Queensland towns and cities are in an inactivity crisis. One in 10 cars trips in South East Queensland are less than one kilometre in length, 90 percent of vehicle trips on the Gold Coast have one person per vehicle, and more than two thirds of children are driven to school.
Add skyrocketing obesity rates, the fact Aussie kids are among the least active in the world and that the average Aussie family spends more time sat in the car than around the dining table, and it’s clear our communities – new and long established – are unhealthy and inactive. It wasn’t always like this.
When I was growing up, kids played in the street after school, dads rode their bikes to work and mums walked to the grocery store. In today’s Britain, some planners have introduced policies whereby communities can apply to have their street closed to traffic for up to three hours a week for children to play, a phenomenon Naomi Fuller from not-for-profit Playing Out says leads to streets coming alive “with scooting and cycling and hopscotch and chalk”. It’s an indictment on how much many communities have lost focus on healthy and active lifestyles, but also shows there is hope for the future.
Right now there are multiple opportunities for public and private sector planners to influence the creation of healthy and active communities as part of the planning process for new and infill developments. Through looking at the three common misunderstandings preventing new and infill developments from being healthy and active communities – and linking them with seven steps to help planners to create healthier and more active communities across Queensland – we can turn idleness into action.
Three common misunderstandings
- The planned distances between origins and destinations are too long
Some planning policies and master plans describe trip distances of between 5km and 10km as a standard distance to travel by bicycle. In reality, though, 5km is too far in both distance and travel time for most ‘normal’ individuals and families to travel or, importantly, consider travelling.
The solution to the ‘distance’ problem is to plan trip lengths around more ‘reasonable’ travel times, and in minutes, not distance?
- Alternatives to car travel are implemented too late
In the case of residential development, planning policies often don’t require ‘alternatives to the car’ to be implemented until thate development is complete, meaning car driving habits have been formed and are part of the community’s culture by the time a bus or walking bus is available.
The solution is to ensure alternative modes of transport are in place before, or on, the first occupation of the first residential or commercial property.
- There is no consistent provision of active transport infrastructure
Most local authorities have different design standards and criteria for implementing active transport. For example, some Queensland Councils provide both on-road and off-road cycle facilities along each route, while another council, in the same region, might have a preference for just providing wide off-road shared paths.
The solution might be to develop a standardisation guide that provides an agreed framework and guide for the planning, design, funding and construction of walking and cycling infrastructure across Queensland.
7 steps to help planners create healthier and more active communities across Queensland
We don’t need to question whether unhealthy or inactive communities exist or not. We all know that car dependency, sedentary lifestyles and obesity exists we see it everyday. It’s what we do about it that’s important. That’s why I’ve suggested 7 steps to help planners create healthier and more active communities across Queensland.
- Create some clarity
Create a specific vision – not a grand vision with motherhood statements – of what you really want your new or infill development to achieve. Ask yourself some realistic questions, such as:
Can we reduce car trips if we build the shops and medical centre in the centre of the development? Can we plan the development so that all homes are within 2 kilometres of the shopping centre?
- Understand travel times
Understand the actual distance and time that the ‘average’ person is prepared to walk, cycle or travel to public transport before any planning commences.
Will the average adult in full time employment with two kids, pets, household chores and children’s after school activities have enough spare time to travel cycle 40 minutes (6km) to a train station each morning?
AECOM developed the ‘No Excuse Zone’ mapping technique more than five years ago, and the maps have since been produced for cities in Australia, New Zealand, Europe and the USA. Based on a series of ‘test bicycle rides’ at an average speed of 15 km per hour, the map outputs show the distance a normal healthy person of average fitness can travel in 20 minutes on a normal mainstream bicycle. The maps show an ‘area of influence’ or a zone where it would be feasible, viable and realistic to encourage people to ride a bicycle once or twice a week.
The No Excuse Zone maps were created for various reasons but principally to test people’s perceptions of travel time and distance. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the perception of distance varies from person to person. Whilst elite sports cyclists can easily cycle 30km in less than one hour, the average family riding bicycles to the local sports match at the weekend, or seniors cycling to the shops for gentle exercise, will travel less than 10km in one hour. Moreover, many people have an inaccurate perception of actual distances.
