Why not cycleways? - The Press, 10 July 2008, p9

Covers induced traffic, congestion, public transport and transport policy.

Why not cycleways?

It has been an interesting week in the world of New Zealand transport. Firstly, we have the government launching Kiwirail. The day after we hear that peak traffic has gone down by 20% in Wellington, we assume as a result of the recent rises in fuel price. We know that in Christchurch bus patronage is up and anecdotal evidence suggests a decrease in traffic volumes and an increase in cycling. From the perspective of a sustainable transport system, the future is looking good.

But to burst the bubble of hope, we read that Transit New Zealand continues to prioritise a 10.5km extension of Christchurch's southern motorway, with further plans for a similar extension of the northern motorway. The total costs of these projects is predicted to be in excess of $250m. Yet, evidence from all round the world tells us that new road building projects such as these encourage more people to drive motor vehicles. Congested roads discourage some people from travelling at all and encourage others to travel at different times or on different modes. The counter of this is that trying to reduce congestion through the building of new roads has the opposite effect of attracting new people onto the roads. This ultimately leads to further congestion, so more roads are built or existing roads are widened. Eventually you end up with Los Angeles!

The idea that roads promote traffic growth (or induce demand) has been around for many years. Back in the 1930s the UK Minister of Transport said that "The construction of a new road tends to result in a great increase in traffic, not only on the new road but also on the old one which it was built to supersede" while in the US in the 1960s the National Academy of Sciences stated that "Better highways only generate more and more traffic until the city becomes a place largely for the movement and storage of cars." This is now commonly accepted worldwide confirmed by a number of studies. In the UK it is enshrined in transport policy following the government Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment's 1994 report "Trunk Roads and the Generation of Traffic", which confirmed that building roads generates traffic. One exception to this is New Zealand where Transit New Zealand's Economic Evaluation Manual (2007) states that "In general it shall be assumed that projects do not induce any new trips or cause redistribution to new destinations." Why do they hold this view? I don't know, but it has major, dangerous consequences.

Of course the other side to seeing a shift to more sustainable forms of transport is to encourage people to use alternatives by making them more attractive. One example is the provision of bus priority measures on key routes into the city, which is currently happening in Christchurch. These reduce journey times for bus users and so make that a more attractive alternative.

Another way would be to make cycling a more attractive proposition for many people. In some European countries such as the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark this involves investing in cycling through the provision of cycle routes physically separated from motor vehicles. These three countries have the highest cycling rates in the developed world, and among the lowest cycle accident and fatality rates, and of course cycling improves physical fitness. In New Zealand some people argue that population density means the distances we travel are too far for cycling, yet we know that one third of motor vehicle trips are less than 2 kms and two thirds are less than 6 kms. Others argue that the roads in Christchurch are not suitable for physically separate cycle routes, yet the Dutch, Germans and Danes have managed in countries where the transport corridors are far narrower as cities were designed before motor vehicles existed. A further group argues that culturally we are different and that the Europeans have always cycled and we haven't. This is a myth. Cycling levels plummeted in all three countries from the 1950s to the 1970s. Instead of expanding roadways and parking facilities, Dutch, German, and Danish cities have focused on making their cities people-friendly rather than car-friendly and cycle numbers have increased. Historically Christchurch was known as the "cycling city" because of the large number of cyclists. We have cycled as much in the past as the Europeans. There is no reason why a Dutch-type shift in policy could not have the same impact here.

And of course a third alternative is some type of rail. Kiwirail does not currently include any plans for commuter rail in Christchurch. But maybe in the future it could, or we could look at some form of Light Rail. Yes, the initial capital costs are high, but investing in rail would be an investment for the future when the price of fuel might leave us dreaming of the days when petrol was only $2.10 a litre.

It is also worth noting that different modes have different costs on society. The government recently commissioned a report to identify the costs that different transport modes impose on society as a whole and who pays for them. The study showed that no one is overpaying and that all land transport users are underpaying to varying degrees. For example; cars directly pay 64% of their costs, trucks 56%, buses 68%, and rail users 77%. It should be noted that cycling and walking were not included in the study, but the investment in them is so low and the society-benefits so great (such as better health and no pollution), that even without any direct road user charges the benefits would far outweigh any costs.

We are in an age of raised awareness of climate change and peak oil. With signs that we might now be moving in the right direction towards a more sustainable transport future for Christchurch, surely we should stop these unsustainable and unwarranted road building schemes, and invest the $250m in sustainable alternatives. This money could be used to set up a commuter or Light rail network, or fund the development of a number of bus only lanes and subsidise bus use even more. Alternatively we could build more cycle ways that even the Europeans could dream of, and we haven't talked about the things pedestrians would like to make their travel experience more pleasurable. Let's think for the future before it is too late.

Simon Kingham is an Associate Professor in the Dept of Geography at the University of Canterbury. He research and teaches on issues relating to sustainable urban development, specifically transport and air quality.

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