Who's Who

Elliot Fishman: Pushing for sensible transport


Dr Elliot Fishman is the Director of Transport Innovation at the Institute for Sensible Transport, based in the inner Melbourne suburb of Collingwood. His role, and that of the institute, encompasses things such as car share, bike share, integrated transport strategies, and transport modelling.

iMOVE sat down with Dr Fishman to find out more about what he does, how he came to be in his role, and his thoughts on transport issues and fixes, and more.

Is there a creed for the sensible transport approach?

Yes, it simply means using the right mode for the right trip, and trying to reduce the need for car use where possible. All of which goes toward trying to improve the amenity and liveability of our cities through promotion and encouragement of sustainable transport forms.

All of this will help make our cities easier to walk in, more attractive and safer for cycling, better integration with public transport, more road space reallocation towards the more sustainable modes, and then a cleaner more efficient motor vehicle fleet. Also a shift towards electric vehicles and, in the future, driverless vehicles as well.

How did you move toward a career in transport?

I actually started off as a health professional. I was a podiatrist working in hospitals and primary healthcare settings for about five years and it was during that time – I was working mainly in diabetic clinics – a lot of patients were coming to me with sedentary lifestyle diseases. They hadn’t participated in regular forms of physical activity for a number of decades, and were suffering from diabetes, obesity, osteoarthritis, and other health problems.

That led to me setting up a healthy transport program at a Collingwood community health centre, providing bikes and training programs to people from housing commission flats to get them more physically fit in their everyday life. During that time I became very interested in transport, and went on to do a grad dip in transport planning at RMIT while I was still working as a podiatrist.

In 2006 I shifted to working with local councils in sustainable mobility. Around the same time I set up the Institute of Sensible Transport, which was really just me to begin with, but over time has grown to take on more staff.

What sort of organisations are you working with?

Our main client list includes organisations such as Transport for NSW, City of Melbourne, Yarra Ranges Council, City of Port Phillip, Brisbane City Council, Adelaide, and Perth. And also here in Melbourne we work with a coalition of inner city Melbourne councils called the Inner Melbourne Action Plan Council, an area covering everything from St Kilda the south to Maribyrnong and Footscray in the west, and east over to Richmond.

To my knowledge, we’ve done every bicycle share program feasibility study that’s been done in Australia. Actually this very day we’ve released a book, called ‘Bike Share’. It’s the first book dedicated to bike share produced by a major publishing house anywhere in the world so we’re really excited about that!

The Institute for Sensible Transport is about helping clients interested in reducing unnecessary car use, and finding creative ways of encouraging their communities to take on those modes of transport. It’s done not so much through sticks as it is through carrots. We recognise that in Australia there’s a lot of low-density housing and suburbs that are very much connected by a motorised transport network but aren’t doing all that well in terms of connecting their communities via walking and cycling.

It’s all about creating better alternatives so that people can think about leaving the car at home and using a time and cost competitive alternative that’s safer and more efficient.

Speaking of cycling, there’s a fair bit of enmity, cars versus cyclists. How do you think we fix that? Is that something that’s too ingrained or is it a matter of separating the two modes? How do we work on lessening the enmity?

There is some hostility and that varies from city to city and it also varies within cities. If I’m cycling in Brunswick or Fitzroy, I’m expecting that cars are going to treat me in a certain way compared to if I was cycling in the very outskirts of a major city where bicycles are less common. In such places there’s also probably less awareness of the needs of cyclists and even their right to use the road might be considered to be less if you’re in the outer suburbs and the driving environment that takes place there.

I think one of the things that we need to do is have governments that are very strong on asserting the rights of people to be able to ride bikes on the streets because streets are public places, and there’s nothing in the law to suggest that cars have a higher level of priority over other modes of transport.

The other thing I think we need to do is think about the way that we design streets and what does that say to all road users about the rights of cyclists. In Melbourne if you look at a road like Punt Road, or Dandenong Road, some of the big major arterial roads in Melbourne, the design of those roads tells you what the right mode of transport is. On Punt Road, and Dandenong Road, the right mode of transport is a car. That’s implicitly what the design of that road is telling the users of that road.

We need to start designing roads that are putting sustainable transport front and centre so that motorists aren’t mistaken in thinking that the road is only for motorists. Now, that’s a big challenge and it involves a reallocation of road space which is a very controversial thing. I know that politicians will always look at this as, ‘Well, 90% of the people use cars as their main mode of transport to get to places like work, so if we do anything that threatens their kind of order in the hierarchy, then that may be bad from a political perspective.’

But actually when you look at what’s been happening internationally, when cities do make those sorts of changes, it doesn’t work out to be politically negative for them. Good examples would be places like London and New York which still have, even though they’re high density cities, they still have a driving mentality. Especially New York, but also to some extent London. And they’ve seen huge uptake in cycling use through the development of protected bike lanes.

