ACT prides itself on being caring and inclusive, yet much of our infrastructure for walking, rolling, and cycling does not reflect this.
Loud public complaints about potholes following recent rain have focused on inconvenience and cost to people driving. Where is the same level of outrage about the state of our paths and crossings, let alone whether or not they exist? Paths have been damaged for years. How long does a path have to be cracked, lifted, or marked with a white arrow (or two!) before it is repaired? How do we walk, roll or cycle safely without smooth and continuous surfaces?
The ACT Government's decision to dramatically increase funding for road maintenance will help keep travel surfaces smooth - on streets and roads. Yet it could also help make all our streets accessible and inclusive to everyone - if it is accompanied by some other changes.
Simon Copland, head of Pedal Power Canberra's largest cycling advocacy organisation, has proposed investing in paths for active travel (walking, cycling, rolling) to reduce car travel - and the number of potholes. Another cheaper solution could accompany improved road surfaces: making changes to most streets to make them slower, shared spaces.
Slower speeds can make our streets safe, accessible and comfortable for everyone regardless of age, ability or mode of travel. Streets that are slow and shared also reduce the need for separate path construction and maintenance, which is well behind the infrastructure for driving.
Slower speed at impact is key to avoiding serious injury and death from a crash. NSW evidence shows that most road deaths and serious injuries from crashes in built-up areas happen on streets with speed limits of 50-60 km/h. Everyone is safer in a collision when the speed of vehicles at potential conflict points is no more than 30 km/h.
A robust adult hit by a vehicle at 30km/h has a 10% chance of death. At 40km/h it is 30%, and at 50km/h it is 80%. These risks apply at lower speeds for children and less-than-robust adults, such as older adults and people with disability.
Bigger motor vehicles increase the danger. They increase the risk of seriously injuring or killing anyone they hit. They also reduce drivers' ability to see people who are shorter or in wheelchairs or reclining cycles, or traffic islands, pedestrian refuges and curbs.
When we drive at slower speeds we notice more and so we are less likely to hit or nearly hit vulnerable road users - or potholes. And travelling at slower speeds means less damage to cars if we do hit a pothole yet it makes almost no difference to our urban travel times.
This is why countries and cities around the world are legislating 30 km/h as the default speed limit. The United Nations' World Health Organisation is now leading a campaign to make 30 km/h the norm. Streets with speed limits above 30km/h but without footpaths on both sides and (prioritised) crossings are not considered safe under the Safe System Approach used in Australia and the ACT. This means most streets in Canberra are not safe.
Yet speed limits are insufficient to slow travel speeds. We have seen this tragically on some of our roads this year.
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Street design gives us vital cues about priority of users and how fast to drive. Most Canberra streets are designed and operate exactly the opposite to best-practice modal hierarchy. Our streets prioritise driving over walking, rolling, cycling, or using public transport. Their design makes it difficult to drive slowly.
We can change our streets so that they encourage community connection and care for others (especially for the most vulnerable) by being shared spaces where it's easy to drive slowly and carefully.
Harnessing local tacit knowledge and people power could help carry out quick and cheap experimentation to find out what works well and what needs adjusting for this remediation.
Streets that are slow and shared as well as smooth would demonstrate that ACT cares about everyone, help compliance with anti-discrimination legislation and increase our mobility choices.
Will the ACT be a leader in active travel (vital for leading in human rights, climate and urban design, and being tourist- and age-friendly) or a laggard (continuing car-centric culture)?
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