Not seeing the forest for the trees

There is an issue with the Standing Committee on Planning, Transport and City Services approach to the Road Transport (Safety and Traffic Management) Amendment Bill 2021 (No 2). An opinion piece by canberra.bike.

Narrow focus

The bill is narrowly focused on fines – the stick, filling the gap between fatality and injury. The act, as it stands, does not distinguish between a damaged road sign and a cyclist, or the walking wounded, after a collision. I read the Hansard regularly on transport-related topics and this was no exception (see canberra.bike). Jo Clay presented the bill as being about vulnerable road users, but the changes affect the driver. “We are all vulnerable road users,” she said. The bill is a narrow approach to a much bigger problem.

Strong car culture

The bill does not address the problem with our strong car culture. An ingrained car culture cannot be addressed by legal mechanisms alone. It is a social problem. The way to deal with it is the same way you would deal with a public health campaign, such as the desire that people should not smoke. The abolition of smoking is a good case study of how complex social change can be. A whole of government approach is necessary.  

Build people friendly roads

At a systems level, the roads would need to be built differently, with designs that make vulnerable road users safe. These designs exist – Austroads has a document on it – but TCCS does not build that way, as it is seen to disadvantage the motorist! Please read that sentence again. And then again. TCCS instead is prepared to disadvantage the vulnerable road user. One UK practitioner said: “If we need to put up signs, we have a design problem.” Putting it this way, the behaviour we see in the ACT today is a logical consequence of poor road designs. The road design itself is at fault. 

Leadership required

To build the sorts of roads to make vulnerable road users safe, we need to change the culture and thinking within TCCS. In short, leadership is required both at a political level and within the directorate. The leadership under Transport Minister Chris Steel is Conservative and car friendly. He tends to defend the status quo – our strongly ingrained car culture.

Movement and Place

Finally, making cities safe for people is about rebalancing urban design between movement and place. We take space away from cars where we need it for people. The ACT does not have a Movement and Place Framework guideline and it would need to be written collaboratively between ACT Transport and ACT Planning. This is TCCS own opinion and stated in the strategy documents from 2018 and 2020 – nothing new. 

Diagnosis is the first step to any cure

I think you can see that the bill is a start, but it has misdiagnosed the problem and is treating symptoms rather than the systemic cause. This is the heart of canberra.bike’s submission – step back and get a little perspective. 

Conclusion

I believe the bill will not achieve much quickly. Change is achieved in part through a carrot and stick approach. The bill is a bit of a stick but does not address the bigger problems:

  • The way we build our city is with the overemphasis on movement and not place.
  • The strong car culture is better considered a “health issue.” 
  • Fixing the system (see the Netherlands) is better than attributing blame (legal approach).

Let’s not reinvent the wheel

Canberra is not the first city in Australia to have this problem, and Australia can look to Europe to see how it is done. Many cities do a far better job than the ACT in this regard. The issues are well understood. The academic research fills libraries and the clouds in the sky. Austroads have written guidelines. The Netherlands has been building car friendly since the 1970s. RobertsDay has been making proposals to ACT Planning, who seem reluctant to take them on board. 

The bill is treating COVID with cold & flu tablets. It does not address the root cause. 

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

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