on one side of the market and sellers on the other with a market manager. Think Airbnb or Uber. Aggregating potential buyers of apartments would resolve the issue of searching for presales: taking the process from looking for needles in the haystack to shooting fish in a barrel.

Both buyers and developers would need to be registered participants, and the market manager would be responsible for recruiting participants and matching development opportunities to buyers. Pre-identification of buyers would avoid much of the cost of pre-sales and search time.

In addition there could be real-time communication and customer segmentation that permitted developers to take account of the actual expressed preferences of the buyers. An expanded apartment product range and cost reduction should make apartments more attractive to owner-occupiers, reducing settlement risk. The same can be said of having more owner-occupiers and fewer investors.

Pre-sales are one of the most expensive and riskiest elements of property development.
Dean Lewins/AAP

Keeping developers honest

However, as one financier (who agreed to be interviewed but not identified) rightly noted, developers can be expected to pocket the savings. Residential development is oligopolistic so there needs to be a source of competition to put pressure on prices, and who better than consumers themselves?

DIY apartment developers, what we call “deliberative” developers, now comprise 10% of all new housing in Berlin, and it has taken off in Europe. Deliberative developers make cost savings in the order or 25-30% and get the type and high quality product they want. Financing constraints have meant deliberative development in Australia has been the preserve of the well heeled, but support from impact investors for example, would enable ordinary households access to such self-help schemes.

One further change however is required. Planning schemes need to impose density restrictions (in the form of height limits, floor space ratios or bedroom quotas) in urban localities where housing demand and land values are high in order to dampen speculation and de-risk development by creating certainty.

Building a model that encourages owner-occupiers

The existing development model relies on capturing uplift in site value, and suits investors (incentivised by tax concessions) seeking rental yields in the short term and capital gains in the longer term. The price of land in the vicinity of redevelopment sites is then pushed up as landholders’ expectation of future yield is raised. It is a vicious circle in which developers seek to compensate for these higher prices through increased dwelling yields, smaller apartments and reduced amenity, further alienating would be owner-occupiers from the market.

However restrictions on over-development of larger infill sites needs to be offset by permitting intensification of “greyfield” suburbs. Aggregating existing housing lots to enable precinct regeneration, and moderate height and density increases would permit better use of airspace, delivering housing designs that can optimise land use while retaining amenity.

Redesigning the market and supporting deliberative development are the keys to achieving good, affordable apartments.

The Conversation

Andrea Sharam, Research Fellow housing & homelessness, Swinburne University of Technology and Lyndall Bryant, Lecturer in Property Economics, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Prefab revolution? Factory houses are the secret to green building

A green, pre-fab house. Karen Manley, Author provided.

Karen Manley, Queensland University of Technology

The building sector globally currently consumes more energy (34%) than the transport sector (27%) or the industry sector (28%). It is also the biggest polluter, with the biggest potential for significant cuts to greenhouse gas emissions compared to other sectors, at no cost.

Buildings offer an easily accessible and highly cost-effective opportunity to reach energy targets. A green building is one that minimises energy use during design, construction, operation and demolition.

The need to reduce energy use during the operation of buildings is now commonly accepted around the world. Changing behaviour could result in a 50% reduction in energy use by 2050.

Such savings are strongly influenced by the quality of buildings. Passive buildings are ultra-low energy buildings in which the need for mechanical cooling, heating or ventilation can be eliminated.

Modular or prefabricated green buildings, designed and constructed in factories using precision technologies, can help achieve these standards. These buildings are higher quality and more sustainable than buildings constructed on-site through manual labour. They are potentially twice as efficient compared to on-site building.

However, despite support for modular houses, there are a number of hurdles in the way of a prefab revolution.

How green can modular buildings be?

Factory production means modular green buildings are better sealed against draughts, which in conventional buildings can account for 15-25% of winter heat loss.

And factories also have better quality control systems, leading to improved insulation placement and better energy efficiency. Good insulation cuts energy bills by up to half compared to uninsulated buildings.

Because production in a factory setting is on-going, rather than based on individual on-site projects, there is more scope for R&D. This improves the performance of buildings, including making them more resilient to natural disasters.

