Is It Fair We’ve Virtually Legislated the Necessity to Own a Car?

By Christian Haag*

Decades of transport planning policy that has given the car unchallenged primacy of place has proved and continues to prove destructive to our social, economic, physical and environmental wellbeing.

Decades of ever-expanding suburbia, with little or no thought put into affordable, sustainable transport solutions other than to drive, locks us all into either isolation or the need to maintain an expensive, depreciating, polluting and non-renewable-fuel-guzzling mode of travel.

That summary may be a bit harsh, of course! After all, most of us in Australia have a driver’s licence. This isn’t about being anti-car, it’s about the lack of equity in out transport system. As a community, we are not provided with a variety of safe choices when it comes to making our transportation decisions.

A lack of safety (real or perceived) still remains the single biggest barrier to more people riding their bicycles. Repeated surveys show that 60% of adults want to ride more but feel the risks outweigh the benefits.

The solution to this will only come from local, state and federal infrastructure funding to encourage a culture of sustainable mobility for all citizens.

Our reliance on cars turns our city streets into corridors of noise and pollution, areas of danger and speed for cyclists and pedestrians instead of places of relaxation and pleasure, where getting somewhere has been made infinitely more important than what we do when we get there.

Ponder how much worse would the shopping and social experience of Rundle Mall (or Burke St Mall, Hay St Mall, Pitt St Mall, Queen St Mall etc depending upon your home town) would be if it once again became a car thoroughfare and you’d have an inkling of the benefits so many cities around the world have already realised by taking more city streets away from cars and prioritising foot and cycle traffic.

Our city planners’ paradigm must change, with the current road hierarchy being turned upside down – pedestrians and cyclists first, freight and transit second with vehicles third.

Worldwide trends, particularly in the US, have shown it is neither complicated, onerous nor difficult and starts by providing the infrastructure to encourage and enable all those who are already motivated to choose congestion-busting, pollution-reducing and economy-boosting active transport.

And then extending arrangements to make clean, quiet, healthy and economically beneficial active transport more attractive.

It’s Not Either/Or

Studies have shown time and again that providing cycling infrastructure does not reduce the available space for motor traffic. In fact, it alleviates traffic by creating space for a mode of transport that moves more people per hour through urban traffic, by virtue of the vast difference in size between bicycles and motor vehicles.

As former Vancouver Chief Planner Brent Toderian wrote in his Open Letter to a Car-Addicted City, the good news is, when you prioritise active mobility, it makes getting around easier for everyone, including drivers.

“I know that can seem counter-intuitive, but smart cities have proven it’s true. If you design a city for cars, it fails for everyone, including drivers,” he wrote. “If you design a multi-modal city that prioritises walking, biking and public transport, it works for everyone, including drivers.”

The numbers are also on the side of active transport, Toderian explains, when it comes to the bottom-line argument of overall fiscal responsibility and budgetary benefit to a council, city, state or nation.

“There is this false narrative, this dangerous lie, that people on bikes are somehow getting away with something, that they’re not paying their way,” Toderian explains in an article by Chris and Melissa Bruntlett for Daily Hive. “This isn’t just a little wrong, it’s a lot wrong. We know factually that walking and biking are the two ways of getting around that actually save society money for each kilometre travelled. And that’s even before we consider all the many benefits that aren’t just about money.”

A study by the New York Department of Transport noted a large majority of people visit built-up, dense urban areas by walking, cycling or by public transport. The study found improvements to the public realm resulted in an increase in retail sales and economic activity. The study also noted that people who walk or ride to dense urban areas spend more per capita at local businesses.

Cycling is indeed good for business. Our federal Department of Transportation’s own economic evaluation of active travel concluded that an average 20-minute commute by bicycle delivered a net benefit of $21 to the Australian economy.

“If you care about the bottom line, and you care about budgets and taxes, then you should care about urban biking, because it’s a money saver,” Toderian concluded. “The kinds of figures we’re talking about – that would actually save public money, remember – are rounding errors in most transportation budgets,” he says. “Cities are literally wasting public money by not investing in smart bike infrastructure.”

In Australia, our younger generation is already leading the way in preferring alternative transport choices. Even as annual car sales remain high, an increasing number of 16 to 24-year-olds are forgoing driver’s licences, with 24% of those is NSW and Victoria unlicensed.

This generation is not interested in the burdensome capital expenditure costs of buying and maintaining an asset that sits idle for 95% of its life, preferring instead to use the peer-to-peer choices of car and bike share to transport themselves.

And scientific studies bear out that places that encourage active transport clearly demonstrate the physical health benefits for their citizens.

No one is suggesting that cars don’t have a significant place in our transport planning for the foreseeable future. What we are saying is that the clear evidence already exists that when they are no longer treated as the be-all and end-all of transport policy and efficient mass transit and active transport are made not just possible but preferable, the benefits are significant, indisputable and shared by all.

All that remains is the political leadership at all levels of government to make it happen. Thankfully, for those of us over the age of 18 – we have a vote!

*Christian Haag is Vice President of the World Cycling Alliance


  1. Mike Harris on 2nd December 2020 at 8:19 am

    Excellent article, thank you. Would be even better if links to the stats were provided to help support broader knowledge of the evidence.

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