Transport - general

Oct 18, 2017

Does driving matter for a city’s liveability?

Driving will inevitably continue to have a huge impact on the liveability of Australia's growing cities - policy-makers must stop ignoring the car and start "taming" it

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

How can anyone ignore private vehicles role in shaping a city’s liveability? Private vehicles’ share of motorised kilometres of travel (source: BITRE)

A new report published by the Centre for Urban Research at RMIT University assesses how well Australian cities are doing on seven indicators of liveability (Creating liveable cities in Australia: Mapping urban policy implementation and evidence-based national liveability indicators):

Liveable communities are safe, socially cohesive and inclusive, and environmentally sustainable. They have affordable housing that is linked (via public transport, walking and cycling infrastructure) to employment; education; shops and services; public open space; and social, cultural and recreational opportunities.

The report nominates “seven characteristics of cities that can contribute to creating liveable communities” in Australia’s capitals: (1) walkability (2) public transport (3) public open space (4) housing affordability (5) employment (6) food environments (7) alcohol environments.

I think the first five indicators of liveability are appropriate, although it’s a mistake to see them as equally important. I’d give much more weight to housing affordability and access to employment – they’re basics! – than to the other three. The last two shouldn’t be there; they’re non-issues in this company and faddish (see Are these outer suburbs food deserts? And Will capping the number of bottle shops contain family violence?)

However, what I find astonishing in an assessment of the liveability of Australia’s big cities, is the absence of a measure of the quality of car travel. It’s clear from the report this isn’t an oversight; it’s deliberate.

No matter what any of us might think about the ascent of the car and its impact on cities, we can’t simply wish away the fact that private vehicles account for 90% of all motorised passenger travel in Australia’s capital cities. Public transport’s share is only 6% in Adelaide and even in Sydney – Australia’s densest city by far – it’s just 14% (see Can we have a mature discussion about the future of urban transport?).

Cars obviously provide something travellers value. They’re prepared to pay large sums to run one – and often two – cars per household. According to the RACV, it costs $158 per week to drive a small car like a Mazda 3 Neo, and $195 per week to drive a medium size car like a Toyota Camry Atara (the hybrid Atara costs $196 per week!). Cars offer two huge advantages; they’re faster than other modes for the great majority of trips and they’re private.

An assessment of the liveability of a city must look at all modes of transport and, it follows, at the quality of driving e.g. measures of accessibility across all trip purposes for different groups of residents. Ignoring cars is like assessing housing affordability solely from the perspective of renters and ignoring home buyers. Or assessing access to employment but excluding all service sector jobs.

The denial is all the worse because driving doesn’t look like it’s going away. Kilometres of passenger travel by car continue to increase in absolute terms despite rising traffic congestion. For example, annual travel by Sydneysiders using private modes increased by 3.1 Billion kilometres over the last five years. Now it seems that even the idea of “peak-car” might have been premature; in the US, per capita travel is heading towards its pre-GFC high.

Autonomous cars are very likely to give a further boost to the attractiveness of driving. They promise passengers the ability to engage in other activities while in-vehicle i.e. to make time spent motoring more productive. Even electric vehicles could eventually encourage more driving because of their lower operating cost relative to petrol/diesel vehicles; they’ll also be more competitive against other modes.

The standard “solutions” proposed by planners – mainly higher densities and more public transport – haven’t done much to diminish Australian’s enthusiasm for driving. For example, Sydney’s average weighted population density increased 24% over the 21 years from 1991 to 2012, but mode share didn’t change. Sydney is twice as dense as Brisbane yet the respective mode shares of private vehicles in the two cities are both high; 92% and 86% of motorised passenger travel respectively (see Are Australian cities sprawling at ever lower densities and Managing excessive car use; what’s the low hanging fruit?).

The scope for better public transport to significantly reduce car use is likewise very limited. All the improvements in recent decades in factors like frequencies and ticketing have had little impact on car use (see What’s government done to make public transport better?). New investment in public transport won’t help much either because in most cases it doesn’t lead to significant mode shift. For example, the 9 km Melbourne Metro rail project is costing $10.1 Billion, but will only provide capacity for an extra 39,000 passengers in the peak; pretty modest in light of the cost and considering there are 8.5 million private vehicle trips on an average weekday in Melbourne (see Will building more public transport seriously suppress car use?).

Improving our cities will require higher densities, more investment in public transport, and a host of other actions, but the biggest challenge will be actively managing car use. Academics and politicians can’t continue putting their collective heads in the sand and pretending cars won’t be a large part of the future. They need to “tame” the car e.g. via road pricing. As I’ve noted before, the problem with policy blindness is we pursue easy but largely imaginary solutions while the problems associated with private transport fester.

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10 thoughts on “Does driving matter for a city’s liveability?

  1. Roberto

    Alan, you say “absence of a measure of the quality of car travel”, as if we should be trying to improve it! But then go on to say we need to “tame” car use. Because of all the disbenefits presumably. The academics must have thought this was too obvious to mention.

    1. Alan Davies


      My point is that cars have disbenefits but they’re such a huge and important part of the way Australian cities operate that any plausible assessment of a city’s liveability must therefore have a measure of the usefulness of driving e.g. trip times. That is perfectly consistent with saying we need to manage the use of cars better e.g. reduce pollution, keep them out of high amenity areas.

  2. Xoanon

    Totally agree that road pricing needs to be part of the mix. In the Melbourne CBD the roads get regularly choked by cars to the detriment of public transport flow and pedestrian movement; and almost none of those cars really need to be there.

