CYCLING SERIES No 2: Here’s a look at what is the biggest barrier to more people getting to where they need to go quickly – and why it’s the car. 

In the first part of The Fifth Estate’s ongoing series on cycling infrastructure, we looked at the current best practice for building a high-quality cycling infrastructure, known as a “low-risk network”.

Certainly, there are great examples of cycling infrastructure in place across Australian cities, including in Canberra. 

However, Australia falls a long way short of the cycling infrastructure that exists in European countries like Denmark and the Netherlands. Just ask anyone who has tried navigating a rubbish-and-gravel strewn painted gutter bike lane on a major suburban road. 

The 1.5 tonne elephant in the room – or should that be on the suburban arterial – is the car.

In the words of Professor Matthew Burke, chair of the Transport Innovation and Research Hub (TIRH) at Griffith University’s Cities Research Institute, Australia is the world’s greatest car owning democracy. 

Here’s a look at the ways cars – or more specifically, car-centric planning policies – get in the way of where we want to go.

Measuring traffic the wrong way

There is a fundamental flaw in the way many planners in Australia have traditionally thought about traffic. 

Simply put, instead of focusing on the movement of people, many Australian transport planners have tended to focus on the movement of cars – and they’re not the same thing.

“We measure traffic congestion on the basis of how fast cars are travelling, compared to free flow traffic conditions (such as how cars travelling down the street at 1 am in the morning versus peak hour),” Burke says.

“But it’s so misleading, because what really matters is how fast are people moving? How fast are our goods moving? 

“We actually increased the person speed significantly by building a busway and scooting people on express buses past the six lanes of stationary traffic all the way into the inner city. As numbers grew on the buses, we continued to increase the person speed in that corridor.”

Professor Matthew Burke, Griffith University

“That means asking how well are our transport corridors – and every road is just a transport corridor – performing at moving people and how are they performing and moving goods? And do people have access to the goods, jobs and services that they need?”

This can have perverse results that are straight out of the ABC TV series Utopia. It’s a point Burke makes by pointing out what happened after an express bus lane was added to Brisbane’s Southeast Freeway. 

“We actually increased the person speed significantly by building a busway and scooting people on express buses past the six lanes of stationary traffic all the way into the inner city. As numbers grew on the buses, we continued to increase the person speed in that corridor,” he says.

“But according to all the congestion indices, the system was getting worse and worse because the car lanes were flowing slower as more and more cars got on them. 

“We could have built a single car lane at a similar cost (billions of dollars) for another 3000 cars to get through in peak hour. Or we could have built the busway, which services over 40,000 people going through on express buses.

“We made a great decision. But the metrics we use to measure the city and congestion would say we did a dumb thing. There’s so many parts of our traffic engineering policies that adjust their figures towards the car, and we need to get away from that.”

Self-driving electric cars aren’t the solution

When it comes to getting the most people to their destinations, spending more money on very expensive general traffic lanes for cars is one of the least efficient things we can do.

A big part of the reason is because the number of people in each of those cars is falling. 

“In cities like Melbourne and Sydney, we used to have car occupancy rates around almost two and a half persons per car in the 1950s. And that’s fallen and fallen until today, when you’re looking at 1.1 persons per car,” Burke says.

“Our cars are more empty than they’ve ever been and more inefficient than they’ve ever been moving people.”

“The scary thing is we’ve just invented the technology in automated vehicles where we can now get those occupancy rates below one … And that scares the bejesus out of me, and most of my transport planning colleagues.”

Professor Matthew Burke, Griffith University

Self-driving electric cars might help with reducing carbon emissions. However, they are unfortunately likely to make the problem of road congestion much, much worse.

“The scary thing is we’ve just invented the technology in automated vehicles where we can now get those occupancy rates below one,” Burke says. “We can have an average of .08 of a person probably within 10 years running around on Sydney’s roads. 

“And that scares the bejesus out of me, and most of my transport planning colleagues.

“Unless we move people over to very space efficient modes, like cycling and public transport, and e-scootering, the congestion problems moving forward are going to be even more intractable than those that cost us so much today and affect the lives of so many Australians in pretty awful ways.”

Who actually pays for the roads?

There is a persistent myth that all of the funding to build and maintain roads is paid for by motorists, through the federal government’s fuel excise. 

But that’s not actually the case – the maintenance of local roads and suburban side streets are paid for through local council rates, and their initial construction is often covered through levies on developers.

There is a persistent myth that all of the funding to build and maintain roads is paid for by motorists, through the federal government’s fuel excise.

But that’s not actually the case – the maintenance of local roads and suburban side streets are paid for through local council rates, and their initial construction is often covered through levies on developers.

“I noticed people say ‘well, cyclists don’t pay for roads’. Well yes they do, they pay rates, which actually pays for most of the streets and roads in Australian cities. So it’s a complete furphy to say that.

“We also have all sorts of tax arrangements no other country in the world has that encourage car driving and car ownership. From novated leases to the massive $7.8 billion fossil fuel subsidies [to resource companies] in the past financial year. That’s more than we spent on childcare in Australia at Commonwealth budget level.

