For many decades the automobile was widely seen as the undisputed solution to the transportation challenges of a modern society, and infrastructure to drive and park cars displaced public, walkable spaces and public transport in many cities. Today’s cities are mostly designed and built around cars and motorway systems.
The tables have begun to turn, however. Talk about human-centred cities of the future grows louder, in parallel with an increased focus on walkable public spaces and the making of quality places. The view that “increasing road capacity attracts more traffic” is slowly moving into the mainstream.
For some urban thinkers “dense clusters and small, walkable blocks around a web of rapid transit” may be the ideal design to thrive for. Greenhouse effects and climate change are real, as are the economic impacts of congestion.
Some also argue that as modern knowledge jobs are agglomerating in job-dense districts, not dispersing, only mass transit can effectively serve this “re-urbanisation of the economy”. Driven by these impulses and impacts, initiatives are springing up throughout the world to reduce car use in major cities, in order to reduce emissions, ease congestion and increase liveability and, arguably, productivity.
These initiatives are timely, as we are on the verge of another transport revolution that will have transformative consequences: the introduction of autonomous vehicles with their mix of positive and negative impacts.
This article seeks to put some of the initiatives seen in Australia and throughout the world into context. It further argues that while these initiatives are bold and commendable, they will only achieve the intended outcomes when the implicit subsidies to drivers are removed and an appropriate price is put on car use.
Given the inherent complexities and wide-ranging issues, the discussions about comprehensive road pricing will need to move into the mainstream for viable solutions to be thoroughly debated.
An emerging global movement
The emerging global movement to get people out of cars and onto footpaths, bikes and public transport is largely led by city or local governments that combine to varying degrees:
- Initiative for active climate action
- Willingness to combat road congestion head on
- Focus on liveability and sustainable, planet-centred decisions
If there are any early trendsetters, they are predominantly found where comprehensive public transport networks already exist like in Western Europe and some progressive cities in the “new world” (yes, including Melbourne) and where the citizens have elected courageous and forward-looking leaders.
A case in point is Paris with its mayor Anne Hidalgo and a long list of (controversial) initiatives driven by high levels of pollution.
The initiatives undertaken by innovative local and state governments throughout the world can be classified into two broad tool kits:
- redistribution of capacity
- active intervention in mode choices
Both of these will be outlined having regard to some tangible examples.
Redistribution of capacity
This tool kit reallocates scarce public space away from infrastructure for vehicles to infrastructure for public transport, walking and cycling. This provides governments with the opportunity to turn public spaces into places that are embraced by large parts of the community because they are safe, inclusive and walkable.
A much-publicised example is the pedestrianisation of the George Pompidou expressway along the right-hand river bank of the Seine in Paris. The expressway was built in 1967 and carried around 43,000 vehicles a day. The three kilometre section running east-west in the heart of the city became permanently car-free in early 2017 and is part of the Parc Rives de Seine.
Despite ongoing legal battles between the city and opponents of the closure the road remains closed to cars.
According to the Guardian, few issues have so “bitterly divided Parisians than the closure of Voie Georges-Pompidou”.
The expressway, however, is only one of the pedestrianised areas of Paris. According to the official website of the visitors bureau, there are 100 or so streets, including Rue Cler, Rue de Levis, Rue de Lutece, and Rue des Barres, that are pedestrianised in Paris.
Another case in point, with its own controversies, is the transformation of George Street, in the heart of Sydney, into a pedestrian boulevard as part of the Sydney Light Rail project currently under construction.
The transformation will see the pedestrianisation of around one kilometre of George Street and wide pedestrian movement zones on both sides of the street north and south of the pedestrianised area.
According to the City of Sydney “In both pedestrianised and non-pedestrianised areas, a safe light rail corridor and adequate clear space for pedestrian movement are priorities.” This project underscores a fundamental rethink, after a dense light rail network was torn out in the 1950s and 1960s to make way for the car.
Comparable redistribution of capacity has been and will be achieved through light rail projects in Gold Coast, Queensland (operational), Newcastle, NSW (operational), Canberra (operational), and Parramatta, NSW (under construction).
Gold Coast light rail
On the Gold Coast the new light rail is a core plank in the comprehensive transport strategy that tackles the transportation challenges of strong population growth and high car dependence head on, aiming to increase the mode share of public transport, cycling and walking from a combined 12 per cent (2011) to 26 per cent (2031).
According to the Light Rail Corridor 2017 Status Report around eight million trips were conducted on the light rail in the year 2016/17 and “vehicle movements have continued to decrease throughout the Light Rail corridor since the start of tram operations”.
Further, the length of total bicycle routes has doubled between 2013 and 2017 and the number of street trees in the corridor has increased by over 30 per cent in the same period.