For example, factory built houses in Japan have performed very well during earthquakes, with key manufacturers reporting that none of their houses were destroyed by the 1995 Hanshin Great Earthquake, as opposed to the destruction of many site-built houses.

Buildings constructed on site probably can’t achieve the same benefits as modular buildings. Case studies in the UK show savings of 10% to 15% in building costs and a 40% reduction in transport for factory compared to on-site production. Factories also don’t lose time due to bad weather and have better waste recycling systems.

Sorting waste at Sekisui House Ltd Recycling Centre
Karen Manley

For instance, Sekisui House, a Japanese builder, has a system for all their construction sites where waste is sorted into 27 categories on-site and 80 categories in their recycling centre to get the best value from the resources.

On-site building is open to the weather. This prevents access to the precision technologies required to produce buildings to the highest environmental standards. These technologies include numerical controlled machinery, robotic assembly, building information models, rapid prototyping, assembly lines, test systems, fixing systems, lean construction and enterprise resource planning systems.

For example, numerical controlled machinery provides more precise machine cutting that can’t be matched by manual efforts. This, combined with modelling, fixing and testing systems helps ensure that factories produce more airtight buildings, compared to on-site production, reducing energy leakage.

High-Tech Factory, Shizuoka, Sekisui House Ltd.
Karen Manley, Author provided

Australia is behind the curve

Less than 5% of new detached residential buildings in Australia are modular green buildings.

In leading countries such as Sweden the rate is 84%.

In Japan, 15% of all their residential buildings are modular green buildings produced in the world’s most technologically advanced factories.

Globally, there is a trend toward increased market penetration of green modular buildings. Yet their adoption in the Australian building sector has been slower than expected.

Constructing houses on site is less sustainable
Grand Canyon National Park/Flickr, CC BY

However, we can still catch up. The latest evidence suggests that strengthening building codes and providing better enforcement is the most cost effective path towards more sustainable housing.

Australia doesn’t have a great record here. Our building codes could be better focused, stricter, and certainly our enforcement could be a lot better.

Building for the future

As the biggest polluter and a high energy user, the building sector urgently needs to reform for climate change mitigation.

There are serious legacy issues. Mistakes we made in the past endure throughout the life of buildings. Building decisions we make today can be very costly to reverse, and buildings last for decades! In Australia, a timber building is likely to last at least 58 years, and a brick building at least 88 years.

Currently, potential building owners are funnelled toward on-site construction processes, despite the clearly documented benefits of factory-based production. This is reflected in the low profile given to modular housing in the National Construction Code and a lack of aggressive and well enforced environmental standards. We clearly need better policy to support the modular green building industry.

The Conversation

Karen Manley is A/Professor of Construction Management at Queensland University of Technology.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Not just daggy dongas: time to embrace prefabricated buildings

Prefabricated buildings don’t have to be dull. The challenge will be to get Australians to embrace them. Wendy Miller, Author provided.

Wendy Miller, Queensland University of Technology; Dale Steinhardt, Queensland University of Technology, and Karen Manley, Queensland University of Technology

Amid Australia’s housing affordability problem, could prefabricated homes offer a helping hand?

Prefabricated homes – in which either the entire house or significant parts of it are manufactured in advance and then installed or assembled on site – are generally cheaper to build and have less environmental impact than conventional buildings.

The industry might even help to safeguard manufacturing jobs, as the workforce from Australia’s ailing car industry could potentially shift to manufacturing buildings instead.

This rosy outlook aligns well with Australia’s Construction Vision 2020, a government-commissioned plan for the property and construction industry which strongly supports the role of prefabrication. Yet this vision is not yet becoming reality – less than 5% of new Australian houses are prefabricated.

What are the key issues that are holding prefabrication back? It is being let down by a combination of the industry’s small size, Australia’s culture and weather, financing, weak policy support, and traditionalism.

Wendy Miller, Author provided

How we build and where we live

The size and culture of the Australian housing market limits the reform of traditional building processes, as does the warm climate of its urban areas. Australia is a relatively small, low-density market that does not favour high-output factories.

