Human-scale accessibility

Human-scale accessibility is about building cities, so that we can get around them easily by walking, with a wheelchair, or a walking frame. Everybody should be able to do it, young or old. It does not involve a lot of expenses, acquiring a driver’s licence, or wealth to afford a car. Human-scale accessibility is the expression of mobility as a human right. Cycling is a good example of Human-scale accessibility with a long history. Micromobility adds many new ways for people to get around, including skateboards, e-scooters, and hoverboards. Streets need to be built in a way that make them safe for human-scale accessibility.

From cars to people

Walter Burley Griffin’s design for Canberra was around a road network. At that time (1912), private motor vehicles were still rare and few people could afford one.

Canberra design (1912). ‘Walter Burley Griffin’, in Wikipedia, , 2021, <https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Walter_Burley_Griffin&oldid=1038805268> [accessed 17 August 2021].

Since then, cities have become bigger and more complex. Canberra is not an exception. Building cities for cars proved to be a dead end. Our ideas have matured to think of cities as places for people – not cars. However, in government and planning, the old ways are still firmly entrenched.

“For over almost a century, cities have primarily built and managed streets around a single goal: moving private cars. The bureaucratic processes to support this aim are cemented through deeply-seeded legislation, design codes, and engineering standards. But these processes clash with at least three contemporaneous forces. One, the costs of and reliance on automobility—to justice, to the environment, to pocketbooks—are increasingly recognised by users, including municipal decision makers. Second, varying (smart) mobility options are increasingly available. Smaller vehicles, such as bicycles, single-person cars, motor bikes, e-scooters, and hoverboards, push the boundaries for who claims space on streets… Third, more sects of communities are calling for streets to be used as other public spaces, not only for movement, but also socialising and civic engagement.”1

These forces, cumulatively, beg for processes to manage streets that differ from decades’ past. They point to a need to consciously pivot away from traffic as a focus, instead towards people; from issues large in scale to local; from forecasting traffic to normative visions of what cities can be; from travel as a derived demand to a valued activity.11

Academic articles on transport have a reputation for being difficult, but remain an invaluable resource for sharing ideas and for acting as a catalyst for change. The article Accelerating reform to govern streets in support of human-scaled accessibility1 was worth reading. Many of the ideas mirrors those of canberra.bike.


ACT community paths are available for an expanding range of users. The definition of user groups is just a few years old, but fails to mention recent micromobility options, such as scooters. There are more ways than ever before to get around our city.

User groups – Pedestrians, cyclists and equestrians are made up of different groups of users that have different values and needs. Pedestrian user groups include walkers, joggers, people pushing prams or strollers and those using wheelchairs, both motorised or non-motorised. Cyclist user groups include primary and secondary school children, family groups / recreational cyclists, commuters, neighbourhood / utility cyclists, and touring and training cyclists (refer AGTM04 Table 4.12).

Active Travel Facilities Design – Municipal Infrastructure Standards 05 (MIS05) (ACT Government, April 2019)

Change evolution

To express an idea explicitly is the first step towards awareness. We can then talk about, what for many, were unconscious assumptions. Culture is powerful because we are largely unaware that it exits, and certainly rarely acknowledge the power of assumptions. Just because we are unaware of it and do not talk about it, does not mean that it does not exist. We have discovered the elephant in the room. In the lily pond analogy, the ecosystem invisible below the water line is as important as what is visible on the surface.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The car culture affects every aspect of how we build our cities and permeates all aspects of our society. The tendrils reach into transport and planning, where it forms a myriad of unconscious assumptions of how our cities should be built and what tools we need to use to plan them.

Cars have been provided unanimous prerogative, and mindset has evolved to the point that moving cars equates with public welfare.2

A humble beginning

This article cannot hope to make salient all effects of the automotive cultural legacy. However, we no longer deny its influence and are considering other ways to build cities.

No single publication can do justice to the lofty goal of unpacking how streets are managed or offer a comprehensive and compelling alternative.3

Canberra.bike’s Submission to the Standing Committee on Planning, Transport and City Services unpacked and explained the interdependency of ACT Planning and Transport to develop an appreciation that human-scale accessibility is achieved if ACT Planning and Transport collaborate. This is not the case and cycling is lost in translation, torn between two currents. The submission goes into detail what could be done to fix this. Even with 150 pages, the submission is only the beginning of the story and much more work needs to be done.

However, efforts to offer alternative mindsets quickly encounter constraints. While the power of tradition – a battle we leave for others – plays an obstructive role, existing regulatory frameworks hamper capacities to innovate.

Challenging any component of the existing legislation is problematic because a compelling model to replace existing rules doesn’t exist. Right now, stipulating the operations of any mobility device that differs from something that is known—be it a bike, a bus, or a pedestrian—cannot be calibrated into this unbalanced system. Legal implications are prominent. Innovative, especially human-scaled, modes simply are not compatible with existing street regulations. For example, outdated regulations tied to vehicle parking minimums hinder experimentation with low-car or car-free neighbourhood development codes.4

Further, the submission made the point, that we need to change our mindset.

Shifting the focus of transport planning to prioritise the “ease by which valued destinations can be reached” (accessibility) and away from “the efficient movement of people and goods” (mobility) is long-endorsed in academic circles. Furthermore, the “accessibility approach” is recognised as an essential pillar of achieving sustainability, as it caters to concerns of larger societal issues, such as employment, health care, equity, and quality of life.5

Urban planning

Urban planning is a long term endeavour. A 50-year cycle is typical in Canberra. The Molonglo Valley has its origins in the 2004 ACT Spatial Plan and will not be completed until 2040. Due to the long task completion time of 30-40 years, it is necessary to approach urban planning holistically and strategically.

