Ugly design of our car-centric cities

Having just moved out of a new-ish apartment complex, I’ve realised how unpleasant my old street was to live on. It was a through street which served little to no purpose in the scheme of things, in an urban canyon which echoed noise from all the apartments, and was almost entirely covered in concrete and bitumen. It was an ugly, unpleasant street, and a complete non-place.

In Brisbane the thing that bugs me about our modern American-style culture is the reliance on the automobile, and the damage that’s caused to our urban planning defaults. Brisbane city, and in fact the entire south-east Queensland region is heavily reliant on cars thanks to some thoroughly faulty planning and massive urban sprawl. We have over 3 million people across a 22 500 square kilometre area with little transit infrastructure beyond motorways to show for it.

Our public transport network is a crazy inefficient with a hub & spoke network, with almost all routes leading to the CBD. In peak times the system gets congested with outages often taking down major parts of the network, and if you need to get somewhere outside of the CBD you’re pretty much on your own.

In part thanks to our inefficient network and in part due to rising public transport costs, people are driving everywhere. This is a tragedy because increased motor traffic generates more pollution, wastes both time and space (driving to work is dead time, and the space laid out for roads is notoriously difficult to get back), and further road use contributes to increased mortality directly through road accidents and indirectly through inactivity and increased exposure to air pollution. The World Health Organisation reports that “in 2012 around 7 million people died - one in eight of total global deaths – as a result of air pollution exposure” which in the case of Brisbane’s air pollution is almost entirely attributed to motor vehicle emissions.

I guess the point I’m making is that our bullheadedness in urban planning is figuratively pointing us in the wrong direction and pulling the trigger. Brisbane Council for instance is the kind that campaigns for more car parking space instead of better transport options, and once considered ripping out the Brunswick Street pedestrian mall to generate more motor traffic despite the economic benefits malls and public spaces provide. Attitudes are such that people feel entitled not just to own a car and drive it in the inner city, but to also park it on the street for free. All of these things are detrimental to the sense of community and liveability of an area, so why are we so determined to go down the roads we already know to completely suck?

It’s important to get the fundamentals right in public planning because it’s notoriously difficult to change habits and mindsets once they’re formed. While we may not be as far gone as the US in terms of liveable cities, I do fear we need a shift in mindset to encourage more sustainable development through increased public and active transport options, and encourage development of more open, human spaces.