Section 1: Breaking the car habit

This section outlines a two-pillar strategy to get the flywheel moving. Strategies are long term and this one is no exception. The first pillar involves changes to the planning system to permit cycling corridors to be reserved and preserved for the future construction of cycle highways. The second pillar is the culture change required for cycling to succeed in a deeply engrained car culture.

We need to face the facts on climate change. Sustainability has many facets and that includes transport. The ACT has zero emissions from electricity. New suburbs are without gas. The major source of emissions in the ACT is now from transport – and most of these emissions come from private car use.

Little can be achieved by a few when it all takes so long. Here we suggest a simple strategy combined with culture change. Not much is achieved in a year, but what we achieve over a decade counts. We cannot wait until everyone is on board and must start now.

Why strategy first?

We cannot build our way out of congestion! Other countries demonstrate other approaches, but changing our habits can be difficult, and it takes time. We need to plan our city and investment in transport differently. You cannot change Canberra by repeating old mistakes! We should approach things differently.

The EU guideline for investment in active travel is 20% of the transport budget. In some places like Paris or Ireland, they are getting close to this target. Not surprisingly the Netherlands has a head start. It has done since the 1970s what we are considering now in the ACT. 1970 was 50 years ago. 50 years is half a century.

Different transport options are referred to as modes of transport. Currently, most Canberrans (ABS Census 2016, approximately 84%[1]) drive to work and pay a little fortune for parking. Most drivers sit alone in their car and our culture considers this to be normal. It does not make a difference whether you drive a new electric vehicle or an old combustion one. They all take up the same space.

In our cities, space is of a premium and insufficient for everybody to drive, except for those without another choice. Every person choosing public transport, walking or cycling is one car less, freeing up road space for trucks, buses and commercial vehicles (preferably electric). Leaving our cars at home would solve the congestion problem.

Car drivers ahoy, wave and thank active travellers – and please protect their lives by driving carefully!

We benefit from cycling in many ways. The benefits include health, wellbeing and making our cities more liveable, especially with a better designed urban and transport network (Movement and Place Framework – Section 7). So great are the benefits that the target has gone from zero deaths on roads to “beyond zero”. Beyond zero is the concept that we live longer choosing active travel modes as opposed to passively sitting in a car.

Let us make cycling routes better: networked, direct, safe, comfortable, and attractive. Section 2.1 discusses the requirements at length. Australia is a cycling laggard – a low cycling country. High cycling countries (mostly found in the EU) have shown how it is done and should be our role models.

Start by reserving and protecting corridors for cycling infrastructure. This is cheap to do and requires no immediate capital works. The urban planning lifecycle is 50 years, and the legislative term is just 4 years. Societal transitions span long periods and are difficult to implement. Climate change action (inaction) forewarns us of the challenges. Reserving and protecting corridors makes it possible to build later, when the political will and the culture have matured to appreciate the benefits of cycling.

Cycle corridors must be anchored in statutory instruments to survive beyond the current legislative period. Further, a guideline for cycling corridors is a prerequisite to planning them. ACT Planning requires compliance with statutory documents when tendering design work for Concept Plans, Estate Development Plans, Planning and Infrastructure Studies and Development Applications.

Through the whole process of urban development, these corridors must be reserved and preserved. The cycle highways may be built now or in parts over the next 30 years. So long as the corridors have been preserved, exactly when the cycling infrastructure is built is not an immediate matter of contention. The first step is to lock in the corridors.

Preconditions for Cycle Corridors

The following four conditions need to be met for cycle corridors to work (read Section 8):

  1. Produce a guideline that describes the characteristics of a cycling corridor with reference to ACT Active Travel Standards and Austroads Standards for cycling infrastructure.
  2. Design cycle corridors fit-for-purpose and include them in the Canberra Spatial Plan.
  3. Reserve and protect cycle corridors by inclusion in statutory documents such as the Territory Plan, Planning and Development Act, Estate Development Code, and General Codes.
  4. Provide a mechanism by which the cycle corridors are available to the public and planning practitioners. The dataset much be updated and remain current. The ACT Government Active Travel Infrastructure Practitioner Tool which shows Active Travel Route Alignments  shows how this could be done.

Why culture transformation matters

Culture change is not easy. The biggest challenge now is one of values and behaviours. As one urban planner from Africa visiting Canberra said, “if I rode a bike, people would think I am poor.” This is a problem that goes straight back to the macro culture we live in. We need to talk about shared values – and the dominant car culture – our society holds so dear.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast, lunch and dinner! Here lies the reason why building any new, good cycling infrastructure is easy in the Netherlands, but so hard in Canberra (and typically in other low cycling countries). If good strategy is seeded in infertile soil, it will wither and die.

Canberra will have to change how we design and build the city. The post-war “house, car and two kids in the suburbs” ideal remains a popular aspiration. At the next Molonglo Valley Community Forum, you may hear something to this effect: “everybody in the family has a car and driving it is our right.” The Prime Minister alluded to this when he played on fears of “destroying the weekend”.

This attitude contrasts with the EU. Many people in the EU do not have cars and many young people in the EU do not want a driver’s licence. Hamburg has a population of about 1.8 million and a large port in an area the size of Canberra. Getting a licence increasingly makes little sense. Walking, cycling, and public transport are faster and far cheaper.

Moving from a “fast” car culture to a paradoxical “slow culture”[2] is a paradigm shift from prioritising travel efficiency to values of quality of life and wellbeing (read section 9.1). Fast cars are often slow. Driving through the interchange at peak hour is already slower than commuting to work by electric bike. In Canberra, the average commute to work is less than 10 km.[3] The average time commuting to work has increased from 31.3 minutes in 2002 to 51.5 minutes in 2017, an increase of 64.5% over 15 years.[4] Further, congestion in Canberra is worsening at a rate far quicker than any other Australian city. The dream of a 20-minutes commute is, for most, nostalgia and nothing more.

Society has changed many times before, sometimes quite rapidly and in significant ways, triggered by unlikely events. The introduction of the motor vehicle over a century ago is one such example. Electrified light rail systems were common back then. Modern cities of the 1920s had light rail. Berlin celebrated “the electric” – a modern, quiet, and clean light rail that even the poorest could afford.

The car experiment has failed. Owning a car is a luxury and ideally should not be required to commute. Lower income earners would be better off with cheaper alternatives. A portion of the population with private motor vehicles could consider buying something that makes them fit and happy instead.

The health benefits of cycling are researched and accepted. Unfortunately, the health of the population does not play a factor in current transport decision-making. The ACT Health Directorate does not fund cycle paths. Rather, roads are optimised to make them a little wider and faster, with the paradoxical outcome, that the commute is slower and more stressful (systems thinking). We need to change our transport paradigm.

We are looking for a tree in the wrong forest and cannot see the forest for the trees.

[1] ABS. ‘Health grows in the Capital, reveals latest Census data’. 2016 Census: Australian Capital Territory, Media Release 141/2017, Australian Bureau of Statistics, 23 October 2017, <!OpenDocument> [accessed 27 September 2020]

[2] P. Tranter, ‘Getting There Faster by Slowing Down’. Step Away From the Car 2.0, <; [accessed 7 July 2021].

[3] ACT and Queanbeyan-Palerang Household Travel Survey, ACT Government, 2018, <; [accessed 7 July 2021].

[4] R. Wilkins et al., The Household, Income and Labour Dynamic in Australia Survey: Selected Findings from Waves 1 to 17 (HILDA), Melbourne Institute, 2019,, 79, [accessed 7 July 2021].

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