The message that I often tell my clients is that if you’re designing a street for 30 kilometres per hour or less as the posted speed limit, you don’t need physical separation. But if you’re designing a street that has a higher posted speed limit than 30 kilometres an hour, which is most streets in Australia, then you need to provide some level of separation. You can’t expect people to be willing to get on a bike and be happy sharing that road space with cars. Only about 15% of the population say that they feel comfortable doing that, which leaves a large proportion of the population feeling uncomfortable.

And in actual fact, the people that feel least comfortable are the people that cycle the least, and that’s females and children. Only about 20% of commuter cyclists are female even though they represent about 47% of the working population. So we’ve got a real problem there, and so in order to create a city in which everybody has the opportunity to use things like a bicycle, then we need to start creating the conditions in which they feel comfortable.

So there’s a lot that we need to do both in terms of speed limits, in terms of road space, reallocation, in terms of changing the budget formulation for transport projects. It’s only been in the last 10, 15 years, that we’re starting to get the magnitude of that challenge.

All right, just to leave you for a moment and let’s visit the world of the hypothetical. Someone, a client comes to you with a large bag of money, an unending bag of money and no time limit and said ‘We’d like you to do a project,’ or to carry out some work to make a major difference. What would you put that time and money toward?

I think the good thing about sustainable transport planning is that yes, it does require money, but it doesn’t require nearly as much money as the amount that we have been spending on transport in the recent past. So spending billions on Melbourne’s East West Link, which hasn’t happened yet but it is inevitable that it will happen. Either a Victorian Labor or Liberal government will go down that path sometime in the future, spending $17 billion or thereabouts. So we’re already spending a lot of money on transport but we’re not getting great outcomes when you look at the sort of strategies that have in place and where we want to be.

My first response to your question is yes, we will need to spend a lot of money on some transport projects and I support Melbourne’s Suburban Rail Loop as a project that is both very costly, very long term, but also transformational in terms of providing more of an integrated network rather than a radial network where everyone just goes into the city. That’s how people use the transport system at the moment. If you want to do anything other than that, the rail network becomes fairly uncompetitive to the car. It will have a transformational impact on a city like Melbourne.

If I had an unlimited budget, I’d build the Suburban Rail Loop in conjunction with two other things. First would be the implementation of a road user charge where everyone pays for the road just as they do now, but they do it differently. At the moment, the way that we pay for the road is that it comes out of general taxation. We also pay via things like registration and insurance and fuel tax. The fuel tax obviously is proportional to the amount of fuel that you buy which is again, proportional to the amount of driving that you do. But as vehicles become more fuel efficient and as electric vehicles become more commonplace, the pool of revenue that is derived from the fuel excise is going to go down. That will see wealthier people paying less for road use, because they will be the ones that will go out and buy the Teslas or other electric vehicles that will pay zero in terms of fuel excise. And fuel excise raises about $16 billion in revenue annually.

What we need to do, and this is what behavioural economists and transport economists have been saying for a long time, is say there are no fixed costs anymore. If you drive more, you pay more. If you drive less, you pay less. Now, that will cost a lot to implement but it will also give a revenue stream that is protected from the inevitable shift towards cleaner electric vehicles. We need to reform the way that we collect that money and a road usage charge is the right way to do that. And that charge is proportional not just to the distance that you drive but also to the times that you drive. So it’s a congestion charge as well, and it’s a road management charge.

The way it would work is that if you get in your car at 8.10am on Monday, and you drive down the most congested arterial road in the city, you pay more per kilometre than if you drive down that same road at 11.00 o’clock on a Sunday night. If you drive down a street that has a tram line, that street is charged more than a street that doesn’t have a tram line because what you want to do is get the cars off that street. Again, from a Melbourne perspective, whilst we have the largest tram network in the world, it’s also the slowest tram network in the world. And with so many apartments being developed around these tram networks, we need to be able to get more on that network and the only way to do that is to get cars out of the way because that’s what’s slowing down trams.

The second thing I would do is build a first class network of protected bike lanes and quiet suburban streets. What I mean by this is that small residential streets essentially become an extension of people’s living room, where we don’t see the street as purely a funnel on which to move traffic, but as a street that has a multidimensional role that includes people socialising, kids playing, and so on. I think one of the great changes that we’ve seen in Australian city culture over the last 30 years is kids don’t get out in the street and play in the neighbourhood anymore in the way that kids that were growing up in the 60s, 70s, or even 80s were doing and there’s a real loss to that. And a lot of educators are now talking about that loss in terms of the social value that is now being lost because parents don’t feel comfortable having their kids playing in the streets.

