We want four wheels but we need two

Changing gear on transport policy

Craig Richards

Environment & energy, Government and governance | Australia, The World

19 September 2019

Transport by car is painfully unsustainable, but society clings to it. Only by investing in other options, not simply giving voters what they want, can governments build better cities, Craig Richards writes.

Transport is a significant part of human life. Whether it’s going to work or school, going to see our family and friends, gathering things we need or going somewhere to have fun, without transport, our lives would be severely restricted.

One of the many expectations we have of our elected officials is that they’ll provide us with a way to move around that’s ‘good’, aka, good, fast, and cheap. However, transport is one of the areas where our governments never seem to meet voter expectations.

The reason governments fall short is there’s a mismatch between what’s best for society and what the people in that society believe is best for them. What we want doesn’t work and the threat of not being elected means politicians give voters what they want.

Wider roads are a good example. We’re sick of being stuck in traffic so we demand more lanes. Our decision-makers oblige even though they know that because it actually leads to more cars on the road we won’t move any faster. We get what we wanted, it doesn’t work, and we end up even more frustrated.

More on this: Zero car growth: only in Singapore?

To solve our transport problem we need governments with enough courage to give us what we need rather than what we want. For a mode of transport to be effective, it needs to be space, energy and cost-efficient. A comparison of three-mode options – car, public transport and bicycle – shows how we’ve got our priorities wrong.

In the same space in an urban environment, you can move up to 1600 people an hour by car, 7500 by bike and 25,000 by light rail.

A recent study found a commuting trip in Melbourne cost society $52.70 by car, $30.60 by train and $2.80 by bicycle.

Further, every kilometre travelled by car emits 243.8 grams of carbon, train 28.6 grams and the human-powered bicycle zero grams.

More on this: Numbers up on Delhi’s roads

It’s clear that our priority should be bicycles, then public transport, and then vehicles. However, our behaviour is the opposite. The Australian journey to work census data shows 75.6 per cent of Australians travel by vehicle, 9.2 per cent by public transport and only 1.1 per cent by bike.

Why are we ignoring the best form of transport and using the worst? Surely we should make our transport choices by critically analysing the evidence?

The reality is what we want is determined by our perception of what’s best, not the reality. We don’t carefully look at the evidence, instead, like many things in life, we decide with the heart then justify with the head.

As a result, the majority of people want to travel by car. They convince themselves it’s the most comfortable and convenient option, and they turn a blind eye to the regular studies showing the exorbitant costs of operating a vehicle.

They ignore the environmental impact. They convince themselves the car can be the fastest way to get where they need to go; if only there were more lanes and the speed limit was higher.

Perhaps the most influential factor in our transport choice that’s never spoken about is cool. No-one will admit it, but our mode of transport is heavily influenced by how our neighbours move around.

As a senior public transport official from Nigeria once said to me, “If I started riding a bike to work everyone would think I’d lost all my money.”

More on this: Building the roads for sustainable development

On the other hand, many people justify not riding a bike by mistakenly assessing it as dangerous, difficult and daggy. They ignore the fact that more than 20 times more lives are lost each year inside a vehicle than on a bicycle.

We convince ourselves we’re not physically capable of pedalling a bicycle, even though over half our transport trips are less than five kilometres. We’re spooked by advertisers who humiliate people ‘forced’ to ride for transport even though over 3.5 million Australians ride a bike every week.

But it’s not too late or difficult to turn things around. We can significantly increase the proportion of people travelling by bicycle by providing better places to ride a bike, removing pain points and running behaviour change programs that make pedalling popular.

For a fraction of the cost of a new tunnel or mega-freeway, our governments could provide people with a transport system that prioritises bike riding which would benefit everyone.

The fact some find hardest to swallow is that more people on bikes is actually better for people in cars. More bicycle transport means more space for cars. This is clear enough when we consider that it is that the country with the highest proportion of bike riders, The Netherlands, is also the country with the happiest drivers.

All it would take for some serious and positive change is the courage to provide what society needs rather than what we say we want.

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