Lockdown is ending, and Melburnians are emerging, blinking like pit ponies. Our newest challenge is to balance the desire to recapture our lost lives with the apprehension of catching COVID-19, or infecting others.
One change people are making, not just in Melbourne but around the world, is to avoid public transport and instead drive. This makes sense for individual people making specific trips in a world with COVID-19. But at scale, it’s a recipe for gridlock.
Nor is COVID-19 the only force pushing people towards driving: it is becoming cheaper as people switch to electric or fuel-efficient cars. And the Andrews government’s investment in new roads dwarfs its investment in non-driving transport options.
Now is the perfect time to pause and consider how to ensure we don’t emerge from this pandemic more car-dependent than we went in.
After 11 weeks in our sixth lockdown, it’s no surprise that Melbourne people aren’t using the train or tram all that much. But the switch from public transport to cars also happened in Sydney when it wasn’t in lockdown; patronage on public transport there was down between 25 and 82 per cent for the entire period of May 2020 to May 2021. Brisbane is similar; it’s had only a handful of single-week lockdowns over the past year, but public transport patronage has remained stubbornly low, hovering around 60 per cent of pre-COVID-19 levels most of the time. Meanwhile, driving rates are up.
Expect even more driving because it’s getting cheaper. Fuel-efficient cars are much cheaper to run, and electric cars cheaper still. They’d be even cheaper if the federal government decided to catch up with the rest of the world by introducing an emissions ceiling, or standard, for light vehicles, that ratcheted down to zero over time.
New Grattan Institute research to be released on Monday shows that an emissions ceiling would save the average driver in Australia $900 over the first five years of their new vehicle, even after paying more to buy it. If it’s cheaper to drive, we’ll tend to drive more.
Expect more driving because that’s where the public investment is focused. The biggest transport project in Victoria’s history, the “city-shaping” North East Link, will add 26 kilometres of freeway at a cost of $16 billion. The now $10 billion West Gate Tunnel is “city-shaping”, too, and will add five kilometres of freeway. Even with the $11 billion Metro Tunnel under way to improve the rail system, the weight of investment is firmly on the side of roads.
Imagine it wasn’t like this. Not a halt to all driving, of course — cars are extremely useful for getting us to work, shuttling friends and family to weekend activities, and taking us on occasional longer journeys. For many people, they’re also an expression of identity.
But it is possible to enjoy the benefits of driving while at the same time pushing back on the dominance of public space that goes with ever more driving.
One interesting global trend is towards lower urban speed limits. Paris is the latest city to adopt a 30km/h limit on almost all roads. Mayor Anne Hildago stresses that the measure is not anti-car, but a response to unhealthy pollution from cars, plus the fact that the overwhelming majority of serious accidents in Paris are caused by cars.
The new speed limits in Paris are part of the World Health Organisation’s 2020 Stockholm Declaration, which recommends cities establish a 30km/h limit where there is a mix of vulnerable road users and motor-vehicle traffic, and otherwise limit speeds on all urban roads to 50km/h. If Melbourne signed up, we’d be joining London, Washington, DC, New York, Berlin, Bogota, Ho Chi Minh City and many more cities.
Safer streets for cyclists and pedestrians helps bridge the gap between driving and public transport. Many people don’t cycle because they don’t feel safe without a separated path, and they’re right. The international evidence shows that a 1 per cent decrease in average vehicle speed results in a 2 per cent decrease in the frequency of crashes that cause injuries, and a 4 per cent decrease in the frequency of fatal crashes.
There are many more things our governments could do to protect and preserve Melbourne’s liveability, while ensuring we can still get to where we need to go.
For one, they should tackle the substantial challenge of making public transport as COVID-safe as possible, by improving ventilation and air filtration, and enabling prospective travellers to plan by providing real-time information about how crowded the next train or bus is. They should impose a charge on drivers who enter the most congested parts of the city in peak periods, and they should reclaim car-parking space and use it to make the city more attractive and safer for cyclists and pedestrians.
In the end, it’s one thing to convert the cars we drive to green cars – a transition that’s happening, although slowly. But it’s quite another to accept that a higher fraction of the travel we do is in those cars.
Let’s use this pandemic to steer Melbourne to a greener, safer, more liveable future.
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