Saturday, August 16, 2008

Duffy Hits the Orbital Freeway

Based on internal evidence in the latest Michael Duffy column, "Orbital is the way to go for diverse transport needs", in that organ for intellectual discussion, The Sydney Morning Herald, Duffy seems to live on the eastern fringe of the city ("Those who live on the eastern fringe of the city can easily miss the great changes taking place in the west", "In the east we often hear there is no point in building more roads, because they will quickly fill up and become congested", "The idea of the west as an employment wasteland is still prevalent among easterners"). 

By golly, it sounds like Kafka's The Great Wall of China, where people are so removed from the centre of the universe (the Forbidden City or the eastern suburbs, no matter) that it takes on all the qualities of a fable or a fairy story. The remote, the forbidding, the motorway-striated west, where rumors and half truths abound, which easterners can only imagine or comprehend with the help of a Duffy. There be dragons of course and swamplands and strange people who drive large cars, but Duffy knows the truth and can bring back insights to the easterners trapped by their sophisticated merchant banker ways.

If this is the case, it explains much about Duffy, and the way he can pontificate about the west from the safety of the east, why he can yearn for the suburbia of Kellyville, and defend it against latte sipping chardonnay slurping lefties, while perhaps indulging in a little quaffing on the side.

It also explains why he can contemplate the tearing up of the city to put in more freeways (nee motorways). Let's not get into whether we've reached a tipping point on petrol, let's not get into anxieties about how far away alternative, viable fuels or mechanisms are for personal transport, let's just contemplate the kind of city Duffy is urging on his fellow dwellers from the safety of the eastern suburbs goat tracks that provide chicanes for the Mercedes lover.

What he wants is Los Angeles. Never mind that Los Angeles has all the freeways he prescribes for Sydney, and now hits gridlock in ways that are unimaginable. Of course out of peak hours LA is bliss for the driver - fast, quick, easy to commute from one end of the city to another if you don't mind cruising for hours through urban sprawl. But in peak hours ... it's a reminder of what happens when cars devour a city's soul.

Dffuy doesn't worry about any of this. He's just pleased at the economic benefits - built by the private sector, and funded by tolls. Well he would be and so would his mates at Macquarie. Clip the sheep as they get on to the toll way, then clip the sheep as they get off again. The more sheep herded on to the ramp, the better. Pen them in, try not to cut them too much, and if they squeal, throw on a little tar. They'll be back on the ramp soon enough. Duffy is just a little too free with his interchangeable use of freeways (no toll) and motorways. If he talked to his fabled westerners, he'd quickly learn how much they love being clipped for tolls on a daily basis, and how they enjoyed the freedom of the motorway for a price.

But nothing of this gives Duffy any concern, such are the wonders of having an orbital motorway circulating the outer west (actually built and working, "unlike most of this city's public transport fantasies"). It seems the road is worth billions to the city (or so Duffy quotes an Ernst & Young report) and all because it saves time, and stimulates commercial building and helps grow vast industrial areas.

But wait, wasn't Duffy only a few weeks ago bemoaning immigration and worrying about growth and the impact it was having on the country. Here he's celebrating growth and urging more freeways as if all that was a whim now easily forgotten. And vast industrial estates. But where will the workers come from if we don't encourage immigration? And how will we pack the rats in if we don't indulge in a bit of urban consolidation? Heresy. Cast those thoughts out, for surely the Lord or maybe Hillsong will provide. Every man his own quarter acre, and his own car, and freeways (make that motorways) to the end of the earth, or at least every hundred yards in the Sydney basin. 

Duffy celebrates the way Westlink reckons it's saving greenhouse gases (yep the more you drive the less gas you generate through efficiencies, but what about totals, not relative savings? If you drive more and more, don't you use up all the gas you save, by getting out and driving more?What's the incentive not to drive on these marvelous freeways?) And then there's the fuel savings. Drive all day and you can do it with real savings. Not to mention savings in maintenance costs and numbers of accidents.

Never mind those wacky pile ups or massive disruptions when a dozen fast moving cars decide to collide. Gazelles get used to losing a few of the herd to the big cats, and so must the urban motorist.

Is there nothing a freeway can't do? (Well the signs did help Steve Martin's love life). But what's this we hear about freeways quickly filling up and becoming congested. Tosh, a minor problem.
"Of course, they will fill up eventually, just like many services do. Hospitals fill up, too, but this is never used as an argument not to build more of them".

