Breaking the car habit: culture change

We need to face the facts on climate change. Sustainability has many facets and that includes transport. The ACT has zero emissions from electricity. New suburbs are without gas. The major source of emissions in the ACT is now from transport – and most of these emissions come from private car use.

This article has developed to become a manifesto for Little can be achieved by a few when it all takes so long. Here we suggest a simple strategy combined with culture change. Not much is achieved in a year, but what we achieve over a decade counts. We cannot wait until everyone is on board and must start now.

Why strategy first?

We cannot build our way out of congestion! Other countries demonstrate other approaches, but changing our habits can be difficult, and it takes time. We need to plan our city and investment in transport differently. You can’t change Canberra by repeating old mistakes! We should approach things differently.

The EU guideline for investment in active travel is 20% of the transport budget. In some places like Paris or Ireland, they are getting close to this target. Not surprisingly the Netherlands has a head start. It has done since the 1970s what we are considering now in the ACT.

Leaving our cars at home and walk, cycle or take public transport would solve the congestion problem. Different transport options are referred to as modes of transport. Currently, over 80% of all commuters in the ACT drive to work and pay a little fortune for parking. Most drivers sit alone in the car and this needs to change. It doesn’t make a difference whether you drive a new electric vehicle or an old combustion one. They all take up the same space. In cities, space is of a premium and too little for everybody to drive, except for those that do not have other options. Every person choosing public transport, walking or cycling is one car less, freeing up road space for trucks, buses and commercial vehicles (preferably electric). Car drivers ahoy, wave and thank active travellers – and please protect their lives by driving carefully!

We benefit from cycling in many ways. The benefits include health, wellbeing and making our cities more liveable, especially with a better design of urban and transport network (Movement and Place framework). So great are the benefits that the target has gone from zero deaths on roads to “beyond zero”. Beyond zero is the concept that we live longer choosing active travel modes as opposed to passively sitting in a car.

Let us make cycling routes better: networked, direct, safe, comfortable, and attractive. The article “Planning bike networks is doable” discusses the requirements at length. Australia is a cycling laggard – a low cycling country. High cycling countries (mostly found in the EU) have shown how it is done and should be our role models.

Start by reserving and protecting corridors for cycling infrastructure. This is cheap to do and requires no immediate capital works. The urban planning lifecycle is 50 years, and the legislative term is just 4 years. Societal transitions span long periods and are difficult to implement. Climate change action (inaction) forewarns us of the challenges. Reserving and protecting corridors makes it possible to build later, when the political will has matured to appreciate the benefits of cycling.

Cycle corridors must be anchored in statutory instruments to survive beyond the current legislative period. Further, a guideline for cycling corridors is a perquisite to planning them. EPSDD requires compliance with statutory documents when tendering design work for Concept Plans, Estate Development Plans, Planning and Infrastructure Studies and Development Applications.

Through the whole process of urban development, these corridors must be reserved and preserved. The cycle highways may be built now or in parts over the next 40 years. As long as the corridors have been preserved, exactly when the cycling infrastructure is built is not an immediate matter of contention. The first step is to lock in the corridors.

Preconditions for Cycle Corridors

The following four conditions need to be met for cycle corridors to work:

  1. Produce a guideline that describes the characteristics of a cycling corridor with reference to ACT Active Travel Standards and Austroads Standards for cycling infrastructure.
  2. Design cycle corridors fit-for-purpose and include them in the Canberra Spatial Plan.
  3. Reserve and protect cycle corridors by inclusion in statutory documents such as the Territory Plan, Planning and Development Act, Estate Development Code, and General Codes. 
  4. Provide a mechanism by which the cycle corridors are available to the public and planning practitioners. The dataset much be updated and remain current. The ACT Government Active Travel Infrastructure Practitioner Tool (ATIPT) which shows Active Travel Route Alignments (ATRA) shows how this could be done.

Why culture transformation matters

Culture change is not easy. The biggest challenge now is one of values and behaviours. As one urban planner from Africa visiting Canberra said, “if I rode a bike, people would think I am poor.” This is a problem that goes straight back to the macro culture we live in. We need to talk about shared values – and the dominant car culture – our society holds dear. 

Culture eats strategy for breakfast, lunch and dinner! Here lies the reason why building any new, good cycling infrastructure is easy in the Netherlands, but so hard in Canberra (and typically in other low cycling countries). If good strategy is seeded in infertile soil, it will wither and die.

Canberra will have to change how we design and build the city. The post-war “house, car and two kids in the suburbs” ideal remains a popular aspiration. At the next Molonglo Valley Community Forum, you may hear something to this effect: “everybody in the family has a car and driving it is our right.” 

The Prime Minister alluded to this when he played on fears of “destroying the weekend”. Many people in the EU do not have cars and many young people in the EU do not want a driver’s licence. Hamburg has a population of about 1.8 million and a very large port in an area the size of Canberra. Getting a licence increasingly makes little sense. Walking, cycling and public transport are faster and far cheaper.

Moving from a “fast” car culture to a paradoxical “slow culture” is a paradigm shift from prioritising travel efficiency to values of quality of life and wellbeing. Fast cars are often very slow. Driving through the interchange at peak hour is already slower than commuting to work by electric bike. A recent HILDA Study shows that in Canberra a typical commute is only 10 km in length and 50 min duration. Further, congestion in Canberra is worsening at a rate far quicker than any other Australian city. The 20-minutes commute is a myth from days long gone by.

Society has changed many times before, sometimes quite rapidly and in significant ways, triggered by unlikely events. The introduction of the motor vehicle over a century ago is one such example. Electrified light rail systems were common back then. My father rode a tram to work as a youth, and my grandmother a horse to town. Modern cities of the 1920s had light rail. Berlin celebrated “the electric” – a modern, quiet and clean light rail that even the poorest could afford.

The car experiment has failed. Owning a car is a luxury and ideally should not be required to commute. Lower income earners would be better off with cheaper alternatives. A portion of the population with private motor vehicles may think better of it and spend the money on something that makes them fit and happy instead.

The health benefits of cycling are well researched and accepted. Unfortunately, the health of the population does not play a factor in current transport decision-making. The ACT Health Directorate does not fund cycle paths. Rather, roads are optimised to make them a little wider and faster, with the paradoxical outcome, that the commute is slower and more stressful (systems thinking). We need to change our transport paradigm.

We are looking for a tree in the wrong forest and cannot see the forest for the trees.

Quizzing culture and values

Here’s a little mind game for you:

1. What is your first thought when a new colleague tells you they just bought a new $60k SUV?

2. What is your first thought when a new colleague tells you they take the bus or they ride to work? What is your reaction and what do you say? Do you admire one more than the other? Do you respect them both the same way?

There may be no simple answers and decisions may be challenging. Heaving said that, It can be done. Let us make a start! 😊

Photo by Will Mu on

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