Australian Transport Planners Asleep at the Wheel

The state of California recently announced that it was suing the world's six largest auto manufacturers. The lawsuit focuses on the car industry's significant contribution to climate change. Bill Lockyer, the state's attorney general, accused Toyota, Honda, Nissan, General Motors, Chrysler and Ford of creating a “public nuisance”, and said that, “Global warming is causing significant harm to California's environment, economy, agriculture and public health”.


The dominance of car dependent transport and land use planning in California is to a large extent replicated in Australia. As urban planning professors Newman and Kenworthy have described, Australians emit a comparable volume of transport-related greenhouse gases to Californians. Like California, Australia has a strong history of car centric transport planning, where the overwhelming majority of transport funds are allocated to car based infrastructure.

This article argues that we need to take a fresh look at transport planning, by identifying the benefits of diverting the focus away from cars and towards bicycles. As a common form of transport in many countries, cycling has suffered from a lack of attention and corresponding lack of investment in Australia. This can partly be attributed to transport planners' disregard for the significant adverse affects of car use and the range of benefits associated with increased bicycle use as an alternative. Global warming is one of several important reasons that auto manufacturers can increasingly be considered a public nuisance. Let's begin with a brief summary of the four major harmful effects of urban car use.

Firstly, our car dominated cities have made us vulnerable to high fuel prices. Urban researchers Jago Dodson and Neil Sipe have identified in their recent report Shocking the Suburbs: Urban Location. Housing Debt and Oil Vulnerability in the Australian City, that low income, outer suburban residents are especially vulnerable to high fuel prices. These residents have longer travel distances and fewer transport alternatives to a car, particularly those in new suburban developments without rail links and opportunities for walking and cycling. With world oil prices continuing to hover around the $US60 per barrel range and many analysts predicting world crude prices to exceed $US100 per barrel in the near future, the problem of fuel price vulnerability is set to worsen.

Secondly, our car dependence has led to a rapid rise in the diseases caused by sedentary lifestyles. An example of this can be seen in the way our children get to school. In the 1970s only 20% of children were driven to school. Today some 80% of Victorian school children are driven, contributing to the current childhood obesity epidemic. This worrying trend has been identified by the Victorian Government. Dr. Rob Moodie, Chief Executive Officer of VicHealth says, “we've got to reverse the trend of children being driven to school. If we can get 60 per cent of primary school children walking or cycling to school, we calculate Victorian families would save $8.8 million each year by avoiding the use of their car.”

Image thanks to sxc

Thirdly, our roads are suffering from rising levels of traffic congestion. The Victorian Competition and Efficiency Commission have recently completed an inquiry into congestion. Whilst the final report has not been made public, the draft report rightly points out that a major cause of congestion is the “high use of cars for peak-period trips” and “the lack of alternatives to driving”. Congestion currently costs the Victorian economy $4b per year. The Municipal Association of Victoria estimates that by 2020, this figure could rise to $10b.

Finally, transport pollution is the world's fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions. The recent release of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth has focused the public's attention on this looming catastrophe. The international community has generally reached agreement on the science of climate change. In the past month, Richard Branson has pledged some $3b to fight global warming, whilst HSBC and Goldman Sachs are going 'carbon-neutral'. Rupert Murdoch has announced his willingness to tackle climate change and has invited Al Gore to speak at News Corp's annual executive meeting in California. Climate change and transport are closely linked. Indeed, the CSIRO has reported that around 50% of greenhouse gas emissions from Australian households are attributable to transport pollution.

Historically, the transport planning community has not had to concern itself with anything other than facilitating the movement of vehicles. As these four converging issues of fuel prices, the adverse health impacts of sedentary lifestyles, congestion and climate change become increasingly severe, transport planners will have to begin thinking more broadly on how their historical preference for car centric planning is reducing the quality of life for the community they serve.

Thankfully, there is an alternative. Unlike car use, walking and cycling do not place heavy costs on society. Yet this important distinction is not recognised when deciding on transport infrastructure development. For instance, when a transport planner is assessing the feasibility of bicycle lane/path, they only are made aware of the cost per kilometre required to build the infrastructure. Missing from the equation are the benefits per kilometre of bicycle lane/path. Armed with this information, the development of bicycle infrastructure is likely to be seen as an investment, not a cost. A bicycle is an investment for the individual. According to Bicycle Victoria, the cost of buying and maintaining a bike in Australia is around 1% of the cost of buying and maintaining a car (an estimated annual expenditure of $5,200- $16,000). In terms of infrastructure, bicycle lanes and paths cost the State government $5-10 million in 2004, a fraction of the $289 million spent on Victorian arterial road network development that same year. The benefits of bicycle use would contribute to reduced health costs, lower congestion levels, greenhouse gas abatement and less reliance on increasingly expensive transport fuels.

Given the magnitude of these four converging issues, it is surprising then that no Australian studies have been conducted to carefully examine the following question:

What are the financial benefits to society of bicycle infrastructure development in terms of reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, congestion and fuel expenditure, and the diseases associated with sedentary lifestyles?

Enough empirical data exists examining each of these four converging issues separately to know that the above question has merit. Indeed, a detailed analysis of the question would have important policy implications. It would provide the transport planner/policy maker with the tools they need to develop a clear picture of the cost/benefit relationship for new bicycle infrastructure. It could significantly alter what was once seen as 'expenditure' to 'investment'. The implementation of true cost/benefit analysis of bicycle infrastructure could see Australian cities with bike lanes/paths as extensive as any Dutch city. Such a network would result in around 20-30% of trips in Australian cities being conducted by bicycle.

There has never been a better time to reconsider how we evaluate transport expenditure to give transport planners the tools they need to make healthier, more sustainable decisions.


Newman P. & Kenworthy, J. R. 1999, Sustainability and Cities: overcoming automobile dependence, Island Press, Washington DC.

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