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InTransition Magazine : Transportation Planning, Practice & Progress

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Changing the Car Culture Down Under

Australia Entices Commuters Off the Roads One Household at a Time
With Educational Marketing Push, Elaborate Bike-Ped Infrastructure

By Randy Salzman

Every morning before much of Brisbane, Australia, is awake, Sarah George glides past the picturesque Kangaroo Cliffs and over the apt-named Goodwill Bridge, killing the proverbial two, or rather four, birds with a single commute.
Besides proudly minimizing her part of greenhouse emissions, pollution and congestion, George stays fit for less than the cost of a return bus trip or driving her Nissan Pulsar and parking in the city center. She was lured into bicycle commuting by the world’s finest “end-of-the-road” cycling facility, which includes hair dryers, irons, a repair shop and discount dry cleaning.

TravelSmart representatives make house

calls to educate residents on their options

for getting place to place without their cars.

George, en-route to a hot shower at the publicly funded King George Square Cycle Centre, is one of the ever-growing number of bicycle commuters in the state of Queensland. Determined to break the iron political and social grip of single-occupancy vehicle transportation, the conservative city government in Brisbane has teamed with liberal politicians at the state level to put millions into bikeways and busways—both with strong public support.

“From an exercise point of view, it’s cheaper than a gym membership,” the 30-year-old masseuse said. “It’s also time to clear my mind on both the way to work and the way home. For those who have trouble letting go of their work day, by the time you have pedaled home, any office worries are long gone. Cycling is a stress-buster.”

Across the “car culture down under,” regional metropolitan areas have turned the public acceptance corner and are building expensive bike-ped infrastructure, bus rapid transit and commuter rail with local, state and—only recently—federal dollars. For the first time, Infrastructure Australia promises in the 2010 budget that federal money will be spent on roads only if they primarily carry freight. With less being spent on roads for passenger vehicles, funding will shift to a different budgetary priority—55 percent of every federal transportation dollar will be set aside for commuter rail.

Australia is a nation of suburbs and freeways which has intense conflict between liberal and conservative parties and ideologies. Yet the nation has successfully cut single-occupancy vehicle travel through a combination of policies, led by dozens of “soft” transportation demand management (TDM) efforts in cities as diverse as Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide and Brisbane.

An Australian program called TravelSmart provides educational, individualized marketing to any household members who want help changing any regular trip from single-occupancy vehicles to other more sustainable transportation modes. Each TravelSmart effort is different, but in general, the individualized educational programs provide the necessary 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.

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, this averages costing about $70 per household.

Infinitely cheaper than building highway miles, the soft TDM efforts indicate that talking to citizens about why and how to change their transportation behavior provides a benefit-cost ratio of 67:1 and produces public demand for alternative transportation infrastructure.

The Kurilpa Bridge opened to bicyclists and

pedestrians crossing the Brisbane River in October.

In Perth, for example, after a decade of TravelSmart educational marketing, the state of Western Australia in 2007 opened an over-budget and behind-schedule “Southern Suburbs Railway” with 67,000 first-day riders and 90 percent approval ratings. Only 30 years before, Western Australia was building freeways with abandon and shutting down passenger rail. Early last fall, while finalizing a 324,000-home marketing push for TravelSmart, Queensland cut the ribbon on the $63 million, solar-powered Kurilpa footbridge over the Brisbane River without complaint, just eight years after many citizens fought long and hard against the $23 million Goodwill bike-ped bridge less than a mile away.

Conservative Lord Mayor Campbell Newman, meanwhile, in addition to pledging $100 million for bike paths, has cooperated with state planners and built King George and another “end of the road” cycling facility which promise hot showers, laundry, bike repair and clean lockers to over 1,000 bicycle commuters. In its first year of operation, a Griffith University study shows, the $6.5 million King George Cycle Centre near Brisbane’s central business district saved 56,000 kilometers (35,000 miles) from being driven from the suburbs into the city.

Almost every single King George cyclist reported that the amenities, from the hot showers to the coffee bar, were the key factors in getting them out of motorized transportation. Four in five of its 250 present members were not bicycle commuters before King George opened its doors in May 2008.

Carrots, Sticks & Tambourines

The Australian experience is showing clearly that “carrots, sticks and tambourines”—with TravelSmart being the tambourines—decrease congestion, pollution and greenhouse emissions, while improving citizens’ health.

“I’m a believer in TravelSmart because it definitely works,” said Alton Twine, the executive director of Queensland’s Integrated Transport Planning, who previously worked for the city. “One of the key things in transport planning is to get maximum efficiency of what we’ve already got and that’s what TravelSmart does. It provides significant potential for modal shift but we’ve also got to have alternatives.”

