14 July 2010 – More than 13 governments are causing city-wide pollution and financial losses on land that takes up a third of Australian cities – our roads.

These governments hold roads in trust for citizens.

But they are breaching their trustee’s duties.

Their roads have changed the climate of cities to make them 6 to 10 degrees hotter in summer than they would be if their trustee’s duties were observed. This kills hundreds of Australians every summer and is killing off marine life. (1)

The roads cause already high electricity costs to rise even further, as people are forced to install or turn on air-conditioning – even if their private building meets government rules for energy-efficient design.

Burr offers below a solution that would restore trust. It doesn’t cost any more and it would cool our cities.

We need a solution because, if we can’t rein in these agencies, then we can’t cool our cities, reduce deaths from heatwaves, or cut water and air pollution.

We may see our roads – but we don’t know how to read them.

To help us become road literate Burr provides three images that show:

  • a photo of a typical road intersection;
  • a sketch of the road that lists the 13 governments falling over themselves in our roads;
  • and a sketch with a solution – a single set of binding goals for all road development which will vastly improve public health, cut public waste and make our cities more productive.

The 13 governments include: the state and territory road agencies, government water and sewage businesses, communications agencies, parks agencies within councils, road agencies within councils, street-lighting agencies within councils, electricity businesses, gas businesses, and pollution agencies within council and state agencies.The sun, rain and waters govern our environment even though we don’t elect them. They can’t negotiate. The other governments can negotiate. They aren’t elected either; they’re agencies of the governments we elect but act like independent though unaccountable governments.

None of these governments are elected. They are all government agencies whose policies have grown over time with almost no involvement of governments or citizens.

To cool our cities, grow food and conversations, and cut climate pollution, we must get the governments to operate so that – no matter what they do – they also achieve, and never undermine, some common goals.

These new goals can be met without prejudice to the governments’ core goals.

For example, there need be no conflict between good hard, stable roads where water and air are excluded; and roads with trees where there’s plenty of air and water to grow the trees to their natural height. Yet few road engineers, planners and architects know about ‘structural soils’ that are stable and grow trees (2).

A fundamental cause of the stagnation in the design and use of roads is that there’s no profit-making in the roads – except for the governments and those they get to build them.

Ask who profits from improving roads? Neither architects nor planners nor engineers nor their clients.

Thus, planners and architects are part of the problem and the solution. They use the word ‘streetscape’ but speak only of the buildings, not the road.

By comparison, the house, the telephone, the electric light, the computer, the mobile phone – all these were developed because there’s profit to be made from the time and skills invested in them (a wonderful exception that proves the rule is here – (3).

The 13 governments work to different goals. For example they:

  • build conflicting designs – roads designed to stop trees growing;
  • plant trees which are denied water and cannot grow to their natural height to shade the road;
  • dig up each other’s turf endlessly, usually with the result that work is duplicated or triplicated;
  • continuously prune, replant and remove trees to make way for other services;
  • compete continuously for control over who does what and where;
  • typically won’t talk to, or collaborate with, each other’s agency – particularly within local councils; and
  • rarely publish their plans for public review, usually don’t need to get development approvals in the same transparent way as the private sector, and almost never publish the costs of their maintenance works.

The costs that we suffer from over-government, a lack of common goals and accountability include: death and illness; increased air-conditioning use; dead fish and sterile marine environments; a lack of self-irrigating designs which drives up mains water use and maintenance costs; higher house electricity bills; and needlessly high-wattage street lighting.

A 1995 US study (4) calculated the cost of black roads compared to paler roads or roads with tree cover. It found the air-conditioning and health costs of black roads in Los Angeles could be reduced by $1.80 for every square metre of road. Thus, a 15-metre wide road extending for a single city block that’s 100 metres long (or 1500 square metres) causes avoidable costs of $2700.

Applying those costs to my small suburb of some 120 urban blocks, the total avoidable costs are around $324,000 a year. The cost for Sydney city is in billions.

One reason these costs aren’t included in the cost of road design and construction is that we – the ratepayers and citizens – pay them, not the authors of the designs or the 13 governments operating the roads. Many costs are hidden. For example, we pay for street-lighting electricity in our council rates – but that’s not disclosed. Few of us know that, and are therefore not prompted to agitate for more efficient street lighting.

We can make existing and new roads places that cool us instead of heating us up, and also more productive and safer.

