Understanding Divergent Approaches to Sustainable Transport Infrastructure

In a city like Brisbane, whether we’re talking about improving public transport services, or improving paths and intersections to make walking and riding safer and easier, there are basically two approaches you can take.

Approach 1: You can repurpose existing road space to prioritise active transport and public transport.

Approach 2: You can take land that’s being used for other purposes (e.g. trees, houses) in order to create new bike paths, bus lanes etc.

Right now, this is perhaps the biggest difference between the Greens and the two major parties when it comes to the roll-out of new sustainable transport infrastructure.

Every political party says they want to improve public transport, but we have different ideas of how to do it.

Both the Labor-dominated State Government and the Liberal-dominated Brisbane City Council tend to prefer Approach 2, and will occasionally do a little bit of Approach 1. In contrast, the Greens strongly prefer Approach 1.

Examples of Approach 1 would be converting a lane of general traffic into a dedicated bus lane, or removing a row of street parking to create room for separated bike lanes or shady trees that encourage walking.

Whereas Approach 2 might mean cutting down street trees to make room for bus stops, routing commuter bike paths along creek corridors and parks (thus cannibalising green space), or even acquiring a corridor of private property to build a new bus lane or busway.

Although not perfect, components of the Woolloongabba Bikeway Project (such as the northern end of Annerley Rd between Stephens Rd and Stanley St) fit more closely into the Approach 1 category. To create space for bike lanes, I supported the council removing dozens of street parking bays, and narrowing general traffic lanes.

Whereas for Stage 1A of the Kangaroo Point Bikeway Project, the council (against my advice) chose to remove established trees and push the bike path through the park alongside Lower River Terrace, rather than removing street parking.

Approach 1 is generally a lot quicker and cheaper. Approach 2 is often so expensive and difficult that project proposals don’t get past the drawing board stage.

Residents who are wondering why governments are so slow to improve public and active transport need to understand this distinction.

What’s particularly important to recognise is that not only is Approach 1 cheaper and faster, it’s also a much more effective way to actually shift people out of their cars and into other modes of transport.

If you have a three-lane road corridor that’s badly congested, and you spend a lot of money buying up houses and shops along the road so you have enough room for a bus lane, you’ve successfully made it possible to run a high-frequency bus route along the corridor that won’t get held up by general traffic. But you now have a road corridor that’s upwards of 30 metres wide (which carves up the neighbourhood and is a major barrier to pedestrians) and you haven’t necessarily reduced the number of cars on the road. You’ve also spent millions and millions of taxpayer dollars transforming houses and small businesses into bitumen.

But if you just convert one of the three existing lanes into a bus lane (maybe just a peak-hour bus lane that’s an off-peak T3 transit lane) you are reducing car capacity and creating a much stronger incentive for people to shift to public transport.

The ramifications of this distinction are particularly significant for Brisbane public transport planning. Labor and Liberal politicians are continually squabbling and blaming one another for the lack of progress on various ‘essential’ public transport projects, such as the extension of the northern busway from Kedron to Bracken Ridge, the eastern busway out to Capalaba, or new river crossings to reduce bottlenecks into the CBD.

But Gympie Road north of Kedron is already three lanes in each direction. If we had the political will to convert one of those existing traffic lanes into a bus lane, we wouldn’t need to spend millions of dollars building a whole new busway. The same is true for Coronation Drive and quite a few other key corridors, and perhaps one day even for the Riverside Expressway and the Captain Chook Bridge.

This might seem like a difficult message to sell politically, but at the end of the day, a dedicated bus lane can carry thousands more passengers per hour than a general traffic lane, and will save a lot of money in the long-run. Right now, our problem is that Labor and Liberal politicians are still preoccupied with the flawed notion that they can’t take away space from cars, and within local and state government departments, the traffic engineers still carry more influence than the public transport planners.

Delivering new bus, bike and pedestrian infrastructure doesn’t have to be anywhere near as expensive as the major parties and some public servants think. It can be done quickly and cheaply, with minimal disruption from construction work, tree removals or private land acquisition. You just have to be willing to take space away from cars.