Upgrading busy motorways like M1 may not be best solution for congestion woes
Millions of Australians face the daily frustration of delayed commutes, particularly on busy motorways. But as governments spend billions continually upgrading roads, experts say that might not be the best solution. 
Colin Selby says it's the worst kind of lottery.
"It only takes one accident to cripple the entire process of getting to work."
He's talking about the constellation of brake lights that let him know his commute — which on paper should take about 45 minutes — has probably doubled.
Thousands of motorists like him face a torturous daily battle on one of Australia's busiest roads.
The M1 Pacific Motorway is the only major road between Brisbane and the Gold Coast. It's a pinch point motorists dread.
For Colin, who lives in Maudsland in the Gold Coast's north, it's a straight shoot into his job as a finance broker at Wacol in Brisbane's south-west.
But he often leaves a two-hour buffer to get to work because "you cannot count on what is going to happen on the M1".
"If there's an accident, it's game over. Game over, mate. Even if it's the lightest nose-to-tail, it just brings the place to its knees."
The state and federal governments have spent more than $1.35 billion upgrading the M1 in the past four years alone. 
Cate Biddle remembers roadworks dating back to 1989 "and I've been inconvenienced ever since". 
The 51-year-old says her commute from Pimpama to Brisbane often leaves her feeling frustrated and powerless. 
"Honestly, the impact of it is visceral, I can feel it. I have to do self-talk to calm myself down," says Cate, who works for a not-for-profit on Brisbane's north side.
"Just literally sitting there stuck [in traffic] wondering why we haven't moved for 10 minutes — is somebody dead [because of a crash]? If there's an accident it takes the whole day out.
"The impact this has on people's mental health … you get into work and you're exhausted, you're frustrated … [you] need a minute to recover."
Dozens of readers like Cate and Colin responded to an ABC call-out describing how it felt to commute on the M1.
Robin — Carrara: "The daily grind of the M1 is soul-destroying."
Christian — Currumbin Waters: "I'm certain that not being home due to M1 traffic snarls was a significant stressor that led to a divorce."
Kim — Carrara: "The M1 is slowly ruining my life."
The congestion is not expected to get better anytime soon.
In less than 10 years, congestion in South-East Queensland — which includes regions like Brisbane, the Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast — is expected to overtake the Melbourne and Geelong region, according to Infrastructure Australia.
And, if nothing is done, congestion is expected to cost Australian motorists almost $53 billion in lost productivity by 2031, with Queensland's south-east expected to account for $9.2 billion. 
Much of that pain is already being felt on the road.
Commuters travelling into the heart of Brisbane now spend more time in traffic than those who head into Melbourne's CBD on average.
City workers in Brisbane have an average commute time of 67 minutes, the last time they were surveyed.
It's the second-longest in country, behind Sydney's 71-minute average commute.
And most of those trips are made in private vehicles.
There are more challenges ahead, with South-East Queensland's population expected to grow from roughly 4 million to 5.4 million by 2041, with areas like the Gold Coast and Ipswich accounting for most of the growth.
On the Gold Coast — where the city's transport strategy estimates that each new resident adds 3.1 car trips per day — this could lead to a doubling of car trips on the city's road network by 2031.
So, with an explosion of commuters trying to squeeze through an already congested transport corridor daily, what are the alternatives?
Ian — Myocum: "While having to use the M1 is bad enough, there is no real alternative."
Marlee — Gold Coast: "I'm also a little dismayed state and federal government planning did not foresee or plan infrastructure spending to match population growth and have essentially allowed the dismal state of the M1 to occur."
Bruce — Nundah: "Moved back to Brisbane as [the commute] got difficult."
Infrastructure Australia says the existing M1 "cannot accommodate current traffic volumes".
By 2041, around 246,000 vehicles are forecast use the M1 at the Coomera River — that's roughly 86,000 vehicles over the motorway's current capacity.
Further south, 170,400 vehicles are expected to cross the Nerang River daily in coming decades, which is about 30,400 vehicles above the daily limit.
Politicians say the "congestion-busting" solution is a new duplicate road called the Coomera Connector, claiming it could divert up to 60,000 vehicles away from the M1 each day.
But according to the project's environmental report, the figure could be as low as 16,000.
The first stage will be 16km long and is estimated to cost $2.16 billion.
And there's a fair way to go before the road is up and running.
The first stage is expected to open progressively from late 2025.
Eventually the road is expected to be 45km long, but how the project progresses remains unclear.
Adding lanes and increasing road capacity has been shown to further embed reliance on private cars.
