Technology and congestion

Thank you Dean Zabrieszach for the introduction.

May I start by expressing my appreciation for the day-to-day work of ITS Australia, and in particular for organising this summit.

Each year, the ITS Summit brings together Australian leaders in transport technology to share information, learn from each other and work out opportunities to make our transport networks safer, more efficient and sustainable.

Melbourne is an excellent choice as the location for 2019. It is our fastest growing major city and this is creating immense challenges for our roads and transport systems that require smart responses.

The challenges in Melbourne are replicated to a large or smaller extent in our other big cities—faster growing populations putting pressure on our infrastructure and slowing our cities down.

Congestion affects us all in some capacity. For those who face the traffic every day, t takes valuable time away from family and friends. For businesses reliant on getting across cities rapidly, it is an added cost.

But to all Australians, it is a drain on the economy.

Avoidable congestion across our capital cities now costs $25 billion per year. Without any policy change, this is predicted to rise to as much as $40 billion per year by 2030.

Over the last decade, the freeways have slowed, the trains have become fuller, and many are concerned that it will only get worse.

Today, at this Intelligent Transport Systems Summit, I want to discuss how we at the federal government are thinking about these congestion challenges and, in particular how we see technology as being part of the solution.

Congestion, of course, is largely a function of a simple equation: rapid population growth and infrastructure not keeping pace.

We are working on both fronts.

On the population side of the equation, we are putting in place policies to ease the population pressures on our big capitals of Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. These cities have been growing very fast by historic and international standards and account for 75% of Australia's population growth in recent years.

Our population plan consists of reducing the migration rate (which constitutes 60 percent of Australia's population growth) and encouraging more new arrivals to our smaller cities and regions that need more people.

On top of this, we have outlined a fast rail plan to connect the satellite cities to our big capitals, with $2 billion to get the first one going—Melbourne to Geelong.  This will allow people to live in those centres (and enjoy the cheaper housing and regional lifestyle) while still being able to access the big employment markets easily and simply on a daily basis. This works in conjunction with the migration changes to take population pressure off the big cities.

The other side of the equation is infrastructure. The Government has massively increased its infrastructure expenditure since it came to office.

In 2014, we outlined a $50 billion infrastructure plan which was recognised at the time as the biggest in Australian political history. Early this year, we boosted the infrastructure expenditure to $100 billion. A third of the 900 major projects that we have announced since coming to office have been announced in the last 6 months alone.

A significant proportion of the Government's investment is building the high capacity transport solutions we need to serve our growing cities. This includes major projects such as WestConnex in Sydney, the Monash Freeway upgrades, M80 upgrades and Airport Rail in Melbourne and the Gateway and Ipswich motorways in Brisbane.

Right now, there are 160 major projects underway that we are funding with a further 120 in the planning.

We will continue to invest in transport infrastructure in the years ahead to boost the overall installed capacity of our road, rail and other transport networks.

There is an opportunity, however, to get more out of existing and future infrastructure through the use of technology.

This can provide immense congestion busting benefits, but at a fraction of the cost of building new capacity—the Government wants to explore more of this.

There are at least three ways that technology is already doing this or soon will and where the government is investing.

First, technology can help with getting better utilisation of the hundreds of billions of dollars of existing road and rail assets. Even a small improvement in capacity utilisation of existing roads and rail can be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

One way where Australia has been a leader in doing this has been in Intelligent Transport Systems.

Intelligent Transport System solutions—such as ramp metering, dynamic speed limits, reversible lanes, variable signage and traffic signal priority for emergency and freight vehicles—can massively increase road utilisation and hence, effective capacity.

The Kwinana Smart Freeway system in Perth is a great example of this. Costing $47 million (of which the Australian Government is contributing $38 million), the project is expected to boost the freeway capacity by 33 percent through coordinated ramp signals, all-lane running through a lane management system, variable speed limits and an upgraded driver information system.

If we were to boost the capacity of that freeway by the 33 percent by building new lanes, the cost would be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Government has made similar investments on the Bruce Highway—the latest being a commitment of up to $84 million towards the $105 million managed motorway project between Gateway Motorway and the Caloundra Road Interchange.

We expect these upgrades to reduce peak hour travel times by around 30 per cent—saving Queensland commuters nearly 14 million hours of travel time by 2031.

