Melbourne's composite accessibility index map

The global quest to overcome automobile dependency has a new weapon in its armoury, with the recent publication of Planning for Public Transport Accessibility: An International Sourcebook.

Co-authored by Professor Carey Curtis and Dr Jan Scheurer, the sourcebook is the culmination of research into 26 cities around the world. It is grounded in the perspective of the everyday user of a city and sets out to provide a standard measure for accessibility across Australian cities, through an analysis of a number of cities around the world.

Composite index comparisons

Central to this work is SNAMUTS (Spatial Network Analysis for Multi-modal Urban Transport Systems), a visual accessibility tool based on eight key indicators, developed by the authors in a collaboration between Curtin University in WA and RMIT in Victoria. The indicators – including connectivity, catchments and service intensity – are individually presented as well as aggregated to form composite accessibility indices, providing easy to understand visual maps of each city’s overall performance.

The stand out cities

Cities that perform well use active controls to curb car use, encourage public transport investment and maximise synergies with land use. Overseas examples are easier to find.

Vancouver’s composite accessibility index map

Vancouver, described by Dr Scheurer as the ‘’new world poster child’’, underwent a ‘’transport revolution in the 1970s, [stopping] all plans for inner city freeways”. The collaborative process of transformation enabled ‘’political majorities to do things differently”.

“[It was] politically drawn, goal focused and [the plan] invested in public transport and land use together.” The transition was built upon “quite simple planning tools, with growth around rail stations and kept out of suburban areas”.

Learnings

Vancouver’s transition contains key lessons for a number of Australian cities, with growing rail corridors and new centres currently experiencing tension as they attempt to evolve beyond the traditional sprawling nature of many urban areas across this country.

In Perth, the city’s newest railway line has enabled a high frequency service to connect the rapidly growing southern corridor to the CBD and runs along the route of one of the city’s main freeways. At these key points, the potential for a number of satellite cities has grown, resulting in congestion.

“The tension [of transition] plays out really well at those intersections with those stations,” Dr Scheurer says. “[There is] pressure for flyovers and extra widening to cater for car demand, while continuing to undermine the accessibility of other modes.”

Tension and change

Perth’s composite accessibility index map

Tension can both support and inhibit change. While Australia has made vast improvements in public transport infrastructure provision and planning in recent years, according to Dr Scheurer there is an ongoing ‘’asymmetrical fight’’ in Australian cities whereby metropolitan strategies identify the ‘’need to rein in car use and reverse [private automobile] growth, but at the same time as these strategies, we have politicians’ money thrown at roads”.

Dr Scheurer describes this tension as ‘’disruptive planning, top down and totally intentionally disruptive’’ to strategies attempting to address traffic congestion. Examples across Australia include WestConnex in Sydney, the now defunct East West Link in Melbourne and the highly contentious and as yet undetermined Perth Freight Link in WA.

In contrast, Munich was a city in conflict with the state and the car industry in the 1990s, which led to political friction and civic protests. The realisation that conflict wasn’t enabling change “led to a consensus-based planning model” Dr Scheurer says, “[which] pacified a planning conflict that had soured the mood for many years’’, resulting in integrated land-use and transport decisions involving previously opposing stakeholders.

According to Professor Curtis, many Australian cities are facing a ‘’sticky point’’ of transition, where the challenge lies in resisting ongoing short-term investment in road infrastructure.

“[It needs a] brave politician to say – hang on, be comfortable and hold off and don’t keep building for cars,” she says. It is this tension, according to Professor Curtis, which can also be integral to change, when congestion issues encourage cities to move in a different direction.

Myopic planning

SNAMUTS has highlighted the often ‘’myopic’’ approach to transport planning in Australia, when demand on transport networks leads to requests for increased road infrastructure funding, despite recent trends showing public transport use on the rise. Professor Curtis highlights how ‘’odd’’ Perth is in this regard, in light of recent large scale road projects vying for public funding because “consistently when community is surveyed, people want public transport investment and not roads”.

The research has also led to an understanding of “how different our approach is thinking about the public transport network compared to public transport planners, who seem quite constrained”, Professor Curtis says, noting there’s good reason why they’re constrained.

“Once a year [they] must ask for money, [the] treasury want to see demand [and] not assumptions about latent demand.”

It is this latent demand, which is often overlooked by traditional transport modelling focused on forecast demand, which could uncover a potential for increased investment in public transport.

SNAMUTS research indicates that inter-peak periods offer great insight into developing anywhere-anytime public transport systems. This is because transport patterns outside peak periods give a broader indication of the variety of journeys undertaken within a city, supporting transport planning to create responsive movement networks.

Density

In Australia, questions of integrated transport planning invariably lead back to discussions on density. According to Dr Scheurer, Australia’s ‘’storyline’’ – that public transport cannot be built where there is low density development – isn’t true.

“Perth actually does succeed when it invests in public transport; patronage exceeds the forecast,” despite it being the city with the lowest density among the SNAMUTS study.

“It depends on the mindset of politicians and other players.”

In Europe, the city of Zurich is described as a ‘’city region’’ because of its compact core and dispersed residential settlement pattern. Its highly functioning public transport system is also a planning control matter, with new development in outer lying areas restricted unless an hourly bus service is provided.

“Right urban structure occurs when you develop and support development with public transport; [when you] create many centres [and not just] one urban centre. We talk about residential density but fail in employment dispersal and commercial activity’’.

Professor Curtis and Dr Scheurer are keen to keep the focus cities updated and add new study areas to the research as well as increase community engagement, recognising that people are at the end of the planning process. They will be undertaking an Australian book tour later in 2016.