Overcoming Automobile Dependence

  One of the sanest expositions of the problem of traffic in towns that I've read is a book called 'Sustainability and Cities: Overcoming Automobile Dependence.' 
We need to step back and educate ourselves from the background information in this book, both to add some rigour to the current yes-no debate over the East-West road tunnel in Melbourne, but also to determine long term bi-partisan planning policies for our cities and if possible to remove them from the current political expediency and bartering.

 Written by two academics at Murdoch University (Peter Newman & Jeffrey Renworthy) and launched at the White House by Al Gore during the Clinton years, the information and arguments in this important book have received insufficient attention in Australia.  Traffic, and its environmental and economic consequences, is the major single cause of problems (and costs) in our cities and towns, from urban sprawl and the time it takes to get to work, to the cost that traffic delays add to the cost of goods, to smog and the effect on our health.  We are all motorists as well as pedestrians, so possible solutions should interest all of us.

 What is different about this book is that it puts the problems of Australian cities along side those in other countries.  Newman & Renworthy (N&R) carried out a thirty-seven city survey for the World Bank to provide the comparative data for their analyses which included all the major Australian cities.  The book is full of tables, graphs and definitions that spell out the authors' conclusions and suggestions in exhaustive detail. 

 The powerful (and very successful) Roads lobby (petrol, automobiles, and construction) has in the past ruled using similar tactics to the Tobacco lobby, always demanding absolute proof that roads are less efficient than public transport and are causing all the problems? 

 There are over sixty well-funded, road-related lobby groups in Australia, many of them in Canberra all contributing to party funds.  There are only a few groups advocating public transport and none have offices in Canberra! 

N&R's painstaking work now provides factual answers that help reveal the truth we all suspected and that enable us to counter the claims of the Roads lobby.  The theme of this book is that cities can be livable, more human, healthier places, but we must learn how to do this by using fewer natural resources, creating less waste and impacting less on the natural world.

 Indicators of sustainability are needed of course to measure progress so N&R list a scaled version of a 150 long list of factors suggested by the World Bank under the following sub-headings; Energy& Air Quality; Water; Materials & Waste; Green Spaces and Biodiversity; Transportation; Livability; Human Amenities & Health.'  Each city has to define the indicators that most suit it; Seattle for example, has defined twenty different indicators including the diversity of the local economy, the number of pedestrian friendly streets, the percentage of youth participation in community services, and the quantity of wild salmon returning to urban streams.  Copenhagen has an indicator of the number of seats available for public use in its streets, squares and parks as this seems to correlate to both enhanced economic vitality and reduced traffic.  Among Adelaide's indicators is the number of frog species and the amount of rainwater reuse in this water sensitive region.

 The process of developing Sustainability Plans has been slow, particularly in the United States and in Australia.  Seattle was quick to prepare a plan, and NSW now requires Sustainability Plans to be prepared by all local government authorities, although many as yet are of doubtful value. Melbourne's City of Port Phillip and Bayside Councils both have intelligent (although not active enough) sustainability programs.

 A sustainable city must constantly learn how to merge its physical/environmental planning with its economic and social planning.  Once basic needs are met, the next most important social goal for a city and its sustainability is the development of community.  An Italian study in 1983 found there were close relationships between the level of community activity, the effectiveness of government and the strength of the economy.   These linkages contradict much economic rationalism and the view that wealth is largely due to free and unfettered markets.

 Excuse the lesson from traffic planning 1.01 but let me recapitulate N&R's description of the three types of cities that have developed as transportation technologies have evolved towards greater speed and freedom: Walking Cities have high density (100 to 200 people per hectare), mixed land use and narrow streets in an organic form that fits into the topography.  Destinations can be reached on foot in half an hour on average, and thus these cities are rarely more than five kilometres across.  Many European cities still have medieval cores that retain historical walking city characteristics, which is why we like them.

