Better Urban Design

Paul Mees is a senior lecturer in transport planning at RMIT. He has been recently writing  articles on population density and transport planning as well as a paper on population density which will be presented on the 25.11.09 in Perth.

In a nutshell, I think this is what he is saying ( the following is just a cut and paste of the two newspaper articles mentioned above, plus a couple of sentences of his paper).

On urban density:

“It has been popular to blame low urban density in Australia for the lack of good public transport, and the lack of patronage of sustainable transport. Paul Mees sarcastically comments that experts in meteorology, health and art criticism are agreed that Melbourne’s gardens and backyards have produced an incredibly low density, which is to blame for poor public transport and overuse of cars. But it is possible to compare population densities and use of ”sustainable” transport (public transport, walking and cycling) across the urban areas of Australia, Canada and the USA. Nobody has done this before, because the data did not become fully available until last year, but it can now be assembled and he has done this, using the most recent census (2006 for us and Canada; 2000 for the US).

The data shows that Sustainable transport use has more to do with transport policy than density, which is excellent news for anyone concerned about the environment. Instead of tackling our dysfunctional privatised public transport, opinion leaders would rather berate Melburnians about their backyards. And if we want to know where these policies will take us, we need only look to Los Angeles.”

On transport priorities:

Paul Mees suggests that one option is a radical change in transport priorities. Funding and road space would be redistributed, with an active bias in favour of walking, cycling and public transport delivered by efficient, accountable public agencies.” Instead governments focus on publicity stunts and ”behaviour change programs” that put the onus on individuals, in a process sometimes called ”greenwash”.

Despite the good intentions of many participants, cycling advocacy in Melbourne may be falling into this trap. The road lobby, the vested interests behind our dysfunctional public transport, and the multitude of players who make life miserable for pedestrians can all rest easy: they don’t need to change. More bike lanes and promotional campaigns will fix the problem – but that is not true. For instance the number of Melburnians cycling to work has remained at about 1 per cent since 1976, and the share of suburban workers who cycle has fallen below 1 per cent.

Cycling is now largely confined to male professionals who live in the inner suburbs and work in the city centre. Of course the real question should not be ”is cycling growing?”, but ”is sustainable travel displacing car trips?” If cycling grows at the expense of public transport there may be little benefit; if it grows at the expense of walking, there is no gain at all.

This seems to be what is happening in Australia. The cities with the highest rates of cycling to work (Adelaide, Melbourne and Canberra) have the highest rates of car driving, and generally the lowest walking rates. The cities with the least car driving (Sydney, Brisbane and Hobart), have the lowest cycling rates and (except for Brisbane) the highest rates of walking.

The cities making progress towards sustainable transport don’t rely on promotional campaigns directed at individual modes of transport. They pursue co-ordinated policies combining first-rate alternatives to car travel with moratoriums on new freeways. In some of these cities, cycling is a significant transport mode; in others, such as Ottawa and Zurich, it is less important than walking and public transport. But none of these places uses cycling as greenwash to distract attention from transport policies that favour the car.

Transport policy can be changed more quickly and cheaply than city density.”

(Refer to the original sources for to get the full flavour of Paul Mees’s compelling arguments)

In his paper, Paul Mees (did I say he is not only a seniour lecturer at RMIT, but also Barrister and Solicitor at the Supreme Court of Victoria?) clearly condemns recent work by Alan Moran, who suggests that public transport systems require Hong-Kong style densities of between 260 and 400 people per hectare, and he critises the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) who indicate that transport mode shift is strongly influence by the density of the environment. He also shows how in the 50’s the Auckland Regional Planning Authority used selective data (falsified data?) to “prove” that Auckland had the world’s lowest urban density, which lead to extensive road building and marginalisation of public transport. Most of these problems are caused by a lack of understanding of the difference between political boundaries and geographical boundaries of urban spaces.

Paul Mees has recompiled the urban density of Australian, Canadian and US cities based on geographical boundaries. If low urban density would be the main reason for high car use, this should be evident in his table. I have manipulated his table to produce the following graph:

as populations increase, car usage decreases

as populations increase, car usage decreases

For instance, San Diego and Los Angeles have the same level of car usage (91%), but LA has double the population density to San Diego (27.3 pph vs 13.2 pph). Similarly Melbourne and Brisbane have similar car use (79%), but very different population density (15.7 pph vs 9.2 pph).

Paul Mees cites Michael Thompson, who in 1977 observed that urban structure appears more important than urban form, suggesting that a population “density as low as 12 pph would be sufficient to support an unsubsidised rail service supported by feeder buses, provided the railway serves a strong centre with a significant share of the region’s jobs and activity”. Perth just happens to have a density of 12.1 ppl.

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Promoting everyday cycling