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How To Solve Brisbane's Worsening Traffic Problem

A queue of traffic crossing the Kangaroo Point bridge on the Riverside Expressway

It's such a stereotypical cliché. Someone goes overseas, discovers something slightly different about another country's culture and comes back to sprout wisdoms unto the uneducated masses of the untraveled.

While this (might) fall squarely into that category, it's also a time for us to air a few more personal grievances about traffic locally (and our ideas on how to fix it).

Obviously, this is more than a little self-defeating coming from a mechanic seeing as the main idea of this blog post is that we should be using our cars less. If anything, you'd think that we would be encouraging vehicle owners to drive more to increase the amount of services that we do weekly.

However, the simple fact of the matter is that cars are bad for cities. Cars are bad for cities, cars are bad for safety and (more importantly) cars are bad for the environment. Let's spill the tea.

Like every other car enthusiast, our Kashy mechanics love a spicy jaunt along a mountain road; And we even like going to car shows on the regular. However, a recent trip to Japan got us thinking, why does our traffic seem to be so much worse than one of the most densely populated countries in the world?

There are a couple of factors at play here (and a couple of personal gripes as well).

  1. Poor road planning, infrastructure and maintenance.

  2. Poor road etiquette.

  3. Underutilised public transport systems.

  4. Significant rates of single-occupant vehicles.

What do these things mean though? And, what is the solution to Brisbane's traffic problem?

While number 1 is first on our list, it's actually one of the least important parts of our problem which (ironically) makes it a great place to start. Road planning.

For example, when you think about the M1 merge at Underwood or the Bruce Highway northbound at peak hour, traumatic memories of standstill traffic and late dinners often come to mind. The solution, it seems, is very easy; As more and more commuters are traveling in these directions each day, we should simply add more and more lanes to accommodate all the additional cars. Right?

Here is the interesting thing though. When we look at 2 very similar trips in 2 very different countries, we find 2 very strange and very different outcomes around peak hour.

This is going to be one for the nerds amongst you, but we can do a rough bit of math to calculate the travel time ratio for both of these cities. In so, we take the off-peak time versus the peak-hour travel time and find out how much travel time multiplies between the departure and destination.

For a trip between Tokyo and Yokohama (roughly 47km), the off-peak time is roughly 45 minutes and the on-peak travel time is around 80 minutes. In comparison, for Brisbane to Caboolture (roughly 51km) the off-peak time is 45 minutes and the on-peak time is 110 minutes.

We hear the hecklers already, "What has this got to do with lane width?". It's a really good question too. And the simple answer is that wider roads actually make traffic worse.

While this is a counterintuitive principle, it (kind of) makes a lot of sense when you think about it. If you widen a road, there is a brief period where traffic becomes much better. Because of this, more people decide to drive and somehow, the road becomes more clogged than before.

We'll loop back to this though as there's a couple of other pain points to cover before we summarise, starting with road etiquette.

Now, road etiquette might seem like a particularly strange thing to cover in a blog post about solving traffic but it is far more important than you might think.

You have to consider what causes a traffic jam in the first place. Is it too many cars on the road? Is it under-designed roadways? Is it all the government's fault? Is there anyone we can blame so we don't have to feel guilty?

Actually, road etiquette plays a big part in this story. You see, when a roadway is at (or over) its traffic capacity, a vehicle braking suddenly or merging aggressively (or making a sudden U-turn across 4 lanes of traffic) causes the cars behind to slow down abruptly.

When these cars slow down, it causes a domino effect where every single driver now has to do the same. As the front cars are effectively accelerating away from the queue at a slower pace than the cars arriving, a traffic jam is started.

For one thing, this effect is made significantly worse by tailgating or speeding. However, several things play a surprisingly big role here too including keeping a steady pace, not being distracted, using your indicators, merging smoothly and not crossing multiple lanes at once.

In fact, two simple pieces of road etiquette would make an immediate difference.

Starting with the zipper merge. You can't mention improved traffic flow without covering the zipper merge where cars join the main road traffic in a one-by-one pattern. While this seems like child's play, it is a proven way to keep traffic flowing steadily and to prevent bottlenecking.

When mentioning road etiquette, it's also impossible to forget one of the most frustrating common tropes; failing to keep left unless overtaking.

