China has learned many valuable lessons from its growth. Among the biggest: you can’t just respond to demand for a certain kind of transport.
Beijing built a series of ring roads between the 1980s and today. There are six in the city.
Loads of new tarmac coincided with a boom in wealth. That meant an explosion in car ownership and traffic that got out of control.
But that does not mean Beijing has given up. When I was in Beijing in 2003, there were just three subway lines. Now there are a dozen.
New stations are popping up everywhere like a game of whack-a-mole. On our holiday in 2013, we picked up a subway map (actually it said subwang) at our accommodation, and it was already out of date.
This is something Australia could learn from. When you build a road to solve a traffic jam, that road will likely last until the collapse of the civilisation it supports.
Sydney’s George St is now over 200 years old. There are just a handful of examples of freeway removal worldwide. A road lasts longer than a building, longer than the technology that uses it, longer by far than the average road engineer.
What you are doing – in the long run – is not “solving a traffic jam” but shaping your city.
People like to talk about induced traffic from new roads – “if you build it they will use it.” I don’t doubt this is partly true, but I think the long-run effect of a new road is far greater than whether or not you get your traffic jam back within 18 months.
This is why I am so excited about the prospects of improvements to rail networks. They can also last a very long time, and have long-run positive effects, not least of which is discouraging the building of more roads.
But while Beijing’s improvements are underway (see right), Melbourne’s are just on paper.
The city-shaping effects of an efficient metro system in Melbourne would be huge. But a great deal of political change will have to happen for it to get built.