Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Just kicking down the cobblestones

Last year the powers that be reduced the speed limit on the long, straight, and featureless stretch of highway between Narrabri and Coonabarabran from 110 to 100 kph. The rationale was that this marginal reduction in speed would reduce accidents and save lives. On the local ABC radio they had one of those talkback thingies, and everyone who rang in – as you have probably guessed – was opposed to the change, saying it would only increase fatigue, thus increasing accidents and costing lives. I don't know what the actual result of the experiment has been. At the time, for a few brief moments I wished I owned a mobile phone, since like Athena out of the head of Zeus a glorious contrarian vision of the future had taken shape fully formed in my mind, and I wanted to ring in and share it:

Let's make the speed limit 50 kph everywhere.

We know that there will be very few fatal accidents at 50 kph.

We know there will be much less wear and tear on the roads at 50 kph.

We know roads intended for maximum speeds of 50 kph can be constructed much more cheaply than roads intended for 100 or 110 kph.

50 kph is not slow: it is faster than any man can run. It is a speed that would have staggered our ancestors of 200 years ago. They feared it might be fatal. Travelling at that speed for eight hours and covering 400 km in a day would have astonished them. Let's regain that sense of wonder.

But what about the fatigue? What about the poor people forced to take a little more than two hours instead of a little more than one hour to cross the featureless state forest between Narrabri and Coonabarabran? This can be solved by building a place to stop in the middle. A motel and a petrol station and a cafe. People will stop and get out and maybe actually see the Pilliga state forest instead of just hurtling through it at cherubim-like speed.

Sure, things where I live will cost more. But things in places 800 km from Sydney don't cost twice as much as things 400 km from Sydney. I doubt it would increase prices that much more than the introduction of the GST.

And, in so much as it increases the cost of road transport, it will be a vast subsidy to rail transport, the ultimately more efficient and environmentally responsible way to transport goods across the country. It will also encourage domestic aviation - which I don't see as ultimately such a good thing - but which in bringing more regular flights to more country towns will encourage business and improve access to health services.

It will arrest the trend in which large rural towns suck the oxygen out of the smaller towns nearby: instead of at the town 45 km away, we will do our shopping at the town 25 km away, or even at the village 5 km away. On the weekend we were in at the village hall shooting holes in the wall with bows and arrows (which is another story) and I looked again at the pictures on the walls of days gone by, when there were three churches, and two schools, and two post offices with full-time postmasters, and a railway stations with a real platform like Sydney suburban stations – now there is one school, and one shop, and a level crossing, and a single once-a-fortnight church. By slowing down, we can go some way towards bringing these little places back to life, and that must surely be a good thing.

Reducing the speed limit to 50 kph will hardly impact the inhabitants of the outer suburbs of the great metropolises at all, since they have to crawl along their mighty highways most of the time they use them anyway.

In the short term, it is a reform that can be brought in at almost no cost to the government. There are no new signs involved, just pulling up old ones, and I expect the temporary spike in traffic fines can be managed to more than cover the cost of this work.

And in psychologically quadrupling the size of our country, it cannot help but strengthen the states against Canberra, and the regions against the capital cities, and the little shires against the big country towns: a decentralisation which I think – being in the throes of reading Tocqueville's 'Democracy in America”- is healthy for a democratic society.

If it loosens the ties so much that the further flung parts of the country secede – why, so much the better. Without Western Australia, we can have monetary policies more suited to the slower speed of the two-speed economy, and can gently subside to the New Zealand-like standard of living that our productivity deserves. Without North Queensland, we need not have any inhibitions about importing cheap Filipino bananas. Everyone wins.

This is a perfectly serious proposal. My next step will be to write Tony Windsor with a request that the Commonwealth do a full cost-benefit analysis.


Marco said...

I can only say I agree with the merit of this. One time when our car airconditioner was broken, and we were traveling to Cairns, we decided to travel early in the morning and stay under 80kph the whole way. We made it all the way there and back and drove around Cairns on one tank of petrol at twice the economy. For private non-commercial travel, the combination of fuel efficiency and less accidents makes it a very good proposition. However, for freighting goods, the economic case isn't there but as you say, we would just pay a little more for goods. I certainly have no sympathy for those that would fight small reductions.

Dr Clam said...

Thanks Marco! :) I didn't mention the fuel efficiency case since my impression was that the sweet spot for private travel was about the 80 kph you travelled at rather than my more extreme ambit claim.

Marco said...

Fuel efficiency in a "highway" cycle is not better due to any speed being the most efficient, but completely because of the lack of stop-starts. 50kph is more fuel efficient than 80kph for virtually any vehicle, as far as I know. There is the issue of diminishing returns, however. The extra fuel efficiency between 110kph and 80kph is substantially more valuable than the 80kph to 50kph improvement.

Dr Clam said...