When you think about it, it’s extraordinary behaviour. Every day of the week, millions of Australians will hop into their car and drive to their place of work or leisure. Over 90 per cent of those people will spend inordinate amounts of time idling their car as they wait for traffic lights to change and for lines of traffic to move. It might take the best part of an hour to go from home to work, and then at the end of the working day, another hour to travel back to their home.
The motor car commuter doesn’t have much fun. He or she can’t open the paper and read it from cover to cover, or read a book, or catch up on some work, or simply sit and reflect. To drive a car means to concentrate and focus on the task at hand.
As two researchers from the University of Hawaii, James Leon and Diane Nahl, put it in a 2002 contribution to a book on driving and traffic:
Driving in traffic routinely involves events and incidents. Events are normal sequential manoeuvres such as stopping for the light, changing lanes, or putting on the brakes. Incidents are frequent but unpredictable events. Some of these are dangerous and frightening, like near-misses, while others are merely annoying or depressing, like missing one's turn or being insulted by a motorist. Driving events and incidents are sources of psychological forces capable of producing powerful feelings and irrational thought sequences.
In short, driving in urban areas in particular, where the “events and incidents” about which Leon and Nahl write, are more prevalent, is not conducive to the betterment of the community’s overall mental and physical health.
Not only is driving stressful, but the environmental health costs of car transport in Australia, particularly in urban areas, are also high. From air pollution through to road dust and oil-laden rainwater that pours into our drainage systems, there is a public health price to pay if we are to continue increasing car usage. Road transport alone is responsible for 15 per cent of Australia’s overall greenhouse gas emissions.
But despite this, the Australian Bureau of Statistics tells us that Australians are as in love with their cars today as they ever were. “In 2003 there were 10.4 million registered cars and station wagons, compared with 769,000 in 1950 and 76,000 in 1920. This dramatic rise in private car ownership has been accompanied by a corresponding shift away from the use of urban public transport,” the ABS noted in a 2004 paper.
And as the Bureau of Transport and Regional Economics has forecast, in 2015 urban car travel will have increased by 30 per cent, and the cost of congestion in our major cities will increase threefold to $30 billion annually.
Yet the cost to public health of this continuing love affair is rarely spoken about in political and public policy circles. While each state and territory government commits itself to the rhetoric of “smart transport” and urges commuters to ride public transport, cycle or walk to work, the reality is that such pleas are falling on deaf ears.
The Australian love affair with automobile commuting will never end and it is foolish to expect that this will be the case. But greater attention needs to be focussed on the cost to public health of urban car usage, and mitigating that cost through more resources and policy energy flowing into public transport solutions. Perhaps like education and health, an urban transport solution that is fixed upon reducing the cost to public health, is too important an issue to be left to each of the states and territories?
As transport planner Ken Dobinson noted in the Sydney Morning Herald on May 31 this year, “While roads can be accused of overly increasing car dependency with consequent environmental impact and congestion, it must get credit for planning a network, reserving the corridors, generating the funds and delivering the product”. The same, noted Dobinson, cannot be said for the public transport brigade.
The urban sprawl of Australian cities, combined with a love of the car and a lack of political and policy commitment to a sensible balance between public transport and road transport, adds up to a public health problem that 21st century Australia needs to tackle.