What do we want from government transport policy in the 21st century?

The prime reason governments intervene in the transport policy domain is often stated at deriving from some form of “market failure”.

That is to say, if things were left to individual firms and persons in our society, a sub-optimal, or more likely unacceptable situation would arise.

A classic example of transport policy intervention occurs in public transport, which generally operates at a loss, so no private sector provider would provide services for those who cannot access a private car. Social exclusion occurs. And of course, when a lot of cars try to access a busy place, such as a CBD, congestion and other unacceptable impacts like air pollution arise.

These are the undesirable goods (or “bads”) that accrue to third parties – externalities [1]. So governments spend huge amounts of time, money and effort ensuring a good standard of public transport is provided, often sadly, with very little appreciation ever being shown by their electors.

Other problems like traffic congestion are caused by market failure where we don’t charge people to drive on roads, so road space is over-consumed, and is then rationed by queuing.

And there could be other serious problems not related specifically to market failure, for example how to protect vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and cyclists, who need to share the road with increasing volumes and speeds of motorised traffic.

Why intervene in transport policy?

So it becomes fairly clear that a range of serious problems that must be tackled are the main drivers of transport policy. One way to understand this policy framework is to state the problems we don’t want, and find a way to specify an end-state by which we might know when they are solved.   These end-state conditions are usually specified in terms of outcomes – or results on the ground.

There is in fact a somewhat standard approach in terms of policy development for areas of government activity:

  1. find the biggest problems you have to address;
  2. specify how you would know they were fixed. The outcomes or results;
  3. map out a transparent pathway of solutions towards these outcomes;
  4. canvas these solutions and discuss the consequences of not taking action, to win support for change; and
  5. implement and monitor the solutions.

Why do we keep failing … or at least not fully succeeding?

By and large, we’re pretty good at steps 1 -3. Often for the important solutions we don’t get to 5. The chief reason for policy failure in transport is not the lack of plans or policies that specify outcomes and actions. It’s in step 4. Transport policies most often fail due to a disconnect between how we would solve transport problems, and the field of public opinion and debate. Quite simply, we seem to lack the wherewithal to have sophisticated conversations, or even debates about how to achieve the important outcomes we need from our transport system.

This is not surprising because many of the sorts of solutions we need in the 21 st century relate either to:

  • the need for new funds to invest in transport infrastructure and services so the growth of the transport system in one of the world’s most expensive countries can be sustained; or
  • the need to implement user-pays style policies relating to roads and car parking, so excessive demand is better managed rather than catered for, and those who demand the benefits of these facilities are not cross subsidised by those who don’t.

Both of these broad types of solutions relate not any sign of positive primary impacts, but to very positive and sustained secondary or tertiary impacts on society. But the emphasis of our public debate is on quick fixes and canvassing the views of those who might lose out to negative primary impacts. These more complex benefit streams become entangled in a mire of media sensationalism and adversarial political debates.

For too long, transport policy professionals have been the helpless victims of the public debate process in Australia – they know what is needed, but many of the things that need to be done are not “announceables” that will inspire the public’s support for the government of the day. The ideas that will really make a difference, if they ever do emerge from the policy backrooms, are quickly pounced upon by a rapacious media and political oppositions in need of easy wins.

A framework for better results

A suggested approach to tackling difficult transport problems could rely heavily on the field of policy literature relating to “wicked” problems. These are not in fact problems which are inherently nasty, but problems which are prevalent in society yet are highly resistant to resolution [2].

As noted by the Australian Public Service website:

Successfully solving or at least managing these wicked policy problems requires a reassessment of some of the traditional ways of working and solving problems in the APS. They challenge our governance structures, our skills base and our organisational capacity.

It is important, as a first step, that wicked problems be recognised as such. Successfully tackling wicked problems requires a broad recognition and understanding, including from governments and Ministers, that there are no quick fixes and simple solutions [3].

We need to work smarter by understanding wicked transport problems like congestion need broad discussion and support before they can be solved. So how can this be done?

There are no longer any excuses for being surprised by opponents of reforms. We know exactly what sorts of arguments and rebuttals are going to be advanced by the various players to a policy like road user charging, so there should always be a clear plan to attack these arguments.

And we know the media will seek out people opposed to any new idea. There are always plenty so it’s an easy win, and conflict is an easy angle to sensationalise. But if we continually bring the conversation back to address our discussion to the greater community, rather than allowing focus to remain on the vocal “losers”, a base for reform could be built.

Most importantly, we need to be clear not just why difficult decisions need to be taken, but who loses if they are ignored. Why should billions of dollars of tax payer and ratepayer funds be diverted to building free-to-use road infrastructure to benefit specified sectors of the community? Why should a retired person struggling to pay indirect taxes or rates see their funds diverted to support road infrastructure so a commuter can drive themselves 100 km without facing congestion? These are the distributional effects of the present transport funding framework we need to broadcast.

And we need to build a much better understanding in the community of the way solutions work. For example, charging road users a toll is not the much vilified “congestion tax”. It’s a fee for services in the same as we pay when visiting the hairdresser. To be really successful in transport policy implementation, we need to nail these types of popular fallacies rather than being victims of them.

Article by Ken Deutscher is an experienced transport and land use planner and transport policy specialist based in south east Queensland. 


[1] Stopher and Stanley. 2014. Introduction to Transport Policy. P 25.

[2] Australian Public Service Commission. 2007. Tackling Wicked Problems – A policy perspective.

[3] http://www.apsc.gov.au/publications-and-media/archive/publications-archive/tackling-wicked-problems

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