So let's keep building. But wait, why are we worrying about greenhouse gases? Duffy is a climate change sceptic. Who cares if we save a bit of CO2. Who cares if we save fuel. Within a few years we'll all be in hydrogen powered people movers.

So where is the neurotic centre in this column? The heart of the problem? Deep down it's clear Duffy hates public transport. He probably had a bad experience on a bus, or is deeply allergic to the filth and the common herd visible on trains. You see on a motorway a man with toll money can be a man, roam where he will in his car, go to work wherever he likes, reap untold benefits, and escape the lot of the salary man forced to endure along with his fellow rats as they shuffle on and off public transport.

Duffy doesn't really contemplate how much more sensible it might have been to create orbital public transport links - something the government has failed to do, just as it has failed to provide any sensible transport alternatives to motorways (not freeways, where the public benefits from toll-free travel). Getting around the west at the moment presents a jumble of ill integrated options. If, as Duffy argues, the idea of shipping people into the city is no longer meaningful, and makes the north west metro an ill conceived idea, then why not alternative forms of public transport that can efficiently ship people between large population points.

But Duffy isn't really wanting to fix the gridlock that is already apparent every day on Sydney's roads - try driving down Victoria road during prime time, and see what the viewing is like. He just wants to shove it up the cognoscenti who carry on about public transport when motorways are an economic miracle, as well as making a tremendous difference to the lives of thousands of Sydneysiders. 

Forget any talk of increasing density to cope with projections in population increases - with a car and a motorway a man can make it from Penrith to Hornsby in a Hummer in less than an hour, and bank the savings in petrol and car maintenance. It's the Arnold Schwarzenegger solution, as opposed to the nonsense Democrats like Michael Dukakis write. Like this:

If there's one thing we have learned ever since California and the nation decided to pour nearly a trillion dollars into their highway systems, it is that the number of cars always increases to fill new highways. The end result: more highway gridlock, more road rage.

You can see how this comes about. To express solidarity with the common man, Duffy likes to take trips out to Blacktown, Kellyville and surrounding parts, to experience the joys of suburban living for a day, then returns to the safety of his eastern suburbs lifestyle knowing that the common herd is being well tended by a State Government disgracefully reviled for making roads work and not worrying too much about public transport. He sees the marvels of motorways, he sees the wonders of private cars, but you suspect he hasn't experienced on a daily basis the costs of travel - especially if you commute some distance to work - which people experience on a daily basis in the remote west.

Well consistency has never been one of Duffy's strengths, and urban planning requires some logical and coherent insights, which escape him as well as the state government. That's how they managed to scrap the Parramatta to Chatswood link,  and came up with the wretched North West Metro scheme. (The Chatswood connection would have been the first heavy rail initiative of any significance since the 1920's).

There are cities and experts who know how these things might be done. Just not in the purview of Iemma, Duffy and Costa (now there's an unholy trinity).  I guess we will have to wait and see how those westerners, driving free like a man should, will feel the time the next oil scare comes along, and the concomitant increase in prices sends them into a meltdown. Right now, things are back to normal. Petrol prices are easing, and all is bliss in the motorway laden world of the Duffy. Time to start carving up the city with a new round of road building so the sheep can be herded through the tolls and Duffy's mates can shout themselves a good round of vintage port (maybe a Hardy's '53?)

That said, it's a disappointing column this week, predictable and light weight. Duffy really needs to do a bit more leg work if he wants to tweak peoples' noses by saying we need to build more motorways, from the vantage point of a relatively stable part of the city where Nimbyism ensures that roads will stay relatively low key and clogged. 

While all his disparate, incoherent positions and neuroses are on view, and his assumption that people are only just discovering orbital connectivity is news to them as well as to him, he needs to do more if his desire to shock is going to get him somewhere. Praising the State Government, rabbiting on about the joys of freeways while demanding more motorways, arguing for the joys of a toll network as opposed to freeways ... it's all too easy, and too silly.

If there was any justice in the world, Duffy would be shipped to LA for a year's driving on freeways, and then shipped out to Sydney's west for a year's commuting on motorways. It'd be sweet to hear what he thought about spending a couple of hours a day in a car while forking out for petrol and for tolls.

So to the week's scoring:

Understanding of urban planning needs: 1
Understanding of benefits of public transport: 0
Actual experience of urban reality as opposed to economic dry reports: 1
Confusing of freeways with motorways: 8
Use of specious arguments linking motorways to hospitals: 10
Neuroses on display re westerners, public transport and urban consolidation: 10
Love of big business shearing sheep on a daily basis: 10

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