Services for Daily Life

The issues around car ownership and usage, and the dominance that cars have on our public spaces are common topics of discussion among many of us on this trip. It came as no surprise today then, that this topic was one of the features of our walking tour of the city with Stephan from the ‘Academy of Innovation’ here in Freiburg. In the style and substance of the presentation he gave, Stephan subtly shared with us that living a life without the need for a car is something to which many residents of this fine city aspire.

Apparently, some of the reasons people have for using alternative methods of transport include the ease with which people can use the system, the time and money saved and the environmental consciousness of Freiburg’s residents. Stephan offered no hint of a suggestion that concerns about climate change and reducing ones personal carbon footprint were even issues of contention here in Germany. When asked, he didn’t claim to speak for a nation of 80 million people, but his response was one of mild amusement. “Many of us in Germany are in agreement about climate change” he said. I didn’t need to inform him that many of us in Australia, it seems, don’t even know what to agree on. But I think he already knows this.

Of course, at the centre of the discussion around alternative transport methods are the alternative methods of transport themselves. To use an alternative one must have an alternative, and the integration of alternatives revolve around a beautifully succinct concept of something Stephan called “services for daily life”. In simple terms, he talks about the importance of planning residential development around the provision of services and facilities that minimise the need for people to travel in the first instance. By locating higher density residential development along public transit routes, and positioning facilities like kindergartens, schools, medical and retail facilities within walking or bike riding distance of the majority of residences, you reduce the need for people to use their cars, and increase the likelihood that they will use passive or active alternatives. So what’s so difficult? Why doesn’t this occur where we come from?

Well, there is one substantial feature of ‘greenfield development’ (the creation of new neighbourhoods or suburbs where no previous residential, industrial or other substantial development has already taken place) that explains why. Today we visited Freiburg-Rieselfeld; a greenfield development of approximately 10,000-11,000 people where among the first pieces of public infrastructure to be built was the extension to the tram line. I’d imagine any residents of Laurimar or Caroline Springs outside Melbourne will be gnashing their teeth right now as they read this. Yes, in Freiburg-Rieselfeld they built the tram line before there was any substantial residential development to feed it. Backward, I know!

Given that we don’t really do residential development this way in Australia (oh boy…), I’m still left wondering about car usage in places like Melbourne, Bendigo, or where I come from in rural Victoria. I wonder; what would the average Australian have to give up to live a life without a car?

To address this, we first need to understand something about the average Australian. First, many Australians are legally or physically precluded from driving a car. But let’s ignore this fact, because it only muddies the water. Second, as the worlds 18th most urbanised nation, by definition most of us have no need to travel vast distances to reach our “services for daily life”, if we chose not to. It’s patently a myth to suggest that we have vast distances to travel. Even in Australia studies have shown that most car journeys are a ridiculously short distance (don’t ask me to cite this, this isn’t an academic paper – but I will if you argue with me). The fact is that we choose in most instances to drive, and it’s not a necessity at all.

But what if the excuses that are put forward for driving at every opportunity did stack up? I have another, more elementary issue I feel needs to be reconciled.

Suppose that the distances we have to travel were in fact quite vast, would this not represent an argument in favour of increasing the alternative transport options and infrastructure available to us, rather than a reason why alternatives should not be provided? I seems counter intuitive to me to say that we have a transport problem that is best resolved by increasing car usage. I see it as quite the opposite. But maybe this is because I’m still only a student of planning, and not yet a fully compromised urban planner.

If our high car dependance is therefore a matter of choice, why don’t we chose an alternative? Well, the common response seems to be the one I suggested earlier – there are few alternatives to choose. This must certainly be the fault of the government, right?

It’s convenient to lay the blame at the feet of our elective decision makers, and the general lack of political will to provide the infrastructure necessary to offer a viable alternative to the private car. I have trouble with this however, on two fronts. First, political will evolves from political pressure. Conventional political lobbying is what’s needed, but so too is a sustained and organised campaign of education and behavioural change that demonstrate not only that a need exists, but that the benefits extend well beyond the popular debates around petrol prices and carbon emissions.

The second reason is a little more confronting. To blame our political representatives for inaction is quite simply the most convenient way to shift the responsibility away from our personal transport patterns and preferences on to another party that, let’s face it, is a pretty easy target. The choice that each and every one of us makes to get in to a car, to start it up, and to burn several hundred thousand years worth of compressed vegetable matter is one that we make all on our very own. It’s certainly true that the decision to make alternative arrangements would be much simpler if our governments would remove their proverbial thumbs from their collective rectums, but this does not absolve each of us of the responsibility for making bad decisions.

The fact is, most of us could choose to walk, to ride a bike, to take public transport or telecommute (not to be confused with teleporting – maybe some day…), if we were prepared to commit to doing it. Most of us could, but instead most of us will find every reason why we won’t, and why someone else can be blamed for it.

The residents of Freiburg have some spacial and infrastructure advantages that allow them to live without the need to drive a car at every available opportunity. Australians could make similar choices, but we are exercising our right to choose quite poorly. What would it take to get more Australians to use alternatives to the car? For the vast majority, it’s simply making a decision to make better choices.

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