This is a simple rule of etiquette (which is a fineable offence) but it is one of the most hateful things we see on the road. Someone in the right-hand lane travelling at or below the posted speed limit. Bonus points if they're keeping exact pace with the vehicle in the slow lane.

Not only does this slow down traffic overall, but it often increases the chance of accidents and traffic, as a queue of traffic forms behind the slow-moving vehicle creating the domino effect mentioned just paragraphs ago.

Now, onto the really interesting stuff though. First up is an issue that we continue to question every single day: Single-occupant vehicles.

Now this is definitely going to tie into our final topic a little bit, but nothing seems more contradictory than continual concern about climate change being met with a sea of vehicles idling in traffic with just a single person inside.

Do we feel this way because we're getting old and grumpy, perhaps jaded?

No, it runs much deeper than that. One of our most travelled routes is actually the M1/M3/ICB (and at all times of day) and (unlike the other topics) the solution here is pretty simple. With all of the people travelling on this route, there is bound to be some significant crossover in departure and destination amongst travellers.

By simply choosing to carpool, we could reduce the number of vehicles on the road threefold overnight. Take this article from MIT that shows a model where 14,000 taxis in New York could be cut to just 3,000 if people were willing to share their cabs. On top of this, the average wait time was still just 2.7 minutes.

Single-occupant vehicles are significantly increasing the amount of cars on the road and (as a secondary) the traffic and pollution. Next time you're driving somewhere, look at the cars going the other way and see for yourself.

Finally, we can get onto the summary (and the introduction of public transport as a fix).

The simplest way to put this is that to make traffic better, we have to make traffic worse while making alternative transit more viable.

We know that we've instantly lost a significant number of you by that statement alone, but hear us out. It's a contradiction with an idea behind it.

The first and easiest solution is to encourage carpooling. It might seem like a distant memory for a lot of people but a simple place to start might be adding transit lanes back to our roads. While the Sydney Morning Herald's article on the matter has a clickbait title (and scathing tone), it shows statistically that quite a large number of transit lanes decrease travel time (and likely increase rates of carpooling).

The next (and most painful) remedy is to make it more expensive to travel into the city. While it's largely hated amongst the automotive community, London's congestion charge is a perfect example of how this works.

Simply put, drivers travelling into London city by car are charged a small fee upon entry. This encourages people to travel together or to use alternative methods. Believe it or not, London's congestion charge has reduced vehicles entering the city centre by 18% and reduced traffic by 30% all while providing more money to the council to improve public transport.

Finally, we have to take the money from these programs and reinvest it in our public transport. You might not realise it but our rail network is vast and can run surprisingly well in peak hour, even if track closes are common and maintenance takes a lifetime.

On top of this Brisbane currently has over 1200 buses in its fleet. And even if buses are often late (or missing completely), it's a good platform to build on.

So where are we going with this?

Obviously, this is a big idea that would take a number of years to implement but here's the long and short.

  1. We should introduce a congestion charge for people travelling into the city and use this money to reinvest in public transport. This will make people consider other options for travelling to the city centre.

  2. We should increase funding and audits of public transport and allow communities to participate in deciding where services should run and see where their money is being spent.

  3. We should take a number of main arterials and reduce the lane count while replacing those lanes with permanent transit/bus lanes and bike lanes. This will immediately cause traffic to become worse but will open up opportunities for alternative transport, carpooling and public transport.

  4. We should take every footpath repair as an opportunity to widen footpaths and make them safer for pedestrian travel and ensure that accessible features are built in at every point for people with a disability.

  5. We should create a system where people can easily carpool between regular points of travel to help reduce the number of single-occupant cars on the road.

  6. We should increase licensing restrictions for cars and penalise courtesy/safety-based rules like tailgating. This will help create a safer road system and prevent traffic.

  7. We should ensure areas with heavy traffic are serviced by a public transport system that is visible from the road to show that public transport is faster than car travel.

  8. We should not allow public transport fees to be raised for the first decade of this plan. Public transport should be a cheaper option for the masses and utilisation should be going up over this period anyway. This means that, even if ticket prices are the same, profits should increase significantly.

With all that said, there is no way that any politician or constituent will ever agree to these measures so we're all doomed to sit in traffic... Unless someone has a better idea.


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