"There's plenty of evidence that basically adding road capacity buys you some short-term relief, but it never solves the problem," says University of Queensland regional planning expert Professor Neil Sipe.
He says it's difficult to negotiate the phenomenon known as induced demand, when trying to build your way out of congestion makes it easier to travel by road, therefore more people end up driving. 
A well-known example of this process is the Katy Freeway in the US state of Texas which is 26 lanes at its widest point. Despite the abundance of lanes, commuters still battle horrific congestion.
Professor Sipe says the Coomera Connector could face the same fate as the M1 if a heavy reliance on private vehicles continues.  
For example, each car carries an average of 1.1 people during peak hours on the Gold Coast. 
"My view is that in about 10 years, [the Coomera Connector] will be just as congested as the M1," Professor Sipe says.
"But in 10 years, the people that made the decisions on the Coomera Connector will probably be gone doing other things.
"Building roads has its limitations; there is also the need to look at that approach which is to look at the public transport system and also the active transport network."
Jessica — Shailer Park: "With Queensland hosting the Olympics in 2032, I cannot even fathom what the commute will be like by then."
Stuart — Beenleigh: "Six months ago I quit my long-term job on the Gold Coast to take a job in Logan five minutes from home. I could no longer spend two to three hours in M1 traffic every day."
When M1 traffic is especially bad, Gold Coast drone instructor Jason Stormy won't even bother trying to get home.
He rolls out a sleeping bag on a couch in his office on Brisbane's north side.
"Say it's a Wednesday or Thursday afternoon and I notice there's been an accident on the M1, I'll just sleep in my office.
"It saves driving the four or five hours home, having a sleep, and driving straight back."
He's the first to acknowledge the trip to his hinterland home in the Numinbah Valley isn't a typical commute.
But seeing a red line of traffic stretching out of Brisbane on his phone's maps app makes spending a night in the office more palatable.
It also takes at least one car off the road during peak hour.
"I'm going to the pub for a schnitty and letting [the traffic] die down and I might get home at eight or nine o'clock, or I'll just roll a sleeping bag out on the couch in the office," Jason says. 
"What else do you do? There's four bazillion people all trying to get to the same place at the same time. There's all the works they did around Springwood [just outside Brisbane] and it didn't change it one little bit."
A recent RACQ report found motorway upgrades over the past few years improved travel times along certain sections of road, particularly at Springwood, where $750 million in roadworks are ongoing.
But overall travel times between Brisbane and the Gold Coast have slowed since 2019. 
Fees for those who use the M1 in peak periods could ease congestion, according to Grattan Institute transport and cities program director Marion Terrill.
In some cases, she says this could be more effective than large-scale highway upgrades.
"This is a very dynamic system, and so there isn't a sense in which you can keep up [with construction]," she says. 
"In the end, the only efficient way to deal with congestion is to price it."
Ms Terrill says fees would target people who are more flexible in their commute.
"What you want to do is encourage the small fraction of people who are most flexible, to take advantage of that flexibility and [get them to] travel at a different time."
She says slight changes in the volume of road usage can have a big impact on travel times, like school holidays as an example. 
"Take out 5 per cent of people and it will make a big difference to congestion."
She says the fees could also push people towards using public transport.
"If people are going to the CBD, they're the ones who genuinely might take public transport.
"It's not that there's no role for building new roads, but the idea they would prevent congestion is unfortunately disproven by facts on the ground.
"You just can't build your way out of congestion. It's one of those things — the more you build, the more people come and fill those roads up."
Laura — Clontarf: "Stop investing money into upgrading the highway and start investing in other transport options that will complement the M1 and remove some of that congestion."
Stuart — Murrumbateman: "In April 2022, due to traffic on the M1 (Gold Coast), we were delayed getting to the Sunshine Coast and missed the opportunity to say goodbye to my dad before he died. He died just before we arrived and I know if there was a better M1, we would've made it while he was still alive."
Burleigh Heads resident Katherine decided to start riding to work after spending an hour-and-a-half in M1 traffic. She only needed to travel a few suburbs over to Robina.
"It was much faster. Cars shouldn't rule our quality of life," she says. 
Although, she usually only uses her bicycle when she needs to get to work during peak transit times.  
"I can't do it all the time, but if you're in a car during school pick-up or the tradie run, you're better off walking sometimes."
She just wishes it was easier to cycle. 
"The Gold Coast is such a beautiful part of the world, it's flat and the weather is mostly good.
"Local traffic should be more designed for bike riding, because if you want to ride to work it's actually quite dangerous."