That project carries a benefit cost ratio exceeding 9:1.

That is the kind of value for money that technology can provide that no straight up infrastructure project can.

We want to do more of this.

While Intelligent Transport Systems are available now, in the future, automated vehicles will potentially provide a further step-change increase in the utilisation of existing road assets and hence help reduce congestion.

Modelling from the federal Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics indicates that by 2030, congestion costs would drop by more than a quarter if automated vehicles account for 30 per cent of kilometres travelled, which they call a “fast penetration scenario”.

How does this work?

There are several ways that automated vehicles can increase road utilisation and hence reduce congestion, but the main one is that it would allow cars to safely travel more closely together.

Zoox, one of the leading automated vehicle providers in the United States, estimates that when you analyse a freeway the moment before it begins experiencing congestion (that is, the moment before the traffic slows below the road's regulated speed), the vehicles only occupy about 8 percent of the bitumen. Ninety two percent of the freeway is not occupied, but is necessary for driver safety. If that 8 percent figure was doubled through precise sensing and automation, then you are effectively doubling the freeway capacity.

We are preparing for this possible future of automated vehicles through the Transport and Infrastructure Council and our creation of the Office of Future Transport Technologies. You will be hearing from the General Manager of this Office later this morning.

The second way that technology can help with addressing congestion is through providing better consumer information.

No doubt a number of people used Google Maps to determine the optimal route to come to this conference.  This is real time data informing people how to optimise their route.

In the future, we will no doubt have more predictive congestion data as well.  That is, someone will be able to determine whether it is best to wait until 9am to travel versus trying to leave at 8:30 and will be able to accurately assess the time taken in each scenario.  Such development may be funded by private sector or government.

Through our $50 million Smart Cities program, we are funding a number of projects to assist with smart parking. In essence, providing real time information as to where carparks are located.

Why is this important? Because according to some studies, drivers looking for parking may account for up to 30 percent of inner-urban traffic.  If we can reduce this figure by even a fraction, we can make a significant impact.

Government's opening up their data can also lead to an explosion of innovative solutions and partnerships with industry.

It is exciting to see Transport for New South Wales and Uber partner to bring public transport options to the Uber app. This is about giving commuters options and information to plan their trips, and encourage more people to use transit and reduce road congestion.

The New South Wales Government is currently trialing an On-Demand bus service. This is a flexible service, which allows people to book a vehicle via an online app or over the phone, from their home or a nearby location such as a shopping centre or hospital, taking them to a local transport hub or landmark. The cost is comparable to a one-way bus ticket and it allows people to access public transport when and where they need it, improving connectivity to the existing public transport network.

The final way that that technology can assist with addressing congestion is through the development of cheaper and innovative transport solutions.

Some of these new transport solution will be developed and implemented by the private sector such as the rollout of electric scooters and electric bikes in cities around Australia.

Others, however, will require the support of government to make them operational.

Governments across Australia should be open to these new technologies so that we can get more value from the dollars invested.

Trackless Trams, for example, have entered the discussion about Australia's infrastructure future. This conversation comes from the recognition that delivering mass transit infrastructure in our denser urban environments comes at high cost, with often significant disruption to the network during construction.

Emerging examples seen in China replicate the benefits of a traditional tram or light rail system—speeds, ride quality, level-entry for passengers and multiple doors for entry and exit. The promise of the system is the replacement of the steel rail with optical guidance. In a sense moving from physical to digital tracks. This means it can be installed with much less disruption to a network, and with significant cost savings, potentially costing $6–8 million per kilometre compared to $50 million or more for existing light rail systems.  

I have only scratched the surface of what transport technologies mean for our cities and the infrastructure that keeps them moving.

And keeping them moving is fundamental to my role as Minister.

Large cities will always have some level of congestion, but I look to industry and the professionals here today for additional solutions to the avoidable congestion that prevents the network from working to its best.

While we look ahead and plan for the new technologies that could transform the sector, we are actively investing in the proven technologies of today. The Australian Government's record investment in transport infrastructure can only benefit from better utilisation and better services and management made available through technology.

I would like to thank ITS Australia again for organising the event and bringing together the expertise in the room today, including many of our international partners who are contributing their knowledge. Government is ready to work together with industry on our commitment to tackle congestion and deliver the best infrastructure for Australians.