Last year the AECOM team carried out a series of 20 minute ‘test’ bicycle rides from key destinations – schools, shopping centres and tourist attractions – on the Gold Coast. We found an average person of average fitness riding a standard bicycle on footpaths and stopping at intersections could travel 3.1km in 20 minutes. Our research, which included surveys with members of the general public, confirmed that 20 minutes is deemed to be ‘reasonable’ in terms of journey time and 3km in terms of distance for most adults, children and seniors of average health.
- Produce reference materials for developers
A reference guide or an online resource library of good practice elements from healthy and active communities in Australia and overseas can help guide developers into planning, designing and constructing facilities that enable residents to walk and cycle on a regular basis.
Could you produce a ‘How to provide cycle parking in inner urban apartment blocks’ pocket guide, for example?
Studies with real estate agents in USA revealed bike paths led to increases in property selling prices. Similarly, home buyers confirmed active transport infrastructure was crucial in persuading them to buy a home in a new community.
- Provide the appropriate solutions for the target audience
Walking and cycling infrastructure is often considered to be expensive when compared to levels of patronage. New and infill developments should ensure that funding is spent on infrastructure that can be used by the ‘target audience’. For example, if the new development is targeted at young families, will there be safe walking and cycling routes to the local school? Bicycle lanes on arterial roads are an asset for experienced road cyclists but typically do not encourage young children and their parents/carers to cycle to school.
- Ensure alternatives to using the car are attractive
Non-car modes of travel – walking, cycling and public transport – need to be attractive to use and competitive in terms of price, travel time and convenience. If walking to the bus, travelling by bus and walking to the final destination takes twice as long as travelling by car, and is more expensive, it won’t be deemed as an ‘alternative’ means of travel.
Driving a car a short distance to work, to school and to the shops is part of the Australian culture and an established habit. But what if we asked the crucial questions at the very start of the planning stage, the answers to which could inform the correct sequencing of alternatives?
Will cycle paths or safe routes to school be built and operational before the first occupation of the first house? Will cycle paths only be funded as part of road schemes?
In the UK, national guidance requires planning applications with significant transport implications be accompanied by a travel plan. Residential travel plans, for new and infill developments, are negotiated and secured through the use of the planning system. As a result, developers are regularly required to provide walking and cycling infrastructure to school as part of ‘Safer Routes to School’ programmes, subsidies to the existing bus network or car-pooling initiatives (Ref 2). At High Royds, a mixed use development with 541 homes, 2,354 sq m of office space and an assisted living centre on the outskirts of Leeds (UK), the developer was required to provide a free shuttle bus between the development and the nearest mainline rail station on the day of first occupation of the first homes.
- Collect data
If we want healthy and active communities to be common place, more data is needed to show a direct correlation between providing active transport facilities and a respective development’s economy. It is essential to collect transport data before, during and after the construction of a new community to justify and evaluate the benefits of providing for pedestrians and cyclists. For example, research by Alison Lee in Lygon Street, Melbourne showed that each square metre allocated to bike parking generates $31 per hour, compared to $6 generated for each square metre used for a car parking.
It all sounds simple, right?
We need to plan trip lengths around ‘reasonable’ travel times, ensure alternative modes of transport are in place before the first occupation of the first residential or commercial property, and develop an agreed framework and guide for the planning, design, funding and construction of walking and cycling infrastructure across Queensland.
With a clear vision, realistic land use planning, examples of good practice, appropriate infrastructure solutions, attractive alternatives to the car, well-sequenced facilities implementation and data to justify the benefits of providing for pedestrians and cyclists, Australia can also have streets alive with the sight and sound of children scooting and cycling. We can turn idleness into action.
Do you agree that we need to develop a guide for the planning, design, funding and construction of walking and cycling infrastructure across Queensland? Can you think of another step to create healthy and active communities across Queensland?