How pedal power can reduce road congestion
14 August 2019
The cost of congestion in the ACT and Queanbeyan is rising. Infrastructure Australia predicts it will increase from $289 million in 2016 to $504 million by 2031.
That is no surprise. Of the 178,244 Canberrans who went to work last Census Day, 144,611 went by car. That’s 81.1%, or more than 4 in 5 people. This proportion has not changed significantly in the last 40 years.
Public transport and walking were a long way behind, at 8% and 5.2% respectively.
The lowest numbers of all? Cycling, with 5,358 people or 3% – about the same as the 2.7% who stayed at home or didn’t answer. The percentage cycling has never got any higher in the last 40 years.
Yet the humble bicycle is the most efficient, most compact, most benign transport device ever invented. It runs for over 3 kilometres on a slice of toast. It produces no emissions. You can park 10 of them in the same space as one car. A two-way protected bikeway can take 7,500 people an hour; a two-way urban road less than half that. It makes its rider healthy, wealthy and productive. It makes its communities pleasant, quiet and sustainable.
Canberra has one of the world’s best cycling environments. We have good, mostly dry weather; favourable terrain; (mostly) clean air; spectacular landscapes; a good basis for a cycle network and the potential for a great one. So why do 81 in 100 drive to work, and only 3 in 100 ride? And what does that mean for the future of our city?
Many people are now worried about worsening road congestion. They assume the only way to ‘bust congestion’ is to widen roads. Yet this will come at a huge cost to the budget, to the environment, and ultimately to our health and quality of life.
Worse, it doesn’t work. We can’t build our way out of congestion! It’s been known since the 1950s that making it easier and more convenient to drive just breeds more traffic. Texas has a congested 26-lane urban freeway! A widened road clogs up again in a few years. As US planner Jeff Speck puts it:
“Traffic engineering theory is straightforward: a street is congested because the number of drivers exceeds its capacity. If you enlarge the street, you will eliminate congestion. Unfortunately, seventy-five years of evidence tells us that this almost never happens. Instead, what happens is that the number of drivers quickly increases to match the increased capacity, and congestion returns in full force. It’s called induced demand. These new drivers are the people who were taking transit, carpooling, commuting off-peak, or simply not driving because they didn’t want to be stuck in traffic. When the traffic went away, they changed their habits. Maybe they even moved farther away from work, as the time-cost of their commute went down. Unfortunately, thanks to them and others like them, this honeymoon couldn’t last long.”
Paris is concerned about congestion and pollution on the Boulevard Périphérique. The response? Cut the speed limit to 50 km/h and cut the lanes from eight to six. Former urban freeways on the banks of the Seine have been converted to urban parks.
So, building and widening roads won’t get Canberra out of its looming urban snarl, but getting people onto bikes will. Just a small increase in the percentage of our population who commute by cycle each day can take tens of thousands of cars off the road. Better for everyone, and definitely better for the government’s Net Zero Emissions target of 2045: once we decarbonise electricity by next year, 60% of our emissions will come from the transport sector.
To change our habits, cycling must be resourced as the quickest safest, and most convenient way to travel around our city: We need a joined-up, whole-of-city cycleway network. We need our network to offer direct routes that are separated from cars and pedestrians. We need our network to be well lit, and maintained to the same high standard as our roads currently are. We need to increase the number of intersections and crossings that prioritise bikes. We need more traffic calming on residential streets. We need more bike parking, much of it in car spots. We need to father incentivise the uptake of electric bikes, and we need to invest in a cultural shift that values, supports, and encourages cycling in our community.
It’s all doable, for about the cost of a road widening project. Many other cities are doing it now, because they know they must. The economic and environmental benefits are compelling. When a city works better for cycling, it works better for everyone – and for the planet. Like any change process, it will need leadership and community support.
Infrastructure Australia has seen the light. Its recent infrastructure audit joins many other voices in calling for governments to act on cycling.
The audit has this to say:
“An integrated transport network has active transport at its core. Walking and cycling play a critical role in our transport networks…
“Active transport also has obvious environmental and health benefits. It produces no direct emissions and helps to improve people’s fitness and wellbeing. The benefits of active transport have been recognised by the World Health Organisation, which notes it is key to reducing the 3 million deaths globally each year that are caused by physical inactivity. New technology, such as electrification for bikes and scooters, is providing opportunities for broader groups of people to access the benefits of active transport.
“However, despite its benefits, active transport remains a challenge for Australian policymakers.”
The audit puts down a clear challenge, with implications for the whole country over the short and long term:
“Australia has relatively low rates of active transport, driven by a range of issues including low densities and long distances, insufficient infrastructure and safety concerns. Without action, our transport networks and travel patterns will remain poorly integrated and sustainability improvements will be limited.”
That is also the challenge for Canberra. If we get it right, we can join with HG Wells and say,
“Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race.”
Ian Ross is the Chief Executive Officer of Pedal Power ACT