As for protected bike lanes, I’m talking about networks that might cost up to $7 million per kilometre, and with hundreds of kilometres of network being built. In many cases, that will be physically separated lanes away from the road network, and other times it’ll even be taking away space that’s currently occupied by kerbside parked vehicles for protected bike lanes. Now, this doesn’t come cheap. It’s also going to include things like intersection changes, and whenever you change traffic light intersections that comes at a fairly high cost. Changes to kerbside drainage systems may also be required, and that’s not cheap either.

So multi billion dollars. We did a bicycle network design for about 95% of the New South Wales population covering Sydney, Parramatta, Penrith, Newcastle, and Gosford and Wollongong. And that came to about $6.5 billion. So we’re not talking about small amounts of money here, but this is the sort of money that we need in order to give people a diversified set of options so they can leave the car home.

They’re the things that I would do with an unlimited amount of money. And to be perfectly honest, for the next question …

Ahh, I see you’re going to segue right into my next question, which is a second hypothetical, in which you again are given the opportunity to make an appreciable impact on a transport scenario, but this time with a limited budget, and limited time frame.

Yes! If I did have a constrained budget, it wouldn’t look all that much different, although I would probably drop the Suburban Rail Loop because whilst that’s a transformational project, if someone’s working on a constrained budget, the cost of up to $100 billion takes that out of the scope of this hypothetical.

But I would certainly do the road user pricing thing, although with perhaps less complexity. It might not involve variable charging based on the road, rather it might be a flat fee of 40 cents per kilometre or 15 cents per kilometre, whatever it is, and time of day charges don’t really come into it because that is inevitably quite a bit more complex. But I would still do the bicycle infrastructure although I would do a lighter design.

So you can do designs and still get the level of separation that people need, but with plastic bollards and garden boxes rather than changes to the kerb and the drainage channel, those sorts of things. And the real reason for that is because so many of our car trips are very short. 50% of our car trips are under 5 kilometres, 30% are under 3 kilometres. So yes, we’re using our car a lot but most of those car trips are pretty short. And I’m certainly not about trying to get people that are doing 25, 30 kilometre commutes in their car to change their mode.

For most of those people, it’s going to be very hard to offer them a mode of transport that’s as time-competitive as the modes that they’re currently using. But for the low-hanging fruit, for the trips that are three or four kilometres long, they should be done by bicycle for a much larger proportion of the trips compared to what’s currently being done by bicycle.

That doesn’t mean that every trip under three or four kilometres should be done by bike, certainly not. And even in the Netherlands, it’s not. But at the moment, the proportion of trips done by bike for those short trips is something like 3 or 4% maximum and I think we can do a lot better than that.

What work or project thus far have you been most proud of?

I think the project that we’re most proud of is the Parramatta bike plan. Parramatta is a major employment and residential hub in western Sydney. It’s an area that has very low levels of cycling, but it has quite high levels of population density currently, and projected population growth is very high. The rate of growth is very high in some parts of Parramatta and its employment growth is also very high.

What we did for the city was look at its entire road network, and at what opportunities exist to build better bicycle infrastructure at minimal cost to other road users. We were seeking wherever possible not to take away space from cars, because we knew that was politically unlikely to occur so there was no point in really going down that path.

We also provided a bike use propensity index, which was really this colour-coded map at the SA1 level, which is one of the smallest geographic parcels of land that the ABS classify. We also looked at a range of different demographic data and transport data that was predictive of future bike use. When we overlaid that with the proposed bike network, we could say, ‘Alright, well these are the areas that are sitting in the regions of highest likelihood of future bike use, so let’s spend our money here and join up those areas rather than just putting bike lanes everywhere.’

We reasoned that the city doesn’t have enough money for bike lanes everywhere, and it probably doesn’t have the political capital for bike lanes everywhere. We focused on providing bike lanes in areas likely to get the highest levels of use, and then we were able to estimate what the usage would be and then provide a cost benefit analysis.

We compared the benefits that come from increased cycling. $1.24 per kilometre of new cycling – that’s how much the community and government save in terms of reduced healthcare costs, reduced air pollution, reduced congestion, those sorts of things. And then we compare that to the cost of providing that infrastructure over a 25-year period and the cost benefit ratio. I don’t think it was enormous but it was stronger than most transport projects.

I think we’re sitting at somewhere between three and five, meaning that for every dollar the city invests, it gets three or five dollars back over a 25-year lifetime of the infrastructure. And that gave them, I think, a really practical way of then to say ‘All right, this is what we’re going to get if we do this in management terms.’ By monetising the benefits of cycling on this future network, they’re able to have a clearer idea about where that money should go and why.

What has Parramatta done with your work?

They’re currently undertaking more analysis and trying to get the funds through Transport for NSW and trying to build that network. The work was only done a couple of years ago and an infrastructure, even bicycle infrastructure, often takes a very long time to be implemented. But a year or so ago the first protected bike lane was installed. But there’s many more to potentially do. But first, the funding.

