The Perth Path

by Chris Bainbridge

Current thinking in transport planning involves trying to reduce traffic and travel, rather than cater for it, or switching journeys from cars to more efficient and environmentally friendly means. Most Councils and many schools, hospitals and private firms are now producing, with government backing, Green Travel Plans (GTP’s).

These plans involve a variety of measures to reduce the car mileage generated by an organisation, including encouraging walking, cycling and public transport use, car sharing, teleworking and homeworking. GTPs also involve reducing incentives to use cars, such as charging for workplace car parking and reducing car allowances. Private firms are often required to produce them as part of planning permissions, and they are often happy to do so because GTPs mean they can put scarce land to more productive uses than car parking.

The idea of GTP’s came to this country quite recently, from the Netherlands and from California, where there is a legal requirement to produce them. John Whitelegg, who produced the SWCF’s own study on the East London River Crossings, is a pioneer of GTP’s in the UK. He says it is important to get staff to “own” the GTP, that it should not be seen as another imposition or stick to beat staff with. He has found that 20% of staff are interested in and support the idea, 20% are hostile and will never convert to green modes of travel (in my own experience, Directors of Education always seem to fall into this category), and the other 60% are open to persuasion.

This “soft” approach has been taken one step further in Perth, Western Australia, where “individual travel marketing” has been piloted. Researchers talk to individual residents, find out their travel needs and suggest alternatives to car use that meet their needs. This approach is labour-intensive, but has succeeded in reducing traffic by 14%, and gives a benefit:cost ratio (the method usually used to justify road building) of 13:1. A ratio of 2:1 would be considered extremely good for a road scheme.

The Greater London Authority has suggested that such an approach be tried in London, as a complement or alternative to the Mayor’s congestion charging scheme. Transport for London is aiming to set up some pilot schemes. It will be interesting to see whether the approach travels well from Perth, where the vast majority of journeys are by car and an efficient bus system, to London. For example, Perth bus drivers go round people’s houses to persuade them of the joys of travelling by bus. It’s hard to imagine some London bus drivers doing that, though perhaps easier to imagine what the effect might be.

The Perth approach was developed by a sociologist who had worked with heroin addicts, an interesting contrast with the engineers who have traditionally planned transport. Treating the overuse of cars as a form of drug dependency may prove to be very fruitful. But the approach has to be backed up by hard choices too. Car use won’t be reduced if it continues to get cheaper while public transport gets dearer.