Australia’s national infrastructure planners say we must overcome the challenge of low rates of active transport if it is to improve transport and sustainability across the nation.
Infrastructure Australia says that better public transport is essential, but that requires integration among modes, and that can’t happen without better walking and cycling infrastructure.
The warning comes in a new report from IA, the Australia Infrastructure Audit 2019.
"An integrated transport network has active transport at its core,” the report says. "Walking and cycling play a critical role in our transport networks, particularly for shorter trips and for the first or last kilometre in the journey between people’s origins and destinations.
"For public transport journeys this can mean the connection between the trunk mass transit corridor and home or work.
"This means that in order to cater for people’s entire journey, from their front door to their final destination, planners have to consider and promote active transport as a critical component of the transport network.”
Infrastructure Australia reports that active transport has markedly declined among certain parts of the community over the 50-year post-war period, during which the level of vehicle ownership increased from one car for every six to seven Australians, to one for less than every two Australians.
The number of Australian children regularly walking or cycling to school has halved in the last 40 years, with less than one-third now regularly using active transport to get to school.
The call for a better focus on active transport has been mostly overlooked in responses to the report, and to the accompanying study, Urban Transport Crowding and Congestion.
Road and train congestion caught the headlines, and generated calls for billions more to be spent to overcome the problem.
As usual, solutions involving changing the way we live and travel, particularly active travel, got short shrift from media and politicians, who invariably feel naked without car keys in their pocket.
"Cycling can be a relatively quick form of transport, particularly for shorter trips,” IA says. "In dense parts of our cities, cycling often takes less time than driving for a journey below 5 kilometres.
"This means cycling is normally more competitive in our inner-urban areas than the outer suburbs. For example, in Greater Melbourne an average of 1.8% of trips are by bike, but in more central local government areas, such as Yarra and Port Phillip, cycling is closer to 7% of trips.
The report says active transport also has obvious environmental and health benefits. "It produces no direct emissions and helps to improve people’s fitness and wellbeing.
"The benefits of active transport have been recognised by the World Health Organisation, which notes it is key to reducing the 3 million deaths globally each year that are caused by physical inactivity.
The report says that despite its benefits, active transport remains a challenge for Australian policymakers.
"Australia sees relatively low rates of active transport use compared to European countries. About 5% of Australia’s journey-to-work trips are undertaken solely by active transport. Over 30% of trips in Sweden, Germany and Denmark, and over 50% in the Netherlands, are by walking or cycling."
IA mentions that an obstacle to active transport in Australia could be the low density of the cities and the long distances people travel.
"However, long distances are not the only reason, as many short trips are undertaken by car in Australia. For example, there are over two million car trips every day in Sydney that are less than 2km in length."
The report says that there are numerous potential causes for Australia’s active transport shortfall. In particular, pedestrians and cyclists are especially vulnerable to road crashes.
"Other commonly cited barriers to walking and cycling refer to insufficient infrastructure. About 70% of people in New South Wales say they would cycle more if they had access to separated bicycle lanes.
"Problematically, however, it is the densely settled areas where walking and cycling would be most feasible in land use terms that are the most challenging places in which to find the space to widen a footpath or excise a traffic lane for a cycleway."
"From a transport planning perspective, a key challenge is ensuring that our active transport networks are integrated with public transport.
"While there are likely multiple reasons for Australia’s comparatively low levels of walking and cycling, it is clear there is an opportunity to improve and better integrate active transport with the rest of our networks."