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Australians Have Learned to Drive Less

• March 18, 2011 • 5:00 AM

In car-crazy Australia, soft measures are turning the tide in the hard battle to reduce the number of basically empty cars on the road.

With turmoil raging near Middle Eastern oil fields and December’s Cancun climate summit failing to produce any binding agreement even though the Gulf of Mexico had suffered from the world’s worst offshore oil spill, perhaps it’s time to consider how America might honestly address its oil dependency and global warming issues.

Transportation, not industry or commerce, is the prime factor in the nation’s consumption of petroleum and emission of greenhouse gases. American driving consumes over half of the nation’s daily burn of 19 million barrels of oil and produces 45 percent of the entire world’s automotive carbon dioxide emissions.

As Americans drive more than 2.9 trillion miles annually, spewing clouds of environmental, traffic, trade and security issues in their exhaust, there’s remarkably little interest in changing habits.

Australia, a booming economy with a higher rate of car ownership than the United States and even more wide-open spaces, is a model for what we must do.

The “car culture Down Under,” however, has turned the public acceptance corner and is building, with strong citizen support, seemingly expensive bike-pedestrian infrastructure, bus rapid transit and commuter rail with local, state and — only recently — federal dollars.

Infrastructure Australia allowed 2010 money to be spent on roads only if they primarily carried freight and set aside 55 percent of each federal transportation dollar for commuter rail. (In the United States, 80 percent of federal transportation money goes into highways — and that’s before the $28 billion in stimulus dollars President Obama put into shovel-ready highway projects. Our total subsidy for roads was $145 billion in 2004, four times the subsidy for mass transit.)

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Americans can be persuaded to drive less

Although lots of places in the United States sample bits and pieces of transportation management, Bellingham, Wash., shows what can happen by taking on the full program. Read about it here.[/class]

Australia still has freeways and suburbs, still has conflict between liberal and conservative parties, still has wide-open spaces, still has economic growth at the forefront of planning. And yet, led by dozens of “soft” transportation demand management (or TDM) projects in cities as diverse as Brisbane, Adelaide, Melbourne and Perth, it has found the key to moving individual transportation behavior away from the convenience of the single-occupancy vehicle.

In Perth, for example, after a decade of TDM educational marketing called TravelSmart, the state of Western Australia opened the Southern Suburbs Railway in December 2007. It was over budget and behind schedule — but saw 67,000 first-day riders and 90 percent approval ratings. Thirty years ago, Western Australia was closing commuter rail and building freeways in all directions.

Each TravelSmart project is different, but in general, the individualized educational programs provide whatever information and emotional support — like personal bicycle doctors or bus drivers to explain the schedule — to help any member of any marketed household change driving behavior on any trip, not just the commute trip. Printed materials are delivered by bicycle as TravelSmart practitioners practice what they preach.

Other psychological concepts, like “reciprocity,” “creating community” and “bypassing adversaries,” ensure that TravelSmart is only working with citizens willing to change while reassuring them of the societal value of their transportation behavioral change. In Brisbane’s latest TravelSmart projects, the average cost is about $70 per household. (Budget divided by households in Aussie dollars)

In fall 2009, in the midst of finalizing a 324,000-home TravelSmart project, the state of Queensland opened a $63 million footbridge over the Brisbane River — just eight years after many citizens fought a $23 million footbridge less than a mile away. Brisbane’s conservative mayor, Campbell Newman, while pledging $100 million for bike paths has cooperated with liberal state politicians and built a pair of “end of the road” cycling facilities that promise hot showers, laundry, bike repair and clean lockers to more than 1,000 bicycle commuters. In its first year, the $6.5 million King George Square Cycle Center saved 56,000 car-kilometers (35,000 car-miles) between the suburbs into the city, a Griffith University study shows.

The Australian experience is indicating clearly that “carrots, sticks and tambourines” — with TravelSmart being the tambourines — can decrease traffic and therefore lower congestion, pollution, greenhouse emissions and improve citizen health.

In 2006, Queensland planners discovered an amazing “diffusion” of TravelSmart materials designed to help drivers choose any other mode of transportation for any trip — not just a commute — in a 77,000-home project in the northern Brisbane suburbs. More than 100,000 households were using the brochures, maps, schedules, discount tickets and promotional information.

As Werner Brög, TravelSmart’s German founder, puts it, “People want to be part of the solution. They just don’t know how.”

Indeed, Queensland is today spending $22.6 million to TravelSmart in the South Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coasts suburbs because it is absolutely sure that “soft” transportation demand management marketing changes individual behavior by re-acquainting receptive citizens with bicycles and buses.

Brisbane hopes to reap the same benefits that the 1.6 million people in and around Perth did after its decade of TravelSmart. Western Australia finds that annually TravelSmart marketing is decreasing car starts by 30 million and carbon emissions by 88 million tons while increasing transit boardings by 4.2 million and physical fitness hours by 7 million — every year.

For the first several years of Australian TDM projects, academic critics argued that individualized marketing data was not “reliable” because of difficulty duplicating it. Every TravelSmart operative, for example, is encouraged to say whatever he or she wants as long as there is no coercion. Hence, with no “script” to analyze as a study variable, academic researchers couldn’t re-create the marketing model and illustrate similar results.

But after early critic Peter Stopher of the University of Sydney used GPS units to “meter” drivers in Adelaide over a three-year period and discovered an 18 percent reduction in vehicle kilometers driven if the household had been individually marketed — greater results than Brög had ever claimed — every major urban area in Australia except Sydney is utilizing TravelSmart today.

Sydney, where mass transit is already maxed, has avoided using TravelSmart out of fears it will create demand for public transportation that it can’t supply.

In 2004, the OECD nations published “Communicating Environmentally Sustainable Transport,” which underlines the issue. The prime benefit of “soft measures” like TravelSmart, the conference proceedings note, is improved acceptance of “hard measures” — like taxes and expensive infrastructure, the “carrots and sticks” of TDM. The “carrots,” like Brisbane’s cycleways, cycle centers and world-class busways program, have only come in tandem with the public hearing the tambourines.

Today, as the Perth-area has expanded the individualized concept into energy usage, water savings and recycling, about 80 percent of citizens want to hear, and see, more information on changing their own behavior to benefit society.

Perhaps most importantly, Australians are today willing to back expensive alternative transportation infrastructure with their tax dollars — even if it’s infrastructure they don’t personally think they will use.

 

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Randy Salzman
After a career as a communications professor, Randy Salzman studied transportation demand management at Oxford University in the United Kingdom and is writing a book about successful transportation demand management.

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