While all modes of road transport are important, in many areas a disproportionate amount of space and priority is being given to vehicle traffic, to the detriment of our cities.
Allocation and competition of space within urban road reserves is a battle. This is for two reasons: simple physics associated with the limitation of space within the built environment and the contrasts in form, speed, vulnerability and size between different modes of transport.
There are battles, too, in suburbia – albeit they take a different form. In many contexts, it’s less a matter of a jostle for infrastructure and priority, and more a case of satisfying even a modicum of convenience, connectedness, safety and amenity for any mode other than motor vehicles.
Preserving the integrity of arterial roads and district traffic movement all too often leads to the under-provision of suitable facilities for active transport, for example, and acceptance of some infrastructure that should leave us incredulous. It’s not always the case that something is better than nothing at all.
This article focuses on the urban condition (and by urban we mean centres of activity including central business districts). Despite the introduction, the piece is also a call for reasonableness rather than an anti-car diatribe. We believe unequivocally that all modes of road transport have functions and that means they need reasonable space in which to operate.
The problem is, reasonableness often seems overlooked in the urban transport planning equation. Instead, a disproportionate amount of road space and operational priority is allocated to vehicle traffic.
Division of legislated and functional authority between different tiers of government and government agencies is cause of some of the disproportions. In a city centre downtown environment, this can contribute to intersection and crossing controls, including poor traffic signal phasing, that appear to provide for active transport as an afterthought when in actual fact there are as many people walking or cycling in this environment as driving.
Case-and-point is the phasing at the junction of William Street and The Esplanade in Perth, where pedestrian crossing movements have very short green aspects and operate independently on each leg rather than in parallel or as an all walk. In part, the junction geometry and signal operations are designed to suit the many bus movements that occur in this location but, predominantly, they suit vehicular movement, especially to and from freeway accesses.
The lack of priority for pedestrians is disappointing and a classic case of conflicting needs, owing to the junction being adjacent to The Esplanade train station and bus port, and Elizabeth Quay. The issues are only likely to get more acute as the Quay is built out.
Technology as saviour?
Acknowledging these types of design and functional issues in city centres, its becoming increasingly en vogue for urban transport and planning professionals to point to technology as the basis for a more reasonable balance between modes and priorities. For example, the deployment of automated vehicles and growth of the sharing economy provide context for a fundamental rethink of the street, division of space and traffic operations. The logic is borne out of three conclusions: new technology will facilitate different travel behaviour (possibly fewer light passenger vehicle trips per capita) and more efficient and safer traffic operations (increasing the capacity of infrastructure we have and greatly reduced risk of conflict between vehicles and active transport users).
Some of these promises may bear out, meaning opportunities for reclamation of some lanes on multilane urban roads for increased verge space, mass transit priority and other functions. Some existing lane widths may also be reducible owing to tighter manoeuvring potential of vehicles, adding to verge widths. Lower parking demand as a consequence of shared mobility and autonomous driving might enable conversion of off-street parking to public spaces even if demand for kerbside space increases.
Let’s not wait
These are all possibilities. However, the impacts of new transport technologies and resulting opportunities for design and functional changes might be a long way away. Meaningful vehicle fleet conversion (from conventional to automated) and behaviour change may take 12 to 15 years or more. At what point will government be satisfied that a tipping point has been reached?
In our view, we should not be waiting for technology to give us excuses to make changes. In city centre environments like Perth’s, the transport choice and opportunity created by land use and public transport service density, general urban amenity and streetscape management potential (for example, enforcement of traffic and parking laws, and even application of pricing schemes) is reason enough for us to be a lot bolder with our infrastructure provisions and prioritisations.
Despite what some traffic models tell us, constricting the movement network for private vehicles does not automatically lead to network failure: along with complementary policy, it incentivises more sustainable trip choices and reorientation of modal priorities. If it didn’t, we’d never see growth of downtowns. Once again, its about reasonableness.
Dr Ryan Falconer is cities leader Western Australia at Arup. Allan Mason in regional planner leader at Arup.