Other local governments are on the same tangent
Other local governments across the world also push to build back road infrastructure for the benefit of walkable places and public transport. In 2013 Buenos Aires transformed one of the city’s icons, the 20-lane wide Avenida de 9 de Julio by converting the four middle lanes into a dedicated busway. This repurposing of part of the corridor allowed the city to pedestrianise streets in its city centre and improve intersections through pedestrian-friendly interventions.
On its website the city government states under the heading “Pedestrian Priority” that pedestrians are the most vulnerable transport actors, and as such, we must be protected in order to enjoy the public space.
It goes on in saying that it seeks the transformation of public spaces so that Buenos Aires becomes a city of human scale that prioritises people. To work towards this goal, the city went further than just re-allocating capacity as outlined further below.
Melbourne has just published its draft 10-year Transport Plan to create more space for pedestrians and cyclists. The plan for a more walkable and enjoyable city includes repurposing “the equivalent of 20 Bourke Street malls worth of public road and on-street parking spaces to create more space for pedestrians, cyclists, greening, trading and other important uses”.
Active intervention in mode choices
By itself the redistribution of capacity will not decrease congestion and reduce emissions enough. Despite the pedestrianisation of select roads and the crowding out of cars due to new (above ground) public transport systems, cars will still cram onto the remaining road networks.
Indeed, there is some evidence that merely providing new mass transit capacity without shaping or channelling demand for road use, can have the perverse consequence of attracting new demand to travel by road over time because the market for potential road users gets the message that the diversion of current road users onto mass transit modes will provide more road space and thus less congestion or travel time now than before.
In a study titled “The fundamental law of road congestion” published in 2011 the authors found that “both road capacity expansions and extensions to public transit are not appropriate policies with which to combat traffic congestion. This leaves congestion pricing as the main candidate tool to curb traffic congestion”.
Therefore, some cities are going the next step by actively intervening in the mode selection through restrictions and price signals.
Restrictions may be easier to implement than price signals and achieve some quick wins but are ultimately limited in the breadth of their application. Restricting car traffic in large areas over extended period of time is in most cases not yet feasible.
Therefore, global examples see them introduced in city centres of major cities, either through broad restrictions, emissions-based restrictions or simple congestion charges or cordon tolls.
An early adaptor of a congestion charge in its city centre was London. A charge of GBP 11.50 (risen gradually from GBP 5 at introduction in 2003) is levied daily for driving a vehicle within the 21 square kilometre charging zone between 7am and 6pm, Monday to Friday. Residents get a 90 per cent discount.
A further, recently introduced, charge is applied if vehicles do not comply with the emissions restrictions of the Ultra Low Emission Zone. This extra charge is levied daily, Monday to Sunday, without time exceptions and is GBP 12.50 for passenger cars.
Whereas the charge achieved a 39 per cent fall in private cars entering the zone between 2002 and 2014 the exemption of private for hire vehicles has counterbalanced some of its success, making it likely to be reviewed soon.
It is also the case that over time the relative cost to drivers has reduced with successive mayors resisting calls to increase the charge in line with inflation for political reasons.
Congestion charging has also been implemented in Singapore (1998), Stockholm (2007), Gothenburg (2013) and Milan (2008). The city of New York will join this select group, introducing a plan under which motorists will be charged for entering Manhattan south of 60th Street.
According to press reports this plan is expected to raise USD$15 billion for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for reinvestment in the subway network. With many details still being figured out and negotiated the charges are not expected to go into effect before the end of 2020.
Another large European city that is combating high levels of emissions and congestion and seeks to increase liveability through restrictions is Madrid. In late 2018 the city government introduced restrictions for vehicular access to Madrid Central, the area within the M30 ring road.
Based on a “sticker” system, petrol-powered vehicles built before 2000 and diesel-powered vehicles built prior to 2006 will not qualify for a sticker and are prohibited from entering the central area (subject to resident exceptions until 2025).
Electric vehicles (cero sticker) and hybrids (eco sticker) are allowed to circulate and park in regulated parking areas either without time restrictions or for up to two hours, respectively. Internal combustion engine cars with very modern engines (C sticker) and still acceptable engines (B sticker) are only allowed into the zone to park in a public or private parking garage.
In Paris, further to the permanently pedestrianised roads large “Paris Respire” areas including Mortmatre, Sentier and Marais are reserved for pedestrians on Sundays and public holidays. On the first Sunday every month the Champ-Elysees and almost all of the first, second, third and fourth arrondissements are also car free.
In Buenos Aires, the “Microcentro”, the CBD, is closed to vehicles without permits between 11am and 4pm and is equipped with a system of video recognition to monitor use. Last year the area got extended further.
