Remove it and they will go.

Musings on Jeff Speck's Walkable City, accompanying my blogs for client RobertsDay as we traverse the USA in search of great places.

How much of the year do you work to pay for your car? Do you know? In my case, it's not huge, but it's a cost that far outweighs the benefit really. After all, I walk to the office - 8 minutes away at a fast clip, 15 minutes at an amble - so I drive maybe once a week, and not that far when I do. We live 4kms at the most from the city centre, but everything we need is closer than that. Plus, I have a Smart car so my petrol bill is about $35 a month, and I reckon at least half that is because my partner Michael uses it to drive to the supermarket - about 2kms away. It's therefore not the variable costs that are large, it's the fixed costs; rego, insurance and the like. And, with  GoGet car bay right out the front door of my office - that same 8 minutes walking distance away - I could get rid of my car with virtually no difference to my life.

However, I already live in a walkable neighbourhood - if not city. What's the car reality for other people?

Speck says, quoting from other sources, that the average American family now spends about $14,000 a year driving multiple cars, which means that they're working from January 1 until April 13 to pay for it.

Families with limited income tend to move away from the city centre to find housing cheap enough to buy (and get a mortgage for) but when they do, they often find that the extra driving costs outweigh any housing savings.

Driving may also be driving economies into the ground. Speck quotes an EPA study that found that there's an inverse relationship between travel and productivity: "the more miles people in a given state drive the weaker it performs economically".

Which brings me now to congestion - seemingly the bane of any Sydneysider I might add. Speck seems to say: just get over it.

He also talks about a theory called induced demand, but I'd rather say this: build it and they will come, remove it, and counter intuitively, they seem to disappear.  What that means is this: when you reduce the time it takes to travel, by say adding more roads and temporarily reducing congestion, people then tend to drive more, which then causes congestion to increase all over again. In fact, data apparently shows that a 10% increase in lane miles induces an immediate 4% increase in vehicle miles travelled, which climbs to 10% - the new capacity that was added, in just a few years.

Conversely, when vital arteries are removed from cities, the traffic seemingly, just goes away - when you give them car options. At least, that's what happened in a downtown area of Seoul - Cheonggyecheon - pictured blow. How a 16-lane highway was replaced by an urban boulevarde and a rehabilitated 3.6mile river park is a really interesting story and after a riveting documentary about it, I just had to pay a visit on the way back from our last European trip.    

If you haven't been to Seoul, it IS a car centric city - in fact I hated it, except for the area I'd really wanted to see. And not only does it look good - there was a lantern festival there when we arrived - it and the related works have also had a significant effect on the city. Apparently, an urban heat island had its temperature reduced by 5 degrees; traffic congestion dropped sharply (aided by simultaneous investment in public transport) and surrounding property values increased by 300%.

With this grounding in human behaviour - and the phenomenon of induced demand - let's move on to what happens with congestion pricing. The facts should be well-known but it's still a very under used tool. For example, after London introduced its version of a congestion tax, congestion dropped by 30%, cycling increased by 20%, and air pollution fell by 12%. At the time Speck wrote his book, he cited that the tax had raised over a billion dollars in revenue, much of which has been invested back into public transport. 

With all that in mind, the next time I'm stuck in Sydney traffic and moaning like hell about it...I'll just remember the increasingly varued choices I could have made not to drive. And be quiet.

AuthorAmanda Falconer