With an abundance of sun and no routine snowfall in our coastal capitals, there has not yet been a compelling reason to move the workforce inside (although there has been no study on the impacts of inclement or extreme weather events on construction time and cost).

Australians are also engaged in a growing love affair with renovating existing housing, rather than building from scratch.

The financing of prefabricated houses is complicated by the fact that the industry necessarily straddles the manufacturing and housing sectors. Financing for traditional house builds relies on the gradual release of funds as milestones are reached such as the pouring of a concrete slab, erection of the frame, and full completion.

In contrast, prefabrication reduces the on-site work to a simple installation process, with no gradual progression, so the builder/manufacturer needs funding up-front. Such cashflow issues have struck Melbourne-based modular housing designers Unitised Building and Modscape, both of whom have been forced to seek overseas financial backing or draw on private equity.

Not your average donga.
Wendy Miller, Author provided

Shifting sands of policy

Australian prefabrication designers also face significant policy and regulatory uncertainty. The National Construction Code was specifically “developed to incorporate all on-site construction requirements”, and features little acknowledgement of offsite, prefabricated methods.

Another example is the Queensland Building and Construction Commission’s Home Warranty Insurance scheme, which does not cover prefabricated work and advises clients to withhold payments until the house is completed. However, there are encouraging signs that the scheme may be expanded next year to cover prefabricated builds.

There are also positive signs from within the industry. Australia’s two largest housing industry groups each have a sustainable building program that aligns with the benefits of prefabrication: the Housing Industry Association’s GreenSmart scheme, and Master Builders Australia’s GreenLiving Builders project. With the housing market more focused on ecological sustainability than ever before, environmentalism could be one way of encouraging even more uptake of prefabricated buildings.

A smart way to build.
Wendy Miller, Author provided

Stuck in our ways?

There is still a long way to go, however. The Construction and Property Services Industry Skills Council has pointed to specific skill deficiencies, general reluctance within the industry, and a lack of consumer demand as holding back prefabrication. Convincing existing trades to abandon traditional methods in favour of a more structured factory setting may not be easy. The recently announced ARC Training Centre for Advanced Manufacturing of Prefabricated Housing is a prime example of early work linking research and industry to develop new technologies and people skills.

Little hard evidence is available regarding consumers’ views. A history of poor-quality school demountables and mining “dongas” has probably been damaging. Building stylish prefabricated hotels or apartment towers can help, and will also play to prefabrication’s strengths in developing economies of scale.

But these unique builds will not necessarily thrill the average suburban mum and dad, who might be more focused on carving their own slice of the Australian dream. Proving to Australians that prefabrication does not have to be bland or standardised remains a challenge, and one that is actively acknowledged and targeted by a new breed of architect-designed Australian prefabricated housing. Making the jump from one-off, designer homes to mainstream acceptance is the next challenge.

There are signs that prefabricated housing is gaining a foothold in Australia, but there are still key sticking points in convincing industry, financial lenders, policy developers, and consumers of its potential. Lobby groups such as prefabAUS are aiming to improve attitudes – but perhaps what we also need is a primetime television show about prefabrications, to counter the endless fascination with renovations.

Wendy Miller is Senior Research Fellow at Queensland University of Technology.
Dale Steinhardt is Research Fellow at Queensland University of Technology.
Karen Manley is A/Professor of Construction Management at Queensland University of Technology.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Traffic congestion: is there a miracle cure? (Hint: it’s not roads)

If the choice is between waiting in their cars and long waits on inefficient public transport, many people prefer to drive. AAP/Julian Smith

Jake Whitehead, Queensland University of Technology

With our “infrastructure prime minister” and both sides of politics trumpeting the building of new roads to reduce congestion, you could forgive everyday Australians for believing that they might have a point. Let’s simply build more roads, then there will be less traffic. Unfortunately, this story reads more like a children’s fairytale than a visionary plan.

Many politicians have stood up with the ambition of “solving” road congestion by building a tunnel, highway or bridge. While they may be able to promote the initial time savings as proof of their success, the additional capacity created by this new infrastructure is filled relatively soon.