Changing how urban mobility issues are perceived and managed requires orchestrated efforts, sometimes referred to as strategic capacity – the ability of a network of actors to anticipate and influence change through coordinated decisions and actions. Learning is inherent in this process and can be generally defined as a dynamic, social process of searching, assessing, and assimilating information, experience, and problem-solving. Foundational theories emphasise dialogue, communication systems, relationships, and leadership as crucial mechanisms of learning.6

With the emphasis on systems, procedures, compliance, and standards, ACT Planning and ACT Transport draws in individuals and professional practitioners that are good at getting the details in the here and now right but far weaker in strategic thinking and planning. Human psychology is such that more people are comfortable with the former than the latter.

Consider a square meter of street space near an intersection in (any city). Reams of legislation stipulates what happens on this swath of land. An engineering department prescribes the height and radii of the curbs, including the location of cuts to offer access to parking and alleyways. Public carworks controls traffic signals, specifically the amount and timing of green versus red time permissible for particular modes and when. Urban design officials specify encroachment from private property lines. Parking enforcement legislates how long and for what fee vehicles can reside on peripheral parts of the street. Police departments uphold rules to ensure safety, mostly by providing preferential treatment to car traffic.7

Strategic planning recognises that urban planning is a long term process and changing the land use (organisation of the city) is going to be both time-consuming and costly.

Land uses (i.e., residential and commercial structures) that comprise the urban landscape are long-lived. Changes to the capital stock are marginal, owing to the high costs to reconstruct them. Re-designating their use requires lengthy administrative processes.

Transport facilities represent important inputs to accessibility measures and, relative to their land use counterparts, have the potential to change more quickly. Achieving meaningful progress here means increasing the attractiveness by which locations can be reached by humans (rather than only by cars). It means thinking beyond select segments of streets to the spaces that connect streets.8

Slow ahead

Canberra.bike has repeatedly expressed frustration about the slow rate of progress and positive step change for cyclists. The discussion of the maintenance of the community paths has gone on for the better part of a decade. ACT Transport is still making vague statements about the topic. (Read Transport Minister Steels latest comments.)

The actions of governments are understandably slow to adapt; decision makers guiding these actions seek to reduce the uncertainty that changed processes will work. Lacking confidence for new aims and progressive thinking to transform a governance system, they are merely paving a road for more of the same. The issue is particularly acute for how streets are managed.9

The good news is that we know what we need to do and internationally many cities have made great strides, particularly in Europe. Practitioners in Australia have discussed the topic ad nauseam for the last decade.

A commensurate abundance of interest and evidence suggests innumerable benefits of developing urban environments and policies to encourage human-scale mobility (especially cycling). Constraints imposed broadly by the regulatory environment suppresses the ability for use of these types of vehicles to scale up, eschewing benefits and stifling innovation.10

The reference to local here is the idea of 20-minute cities. An article about this is found on canberra.bike.

Barriers

Canberra.bike has discussed some of the barriers that are impeding change.

  1. The lack of integration of ACT Transport and ACT Planning.

By changing the types of activity that are encouraged on the streets, municipal leaders have the authority to drastically modify transport portfolios in their cities. However, most decision makers fail to see the power of doing such. Furthermore, the lack of integration among transport, land use, and representative budgeting agencies continues to be a major barrier to mainstream accessibility planning.12

2. The tendency to focus on band-aid solutions, thereby disregarding much greater systematic changes needed in the way the ACT Government thinks and acts.

Given new demands placed on streets, which are growing in quantity and complexity, we see a rising need for managing these city assets in different ways that more fully support human-scaled vehicles—admittedly our priority. This restructuring expands beyond topical fixes, such as reducing speed limits, installing separated bike lanes, or launching educational awareness campaigns. While such changes can be valuable and indicative of underlying, incremental progress, our insights are guided by the idea that more systemic change is required.13

The article Accelerating reform to govern streets in support of human-scaled accessibility14 warns that tactical urbanism is of this superficial character.

Municipalities are experimenting with changing the character of streets by re-prioritising and re-allocating street space away from automobiles and towards active modes. While street experiments can be cost-efficient, communicative and mobilising, their effect on deeper, systemic change on urban mobility systems is questioned due to bounded duration and limited scale or spatial extension.15

3. That the prevailing performance indicators are dated tends to justify the status quo. New indicators must be developed that break away from the “transport efficiency” mindset to streets as “places for people”.

Reflexive activities, such as on-going evaluation and monitoring, ideally feed into further policy development. Here, we recommend that metrics evolve beyond rational indicators of traffic flow and crashes and extend to measures of accessibility, impacts on physical activity, or perceptions of well-being and social capital. This broader array of measures would include indicators that are routinely used in other fields such as psychology and public health.16

It lies in our hands

The ACT Government has the authority to act and change Canberra should it wish to do so.

Cities form because they foster access to goods, services and amenities, allowing the exchange of knowledge, emotions, and ideas. The accessibility that results is product of the location of these goods, services or amenities and the character of connecting transport networks. Networks, the most common type of which are streets, are public entities that are governed by public decision making. Decisions about their character, including which modes are prioritised and authorised as well as their speeds, fall on the shoulders of council members, including Mayors, local planners and the public.17

ACT Government, it is time to act!

Notes:

  1. M Glaser, KJ Krizek & DA King, ‘VIEWPOINT: Accelerating reform to govern streets in support of human-scaled accessibility’, in Transportation Research Interdisciplinary Perspectives, vol. 7, 2020, 100199.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid.

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