Australia’s biggest cities will soon rival the likes of Paris and London. To improve urban liveability, transport systems need to refocus on forms of active and public transport, along with land-use planning — and it needs to happen now.
Australian urban transport systems are not as well connected as they should be. Since the post-World War II boom, planning systems designed to build bigger and better roads have reigned supreme.
But with a well-connected road system already in place, it’s time to focus on different modes of transport in urban locales. This is particularly important considering Australia continues to experience one of the highest population growth rates in the western world.
A new paper by Engineers Australia and the Transport Australia society (TAs), Urban Transport Systems, explores the key drivers for policy change and what Australia’s thriving new urban environments could look like.
There are six major drivers for shifting Australia’s transport policy away from the roads, beginning with the most pressing issue — climate change — according to Emmerson Richardson, lead of the Urban Transport Systems Working Group.
“Greenhouse gases from transport have been increasing over the last 30 years,” he said. “At the rate we’re going, most of the greenhouse gases will be coming from transport in a few year’s time.”
When action is taken to reduce greenhouse gases, other harmful vehicle emissions, such as nitric oxide, nitrogen dioxide and particulates, also reduce.
“Far more people die from tailgate air pollution than road crashes,” Richardson added, citing University of Melbourne estimates of 11,000 fatalities per year.
Congestion is similarly increasing, despite ongoing investment in “congestion-busting” road projects.
“While road widening increases the capacity of the system, traffic moves to the fringes of that improvement, creating more congestion in that area,” he said.
Progress towards Australia’s Vision Zero commitment of no deaths or serious injuries on the road by 2050 has also plateaued, Shalendra Ram, Chair of TAs, told create.
“We haven’t met our goals in the last five or six years, so that’s another reason why we need to take action,” he said.
Other factors to consider are the nation’s plummeting levels of physical activity and the cost-of-living crisis.
“If you include depreciation, a small car costs $12,000 a year to run, making driving the costliest form of transport around,” Richardson said.
To improve the status quo, transport funding should focus on active transport first, followed by public transport, then roads, Ram said.
“Some big public transport projects are necessary, but there’s much that can be done at the active transport level in local areas at a fraction of the cost of big road projects,” Richardson added.
Transport planning and systems have always been separate to land use and development, whether commercial or residential.
In the paper, the TAs working group suggests a sustainable mobility management approach, which entails integrating land use, transport planning and digital connectivity, Ram said.
“Spatial proximity is about ensuring that within areas or suburbs, land use includes apartments and shops so the majority of people walk and cycle,” he said.
“Then the second level is providing connectivity with public transport. Say you walk from your apartment, to a bus stop, to a train station then to work — it’s seamless transport.”
When it comes to digital connectivity, real-time information about public transport travel times and booking of e-mobility modes of travel, such as electric scooters or bikes, could also make the travel experience smoother.
“It’s about changing how we do things. Looking forward 50 years, it should be about liveability and travel choices,” Ram said.
However, land use and transport planning need to work hand-in-hand to ensure transport systems run smoothly.
“You can’t put [in] transport when there’s no land use, because there’s no people to use it.”
Safe and accessible mixed-use areas
During the industrial revolution, it was necessary to separate homes from factories producing noxious gases. But Richardson said that practice has continued far longer than necessary.
“What we need now is a situation where as many people as practically possible live close to where they work, giving them the option to walk or cycle,” he said.
A good example of this is Sydney’s Green Square precinct, which has an apartment complex, shopping centre, train station and good connectivity to travel via cycling and walking.
“When you live in these areas, you don’t need a car,” Ram said. “So the congestion and emissions come way down.”
While integrated transport and land-use planning gives more people the option to walk or cycle, the next steps include making it safe and comfortable for them to do so.
Half of the trips by car in Australia are less than five kilometres, which Richardson said is partly because people don’t feel safe to walk or cycle.
“Evidence suggests people won’t cycle when they have to share the road with vehicles that travel at speeds of more than 30 to 40 km per hour,” he said.
Upping the number of cyclists in our cities “unambiguously” entails creating networks of off-road cycling, perfected by countries such as the Netherlands or Denmark.
“Other countries and cities that have started to do this have shifted from low to high levels of cycling,” Richardson said. “This includes Berlin, where the cycling population jumped from two per cent to 10 per cent within 15 years after a big network of roads and separate cycling paths was built to accommodate them.”
To make a more attractive option, people need to be able to cross busy roads at a convenient place, coupled with good urban street design that provides adequate shade.
“Zebra crossings should be used for all roads with one lane of traffic in each direction, because they safely reduce the delay for pedestrians,” he said. “It’s important to give priority to the means of travel we want to support.”
When it comes to new public transport infrastructure, there’s no easy fix to this expensive undertaking. However, ensuring high frequency should be the highest priority.
“You can’t go by public transport if there’s a bus running once every hour. They need to travel every five minutes on the major routes in peak hours,” Richardson said.
“Sydney and Melbourne will more than double in size by the end of the century, making them larger than London and Paris now. So we need to have systems as good as theirs by the time that happens.”
In it for the long haul
While busy urban areas can seem too overcrowded to implement this approach, Richardson said that’s exactly why it needs to be done.
“You don’t want to put an inefficient system in a really congested area, because the congestion will get worse,” he said.
The sustainable longevity of infrastructure should be a key consideration.
“For example, when you build a new railway, it will last for 100 years. So we need to plan out infrastructure in a way that improves the overall system,” he said.
“That’s why we call it urban transport systems — and getting that right requires a long-term view.”
Download and read the Urban Transport Systems report here.