Historical shares of motorised passenger travel by capital city, 1976 to 2019 (source data: BITRE)

It seems likely that traffic on the roads of Australia’s cities will balloon in coming months, boosted by workers avoiding using public transport. The key impacts will probably be:

  • Higher levels of congestion i.e. slower speeds, longer delays.
  • Extended AM and PM peak periods.
  • More roads subject to congestion.
  • More traffic in both peak and non-peak periods on previously relatively quiet streets.

More driving also means more noise, more pollution and emissions, and more danger for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers themselves.

Governments haven’t shared much information with the public about how they plan to manage urban transport beyond this year. In the short-term, it appears they’ll seek to minimise road demand by relying heavily on workers continuing to work from home and on staggered working/education hours.

Some states have also announced measures to directly support higher expected car use, such as additional parking spaces. They might go further e.g. relaxing on-street parking restrictions around workplaces like major suburban hospitals and universities.

But there’s a limit to how long the productivity impact of working from home and spread out start/finish times can be sustained at scale. And facilitating driving and expanding parking inevitably promotes congestion.

It doesn’t take many cars to cause congestion or to make otherwise quiet streets unsafe and unpleasant. Governments need a plan to deal with the prospect of high traffic levels in both the short and longer terms. This could be a decades-long problem.

What’s needed? Governments should start with doing everything possible to improve the capacity of public transport consistent with protecting public health (see How will the pandemic impact public transport?).

But it was always pie-in-the-sky to think driving – which accounts for 90% of motorised travel in Australia’s capital cities – could somehow be reduced to an innocuous level by higher density and more public transport infrastructure. That’s even less plausible now; other than in a few special locations like the city centre, cars aren’t going away.

We need to ‘civilise the beast’; make cars smaller, slower, quieter, cleaner, and safer. Where possible, we need to substitute more space-efficient private modes for car trips. We need to forego some low value trips rather than drive.

That won’t be easy because anything that’s seen to hinder driving will be difficult to sell politically in a climate where cars are seen as the ‘safe’ mode. Taking away road space from cars on a permanent basis would be particularly fraught.

Here are some key areas for attention:

  • Make cars safer for all road users e.g. lower urban speed limits and vigorously police unsafe driving.
  • Make cars (including motorcycles) friendlier e.g. strengthen noise regulations and enforcement.
  • Make cars cleaner e.g. increase acquisition and operating taxes on low efficiency vehicles used for private and work trips; increase the fuel excise levy.
  • Use road space more efficiently e.g. introduce time-of-day charging; incentivise the use of slow two-wheelers (a space-efficient private mode).
  • Facilitate the transition to electric vehicles and prioritise construction of clean power sources.
  • Increase the legal responsibility of motorists for the safety of vulnerable road users.
  • In assessing the warrant for new motorways, put greater weight on how they might improve the attractiveness of low impact transport modes in established areas, as well as enhance neighbourhood amenity.

These sorts of actions would be politically difficult of course. That’s why governments haven’t done much about civilising cars before. But they’re not impossible either.

For example, a city centre congestion cordon would be a small beginning but could be a vital first step toward rationing road space at the metropolitan level. A network of slow routes where two-wheelers share with cars but have clear priority wouldn’t be as good as dedicated infrastructure, but might be more plausible politically and could be put in place faster (see Is this the hour of the two-wheeler?)

Action to civilise cars was long overdue before the coronavirus pandemic and should now be the leading urban transport priority. Even in Sydney, our densest capital city, car’s share of motorised passenger kilometres is currently 84%; the same as it was in 1980.

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