Sara Stace

Active transport isn’t just good for your health, it’s good for the economy as well. In fact, cycling adds $1.43 a kilometre per person in economic benefit and walking adds $2.12 a km. This is just some of information shared by Sara Stace, a former director in the Major Cities Unit, axed by the Abbott Government, in an interview where Melbourne’s East-West Link and Sydney’s WestConnex both come in for a hammering.

Active transport is one of the big buzz phrases in urban policy and sustainable property development, but according to Link Place director and former director of planning analysis for the Major Cities Unit Sara Stace, the policies are failing badly in terms of actual practice.

According to Stace this applies both on the city-wide scale and also at the project scale. For instance, projects that put in cyclist facilities to gain Green Star points often do not consider whether the location itself is well-serviced enough with cyclist and pedestrian infrastructure to make the option attractive.

The property industry needs to engage more broadly with the active transport agenda, she says.

Property industry shafted by WestConnex plans

With Sydney’s WestConnex project – where initial plans tied the road project to the revival of Parramatta Road, which would have created numerous opportunities for development and value uplift as well as active transport – the project is now simply about the road and the government has abandoned interest in the Parramatta Road component, leaving the property industry adrift.

She says the project is also expensive – one-fifth the cost of high speed rail from Melbourne to Brisbane. It will create a debt for the state that will take decades to repay.

“Property developers should care about this, because Parramatta Road’s revitalisation is no longer part of the delivery of WestConnex,” Stace says.

Projects such as Melbourne’s “disastrous” East-West Link are also clear examples of policy failure in terms of enabling and promoting active transport.

“Australia reached peak car use in 2004. Car use has been dropping in every state and territory ever since. So people are obviously changing something about their lifestyles, and this is a trend that is occurring right across the Western world,” she says.

The continued focus on roads is also short-sighted, she says. In the not-too-distant future the baby boomers will reach an age where many will be required to start surrendering their licences due to illness, disability, dementia or other limitations.

This is an issue that appears not have made it in the traffic projections used to bolster the case for projects like WestConnex and the East-West Link. Plan Melbourne also appears to be silent on how the future’s substantial cohort of older people who cannot drive will transit the city.

What needs to be done

Stace is currently consulting for a range of federal and state government departments on active transport and urban policy, as well as community groups and not for profits. She has also been appointed to the boards of Bicycle NSW and Cycle.org.au, a social media-based organisation.

Stace says there are four parts to developing and implementing active transport strategies that work – “plan, build, encourage and manage”.

“There needs to be the right planning for networks to get people [on foot or by cycle] to public transport. Then you build them, with the right separation for cycle and pedestrian paths in high speed traffic.

“Then you encourage people, and let them know it is available, and safe. And then you manage the process, which is about how to get agencies to do active transport in an integrated manner.”

There’s a bigger benefit than the environment

One of the barriers to greater uptake of active transport is the growth of low emissions electric cars, which might be reducing the focus on health benefits and reduction in road congestion.

Stace says the health benefits of active transport such as cyclist infrastructure outweigh the environmental benefits. In fact, 75 per cent of the benefit to the economy from active transport is in terms of savings on public health costs and other health-related benefits.

In a report she prepared for the former government in 2013, the economic benefits overall were calculated to be $1.43 a kilometre per person for cycling and $2.12 a km per person for walking. The benefit calculation, carried out by SKM for the Queensland Department of Main Roads in 2011, included figures for health benefits, decongestion of the roads, reduced noise and emissions, reduced infrastructure provision costs, savings on parking and vehicle operation costs.

Ms Stace says City of Sydney, City of Melbourne and City of Perth are pushing the active transport agenda hard, and part of this is working out what is required for an appropriate framework.

While it may be difficult to justify budgeting the inclusion of cycleway public health benefits in a cost-benefit analysis, there are leaders seeing the links.

The built environment is part of the answer

If the built environment doesn’t support exercise, then people just won’t do it, Stace says, pointing to the need for nice parks and good quality footpaths.

“Putting in cyclist facilities [in buildings] is one part of the equation, but it is not everything,” Stace says.

From the property sector’s perspective, property owners know it’s important for workers to stay healthy and they are putting in Green Star facilities such as showers to retain them, Stace says.

In urban planning terms, some of the decentralised office parks and suburban CBDs lack public transport and cycle path connectivity. Sydney’s Macquarie Park, the third largest CBD in Sydney, “becomes a car ghetto”, with 93 per cent of workers currently needing to drive to get there, Stace says.

At the local government level encouraging active transport can be challenging. For instance, there can be a lack of footpaths in some areas and community resistance to changes such as reducing on-street parking spaces to create cycle lanes. Changing these things also comes at a cost.

At lower cost can be solutions such as appropriate signage and local area traffic management plans that reduce speed limits to 30 or 40 kilometres an hour.

“These things don’t cost much, but councils need to have the will. Where a lot of local councils come unstuck is community objections,” Stace says.

One of the projects her consultancy is working on is a cycle-connectivity and green urban renewal project with the Clovelly community that evolved out of Sydney’s first Better Block demonstration day in October 2013.

The Park to Pacific project aims to develop a cycle route along a revived Clovelly Road that will link Centennial Park and the Pacific Ocean. Ms Stace says the plans have aimed to “create a vision for Randwick council”, one which the community hopes in time the council will take up and implement.

3 replies on “Why active transport makes economic sense”

  1. Every time bike infrastructure gets a mention, some genius comes out with the “Copenhagen but but but it’s flat!!!!” hoary old chestnut. God I’m sick of it, and the whole do-nothing attitude towards the trend towards cycling in Australia.

  2. Cycling makes a lot of sense in Copenhagen which measures no more than 10km from one end to another and is largely flat. It most certainly does not make sense for commuting in Melbourne and Sydney. Cyclists do stupid thing in traffic – no wonder as they are stressed given it takes longer than an hour ride to get from home to work.
    Cycling is fine for local trips to shop, but cycling should not be considered a replacement for public transport in Australian cities which are far too large.

    1. That’s an interesting response. Was it intended as humour? That Copenhagen is largely flat shouldn’t really be the point of the argument. Many bicycles – other than those in Brunswick and Fitzroy – now have modern technology such as ‘gears’ which allow gradients to be conquered with relative ease. Most of the inner Melbourne ring is relatively flat, and given the road congestion to and from the CBD in peak hour, the bicycle seems to be an ideal solution for commuting within – say – a 15-20km distance from the CBD.
      You may be right that (some) cyclists do stupid things in traffic. Lots of people do stupid things in traffic – the difference being that when a cyclist does something stupid in traffic they are likely to hurt themselves. When a motorist does something stupid in traffic (sometimes they get stressed too), they are likely to hurt others – cyclists, pedestrians, motorists… (people).
      I do agree with you that cycling is not a replacement for public transport. But then I’ve not heard anyone suggesting that it is. Cycling is complementary to public transport, as is walking, as are private cars. It’s not an all or nothing choice. Setting this up as a car vs bike vs pt exercise seems to miss the point of the article, which suggests that it makes economic sense to spend on active transport.

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