You went into some detail earlier about the sort of work the Institute for Sensible Transport does, which is a quite diverse group of things, but Is there an area in which you haven’t worked yet that you would like to?

I think one area that we’ve only just started working in that we’re really interested in is electric vehicles. Only two weeks ago, we finished our first project in this area and it was about electric vehicle charging infrastructure. We see that as being a really important thing for governments, local and state, as well as communities, to start thinking about how do we power the next generation of motor vehicles that, by most people’s estimate, will be electric.

There will also, in small cases, be hydrogen vehicles powering heavy vehicles category, where the batteries would be too heavy to be practical. But there are a lot of complexities about it and we want to do more work on this. So that’s about the planning scheme. So what does the planning scheme say about electric vehicle charging? When you build a building, that’s going to last for somewhere between 60 and maybe 200 years, and you don’t put in the cabling and the conduits as they are built, it becomes much more expensive to put that in later.

And if we know that electric vehicles are starting to already happen and the rate of growth is very rapid, we know that in 5, 10, 20 years, we’re going to need electric vehicle charging at the base of buildings where people park their cars before they go to work, or at their residential address. Now, for many of the people that will be living in cities in the future, they’re going to be living in apartments and a lot of those apartments need to have car parks. There are very few apartment buildings that don’t have car parks that are being built now in Australia.

So we need to start thinking about putting in the charging infrastructure so that the vehicles of the future can be charged. We also need to start thinking about things like a public charging infrastructure for people that maybe find themselves in the outskirts of towns with a low battery, or they’re making a trip from another part of Australia. How do they charge up? What’s the balance between the speed of charge and the cost, because high-speed chargers cost a lot of money to put in, and they cost a lot of money to use compared to slow chargers.

But slow chargers obviously don’t provide the same rate of charge, and that means if someone is making a trip from Sydney to Melbourne and stopping along the way, at let’s say Albury, they will want to charge the vehicle quickly, rather than spending eight hours sitting there waiting.

So working out what chargers to use, where they should go, what the pricing of them should be, and what governments should do in order to encourage the sort of fleet mix that they want to see in the future, is a huge project. We’ve only just started to get involved in it and we want to do a lot more of that in the future.

Also veering away from proprietary plugs.

Yes, well that’s right. I think we’re still in the very early days of electric vehicles and lots of adapters. So you buy your standard plug but then you have a couple of other ones in the boot because you know inevitably you’ll get to a point one day where you’ll need that and you’ll want to have that in advance rather than sitting there with zero charge in your battery.

Last question. In terms of something in technology or in some development that’s heading our way in the next three to five years, what is it that most excites you?

At the risk of sounding repetitive, I think electric vehicles and in actual fact, two-wheeled electric vehicles are what really interests me. A lot of people are surprised that 96% of all electric vehicles have two wheels, not four. Most of them are in China, almost all of them in fact.

And the reason why this is so exciting for me is because they provide almost all of the benefits of a normal bicycle without a lot of the disadvantages of a bicycle. So the main disadvantages of a bicycle, aside from the infrastructure issues that we’ve already talked about, is that people don’t necessarily want to exert themselves physically for every trip. On a weekend you might be quite happy to exert yourself and you come home, you have a shower and you get into clean clothes.

But this isn’t the case when you’re going to work, or to a meeting. Two-wheeled electric vehicles provide a perfect balance of pedal assist so you’re still getting some moderate levels of physical activity, but not really enough to raise a sweat. You also don’t have to worry about hills anymore, you don’t have to worry about headwinds anymore. As someone that rides frequently, there’s nothing worse than going to a meeting in summer with a headwind in a suit and then getting there all sweaty, especially in places like Brisbane where you’ll feel very uncomfortable for a long time.

So electric vehicles, two-wheeled electric vehicles, really excite me. That sector has now reached a level of maturity in which a wide range of bicycles are now available. You can carry your kids, you can carry your shopping. They’re much more comfortable, you don’t have to worry about weight in the same way that you do on a ‘normal’ bicycle, allowing them to be constructed of materials that aren’t quite as expensive as titanium.

There’s beginning to be a huge diversity of vehicles. It’s a market that’s exploding in some parts of the world and I think it will come to Australia as well. And it gets over a lot of the problems that people have with regular bikes. You can sit on 25 kilometres an hour and that is something that I think a lot of people will really get a lot of benefit from.

If you implement things like the road user charge that I mentioned earlier, where you pay per kilometre to use a car, people start to think, ‘Okay, will I pay $1.85 to drive down to the shops to buy a litre of milk, or will I use a bike or an electric bike?’ I think that’s something that’s really exciting that we’re going to see a lot of in the future.

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