Brisbane, its suburbs and Queensland are indeed building alternative transportation infrastructure, including busways (highways restricted to bus travel) and bike-ped paths designed more for transportation than recreation. Having added 113 kilometers (70 miles) of Cycle Network pathways since 2006, Queensland plans to spend $556 million to keep cyclists out of harm’s way on an integrated network of bikeways from the far eastern suburbs of Brisbane to the far west.

Dept. of Transport and Main Roads - Queensland

The Royal Brisbane and Women's Hospital Cycle

Centre offers amenities such as showers, lockers,

bike parking and ironing facilities to the riding

and walking public.

“From door to door, an 8-kilometer (5-mile) return trip on a bicycle in peak hour is only two minutes slower than driving,” Queensland Transport Minister Rachel Nolan said at the opening of the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital Cycle Centre (RBWH). “More cyclists and pedestrians mean less private cars, less congestion and less harmful exhaust gas emissions. It’s also healthy and saves money for the people.”

Today, absolutely sure that “soft” transportation demand management marketing can change individual behavior by re-acquainting receptive citizens with bicycles and buses, Queensland is spending $22.6 million to implement TravelSmart programs in the South Brisbane suburbs, and later the Gold and Sunshine coasts. The plan is to blanket the entire 3 million population of Queensland with promotional materials and other public outreach efforts, in much the same way that the 1.6 million Perth area population was blanketed over the past decade, and enjoy comparable benefits. Western Australia claims that since 2000, annually, TravelSmart marketing around Perth 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.

In the first years of Australian TDM projects, critics argued that its individualized data was not reliable because of difficulty duplicating it. For example, while talking to interested citizens or making household visits, every TravelSmart representative is encouraged to say whatever he or she wants as long as there is no coercion involved. Hence, having no “script” to isolate as a variable, researchers couldn’t re-create the marketing model and illustrate similar results.

An early critic, Dr. Peter Stopher of the University of New South Wales, then 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 TravelSmart founder Werner Brög had ever claimed. By the time Stopher—now a TravelSmart proponent—reported his findings last fall, TravelSmart had already caught on and the Australian government had long since concluded it works. Variations of Brög’s TDM are now being operated throughout Europe (with Australia’s serving as a model to some extent), and a few cities in the U.S. have experimented with it as well.

Today, every major urban area in Australia except Sydney is using soft TDM. Sydney, primarily because its mass transit is already maxed out during peak hours, is fearful of creating demand for public transportation that it can’t supply.

In 2004, the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development’s 30 member nations published a report titled “Communicating Environmentally Sustainable Transport” which underlines the issue. The prime benefit of “soft measures” like TravelSmart, the conference proceedings claim, is to improve acceptance of “hard measures”—like taxes and expensive infrastructure, the “carrots and sticks” of TDM. Brisbane already has high parking charges in the downtown and realistic gasoline taxes, but the “carrots,” like the cycleways, cycle centers and world-class busways program, have come only in tandem with the public hearing the tambourines.

Changing Perceptions

Building upon the knowledge gleaned through the King George, the RBWH Cycle Centre opened in November adjacent to the Brisbane area’s biggest hospital. Run by Queensland Health—rather than a private contractor, like King George—the hospital’s end-of-the-road facility is heavily subsidized in hopes of minimizing long-term health care expenditures.

The King George Square Cycle Centre is

regarded as one of the finest facilities of its

kind in the world.

The King George, on the other hand, charges almost twice the rental for towels, lockers and secure bicycle parking and is determined to prove cycle commuting’s viability with its “stand-alone” business philosophy. Although King George’s $3.70 daily charge is still much less than downtown Brisbane car parking—and about the price of the typical one-way bus ticket—the two centers represent the flipsides of the liberal-conservative coin, as well as the political philosophies of the state and city governments. In its first year, the King George relied solely on word-of-mouth advertising, but now that the latest Brisbane-area TravelSmart efforts are underway, brochures for it and the RBWH are available to marketed households.

Originally, about three in four households contacted by Australian TravelSmart practitioners declined interest in participating in further marketing and were then left alone. Today, as the Perth area has expanded the individualized marketing concept into energy usage, water savings and recycling, the numbers have reversed and almost 80 percent want to hear, and see, more information on changing their own behavior to benefit society.

Furthermore, as the Brisbane experience indicates, after 12 years of soft TDM efforts, Australians are today willing to support alternative transportation infrastructure with their tax dollars—even if it’s infrastructure they don’t personally think they will use—and the politicians, both liberal and conservative, are reaping the rewards.

“Everyone knows that we’ve got to get on with the job [of transportation change] today,” said Twine, of Queensland’s Integrated Transport Planning. “It’s not politicized. This is just a thing for the community; something the community wants.”

—Randy Salzman is a former journalism and communications professor who is writing a book on effective "soft" transportation demand management strategies.

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