“We don’t have much road pricing, we have fourth lowest fuel excise in the OECD. We do lots of things to encourage driving and one of those things that we do is that we spend most of our transport budget for new infrastructure on roads and road maintenance.”

How we got here: a dead-end street for public policy

So how did we get to this point, where we worry more about the movement of cars than the movement of people and goods?

The history of Australia’s car culture can largely be traced through the policy decisions made in the aftermath of the World Wars. 

Pressure from auto executives, such as Sir Laurence John Hartnett from General Motors, led former Australian prime minister Ben Chifley to subsidise the assembly of cars in Australia. The aim was to promote a domestic auto industry that could be converted to produce tanks should another war break out.

As Australians began to adopt subsidised, locally-manufactured cars, Australian transport and housing policies began to promote the construction of freeways. These policies included the construction of the Cahill Expressway in Sydney in 1958 and Henry Bolte’s 1969 Melbourne Transportation Plan.

These policies, in turn, led to the growth of car-dependent suburbs on the outskirts of car-dependent suburbs on the outskirts of Australia’s biggest cities.

“We could have built a single car lane at a similar cost (billions of dollars) for another 3000 cars to get through in peak hour. Or we could have built the busway, which services over 40,000 people going through on express buses.”

Professor Matthew Burke, Griffith University

“The spatial form and layout of Australian cities is very different from those famous European cycling cities,” says Dr Tony Matthews, a senior Lecturer in engineering and the built environment at Griffith University.

“The way that European cycling cities are put together, you can have a full and rich life accessing all the things that you need, for the most part and relatively close by, on a bicycle. There has been 70 years of urban planning to facilitate that. 

“Most Australian cities in the past 70 years have just tended to develop in a much more suburbanised, dispersed low density pattern, which has entrenched car dependency.”

As The Fifth Estate has previously discussed, it has also led to a vicious cycle where the opening of new freeways has induced more people to drive, which has led to more pressure on governments to build new roads.

“In Australian cities, the knee jerk reaction to the problems of the car is always a rush to build more infrastructure for the car. And it’s easy for car drivers stuck in congestion to think another lane would make their lives easier,” Burke says.

Green light for other modes of transport

The good news, according to Bicycle NSW chief executive officer Peter McLean, is that attitudes are starting to change.

“We do still see a car-centric mindset creeping into planning and design of cycleways. However, with the more recent addition of the road user space allocation policy it is a requirement in many cases that active transport options must be included and prioritised,” he says.

“This means that, in many cases, it needs to be more attractive and prioritised for cyclists and pedestrians. Examples of this include allocating more road space to cycleways and prioritising traffic light transitions for pedestrians and cyclists. It can also include reducing speed limits in central business zones giving valuable car parking spaces away to bike parking, lanes and passing areas.”

Time to reframe the debate

The challenges of shifting car centric attitudes to planning are very familiar to Rick Cole, who is the executive director at the Congress for the New Urbanism in the US. 

As Mayor of Pasadena, California, Mr Cole was among the first elected officials in the US to push for medium-density walkable neighbourhoods with good-quality active transport options.

“As a former city manager, I am familiar with the local political dynamics that pit dedicated bike lanes against budgetary and political constraints,” he says.

“Unless there is a thoroughgoing and widely shared desire to shift the way we travel, bike lanes are likely to be low priority and, when built, not create a comprehensive network. 

“If it’s ‘the car lobby’ against ‘the bike lobby’, cars win. That’s why it is critical to frame the issue as not cars versus bikes, but community priorities (safety, sustainability, health) versus the status quo.”

Rick Cole, Congress for the New Urbanism

“Conversely, where there is widespread community understanding and commitment to the larger goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, improving road safety, promoting exercise and health etc., then it is possible for local governments to invest the money and commitment needed to achieve transformative results.”

The key, according to Mr Cole, is to reframe the issue. 

“If it’s ‘the car lobby’ against ‘the bike lobby’, cars win. That’s why it is critical to frame the issue as not cars versus bikes, but community priorities (safety, sustainability, health) versus the status quo.”

During the next two parts of this series, The Fifth Estate will explore two other issues that stand in the way of great active transport infrastructure: budget constraints and the experience of transport agencies. In the final instalment, we’ll delve deeper into some possible solutions.

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  1. For many years (since 2003, website 2008) I with the assistance of many people and community groups have been promoting the Sydney Green Ring (www.sydneygreenring.org). It would rival Melbourne’s “Capital City Trail” that now enjoys government support. The Green Ring linking CBD with Callan Park Cooks River Airport and Centennial Park, could be included in the Sydney Green Grid (2013) which used the same planning and policy instruments with the difference being the Green Ring was a grassroots initiative from bicycle users. The Green Grid is a metropolitan wide plan from the NSW Government Architects Office. With the recent campaign to have SACL honour its commitment to provide bicycle links between T1 and T2-3 the realisaiton of the Green Ring becomes closer as does the Botany Bay Trail, endorsed by SSROC (2008) before being quietly dropped. A ring road for bicycles around the Inner Sydney Region would provide an iconic circuit with a radius of 5 km from Erskineville.