Governments need to improve public transport and move local trips away from the M1, according to RACQ traffic and safety engineering manager Greg Miszkowycz.
"The purpose of motorways is to serve longer service trip functions, so if it's inter-suburb trips, you want them on public and active transport," he says.
"Or provide them with an alternative route so they don't have to use the Pacific Motorway."
Mr Miszkowycz says authorities should be careful that development and road upgrades don't further embed reliance on private cars.
"We're gradually building houses away from the main activity centres, and quite often they aren't well served by active and public transport opportunities, so most have to use their vehicles.
"You can't keep building roads forever. It needs to be a multi-modal approach of public transport, roads and active transport as a whole system solution."
Queensland Transport Minister Mark Bailey has ruled out congestion fees, but says investment is needed in all forms of transport. 
He says that includes the Cross River Rail project in Brisbane, upgrades to heavy rail between the Gold Coast and Brisbane and light rail throughout the Gold Coast. 
"We've got to invest heavily in public transport as well as roads, that's absolutely what we need to do."
Mr Bailey says these upgrades will make commuting on public transport more attractive than driving, but he maintains the Coomera Connector is important because commuters are hamstrung by the M1. 
"No alternative means that traffic backs up for a long way back and people are held up for many hours."
Scott — Coolangatta: "Have commuted every week between Coolangatta and Brisbane for over 30 years. In that time I have never seen a day without roadworks."
Roland — Lennox Head: "I'm always bewildered that the M1 around the Gold Coast can routinely hit a complete standstill on a four- or five-lane highway."
While experts say the solutions to traffic woes are to provide a range of transport options, reliance on cars is expected to continue.
It's something that's been highlighted in planning reports from the federal Department of Infrastructure.
"Commuter travel in [South-East Queensland] is currently very car-dependent, with the areas that are projected to grow most strongly over the next two decades typically having very low public transport use," one report reads.
Based on current trends, forecasts suggest that public transport will only account for 9 per cent of all trips in the state by 2050.
The issue is highlighted in the business case for the Coomera Connector.
It acknowledges a "misalignment" between the local population and the jobs available to people who will live in the area. 
While almost 300,000 people are expected to move to the area serviced by the road, there will be about 120,000 full-time-equivalent jobs nearby.  
"This misalignment between population and employment growth will result in an increase in the number of trips using the M1 to access employment to double between 2016 and 2041," a Coomera Connector business case reads.
Simon — northern Gold Coast: "I have been travelling the M1 for nearly 20 years and it is now a disgrace. I changed from using a car to a motorbike for the commute many years ago due to the amount of traffic jams on the road and constantly being late and stressed because of the unpredictable traffic. The rubbish in the emergency lanes on either side of the road is now unacceptable and poses a severe risk to motorcyclists for various reasons."
Andrew — Banora Point: "Been driving to work for 11 years, Tweed to Brisbane airport 240km round trip. M1 definitely not great … a 1.5-hour trip can sometimes be three hours."
In 2020 a Grattan Institute report found there had been an large nationwide increase in transport infrastructure projects worth $5 billion or more.
Of the nine projects underway at the time, costs had blown out on six of them by a total of $24 billion.
As a more recent example, the cost of Brisbane's Cross River Rail project has blown out by an additional $960 million to $6.3 billion.
Projects like the Coomera Connector are on a smaller scale, but in 2021 the cost of the project blew out by more than $600 million — about 40 per cent of the whole project — even before construction started.
"It's very typical for these large projects," Ms Terrill says. 
She says regular reports should be made during large public construction projects, similar to the requirements of companies to make announcements when issues could impact share prices.
"We are funding these projects, the taxpayers," she says. 
"But the difference between public infrastructure projects and publicly listed companies is that if you've got a publicly listed company, you have to report promptly to the market any material changes in the cost or benefits of your investments, whereas governments don't have to do that to parliament."
She says continual disclosure rules would provide greater transparency and "put a lot more discipline on politicians".
It is also difficult to find out the final cost of projects once they are completed, she says.
"There should be post-completion reviews of major projects. They should go back and say: 'Were the benefits realised?'
"You never really do know. Did it make a difference or not?"
We acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Australians and Traditional Custodians of the lands where we live, learn, and work.
This service may include material from Agence France-Presse (AFP), APTN, Reuters, AAP, CNN and the BBC World Service which is copyright and cannot be reproduced.
AEST = Australian Eastern Standard Time which is 10 hours ahead of GMT (Greenwich Mean Time)