 Transit Citiescame about as the old walking cities began to collapse under the pressure of population and industry.  A new city form developed that enabled the city to accommodate many more people at reduced densities of 50 to 100 people per hectare while keeping to the half hour accessibility maxim by using new train and tram technology.

 Alas, this type of city didn't have much of a chance to develop. Los Angeles for example, once had one of the most extensive and efficient transit systems in the world.  In the 1930's the famous Pacific-Electric red trolleys (along with street-car systems in forty-four other US cities) were bought up by a consortium of General Motors, Firestone Tyres, Mack Trucks and Standard Oil-and closed down!  

The reason was clear, they posed too much competition for the growing auto industry, as one subway or electric tram car can take the place of 50 to 100 cars. 

 The LA Freeway era was born in the wake of this action; it was not a community decision, it was a commercial one and illegal at that.  A grand jury eventually convicted the consortium of an anti-trust conspiracy, but the damage had been done and within decades there were 4 million cars in LA and the ever-expanding era of automobile dependent cities had begun.

 The Automobile City accelerated after the Second World War and cars, supplemented by buses, progressively became the transportation technology that has shaped our cities.  It became possible to develop in any direction, first filling in between rail lines and then going as far as 50 kilometres for the average half hour journey.  And overall densities decreased to between ten and twenty people per hectare!  Now after fifty years of automobile-based growth, cities have reached the limits of comfortable commuting.

 For most of the last century economic growth has been sufficient to carry the investment required to provide most income groups with a detached house and a patch of lawn.  But the costs of urban sprawl are mounting to the point where we are faced with a simultaneous need to reduce environmental impacts while improving the economies of cities at the same time.  New evidence quoted by N&R points more and more to the need to reduce spending on this type of auto-city if we are to achieve this dual objective.

 The attitude of most governments, at least in most of the English-speaking world, has been that transit systems are seen as money wasted, while road funding has always been seen as expanding the economy.  The reality is the opposite; the acceptance of the myth of economic progress based on roads has not come from analysis or evaluation, but merely from continual and repeated assertion by powerful people with vested interests.  One serious UK study examined a series of major UK road projects where economic benefits had failed to materialize, and concluded that 'there is simply no evidence of the claimed link between access and employment and economic prosperity.'

 N&R conclude that something fundamental has gone wrong with our approach to cities when they are planned around the automobile.  Quite simply the biggest part of the sustainability agenda has to be to reverse these patterns and adopt an approach that reduces the economic, environmental and social impacts of excessive automobile use.  The freedom and power cars give us come at a cost, and it's easy to recognize some of the costs in polluted air, noisy environments and acres of asphalt for roads and parking.  Quite simply, the problems associated with urban sprawl are brought about by an over-emphasis on cars that encourage dispersed, low-density suburbs.

 One rail line can move 50,000 people an hour, a dedicated bus lane can move up to 7,000 but at most a freeway lane can only move 2500 people per hour. Far from being an obsolete form of transport, rail is critical if cities are to work efficiently.  Electrification of suburban trains started in Melbourne in 1919, and the extensive railway and tramway systems built in the early twentieth century were to shape land use and the development of Greater Melbourne for many decades afterwards. 

Ferries are remarkably inefficient in their use of fuel, the only possible exceptions being in Sydney, New York and Bangkok, where small ferries and reasonable patronage seem to ensure a system roughly equivalent to the energy efficiency of buses.  All the available evidence emphasizes the importance of developing a good backbone of electric rail in cities if energy conservation is to be enhanced.

 Sydney with 16% public transport use, is the least car oriented Australian city, with a high percentage of this on rail (63% of transit passenger kilometres). The equivalent Melbourne figure is 8%.  Perth however is approaching the auto-dependence of US cities with only 4% of total travel on public transport and only 18% of transit travel is on rail.  

By comparison, European cities, on average, move 23% of their passengers by public transport, but again averages can be misleading as the figure for London and Paris is 30% so we have a long way to go.

