The keys to killing congestion
How curbing Australia’s automobile love affair can renew our roads and public spaces.
The private car has brought incredible advantages to Australia, and no other form of transport currently matches it for ease of convenience. Unfortunately, those benefits – and a system that has preferenced the private car – has led to unprecedented congestion on Australia’s roads.
What follows is an overview of a discussion paper about potential strategies to ease congestion — jointly developed by GoGet and Open Cities — which we hope kickstarts a conversation on the most effective way to kill congestion.
The consequences of congestion
Congestion isn’t just frustration; it also has some real negative consequences.
The traditional response to congestion has been to build more roads. Unfortunately, we now know that building more roads triggers something called “Induced Demand,” which effectively signals the public to drive more often on these new roads, nullifying any extra capacity created.
This has led to our current crisis, where average commuting speeds have plummeted as low as 11km/hr in some of our major cities and 59% of businesses cite significant productivity consequences due to congestion.
Average Australian commute times
On average, Australians spend an hour stuck in traffic each day. How does your daily trip to work compare with the average commute?
Fortunately, the same kind of signalling that has led to Induced Demand and widespread congestion can also be harnessed to reverse the trend and potentially end congestion as we know it.
Through the use of a Remode, Reprice, Reshape strategy, our cities could be reborn as congestion-free centres of interconnected and vibrant communities, where the promise of the private car is realised in a congestion-free context and transport becomes more convenient, more affordable and more sustainable.
Remoding is a strategy that shifts more people out of the dominant mode, the private vehicle, into other modes such as public transport, active transport, and shared mobility. This latter area includes on-demand sharing, an approach that can offer compelling convenience and affordability for the transport consumer.
The first step to successful Remoding is recognising that the status quo must change.
This is something that is now being widely acknowledged, suggesting that political will for such change is strengthening. Even voices from surprising quarters, such as the President of Roads Australia, have shown support for Remoding: “In essence, the Australian love affair with the car needs to come to an end. In its place, we need to invest massively and exponentially in the renewal and expansion of our public transport infrastructure and modes.”
Australia’s most congested roads
Not all roads are created equal and some have heavier congestion than others. By 2031, these five roads will be Australia’s worst and here’s how long the delays will be.
Such a shift will require an even greater monetary commitment to public transport. This commitment, though, is not just about spending billions of dollars, but understanding how best to spend this money to drive modal shift.
Public transport, provided with mid- and last-mile in mind, will likely need to be shaped to avoid the hub-and-spoke CBD-centric model that has dominated much public transport thinking to date. Melbourne’s recently proposed rail line designed to connect suburbs to each other in a ring around the CBD is one example of this.
The key will be to focus public transport on convenience, affordability and accessibility. Without these considerations, public transport will be unable to compete with the dominant mode.
Part of making public transport work best for more people will be solving for the mid-mile. We’ve seen the combination of carshare and public transport permit thousands of otherwise would-be drivers to leave their vehicles at home when travelling into the CBD.
They do this because they know carshare vehicles are available for roundtrip business trips from the CBD for which they would otherwise have used their own vehicles.
Another recent development that has unlocked public transport’s power to displace the private vehicle is on-demand transport, which sees public and shared transport combined to solve for last mile. One potent example is the Northern Beaches Keorides trial, which has been recognised as one of the most successful such trials in the world.
Encouraging active transport, such as walking and cycling, are also key elements of remoding. In the face of those who say no Australian city can look like Amsterdam, a city renowned for its active transport, it’s worth noting that Amsterdam was once congested with cars. It was this congestion that drove the world-leading initiatives that transformed the city to focus on people and less on their cars. We’re at a similar tipping point.
We need to address the economic and taxation policies that have preferenced the private car over other transport modes, and in turn generate congestion.
Currently the true cost of using a private vehicle is kept from the consumer’s view, whether it involves not accurately pricing parking or congestion’s effect on productivity.
The cost of congestion
Unless we reimagine Australia’s transport infrastructure, the costs to our economy will keep rising. Here’s how much congestion will cost Australia’s three biggest cities if we don’t change something.
Congestion pricing is one option that has been used internationally. Drivers pay a small amount for use of a private motor vehicle which enters heavily congested areas. By assigning a cost to such trips, consumers are encouraged to shift to a different mode. Congestion pricing can also raise significant revenue which can then be re-invested in smart public transport. Use of data to filter traffic or smart real-time traffic interaction technology can improve congestion while supporting repricing strategies based on analysis of traffic flows.
Despite the widespread perception, there is no such thing as free parking. All parking must be built or allocated, and there is a cost to this. If built and provided by a government, then “free” parking is paid for through taxes. If provided on private land, the cost of construction is distributed through increased price for goods/services. When provided as part of housing, that parking space is paid for via an increase to the rent or mortgage.
In other words, supposedly free parking is one of the elements that contribute to congestion.
Other repricing levers that can be pulled include reviewing how our taxation and economic policies incentivise unessesary car use. Instead governments could review what economic instruments they could use to shift: demand, travel patterns or adoption of new mobility.
Our cities have been designed around the private vehicle, preferencing space for cars over space for people.
We need to re-imagine our built environments and associated land use policies. Density is not a bad word if it is density done right. Density done right means an abundance of local shops and services which encourage abundant local living. Local living encourages local transport, often active, public and shared, and disincentivises the private vehicle, particularly when combined with smart parking policies.
More important, urban environments shaped along these lines deepen sense of community and connectedness, delivering a compelling alternative to the lifestyle encouraged by the private vehicle.
Encouraging pedestrian-focused areas and developments will counter the resistance to new developments that have justifiably arisen because the user experience has been overlooked.
Adelaide’s Tonsley Innovation District is a perfect example of a precinct in which density is being done right.
Too often we build housing that is adjacent to public transport and then provide far too much parking.
Again, this is parking used as a pro-congestion signal. It should come as no surprise then that new residents continue to own cars, using them for trips that would be better suited to public or active transport. We should follow in the footsteps of an increasing number of cities around the world and abolish minimum parking requirements for housing located within close proximity to public transport.
How Australians commute
Of those Australians who commute to work, the vast majority are choosing to drive over other modes of transport. This trend plays out in every major metropolitan region.
Together Remoding, Repricing, and Reshaping have the potential to effectively tackle congestion in our cities, improve the lives of existing and future residents, and develop a stronger and more equitable economy.
This is no easy thing. We must move from a shovel-ready, infrastructure-only mentality to a new sensibility that preferences sharing, and an understanding of how all urban elements work best together. While there is no single silver bullet to solving congestion, by using Remoding, Repricing and Reshaping as our guides, we can work to make it a thing of the past.