    Worse still, they take up space desperately needed for wider footpaths, as pedestrian numbers in the CBD have skyrocketed in recent years.

    A congestion charge for the CBD and immediate environs should be a no-brainer, but no government has the guts to implement it.

  3. Wallywonga

    Good follow up article to “is Sydney full…” Believe that over zealous car discouragement in higher density living planning is a major cause of public resistance. Australians love car ownership as much as they do house ownership, and still aspire to it, even if house ownership is getting further out of reach.
    And it remains the most (only?) convenient, affordable option for most spontaneous leisure activity, unexpected demands, emergency back up, etc.
    Having said that, if public transport is made truly convenient and reliable, most will use it for daily routine, and can be encouraged to do so. People should be led, not dragged to this however.
    A lot of disgruntlement in Sydney is because of over zealous, ideologically driven anti-car planning, when the average person knows “they’re dreamin’ ” – you just cannot survive comfortably without a car in most parts of Sydney. Good urban planning should be required to accommodate this, not just set out to discourage it by making it a nightmare.

    1. Roberto

      “can’t survive comfortably without a car” – 50% of us dont own a car. Cars sit unused nearly all the time, clogging streets and space that could have much more productive use.

    2. Tom the first and best

      Decent public transport and/or cycle access to jobs, education and services reduces the number of cars a household needs, even if they still need a car and that provides a substantial saving to households.

      Car share schemes also reduce the need for car ownership while still providing access to cars.

      Requiring car spaces also significantly increases the cost of housing and so people should have the option of saving that money, if they want.

  4. Tony Morton

    For sure, the Metro tunnel is forecast to handle ‘only’ 39,000 more passengers in the peak direction over a two-hour peak period – based on planned services in the first years of operation, which represent about half its true capacity. By the same measure, the West Gate Tunnel only provides capacity for 12,000 more peak passenger trips. Even the existing West Gate Bridge is limited to about 18,000 passengers in the peak direction over the two-hour peak period.

    For none of these does it make sense to try and measure their importance by comparison with the ‘8.5 million private vehicle trips’ raw figure that comes out of VISTA. Note that the latter implies an average of about 2 private vehicle trips per day for every resident of Melbourne, regardless of whether or not they actually use a car for the daily journey to work/school/childcare. The overall figure gets inflated by the way VISTA accounts for trips with multiple purposes. If you stop off for petrol or groceries on the way home from work it’s counted as two trips rather than one, though the quantity of travel is the same as for the trip without the stopover. If there happens to be a passenger in the car with you, it’s counted as four trips. A round trip from home to pick up one child from primary school and another from high school counts as six trips, but if the children walk home or catch the bus, it only counts as two.

    Are these distinctions of much practical relevance at all for transport policy and planning? Or are we perhaps a little too focussed on counting trips and not enough on just ensuring planning and design ceases to put up barriers to any non-car mode of travel?

    As I’ve mentioned before, you’re also exaggerating the extent to which public transport services have actually improved. For the 90% of Melburnians whose nearest public transport is a bus or tram, there has as a rule been no change at all to the weekday service frequency in recent memory – unless it’s to go backwards, as when bus frequencies are reduced due to increased run times, or when a previous tram operator reduced daytime headways from 10 to 12 minutes. There have been a few modest exceptions (the orbital Smartbus routes for example) but aside from the University shuttles it’s hard to find a single bus route in Melbourne that actually achieves the ‘every 10 minutes’ standard the PTUA considers truly competitive with private car travel.

    1. Alan Davies

      Tony Morton

      I think it’s at least 2.5 million trips for cars in the peak so still dwarfs the increase in capacity provided by Metro (which of course is only needed in the peak). And yes, comparable to Westgate Bridge, but my point isn’t that we don’t need Metro (we do!) but rather that getting significant shifts in mode share is very hard. It’s even harder if we rely primarily on increasing the supply of public transport infrastructure while rejecting constraints on car use, like road pricing.

      Even if the technical concerns you have with the VISTA methodology are valid (although surely PT travellers are at least as likely to chain trips as motorists?), it’d only be a side-show because the number of car trips would still swamp public transport trips.

      Agree not much has happened in Melbourne with buses and especially trams, but there’s been a lot of action with trains, which is the largest public transport mode. It’s never enough, of course, but there’s more to come, like Metro, Mernda, LX removals, signalling upgrades, etc.

      1. Tom the first and best

        The Metro Tunnel is crucial to the electrification of Melton because of peak-capacity, as an off-peak only suburban service to Melton is far less likely to stack up and get built, and is thus important in the off-peak and also for trips between Footscray and the Melton Line and Sunshine and the Melton line.

        There is the parking levy in the CBD and surrounds and some suburban shopping centres charge for parking. It is also not just the PT infrastructure upgrades that metter, it is also the PT service upgrades that matter, with or without road pricing. Southland Shopping Centre is introducing charges for parking (for staff and long-staying customers), because of the railway station opening and thus the usage of the Frankston line, especially outside peak-hour-peak direction, will increase.

        With the vast majority of Melbourne beyond waking distance of a railway station, the ability of rail improvements to increase PT mode-share is limited by the lack of improvement is services on the bus and tram networks, especially the bus network. Improve the bus and tram networks` service levels and the PT mode share will go up.

        1. Roberto

          “beyond walking distance” – but not beyond cycling distance! No excuses, get a bike. Nice folder, like a Brompton, take it with you and sort the other end of the trip too.

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