These restrictions can be applied to ever more city centres across the world and help to decrease congestion and improve liveability in the selected areas.
Cordon tolls and blanket or emissions-driven restrictions on cars can be effective but they are not scalable, at least not without exemptions that would make them toothless. For a broader applicability externalities need to be captured in the prices car users pay for every trip. Only this will lead to a comprehensive rethink about the use of cars, be they internal combustion engine-powered, electric, or electric and autonomous driving.
A long list of externalities are not paid by motorists but by the broader community and future generations
Currently everyone who buys and registers a vehicle has and expects full access to the public space. Fuel excise charges paid at the time of refuelling petrol or diesel make some contribution to the construction and maintenance of the road network. A long list of externalities, however, are not paid by motorists but by the broader community and future generations.
These include noise pollution, air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, accidents, congestion (time delays and additional fuel consumption), use of scarce public space leading to opportunity costs, and more. According to a study, in 2017 congestion had a cost of USD$305 billion in the US and GBP37 billion in the UK. In London alone, the cost of congestion in 2017 was estimated at GBP9.5 billion, or GBP2430 per driver, with drivers spending an average of 13 per cent of their time in congestion.
The introduction of electric vehicles underscores the need to rethink cost recovery and broaden its basis. The “technological shift has placed a large question mark over fuel excise’s $12.4 billion annual contribution, and a hard conversation is due”, as the chief executive officer of the Australian Automobile Association noted in an opinion piece.
The Australian Parliament website states that the decline in fuel excise revenues that has already set in “will add pressure for governments to find alternative sources of revenue”. Importantly it goes on in highlighting the opportunity to “design better systems for charging for road use that more closely align with the use that individuals make of roads”.
Electric vehicles may not have direct emissions but they still have a carbon footprint, add to congestion and accidents, and while they may not be noisy, they still need roads that dissect our cities and impact our public spaces
Introducing charges that internalise these costs and make them part of the decision making about mode choice would achieve the intended outcomes of reduced emissions, eased congestion and increased liveability.
Because of the distributional effects public acceptance will not be easy to achieve. That is why policy discussions need to be stepped up and moved from discussions within expert and lobby groups including Infrastructure Australia and Infrastructure Partnerships Australia, both strong supporters of road pricing reform, into the mainstream.
Importantly, the autonomous vehicle (AC) revolution on the horizon further provides a strong argument for comprehensive road pricing. Without clear price signals we may miss the opportunity to channel the new technologies to improve public transport and with it liveability through what some authors call “autonomous rapid transit”, shared vehicles on dedicated transit lanes. We even may be exposed to nightmare scenarios where traffic (measured in distance travelled) increases multifold.
Quoting Calthorpe and Walters, “the only thing worse than a Single Occupant Vehicle is a Zero Occupant Vehicle”. Instead, dynamic road pricing could allow “fine-tuning of entire urban-transport systems” and ensure that roads are not clogged by empty vehicles sent home to avoid parking fees or circling the streets looking for a ride.
Around a century after it started to conquer our cities and changed the way our communities are built in its wake, it has become clear that the car has led us into an urban cul-de-sac.
Because motorists are not made to pay the full costs caused by their driving, they overuse this mode of transportation and the wider society as well as future generations are left to shoulder emissions, congestion and an overall impact on liveability.
Enlightened leaders across the world, however, have started to push back and take cars off the roads – in many cases against fierce opposition.
Some initiatives focus on re-allocating scarce public spaces towards pedestrians, cyclists and public transport. Some go further and impose restrictions or full bans in designated areas.
More flexible, scalable and ultimately equitable are initiatives where external costs of driving are internalised in the decision making process. Crude forms of this approach are cordon tolls or congestion charges introduced in some city centres, including London and Stockholm and soon also New York.
The internalisation of currently external costs is a promising approach, which does not need to be limited to a dedicated local area. In order to achieve the intended outcomes, a true price needs to be put on any car use. This price will need to take into account alternatives available and therefore will need to be dynamic, that is, different trip by trip.
Whereas this is a complexity that will require the use of artificial intelligence to solve, there are other issues that require broader reasoning and discussion. To mind come issues of social equity given the regressive characteristics of a price on car use.
Therefore, the discussions about comprehensive road pricing will need to move into the mainstream for viable solutions to be thoroughly debated.
Alexander Wendler is an executive director at Transport for NSW. He leads the Placemaking and Real Estate branch that consolidates the agency’s urban renewal and real estate development expertise. The branch is tasked with creating places that support overall city performance, drive liveability and generate long-term value for the state of NSW.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Transport for NSW.
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