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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