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Are Skinny Lanes the Solution to Congestion on our Roads?

There’s no escaping it, our roads are congested across the country. It’s a nightmare for all of us. After all, nobody takes joy being stuck in traffic. It extends our commute and leaves us with less time for the things we actually want to do. We should be wondering, what’s being done about it?

Sure, we have tolls. There are also proposals for congestion charges to reduce demand for road use, or otherwise share the road in more efficient ways like giving priority to car-pool vehicles. Governments are also investing billions in infrastructure, much of which is dedicated to roads and highways. However, does that all go far enough? Is there another simpler solution sitting right under our noses?

One of the more radical ideas floating around in the news this past week was ‘skinny’ lanes. That’s right, it is exactly what it sounds like. The idea being, our road network remains largely the same. But in place of laying down new bitumen, space would be squeezed from existing lanes to create a new, narrow lane designed specifically for motorbikes and / or smaller cars.

Contrary to what you might be thinking, the idea isn’t one that was hashed out by two high school students. Nor was it conceived with the inspiration of a couple Friday night beverages. In fact, this has come straight out of the well-known and highly regarded think tank, the Grattan Institute.



Is it really feasible?

On paper, it sounds novel to expand capacity on our roads, without actually expanding physical capacity. The urban planning side seemingly checks out.  From a financial perspective, it’s definitely a cheaper proposition than building new roads. Plus, roads wouldn’t need to be closed anywhere near as long as they would if extensive construction were to be required to upgrade roads and interchanges.

But there is one important thing being overlooked here. Australians are increasingly shifting away from smaller cars to mid-size vehicles. Some experts point to these larger vehicles being at fault for the congestion, although that really is debatable. Small cars still represent a huge portion of fleet, but if we do not remain cognisant of the clear trend, then we could be jumping to a ‘solution’ that won’t align with the way we are actually using our roads.

One could argue that such an initiative has the potential to shape car selection among new car buyers. There is some merit to this argument, but at the same time, that is also what has been said for electric vehicles – we all know their adoption has been underwhelming at best. Then you also have the issue of giving exclusive priority to certain road users, when at the end of the day we all still pay car registration to be afforded the same access on public roads.

Comparisons are inevitable with European markets, where narrow lanes and smaller cars correspond with fewer road fatalities. What is missed in those examples is the greater access they have to public transport, in addition to the compact size of their cities. On the other hand, our commute extends much further, both geographically and by purpose.

As novel as the idea may be, it’s clear it is one that needs a rethink. What do you think of proposed skinny lanes to reduce congestion?