The speed paradox: how cars steal our time, money, climate and health.
WHICH one goes faster, a car or a bicycle? It’s obvious, right? In cities, says Paul Tranter, it’s the bike.
Dr Tranter is an Associate Professor of Geography at UNSW Canberra. This week, he’s speaking at the Bike Futures Conference about his research on “effective speed”. The conference, run by the Bicycle Network, will be held from Wednesday to Friday at the MCG.
His argument goes like this: imagine you live in a remote village and it takes you an hour to walk to the river and gather water everyday. To save time, you invent a spring-powered contraption to pump it for you. It works like a charm, but there’s just one catch – it takes over an hour to wind the spring.
“In our society, the equivalent of winding the spring is the time we spend at work to pay for our cars, and the registration, insurance, fuel, parking and tolls,” he says.
A car’s effective speed includes not only the direct commuting time, but also the hours we spend earning money to pay for it. According to the RACV’s estimated vehicle operating costs, even the most frugal new car will set you back over $110 per week (and that doesn’t include parking or tolls).
For cyclists, these costs are negligible, and for pedestrians, non-existent.
In a chapter for a forthcoming book, City Cycling, published by MIT Press, Dr Tranter estimated effective speeds in several cities round the world. (He chose locations within 15 kilometres of each CBD.)
For drivers of a low-cost car who earn an average wage, Melbourne and Sydney clocked in at about 11 kilometres per hour. London drivers crawl along at less than 7, while Nairobi drivers inch forward at less than walking pace: 2 kilometres per hour.
“Depending on how broadly you think about it, you could also include costs of the impacts on pollution and our health,” Dr Tranter says. “All those external costs are hard to estimate, but everything from obesity to climate change are consequences, in part, of mass car usage.”
To bring the concept home, Dr Tranter outlines two scenarios for parents. If you’re pressed for time, should you drive your kids to school, or walk or cycle with them?
“An average driver would take longer per day earning the money to pay for their car than it would take them to walk their children to the local school,” he says.
“And there’s more: once you lock yourself in to driving your child to school, then you’ve got to drive them to sport, to visit friends, to the cinema. You could even argue that you’re more likely to have to drive them to the doctor or the psychologist, because they’re going to be fatter, sicker and sadder.”
He acknowledges that not everyone can easily make this trade-off. People with long commutes or inflexible hours don’t have a choice. In part, that’s a symptom of a sprawling car-based society: fewer jobs and amenities are within walking or pedalling distance.
But equipped with this different understanding of driving costs, many people could give up their second car.
“That’s the big possibility for householders, even in outer suburbs, as long as you’re close to the train line, or you work within cycling distance,” Dr Tranter says. “That could save you between $5000 and $20000 every year.”