OPINION: The NSW government’s recent announcement that Roads and Maritime Services – until now the state’s standalone roads agency – will be integrated into Transport for NSW could not have come at a more opportune time.
As a city that has largely been shaped for, and by, the private motor vehicle, much of Sydney’s development pattern consists of sprawling, car-dependent suburbs. But as our population swells and our urban development patterns evolve, we need to reframe how we see mobility, the role that it plays in creating our city, and how that plays out in our day-to-day lives.
To fully realise this opportunity, we need to be bold in creating a new transport paradigm; a future in which mobility is not just a service, but a lifestyle choice – where its systems and infrastructure enable opportunities for improved quality of life, environmental health, economic performance, and social capital.
So now that the setup of our state’s transport agency lends itself to a more holistic approach to the way we move, where do we start?
Busting the congestion myth
“Busting congestion” tends to make headlines in the lead up to elections, with claims that improvements in the efficiency of the road network will increase network capacity and therefore reduce congestion. Of course, we know by now that increasing network capacity only induces demand and increases congestion in the long run, and so what we instead need is a holistic approach to moving people around our city.
Induced demand occurs when increasing the capacity of roadways increases the demand for travel on those roadways, and has the long term effect of increasing congestion.
To reduce total congestion, any spare capacity that we unlock in the road network needs to be repurposed for modes other than private motor vehicles. This presents significant opportunities for Transport for NSW to achieve many of its goals in their Future Transport 2056 strategy. Spare road capacity generated by technological innovation can be used to improve the provision of accessible public transport systems and decrease transport disadvantage, increase uptake of active transport modes, connect green spaces across the Sydney region, and create liveable local neighbourhoods.
Funding our transport systems
While funding of our private and public transport systems continues to create tension between the users of each, Transport for NSW’s Future Transport strategy rightfully calls for a fairer balance of who pays for funding our transport system in NSW.
Discussions within the community and media on this issue often imply that the burden of funding public transport currently falls disproportionately on those who do not use it. But any discussion of funding our transport system needs to be more holistic. It should also consider the costs of private motor vehicle transport currently borne by all taxpayers, as well as the savings to taxpayers provided by active and sustainable transport modes.
By way of example, the NSW community currently subsidises private motor vehicle transport in the form of costs associated with new infrastructure; maintenance of existing infrastructure; congestion and associated time delay costs; provision of on- and off-street public and private parking; environmental impacts such as air and noise pollution, urban heat island, and climate change; public health expenditure resulting from road trauma and impacts to physical and mental health; law enforcement and emergency services; and reduced social capital and increased reliance on social services. These costs are borne by all taxpayers, even those that don’t drive.
While public transport should be considered a social service – and viewed as an investment in the health of our economy, our environment and our citizens – a full cost account of NSW’s transport modes should be undertaken.
This would allow for an informed discussion of how our transport network is currently funded, and where the true subsidies lie. Educating the NSW public on the hidden costs of our transport systems will be critical to ensuring a fairer balance on who pays.
Beware the autonomous promise
Not since the mass production of the Model T Ford in the early twentieth century have we experienced a change in the mobility of our urban populations as we will with the adoption of connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs). By all accounts, the next several decades will be a truly transformative time for how we move around our cities.
Much time and effort, from both the public and private sector, will be spent introducing CAVs to our cities and their streets. But before this is undertaken, we should first ask ourselves – what problems are we trying to solve? If autonomous vehicles are the means, then what is our end?
Our state’s transport agencies should ensure that the policies surrounding CAV technology allow it to achieve many of Future Transport’s goals; accessible public transport systems, uptake of active transport modes, connected green spaces, liveable local neighbourhoods, and reducing transport disadvantage.
The design of our roadway environments in NSW is currently largely dictated by the provisions and requirements of numerous road and traffic design standards and guidelines. However, in a future where competition for valuable space in our city streets is ever-increasing, design standards for CAVs should facilitate a more holistic design approach to our urban transport environments, returning streets as public space and ensuring they are concerned with more than just the free movement of motor vehicles. Such standards would shift the focus from car-focused road design to a more inclusive framework for pedestrians, cyclists, mass transit customers, and motorists.
Importantly, consideration of these policies and standards is needed now to pre-empt the arrival of CAVs in the not-so-distant future, and to realise the potential for the creation of a new transportation paradigm; a future in which mobility systems enable opportunities for the reconstruction of car-dependent suburbs to provide built environments that promote improved quality of life, health, and well-being. To achieve this, NSW needs to adopt an approach to CAV technology that is not focused on the individual customer of transport services, but rather prioritises the best outcomes for the city.
The end game – Mobility as a lifestyle choice
“Mobility as a service” is currently trending within transport circles. While technological advances will fundamentally change the way in which the transport product is delivered to customers, the “service” of transport should not be the central aim of our how we plan for our state’s future transport needs.
In focusing too much on service, we risk missing the enormous opportunities for our transport systems to positively shape the liveability of the places through which they pass.
Imagine a future in which getting to work becomes one of the best parts of our day, an activity that fosters mental and physical health, and encourages social connections within communities and neighbourhoods, not only because of the modes we use – walking and cycling that’s healthy and fun, or comfortable public transport that’s convenient and relaxing – but because of the environments that our transport systems create and pass through.
Our primary aim should be to help the NSW community imagine this future, and work with local communities to achieve it.
Jason Packenham is an associate landscape architect at ASPECT Studios working in public space and urban mobility.