Are Cities Outgrowing the Automobile?

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Tuesday, May 26th, 2015
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Gilles Vesco, the politician responsible for sustainable transport in Lyon and a leading player in introducing the city’s Vélo’v bike-sharing scheme has a vision of cities in which residents no longer rely on their cars.

Instead, they lean on public transport, shared cars such as Uber and car clubs, bikes and, above all, on real-time data on their smartphones. The purpose is to transform transportation systems and cities alike.

Multiple jurisdictions around Australia have introduced their own versions of Vélo’v bike-sharing scheme with mixed success, and this success or lack thereof will have a major impact on the future of cities.

“Sharing is the new paradigm of urban mobility,” Vesco said. “Tomorrow, you will judge a city according to what it is adding to sharing. The more that we have people sharing transportation modes, public space, information and new services, the more attractive the city will be.”

Vesco cites the French city of Lyon where the number of cars entering the city has fallen by 20 per cent over the past decade, without even a congestion-charging scheme. He believes a congestion-charging scheme would impose a disproportionate burden on the less well-off, who tend to drive higher-polluting vehicles.

Vesco is targeting a further 20 per cent drop in car use, even though Lyon’s population is expected to rise by more than 10 per cent over the next decade. Human parks are replacing the car parks that used to be located on the banks of Lyon’s two rivers.

Denser, less car-dependent cities are becoming the accepted wisdom across the developed world. The height of buildings is going up. Density is going up. Local laws and planning policies are all about intensification and densification of land uses. People live in much closer proximity, probably with reduced travel needs for employment and pleasure. Multi-polar cities with half a dozen hubs where people live, work, shop and play are becoming more prevalent in developed countries. This model of development aims to reduce intra-city transport congestion and generate a series of vibrant, efficiently organised, semiautonomous units.

Examples abound. Birmingham, England is now embarking on its own 20-year plan called Birmingham Connected, to reduce dependence on cars, imposing a three-dimensional transport plan on the two dimensional geography of the city. Commuting into Birmingham is currently split 50/50 between car and public transport – in London, only 15 per cent of commuters use a car.

Places like Zurich in Switzerland have virtually eliminated the presence of cars since the 1990s, when the city decided in 1996 to cap the number of parking spaces before moving on to be completely car free, banning cars and severely limiting their number in the city. Bike usage is up six per cent. Pedestrian and restaurants dominate. The use of smart technology and a 15-line tram system helps manage the city centre.

There are similar results in Buenos Aires, where 650,000 people use MetroBus everyday using similar methodologies to those of Zurich. Freiberg, Germany is regarded as of the greenest cities in the world with its car-free streets. The idea behind car-free cities is to provide a city that offers a higher quality of life with plenty of green spaces; where people can efficiently use city resources and fast transport.

With two out of three of Australians driving to work each day and 15 million vehicles on the road, the TomTom Traffic index concludes Australians are wasting 90 hours each a year sitting in traffic. The Australian Government’s Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development has found that total travel in Australian urban areas has grown tenfold over the last 60 years.

A study is being undertaken by the department to assess eight popular Australian capital cities in order to develop the present base case projections to 2020 of avoidable social costs of congestion for Australian metropolitan traffic. Findings to date include:

  • Urban traffic is forecast to grow with total kilometres travelled growing by 37 per cent between 2005 and 2020
  • Commercial vehicle traffic is forecast to grow at around 3.5 per cent per annum, whereas private car traffic projection is 1.7 per cent per annum
  • Cities like Melbourne are already becoming very dense from people moving to inner city suburbs to avoid commute times and cost of living pressures (however not everyone can afford to relocate to the inner city, or necessarily want to)
  • Within Melbourne’s CBD, there is one job for every local resident, but 20 kilometres or further from the city centre, there were about three jobs for every 10 local residents
  • Sydney is considering the removal of pedestrian space to address traffic congestion through opening lanes

Yet, the Australian Federal Government is only prepared to fund road systems and not new public transport system or upgrades, and cities such as Brisbane spend billions on new road tunnels in an attempt to relieve traffic burden.

The $600 million GST offset to the Western Australian government cannot be spent on public transport upgrades, only on road upgrades. The Grattan Institute’s Productive Cities report of 2013 claimed that building more roads or expanding existing roads alone would not curb congestion. That same year, the RACQ stated that time-of-day tolling would make no difference in Brisbane as the roads have not reached capacity yet.

