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Walk this way

Sprawling, congested and polluted. These are three hallmarks of the city built for cars. 

As the motor age dawned at the beginning of the 20th century, the car was a luxury item afforded by few. In Australia, the ascendancy of the car took time. There were, for instance, only 3,978 motor vehicles in all of New South Wales in 1911, and a survey of Sydney traffic in 1923 revealed that more than a third of all transportations were by horse-drawn vehicles. By 1955, car numbers had escalated to 153 passenger vehicles for every 1,000 Australians. By the end of 2013, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, this had surged to 568 per 1,000 people. 

There can be no doubt that there is an upside to the automobile. Medium distance travel is more convenient and affordable in a car. The days of streets laden with horse manure are long gone. But, as John Steinbeck observed, cars “change the face of the countryside. They get their clatter into everything.” Part of that ‘clatter’ has been the loss of pedestrian-scale villages that has disconnected us from our communities. 

Where people once walked, now they ride, and today, there are 60 million new cars added to the planet every year. Undeniably, these cars are bad for our health, and the health of the planet. 

The fact that road transport generates toxic fumes and smog, and accounts for 13.2 per cent of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions profile, is just the beginning. 

As people have become more dependent on their cars, other public transport options such as trams, cable cars and light rail have disappeared forever. To “shoot through like a Bondi tram” is something few of us have seen in real life – although the recent extension to the Inner West Light Rail may signal the beginning of a light rail renaissance. 

As our rates of obesity, asthma and heart disease soar, we are beginning to understand how the built environment can either enhance or damage our health. Cars have encouraged an ‘obesogenic environment’ in which two-thirds of Australian adults and a quarter of Australian children are overweight or obese. Clearly this is not a sustainable way of living. VicHealth has found that children and older people living in the state’s growth areas – those most car-dependent – are more likely to be admitted to hospital with respiratory problems.

Our car-dependent cities are also damaging our national economy. As someone who regularly sits in traffic gridlock on Pittwater Road, I understand how congestion may cost the economy $20.4 billion a year by 2020. The Sustainable Australia report 2013 found that the average weekly travel time of workers has increased from three hours and 33 minutes in 2002 to four hours and eight minutes in 2011.  Despite the extra time it takes, people are still choosing to commute by car - 65.8 per cent of people who went to work on Census Day 2011 travelled by car.  A fraction went by train (3.8%), foot (3.7%) or bus (3.0%).  The Walking, Riding and Access to Public Transport reportarticulates the Australian Government’s interest in supporting active travel in our communities, while the NSW Government recently hosted the inaugural FitNSW conference on creating supportive environments for active learning.

But, as former Mayor of Bogota, Enrique Peñalosa, has said: “a developed country is not a place where the poor have cars – it's where the rich ride public transportation.”

In The New Geography of Jobs, economist Enrico Moretti argues that a city’s public transport and economic success are interlinked, with high-value knowledge industries and the work habits of knowledge workers – who prefer to use their iPods on the train than sit behind the wheel for two hours each day – more suited to public transport. Economics writer Matt Wade recently observed that Australian cities like Sydney, “in which hundreds of thousands of workers make long commutes by car, are less likely to become innovation hubs. The lack of an effective, city-wide mass transit system threatens to stunt Sydney’s knowledge industries, which are the life-blood of the city’s economy.”

Walking is one of the simplest and cheapest ways to improve a city. Author of Walkable City, Jeff Speck, said in his TEDCity 2.0 talk: “Sustainability – which includes both health and wealth – may not be a function of our ecological footprint, but the two are deeply interrelated. If we pollute so much because we are throwing away our time, money, and lives on the highway, then both problems would seem to share a single solution, and that solution is to make our cities more walkable.”

Green Star – Communities rewards projects that consider access to amenity, safe places and healthy and active living, all of which promote physical activity. The ‘Healthy & Active Living’ credit, for example, rewards projects that provide footpaths and bicycle paths, spaces for bicycle parking at train stations and major bus stops.  It also rewards projects that feature parks and sporting facilities.

While technology has played a role in encouraging our sedentary lifestyles, it also provides the motivation to get off the couch. The armfuls of maps and guidebooks has given way toGoogle Maps, while cool apps like Reroute.it enable comparisons of journeys on foot, bike, taxi or car, and display the price, time, calories burned and carbon emissions generated. Walk Score measures the distance to amenities such as restaurants, shops and public transport, and rates the ‘walkability’ of your location.  We’re using Walk Score as a tool to help project teams measure walkability in the new Green Star – Design & As Built rating tool.             

The ‘Transport’ category in Green Star – Design & As Built has just one credit: ‘Sustainability Impacts from Transport’.  Projects are rewarded for reduced car parking provision, low emission vehicle infrastructure and active transport facilities – such as bicycle parking and associated facilities. Projects also achieve points when they achieve a project ‘walk score’ of 70 or more.

At Green Cities 2014, Kent Larsen inspired us with visions of the CityCar – a foldable, electric, sharable, two-passenger vehicle for crowded cities. In a compact city, a bicycle is even better, as the image below illustrates. Look how many bicycles can be stored in the same space as just one car! The new draft standard for bicycle parking facilities is currently open for comment, and a great chance for us to put the needs of cyclists front-and-centre. 

Few industries can shape the lives of each and every Australian – but our industry can. We have the power to create communities and cities that get people up and moving. People are more likely to embrace walking or cycling if they live in safe, compact, pedestrian-friendly neighbourhoods with well-connected streets, and good access to amenities such as shops and parks – all things within the power of built environment professionals to deliver. On Tuesday 27 May in Sydney and Friday 30 May in Melbourne, we’ll be holding Green Building Day, and will be exploring how you can contribute to the long-term health of our nation.  We hope you can walk along and join us.