Given constant demand for driving, new infrastructure does initially lead to reduced congestion. In turn, driving travel times are reduced. However, this reduced travel time lures individuals who would normally take other means of transport into driving their vehicles – a phenomenon transport economists refer to as “latent demand”.

As more individuals make the switch to cars, road congestion increases again, back to a steady-state point of gridlock – only now with even more vehicles stuck in the queue. This is the harsh reality that our politicians never speak of.

A report recently published by Infrastructure Australia forecast that road congestion will cost A$53 billion a year by 2031. Accounting for not only the financial but also the social and environmental impacts of road congestion, we know as a nation we must do something to manage this issue.

The benefit of increasing road capacity rarely lasts as an uncongested route attracts more drivers until it is congested again.
AAP/Dave Hunt

What we must realise, though, is that road congestion cannot and never will be completely eliminated. Some level of road congestion is actually economically efficient – that is, road space should be efficiently utilised.

The only way under our current socioeconomic framework in which we can optimise this level of congestion, and avoid complete gridlock, is through the use of dynamic road pricing. This is otherwise known as congestion charging.

Global move to congestion charges

Congestion charges have been successfully implemented in cities around the world, including London, Singapore, Milan and Stockholm. Congestion charges have been applied in many different forms, but the principal means is to charge a toll on those who choose to enter and/or exit a congested area during congested periods.

Exemptions apply to some vehicles. In some cases, there are even discounts to encourage the uptake of energy-efficient vehicles.

In each of the implemented examples, the schemes have been shown to reduce levels of congestion (and, in turn, harmful local pollutants). The charges also raise significant revenue, which governments can then direct back into alternative means of transport and alternative routes.

This approach to managing a transport network is in stark contrast to that of most jurisdictions in Australia. Here, we prefer to toll the very infrastructure we want drivers to use to avoid congested city areas – for example, the Clem7 tunnel in Brisbane. None of the revenue raised is used to improve other elements of the transport network, with congested routes allowed to remain toll-free.

This discussion becomes even more important in contemporary Australia where we see an unfolding debate between the merits of constructing roads versus rail (public transport).

The harsh reality is that every time we drive our vehicles on the road, we use some of its capacity, which has a cost to other drivers and, more broadly, to our society. Yet as individual drivers we do not pay directly to use this space, nor do we receive a price signal to remind us of just what value this space has to society.

With the introduction of a road toll, one that varies depending on the time of day driven (as is the case in Stockholm), drivers receive this price signal. In response, they are able to make a more efficient choice about which transport mode to take and/or which route to drive. With variable charging, we are also able to spread the peak traffic periods to provide economic incentives to work earlier or later.

Part two of the answer is public transport

But, you say, public transport is already full and it takes a long time. I would rather sit in traffic in the comfort of my car than sit in traffic on a bus.

I could not agree with you more. Unfortunately, many cities in Australia are far too reliant on buses, using the same roads as cars and trucks, as a mode of public transport in and out. If Australia is serious about increasing the productivity of our cities to an internationally competitive standard, it must improve the lacklustre quality of public transport.

To do this, we need adequate funding. Congestion charges provide an economically efficient manner in which governments can subsidise public transport infrastructure and may even make it possible to construct mass rapid underground rail across our capital regions.

Now I am not suggesting we implement congestion taxes across the country tomorrow, but we must have a serious discussion about the future of our transport systems and how we want them to function. With the rise of vehicle-sharing programs and autonomous vehicles, over the next decade we are likely to start to see a fall in vehicle ownership rates. This means governments will no longer be able to rely purely on vehicle registration fees to cover the costs of road infrastructure and maintenance.

We must take a serious look at what other options are available. One path forward could be to trial a series of congestion taxes across the country, with a six-month ramp-up period in which public transport services are significantly increased before any tolls are set. We could then gain some insight into just how efficient Australia’s transport networks could be.

The decision to make tolls permanent could be taken to voters through a plebiscite. If upheld, governments could then allocate the revenue raised to the construction of mass rapid transit systems across the nation.

Despite what our politicians say, simply building another road, tunnel or bridge, while sometimes locally significant, will not solve the nation’s road congestion problems.

Jake Whitehead is Postdoctoral Research Associate at Queensland University of Technology.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.