Experts want turnaround in transport policy

Commuting is too economically attractive, says a new book Keystone

Mobility is too cheap, the constant expansion of services and infrastructure is a mistake: Switzerland’s approach to its transport system needs a radical rethink.

This content was published on May 9, 2010 - 16:23

That’s the provocative thesis of a new book – Verkehrt: Plädoyer für eine nachhaltige Verkehrspolitik (Going the other way: a plea for a sustainable transport system) – presented to the media on Wednesday by the independent think tank, Avenir Suisse.

It maintains that the current system is neither economically nor ecologically sustainable.

Switzerland is proud of its transport system, and Avenir Suisse recognises that its excellence is indeed one of the things that make the country an economically attractive location.

But the authors, Professor Rico Maggi, head of the Economic Research Institute of Lugano University, and his assistant, Angelo Geninazzi, say that in the long term the standard cannot be maintained unless far-reaching changes are made.

New pricing methods need to be introduced to influence the behaviour of users, and the financing of the infrastructure and its maintenance must be more transparent, they believe.

One of the major concerns of the book is the policy of ever-increasing expansion of the rail and highway networks, which is something of a sacred cow in Switzerland.

This cow needs to be slaughtered, Maggi says.

Mobility pricing

The transport ministry last November issued a report on the future of the infrastructure in which it, too, warned of challenges ahead.

The ministry said it would soon be necessary to look for new ways of financing the system, and outlined possibilities for “mobility pricing” under which, for example, transport users would be charged more for travelling at peak times, whether by road or rail.

While Maggi and Geninazzi are in favour of mobility pricing, they say the ministry is merely looking for alternative ways of funding the same misguided policy.

As far as the rail network is concerned, they say, improving the service by expanding the infrastructure, providing more trains and introducing attractive ticket-pricing policies encourages people to move out of the city centres – where rents are sky-rocketing – and into the outlying areas.

Urban sprawl

The result? Ever-increasing urban sprawl. It’s a vicious circle: as people move further out of town, they need more transport to take them to their work, and the transport services are consequently expanded to cater to their demands, which in turn encourages more and more people to travel further and further...

Maggi assured that the population had not expanded so much that there was no room for them in the cities. But for individuals it currently makes economic sense to commute to work.

“On the one hand, we have to make transport more expensive, and rather than expand the network, we need to maintain what we have; on the other, we need to change our planning, to create more space in the cities,” he said.

Mobility is a commodity, Maggi explained. It’s useful and good. And when something that is useful and good is also cheap, it gets consumed in large quantities. “And then we have too much traffic and that means we have problems.”

European network

Urban sprawl is not the only concern of the authors. Swiss transport policy is too inward-looking, they believe. It concentrates on providing all regions with infrastructure and services, which in the short term contributes to their attractiveness, but may have harmful long-term consequences.

Switzerland’s neighbours have followed a different policy: they are building a high-speed rail network, with trains running at over 230km/h which are able to compete with air travel over medium distances.

While Switzerland has speeded up travel between its own cities, it has neglected the European network. As a result, it is in danger of being bypassed.

And even where Switzerland is, or will be, connected with the international network, the full potential of high-speed trains cannot be tapped since nearly all of the country's lines are not equipped to deal with speeds of more than 160km/h.

Getting the message across

The authors are well aware that their ideas will not be accepted overnight.

The current transport policy enjoys broad public support, the book admits. Most Swiss believe it is not only the correct one for the present, but is sustainable in the long term as well.

The authors’ contention is that sustainability is only possible if pricing is used to influence users’ behaviour. The impact of mobility on such wider issues as settlement patterns and economic development is not determined by macroeconomic planning but by a complex interaction of the individual behaviour of suppliers and customers, they say.

However controversial their recommendations, they still believe that “Switzerland without an extensive public transport system is unthinkable”.

But rethinkable is a different matter.

Julia Slater,

Avenir Suisse

Avenir Suisse is an independent think tank established in 1999 by 14 internationally operating Swiss companies.

It represents a liberal, market-oriented position.

Its stated aim is to “promote the social and economic development of Switzerland.”

It works with scientific institutes and experts to research specific topics and also organises conferences and debates.

Through the research that it publishes, it stimulates public discussion of new ideas in the fields of economics, politics and society at large.

It does not support any political party, nor does it engage in lobbying activity.

The research is directed by the organisation’s project managers, who are economists, sociologists and political scientists.

The name translates as “Swiss Future”.

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