I drive a car, use public transport, cycle and walk. However, I still think I drive too often and don’t use public transport enough. And at the same time it is harder to find time to get the daily exercise I need.
Over the last 50 years car ownership in Australia has increased sixfold while car companies have become the biggest advertisers. As the size of our cities has increased we have made enormous investments in our roads, but funding for public transport, bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure has literally come off the rails. Given this, it is not terribly surprising that we have become so dependent on cars.
In Victoria, since 1970, car transport to and from primary and secondary schools has increased from 15 per cent to 60 per cent, while walking has dropped from 50 per cent to 20 per cent. And bus, tram and cycling have all declined. Consequently, our roads are increasingly clogged. But I still drive, and I get more and more agitated when, inevitably, I am held up in the traffic.
Remember just two months ago, during the Commonwealth Games, Melbourne seemed so walkable and so easy to get around. We used public transport and the place had such a good feel to it. Was it just those two weeks or can we make that feeling last longer?
But why should we want to get out of our cars and onto public transport, or onto our bikes or onto our legs? Well there are obviously the benefits of exercise and a reduction in air pollution, but it is also the way in which cars affect the friendliness of our neighbourhoods.
A few years ago a study looked at two streets in the same part of San Francisco. Over a 24-hour period one of the streets was used by 2,000 vehicles, the other had 16,000. Those living on the “light street” had three times as many friends among their neighbours than those in the “heavy street”. The residents of the “light street” also thought their street was friendly and safe for their children while the “heavy street” mob tended to keep to themselves and had little sense of community.
There is also the impact on the economy. It is thought that during school holidays when trips to school disappear, transport efficiency goes up by 20 per cent and costs come down.
The Victorian Government recently released its Transport and Liveability Statement, and public transport got a major boost in funding. Cycling and walking facilities also got a doubling in funding. So is the tide starting to turn? Up until now, the Australian response has always been to build more and more roads in an attempt to ease traffic congestion, which is a bit like getting a larger belt to manage weight gain.
I don’t want to do away with my car but recent research from the United States shows that putting more money into well planned public transport, increasing housing density, and putting houses closer to jobs will help us get out of the driver’s seat.
In many European cities it is pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users that are given priority over car and truck drivers. This helps develop more walkable and liveable cities. Iif we want to retain number one status as the country with one of the world’s most liveable cities, we will also have to rethink our priorities. The increases in public transport funding are really welcome, as are the increases in funding for walking and cycling infrastructure. However, the latter represents only a tiny proportion of the budget and more can be done.
Imagine putting a half a billion dollars a year into cycling and pedestrian infrastructure and programs in every Australian state and territory. I am convinced it would be one of the best investments we could ever make to our health, in preventing obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
But there is so much we can do now, without waiting. Employers can install showers for cyclists and provide bikes instead of cars - a lead we have seen set recently by a number of local government mayors. They can provide incentives for their employees to use public transport and can promote walk and cycle to work days.
The Victorian Government, in its Growing Victoria Together strategy, has set an ambitious but inspiring target to have 20 per cent of all motorised trips by public transport by 2020. We might not quite get there but the closer we get, the more we’ll have a walkable and liveable Melbourne.
I want to be gently eased out of my car and onto public transport or onto my bike or onto my feet. And I am delighted for my taxes to be used to encourage me to get off my bum. It might mean I don’t have to get another belt for my trousers.
Rob Moodie is Professor of Global Health at the Nossal Institute for Global Health at the University of Melbourne. Between 1998 and 2007 he was the CEO of VicHealth. He is co-editor of three books, including Hands on Health Promotion. He is currently writing a book called Recipes for a Great Life with Gabriel Gate.