Transforming cities and their residents to accept the realities of congestion increases the benefits of effective public transport systems and less private car usage will require time, education and lots of Money and Planning.

London has seen some good success in these areas. Central London has seen a 30 per cent reduction in traffic following the introduction of congestion charging and a well-integrated system of public transport, which has led the move away from cars over the past decade. During this time, nine per cent of car commuters have switched to other forms of transport. London is a highly integrated-transport city, achieved through:

  • The removal of space for private vehicles and giving it to buses through bus lanes and to people through public realm [developments]
  • The planned “cycle superhighways” and cycle-friendly neighbourhoods in three London boroughs

In London, many city developments are now predicated on there being no car spaces for residents, as required by council planning departments. Subsequently, car ownership is not an option. In the inner-London borough of Hackney, it is reported that almost 90 per cent of the developments currently underway are completely car-free and more than 15 per cent of its residents commute to work by bike. The council guarantees alternatives to personally owned cars, including a commitment that every resident will live within three minutes of a car-club bay. All too frequently, operators of public transport services find their buses rarely utilised at capacity.

Is there opportunity for these public transport or other providers to develop an Australian version of a car club, and can we as a nation embrace the notion of less private ownership and more sharing?

Reports from around the world appear to indicate that Generation Y has a preference for the future of transport to be based not on individually owned cars but on “mobility as a service.” The highest profile provider is Uber. Access mobility rather than vehicle ownership appears to be the new trend in parts of the United Kingdom, Germany and more densely populated cities of the United States and Canada.

In some countries, car licence acquisition has been going down among younger age groups, and there are strong suspicions that the digital age is contributing to why people now have less reliance on physical mobility. Australian data for four states indicates there is certainly a pattern of people in their 20s and early 30s being less likely to have a car license.

Different vehicle manufacturers are pursuing strategies targeted at brand loyalty through delivery access to mobility, not a vehicle as a product. Car clubs such as DriveNow, electric vehicle rental (or more specifically the ability to rent rechargeable battery packs and public plug–in-stations) are changing the relationship between vehicle manufacturers and consumers. Personal vehicles may become a less desired item for large groups of the population.

With connectivity and new ‘plug and play’ systems and the ‘sharing economy’ for vehicles becoming more affordable, and clearly part of the ‘Internet of Things’ it is likely that many cities and consumers will have to be prepared to embrace the potential disruption and be excited by the challenges that lie ahead – ‘mobility-as-a-service’ could become the norm.

The implications of these fundamental shifts in the attitude of society toward the personal vehicle will have profound impacts on the way we plan, design and build our cities. Parking provisions could be relaxed or even eliminated for mixed-use/high-density residential buildings, at commercial and manufacturing facilities.

Streets could be closed and made more pedestrian and cyclist friendly, making accessibility to transit systems easier for larger population groups. Fewer hydrocarbon based fuel stations are likely to be required, while new electric vehicle charging stations will become more common. This in turn has the potential affect of cities requiring a broader range of base load or distributive energy systems to supply the electric vehicle stations.

Will there be an impact on the electricity infrastructure planning and asset development strategies of energy providers, local governments and state and national policy makers?

More community-based parking stations may be required to help with the supply of shared vehicles. Population assumptions and standards of service for infrastructure will need to be fully reconsidered to meet the changing needs of society. Public transport and transit systems will need to be significantly enhanced and service standards improved to meet the growing demands. Public safety around the transit corridors will become an even higher priority due to the inherent “silent running” of electric vehicles. Improved planning provisions that stimulate higher density mixed use development will stimulate multi-polar city centres and surrounding communities. The challenge for our city administrators and the community is to really understand the implications on how our cities will evolve into the future.

If our cities really are outgrowing the automobile, do our land use plans, infrastructure plans, community plans, and local government corporate plans reflect these changes?

Do our planning systems (including planning legislation) have the level of flexibility required to meet the challenges of disruptive technologies?

These questions are intended simply to stimulate discussion around the power (or not) of disruptive technologies and changing attitudes to automobiles and public transport, personal transport and development within our cities and towns.

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