Step by step: a reality check about changing our transport (and housing) balance

As readers of Reviewanew would have worked out, I’m an advocate for changing the balance in our transport systems so that we can offer realistic options other than the car for many more trips than most Australian cities, and many overseas ones, do now.  I also reckon we need to provide a broader range of housing, including in the inner city.

I sometimes get a reaction that assumes I am telling people they shouldn’t ever drive again or live in a suburban detached house anymore; and that I want everyone to use other modes of transport all the time, and live in high rise apartment blocks. Others advancing these ideas no doubt get this too. I find this interesting, and a little odd, that people choose to take it as a “black or white” discussion – that it is all one way or the other.

So why do people choose to react this way? Maybe they just don’t hear me properly, or I don’t explain it well. Or maybe they feel threatened because they drive everywhere and want to justify their lifestyle? Or see it as an ideological battle, and it is easier to debunk the idea by assuming it is advocating an extreme position. Or maybe it’s a denial of the need to do anything at all? I don’t really know. 

Whatever the reason, I like to explain the approach like a pendulum. Let’s take transport, although the same analogy can apply to housing too. I’m not suggesting it needs to swing from one extreme to the other. All I’m saying it is that it is too far in one direction and it would be a better outcome for it to swing back towards the middle a bit. Every degree it changes in that direction gives us a more balanced transport system (or housing supply). Like this:  

 The other response that can arise is the assumption by those not supportive of the idea that the change being advocated will happen overnight. We’d all suddenly stop driving anywhere and be forced to walk (that would be awful!), get on one of those dreadful buses or trains, or even (gasp!) have to ride bikes.

Of course, that’s not it. I expect the car, and the detached house, to still be in the majority for the foreseeable future. It’s really about trying to change up the balance over time to move towards a more sustainable system that provides genuine choices for more trips and housing, and thereby supports better community health, happiness, economic productivity and resilience. It is a step by step process. And as Bill Gates said:  

 In most cities, it is more a case of decades rather than a year. Copenhagen didn’t become a cycle city overnight – it has taken 30+ years. Similarly, Vancouver didn’t get to having about half its trips by other than the car in a year. It took a similar time. Sure, New York did some great stuff virtually overnight by changing road space from cars to bike and people, but all that did was shift the transport balance a bit- – their pendulum swung a little towards the middle.

So, whether it is changing up the balance of your city’s transport system, or housing supply and diversity, it’s a step by step process. 

The important thing for me is to decide to do it and make a start!

Greg Vann

May 2015

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