There are sweet days for city commuters and they’re called school holidays. Everyone knows them. They are the days when an empty seat welcomes you on the train or bus and the traffic seems to flow more smoothly along our motorways and city streets. In a perfect world it would be like that all the time. But our cities are growing. There are more and more people depending on our existing transport networks. With our 18 major cities home to three-quarter of all Australians, congestion is becoming one of the greatest problems we face. It drags like an anchor on our national productivity and steals time better spent with our families.
Here are three uncomfortable facts. Firstly, eight of ten commuting trips in Australia today are still undertaken by car. Secondly, congestion this year is costing us $13 billion and if nothing is done, will cost us $20 billion by 2020. And finally, obesity has now overtaken tobacco as our greatest cause of preventable disease, costing us just short of $60 billion a year. I could add a further uncomfortable fact: Australia lags well behind most other OECD countries when it comes to embracing alternatives to the car.
Put all this together and it points to something pretty clear. If we are to unclog our cities and free commuters from the painful grind of inching their way along crowded roads each day, we need to refocus our transport priorities. The added bonus would be a more active and healthier population.
Recently, I launched a discussion paper that I hope will be the start of a national conversation. It is called Walking, Riding and Access to Public Transport and looks at how the Australian Government can work with other governments, business and the community to help get people out of their cars and onto public transport, onto bicycles or simply onto their own two feet.
It looks particularly at the short trips such as those that connect with a bus or train station, or that take place within a few kilometres of activity hubs such as a university, hospital or CBD. Safe, separated walking and cycle paths could provide commuters with a healthy alternative to the car, leaving the roads for those that have to use them.
These ideas are hardly new. In many European cities cycling accounts for a fifth of all trips. Since 2007, New York has built 430 kilometres of cycle paths and the number of New Yorkers who ride to school or work has doubled since then. Portland has put in 500 kilometres of cycle paths and now 13 per cent of all trips are by bike. It has integrated cycling throughout its transport network and has set a target of 25 per cent bicycle mode share by 2030.
In Australia, most States have taken some steps to integrate cycling and walking into transport strategies. In Canberra, cyclists are able to load their bikes onto the front of a bus. In Perth, cyclists can ride right onto some train platforms and with a smart card secure their bikes in a covered lock-up while they head off to work. Brisbane and Melbourne have vastly improved their cycle networks and offer share bikes in their CBDs. And while retrofitting cities for cycling might be complex, disruptive and costly, new bike paths are relatively cheap. For example, the cost of one kilometre of road or motorway would fund 110 kilometres of bikeway.
One of the greatest advantages of walking or riding is the exercise that comes with it. Walking to and from public transport can provide commuters with their required 30 minutes of daily exercise. The net health benefit for each kilometre walked is estimated at 144 cents, while each kilometre cycled is 75 cents. A recent Spanish study found that replacing even one regular motorised trip by walking or cycling makes a significant health difference. In Britain, children that cycle to school are significantly fitter than their mates who arrive by bus or car. A longitudinal Scandinavian study found mortality rates 28 per cent down in workers who cycle to work.
The discussion paper, which is now open for submissions, is simply a starting point. It continues a national conversation begun last year with the launch of the national urban policy which directly addresses the challenges facing the productivity, sustainability and liveability of our major cities. While responsibility for providing public transport and pedestrian and bike paths rests with the States and local councils, this Federal Government has made sizeable investments in these areas. In fact, this Government has invested more in urban public transport than all national governments combined since Federation.
There are great national benefits from walking, riding and making better use of public transport. Cleaner air, healthier Australians and smoother roads are some of them. Harder to quantify in dollars is the gain in urban liveability. The thing that defines the world’s great cities is that people can move about safely and freely within easy reach of public transport.
If we can manage that in our cities, then every day will feel like a school holiday.