An inspiring example of how to design and use roads is to be found in the 2003 freeway conversion to a river project in Seoul (5).

In that city of 10 million citizens, there’s a tumult of modern freeways, high-rises and ever-growing traffic; and the Mayor won office promising to pull down a freeway built over the river. And he did it: see the documentary on ABC iView before it goes off next week (5, above).

Burr proposes a national standard – applying equally to all governments and whatever they do to roads – that:

  • does not heat up our cities;
  • shades half the roads with tree canopy;
  • keeps most water where it falls;
  • grows food, and
  • creates village precincts where the car is a guest and the human dominates.

One way to achieve this is for the federal government to make all its road grants to the states conditional on these goals being implemented in designs and accounted for annually. Each road agency also needs to be given these goals.

This would bring major public benefits.

Burr guesstimates that household and office electricity bills could be cut by at least 15 percent through cooling our cities in summer with cool road design.

Public health costs would also be cut.

In addition to the reduction in deaths and heat-related problems, there’d be the increased physical health to be won when folks get physical exercise from gardening in the road.

Which is it to be?

Will our elected local, state and federal governments set some simple ‘whole of city’ goals for the 13 governments that run our roads – and liberate us from the oppressive heat and costs. Or will we remain victims?

Where is an Australian leader to match the Mayor of Seoul?

(1) In the 2009 south-eastern Australian heat wave the urban heat-island effect from roads and other sources produced peaks as high as 7 degrees: Morris, Simmonds, International Journal of Climatology, 20: 1931 – 1954, 2000;  Aquatic Ecological and Human Health Risk Assessment of Chemicals in Wet Weather Discharges in the Sydney Region, NSW, Australia, (1999) 39 Marine Pollution Bulletin 335, 341;

(2) Structural soils: developed and applied successfully with aggressive figs in the roads at the Sydney Olympics site and overseas, for example at Cornell University in the United States.

(3) The wonderful exception is the Sydney Harbour Bridge ‘Bridge Walk’; it took the proponent some seven years to obtain approval for the adventure climbs it now sells to any person willing to pay over $150 for the walk. Now, with an Earth-wide market and bookings needed months in advance, that business earns over $50,000 a day.

(4) “We have shown by computer simulation that, if all possible pavements were whitened to an albedo of 0.35, the cooling of the city would save electricity and reduce smog damage. The present dollar value of these savings in Los Angeles is estimated to be $1.80/m2 ($0.17/ft2) of pavement. The cost of pavement depends on the amount of material used. If the surface layer is thin enough, its cost may be sufficiently low that the savings from a lighter color would pay for any extra cost. Thus, it may happen that a lighter pavement is overall less costly than a dark one. We illustrate this in the Figure. If the savings is $1.80/m2, for a 6-mm (1/4-in.) thick resurfacing, money would be saved, as long as the extra costs of the aggregate and binder are within the triangle to the left of the filled squares. For example, an increase of binder price by $1.64 per liter ($6.25 per gallon) and no increase in aggregate price will not increase the pavement cost more than $1.80/m2. Or, aggregate priced at $138 per Mg ($126 per ton) more than present cost, and no increase in binder price, could be used without exceeding the benefits of the cooler surface. Such aggregate can be quite white and yield a more reflective surface, with no overall extra cost to society. If the pavement is 25 mm (1 in.) thick, the range of affordable price increases is confined to the area below the line defined by the open squares. The four times thicker surface implies a four times smaller range of affordable price increases.” Paving Materials for Heat Island Mitigation,M. Pomerantz, H. Taha, A. Chen,* A. RosenfeldÝ, 1995, *Center for Building Science, Energy & Environment Division, LBNL. ÝSenior Advisor for Energy Efficiency, Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, U.S. DOE; Viewed at: https://eetd.lbl.gov/EA/1995_Ann_Rpt/Buildings/paving.materials.for.heat.html; there is further extensive research listed here in alphabetical order:https://eetd.lbl.gov/HeatIsland/PUBS/hi-publist-02-23-2009.pdf

(5) https://www.abc.net.au/iview/#/docs

Michael Mobbs is a sustainability coach who works with developers, governments and communities to design and obtain approvals for houses, units and subdivisions. He is based in the inner Sydney suburb of Chippendale, where in 1996 he pioneered the conversion of his inner city terrace into a sustainable house, which has now been disconnected to mains water and sewerage and is powered by solar energy. www.sustainablehouse.com.au