 The N&R study showed that journey-t0-work times are remarkably consistent across all the city types; Australian and North American cities average 26 minutes, European cities average 28 minutes and Asian cities average 33 minutes.  The authors comment that these differences hardly seem significant when compared with the massive difference in the use of cars, and especially when cars are often promoted on the basis that they are faster and save time.  Depending on the transportation technology, the city adjusts its land use to accommodate the average half-hour travel maxim.  People don't save time when a city builds new roads, the evidence shows that they just travel further! 

 Cities with the highest automobile dependence also have the highest overall proportion of transportation costs.  These proportions would rise even further if they included external costs such as traffic deaths and smog, which are also higher in these traffic dependent cities.  The cities in the developed world with the highest proportion of their wealth going into passenger transportation are Perth at 17%, Phoenix at 16% and Adelaide, Detroit and Denver at 15 %.   The cities with the least wealth going into transport are the European and wealthy Asian cities (at 8.5% and 5% respectively) with their strong commitment to transit systems.  The best North American and Australian cities, Toronto at 7%, New York at 10% and Sydney at 12%--also show that public transport is good for a city's economy.

 Transit cost recovery is one of the most emotionally debated issues of any policy area.  US and Australian cities average a low 35 and 4o %, European cities average 54% cost recovery, with wide variations between London 93% to Brussels 27%.  These variations are not just because of inherent economic differences but are also the result of conscious political choices as to how much of their public transport expenses they want to recover. Since the Thatcher years London has chosen to set fares high and recover almost all their costs, while other cities such as those in Germany and Belgium, choose to recover a lesser proportion in recognition that roads are also being subsidized.

 Compared with all other motorized transport, rail systems have the best energy efficiency and the greatest ability to attract people out of cars.  They are the most important factor in the recovery of operating costs, they seem to be a catalyst for compact sub-centre development and major contribution to sustainability on all individual indicators.  Moving cities towards sustainability in both economic and environmental terms requires good rail transport systems.

 The usual response to the failure of freeways to cope with traffic congestion is to suggest that even more roads are urgently needed.  The new roads are then justified on technical grounds in terms of time, fuel and other perceived savings to the community from eliminating the congestion.  This sets in motion a vicious self-fulfilling prophecy, of congestion, road building, sprawl, congestion and then more road building.

 Many studies in different parts of the world have found that the subsidy provided to the car is about US $ 3,000 to 4,000 per vehicle per annum for roads, parking, health costs, pollution costs etc.  From this perspective the car is on welfare.  And while it may be good economics to suggest that people should pay for these costs, this is difficult politics. 

Sustainability cannot wait for brave politicians. Even conservatives in the USA are recognizing that rail transit should be improved in their cities.  A US spokesperson stated recently: 'The dominance of the automobile is not a free market outcome, but the result of massive government intervention on behalf of the automobile.'

 Canberra is Australia's greatest contribution to the 'nothing gained by overcrowding ' tradition.  At nine people per hectare the density is about as low as it is possible to build a settlement and still call it a city!  As a result it's Australia's second most car dependent city (after Perth), despite its small size and its commitment to the planning of self-sufficient subcentres and neighbourhoods.  Canberra now sprawls more than thirty kms. and needs freeways as much as Los Angeles. 

 Newman and Renworthy's logical and compelling book was written over ten years ago and the figures all need updating, but they would still be roughly the same and wouldn't subvert the argument. This book should be mandatory reading for all politicians.  And they do need educating; in the five Howard Costello budgets between 1996 and 2000, no less than $8 billion was allocated to roads.  This is about 100 times the Federal amount allocated to rail works to date.  By comparison, the United States allocates 20% of its Federal land-transport funds to rail and mass transit, and Australia only allocates 1% to this vital area.   

 The answer is clear, we need rail lines to be built in our cities rather than more roads.  But how to achieve this politically? 

 Don Gazzard LFAIA

mid August 2013