While Australian mythology resides in the bush, most Australian people live in cities. Decisions governments make about transport and urban planning therefore have a significant impact on people's lives and quality of life. For example, on average, Australians currently spend two hours a day in their cars. And in some parts of Australian cities, a greater percentage of household income is now spent on transport than on housing. This has negative consequences for social equity, health, urban amenity and the environment.
Transport planning is no longer a matter of ‘predict and provide' for motor vehicle use. Recognition of the importance of transport as a social policy issue grew with the Year of the Built Environment in 2004. However, there was little recognition of the importance of good planning for transport and urban form in the last Federal election campaign. Indeed the word ‘cities' was barely mentioned.
Paris Metro by Henkster – SXC photos
Growing public understanding of the interaction between transport and quality of life has been aided by research highlighting the need for all people to undertake physical activity. We now know that you can be ‘fat but fit' or ‘slim but sedentary' and therefore unhealthy. Recent research has also shown that death and illness caused by urban air pollution is increasing. This was first observed in European cities and in 2004 the CSIRO reported that mortality due to air pollution in Australia is higher than the road toll. In fact, on average, approximately 2400 Australians deaths each year are linked to air quality and health issues, many more than the 1700 people who die on our roads. The numbers are even greater if the long-term effects of air toxics on cancer are included. In Sydney, the reduced timetable for the rail system has highlighted the importance of ongoing investment in public infrastructure. Railway systems, like public hospitals, need to not only be maintained, but upgraded significantly as cities grow.
Sustainable Australian cities need to be developed around integrated land use and sustainable transport planning. As Professor Vucan Vuchic notes in his book, Transportation for Livable Cities, ‘no single mode of passenger transportation can satisfy the diverse needs of a metropolitan area'. Heavy and light rail, buses, walking and cycling are all needed. Compact, mixed-use developments with a variety of house styles and sizes, if done well, will increase urban amenity and quality of life for the residents. Both existing and new developments will be enhanced if governments focus on creating connectivity by planning for ‘active transport'.
Active transport is a relatively new term to describe walking, cycling and the use of public transport as forms of transport that involve human physical activity with substantial benefits for health, safety and well-being. Greater use of active transport would result in a vast reduction in transport pollution and improved health outcomes. This is especially achievable in Sydney where 55% of car trips are 5km or less (according to the Department of Transport in 1995). This is a distance that can be comfortably covered by bicycle in fifteen minutes, with shorter distances easily walkable.
Cycling is the most healthy, affordable and ecologically sustainable form of transport available. It has the potential to significantly improve the quality of our towns and cities and improve the health of the community and environment while also saving individuals and the community money. ‘Australia Cycling', the National Cycling Strategy, estimates that each kilometre travelled by bicycle saves the community 60cents. At the moment, this potential remains largely unrealised in Australia with only approximately 2% of trips being made by bicycle.
In contrast, 28% of trips are made by bike in the cool climate of the Netherlands. The Dutch are the only Western nation not to have increased in obesity since World War II and studies have shown that this is primarily due to the large number of trips made by bicycle. The so-called ‘cycling culture' in the Netherlands is not due to the genetic disposition of the Dutch or the lack of mountains in the Netherlands. Neither biology nor geography are responsible. Rather, national government policy is. In response to both the oil crisis in the 1970s and falling cycling numbers, over the last thirty years the Dutch government has deliberately invested over $20 billion in cycling infrastructure and promotion. If we build cyclepaths and cycle-lanes and if we make it attractive and accessible for people to cycle, then Australians will do so. The evidence shows that there is latent demand for cycling in Australia. Given the choice, most people would rather not spend more time in cars, but outside either walking or cycling.
To support the health and bank accounts of the Australian people, the Commonwealth Government needs to do take at least five bold steps. First, it needs to lead a shift towards sustainable transport and land-use planning. This would mean allocating a greater share of the Commonwealth transport budget to active transport (walking, cycling and public transport). The Commonwealth Government could look towards models such as the Transportation Equity Act for the Twenty-first Century (TEA-21) in the United States and the multi-modal transport appraisal used in the United Kingdom.
Second, the institutional arrangements for transport need to be reviewed. Federal, state and local government responsibilities and financial and taxation measures including the Fringe Benefit Tax concession for company cars, need to be examined to see what changes might support greater use of active transport.
Third, the creation of a National Mobility and Access Strategy and an Office of Active Transport with a reasonable budget would enable the cross-departmental programs to support active transport measures to be identified and undertaken. Fourth, the national cycling strategy must be adequately resourced and funded.
Fifth, the Commonwealth needs to coordinate and fund a nation-wide program of comprehensive cycling education for children and adults. Campaigns to encourage the use of sustainable transport modes in all local government areas could also be supported. While every child in Australia learns to swim, not every child in Australia learns to ride a bike, an equally important life skill. With more children able to ride, there'll be less need for parents to spend time and money driving their children to school.
This range of measures indicates the complexity of transport as a social policy issue. Government organisations at all levels and across the transport, urban planning, health, tourism, education and environment sectors need to work together with industry, retailers, heath professionals, educational institutions and other major travel trip generators to change our culture of car-dependency. It will take more than the ALP's promise of $100m to research 'green cars'. As Vucan Vuchic notes, ‘urban transportation in many ways reflects the general problems of advanced societies, such as the dichotomy between individual and social interests, the external impacts of a system's operation, the relationship between market conditions and public service'. He wisely adds, ‘Transport policies must not be based on market forces and financial considerations only'.
Federal House of Representatives – House Standing Committee on Environment and Heritage
Inquiry into sustainable cities