Header image: bike parking at Western Springs College. Source – Greater Auckland
This is a guest post by Dr. Timothy F Welch. Tim is a senior lecturer in architecture and planning at the University of Auckland.
Busting 5 myths about auto-centricity
Whenever it’s suggested that steps should be taken to reduce automobile use and provide better facilities for pedestrians, cyclists and public transport, a host of long-standing myths resurface to cloud the conversation. While pervasive, many of the most common myths are quickly dispensed with through common knowledge. Others require more up-to-date data to show how ideas such as the electrification or automation of our vehicle fleet are not feasible within our lifetime. In no particular order, these are five of the most pervasive myths about reducing auto-centricity.
Myth 1: Slower speeds will ruin your commute
One of the cornerstones of Vision Zero is slowing down cars. Reducing speeds is logical because most of our roads are designed to increase the mobility of vehicles over access and safety, allowing cars to move along the street far too fast.
We have designed our roads to accommodate the worse actors amongst drivers. Most roads are designed to accommodate speeds of 80kmh, regardless of the official speed limit. This design encourages speeding. Moreover, those speed limits are set using the 85% rule – which determines a road’s speed based on how fast the fastest 15% of people drive on the road.
These high speeds are potentially fatal for everyone outside the car. The goal of reducing speeds is thus a small step in making cities less dangerous for those that choose not to travel in a motor vehicle.
The amazing thing about reducing traffic speed is small speed changes can have a massive impact on safety. Reducing speeds from 50kmh to 30kmh (a 40% reduction) reduces the likelihood of a collision between a car and person being fatal from 80% to just 10%. It also significantly reduces the possibility of a crash as slower speeds make cars more responsive to braking and give the driver and person outside the vehicle more time to react.
Despite the grumblings of drivers, slower speeds have a small impact on travel times. Reducing speeds from 50kmh to 30kmh adds just 48 seconds of travel time per kilometre. For the average Auckland commute of 11.9km, this speed reduction adds a little over nine minutes to an average 23-minute commute. Slower speeds reduce crashes, lessen inefficient queuing and bunching and makes walking and cycling more attractive. As a result, travel times become more reliable, so on average, your commute is barely impacted by slower speeds, but your city is by far a much safer place.
Myth 2: Taking away parking in front of shops will kill business
A common argument against reducing on-street parking is that it will kill local businesses. This is a common misconception among shop owners. Research across the globe has shown that business owners overestimate how many people drive to their store and vastly underestimate how many people arrive by foot, bike or public transport.
Studies have shown that not only do more than 95% of people who shop at local stores use active or public transport modes, they also spend more per visit and visit more often – in some studies but these groups have also been shown to be responsible for more than 90% of a store’s revenue. More recent evidence suggests that bike lanes and pedestrian facilities are a boon to local businesses, even when that requires the removal of a car lane or on-street parking.
Myth 3: Electric cars will save the planet
Much has been said about the future of transportation with electric vehicles. But, electric cars are still cars. Increasingly they are just as big as vehicles with internal combustion engines. There is nothing about them that reduces the demand for more road space.
Fully electric cars make up less than 1% of New Zealand’s vehicle fleet, and globally just 2% of new cars sold are fully electric. Even if, from this day forward, every new vehicle sold was electric, it would take us well beyond our 2030 emission mitigation commitments to see substantial reductions on total carbon emissions from the transport sector. Electric cars will do nothing to avert a climate catastrophe.
The quality of life in our cities, aside from a potential reduction in air pollution, is not markedly improved by the adoption of electric vehicles. Roads chock full of fast-moving, heavy metal objects are uninviting for the majority of potential users. Buses stuck in traffic are inefficient.
Beyond the challenges of getting to a meaningful level of electric vehicle adoption, the way raw materials for EVs are mined, distributed, assembled into cars and then disposed of at the end of the vehicle’s life is highly unsustainable. If we want to address our climate and congestion crisis – cycling is potentially “ten times more important than electric cars for reaching net-zero cities.”
Myth 4: Self-driving vehicles will revolutionise our transport system and cities
Self-driving cars are cool tech but fall short of the flying cars we were promised decades ago. There is real technological promise in allowing cars to move safely at high speeds very close together, virtually eliminating the need for more roads and wiping out vehicle-related fatalities.
But there are two problems with self-driving cars. To reach the efficiencies envisioned by automated vehicle enthusiasts, nearly the entire fleet or at least close to 90% of it, would need to be self-driving.
The reality check comes in the (necessarily) slow rollout of autonomy. If things continue to progress at the current speed, just 10% of vehicles will be self-driving by 2030. It’s a long road to a fully autonomous fleet from there.
Even if we do get to a point where all cars are autonomous, would anyone want to live in a place where the roads are filled with packs of high-speed robot cars? What would our cities feel like then? Would our urban streets become just a conduit for going somewhere else quickly?
We also have an car fleet conundrum. Virtually none of the electric cars being developed and sold today have the technology to be self-driving. This means that we expect to replace our entire fleet of vehicles with electric vehicles, and then in very short order, that entire fleet would need to be replaced again by electric self-driving cars. Such rapid fleet turnover is historically unprecedented, incredibly expensive and quite wasteful.
Myth 5: Adding road capacity reduces congestion
The last myth is perhaps the most widely understood yet universally ignored.
In 1992 Anthony Downs coined the term “Triple Convergence” to explain what happens to added highway capacity. It was a restatement of an older term also first brought to transportation by Downs called ‘induced demand’.
As Downs explained, when new highway capacity is added, people see the potential time savings and change their behaviour to take advantage of the faster travel times. This behaviour change includes switching back to driving from another mode, driving on the expanded highway rather than local or arterial roads, or travelling at peak hours rather than during less congested off-peak times. In the long-run, peak hour congestion will return to the level it was before the road expansion.
When roads are expanded, they also have the potential to induce shifts in land use. When combined with the effects of triple convergence and the natural growth in population, studies have shown the 80% of new highway capacity is consumed within 6-8 years.
A more efficient way to manage congestion is to reduce driving. This can be done on the supply side by offering more efficient public transport and better pedestrian and cycling infrastructure. On the demand side, though politically unpopular yet, effective market-based solutions like charging the full social cost of driving can be used.
For almost 150 years we have had one of the most efficient, sustainable, accessible and safe modes of transport available. It requires no fossil fuel to transport individuals across a city. It has virtually no negative impacts on the climate, does not make the air dirty, it doesn’t clog streets, nor does it demand city altering infrastructure. It is perhaps the most equitable form of transportation and it compliments rather than competes with public transport.
If you want to help make our transportation system sustainable, your next car should be a bike.