Designing a road for traffic is much like designing a pipe for water flow. The first hint is the similarity of language used. In traffic engineering they talk about traffic waves, traffic flows or traffic stream. I especially like “Jam Density”. Yum. They even use similar mathematical models as in hydrodynamics. Cars move in packs, like water molecules and can have a free flow, stable flow and jam packed, no flow at all.
Traffic in Australia
With the increase in population there has been more traffic in Australian cities. Australian politicians are renowned for their astounding lack of spine and foresight which resulted in Melbourne not doing much at all on the public transport front since 1985, when the city loop was opened. As of 2009, the share of public transport measured in passenger kilometres was around 11%, with cars accounting for 89%.
This means that Melbourne has more road area per capita than any other Australian city. Population growth has also been largely accomodated by pushing outward instead of upward, increasing the distances people need to travel to get to work.
Design for the peak
When designing a pipe, the main concern is the peak flow because the water of a particularly heavy downpour needs to be accomodated by the pipe as to not flood houses and wash cars and children (an actual criteria) away on the street.
The same goes for determining whether a road needs to be a massive arterial or a local laneway.
When thinking about what to do about the insane congestion peak hour in Melbourne, the Grattan institute came up with five things:
1. Better buses
Makes sense, bus services in Melbourne are the only public transport for most people and shockingly slow and infrequent.
2. Encourage carpooling
3. Ten-minute train services
Off-peak trains are very irregular on some lines and so everyone goes during peak hour, understandably. So this is a prerequisite.
4. Road charges
Making drivers pay more for driving during peak hour? Shifts the problem to smaller streets. But it has been shown to work in London and other places so yes, good.
5. Improve bike access to trains
Some train stations have no bike parking, like my old station in Elsternwick. Sad and unnecessary.
Three out of five of these suggestions are focussed on changing the way motor vehicles work on the street. Here is a translation:
1. Make it more attractive to be packed into a vehicle with more seats
2. Makte it more attractive to get to work with your colleague in the same vehicle
4. Make it more expensive and annoying to drive in peak hour
A cultural shift
While we don’t decide how and when rain falls and we have to design for the worst, we can decide how and when we drive. And what our experts are thinking about is how we can make the most of what we have. But what we have, the 9 to 5 culture (more like 8 to 6) is a cultural thing. We decided at some point, that it would be a good idea to work from some random, not too early, time in the morning to some other random, not too late, time in the evening.
Why don’t we work out how we can encourage employers to move all their contracts to flexible time arrangements, where you need to be around for some core hours (10- 3 pm or something) and have them work out what works for them. School and childcare would need to follow suit as well. This would be a massive shift in how we work, but maybe it’s more 21st century to do something smart rather than tinker around with some decisions that were made 50 or more years ago?
I don’t see the mobile or paperless office we were promised a decade ago anytime soon coming to reality, so maybe a few cultural tweeks could be worth exploring.