Australia, we have a bloody big problem. Unless we change the way we develop our cities, particularly Melbourne, Sydney and Perth, we are going to turn one of the most liveable nations into a gridlocked, polluted urban mess, with millions of people blocked from opportunity in under-serviced and isolated sprawl as our population surges. And surge it will. A high-level report to the government, released today, indicates the extent to which the legendary “lucky country” is, well, at risk of blowing its luck. A key jeopardy is that the sort of growth in this photo will just go blindly on and on and on, rather than us using existing suburbs and infrastructure, particularly public transport, in a much better way.
The comprehensive study into how to create smarter, more modern cities is by the Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA), which combines the analytic firepower of some of Australia’s leading research outfits.
One the main things driving the need to change is the pace of population growth, most of which will happen in our major cities. Australia’s population is tipped to hit about 40 million, up from about 24 million now, by the middle of the century, which will all-but double the population of Melbourne, Sydney and Perth. As many as four in five of those new residents will be in major cities.
Here’s that list of some of the main problems about which the council is alerting us all:
1. We are in a vicious circle: as cities sprawl beyond the reach of public transport, governments have primarily responded by building roads rather than expanding the network. More roads fuel urban sprawl, which increases the use of cars, which increases the demand for new roads, which… you get the picture.
2. The cost of urban congestion will increase four-fold in the next 20 years unless we cut the demand for cars and increase the supply of public transport. It’s big dollars: in 2011, the congestion cost to the economy was $13.7 billion; that’s tipped to rise to more than $53 billion by 2031.
About 60 per cent of children are now driven to school, which accounts for almost 20 per cent of the peak-hour horror, and is depriving our kids of exercise that can help prevent obesity, which has become, um, widespread.
3. Urban sprawl is environmentally costly – to the point of being unsustainable. This is a function of being too spread out – which means, of course, that our population density is relatively low. Sydney’s geographic area is bigger than London’s, yet, at 10 million, London has more than twice Sydney’s population.
4. Urban sprawl is leading to “transport poverty”. The report says: “Fringe developments are characterised by low housing and low employment density, limited (if any) mixed-use development and poor access to public transport. Together this increases distances between where people live and where they need to travel for work, shopping, socialising and recreating.”
5. Our over-reliance on cars, combined with our low level of fuel reserves is a major economic risk – just imagine what would happen if we ran out of petrol. Australia is the only nation in the 28-member International Energy Association that fails to meet the 90-day oil import stockholding level. We’ve got three week’s supply in reserve.
6. The road transport sector is dirty, inefficient and therefore unduly expensive. The report says: “The costs of moving freight by road are more than double that of rail, while greenhouse gas emissions are more than triple those for rail.”
The waste is worse when it comes to cars. “The average car is parked at home 80 per cent of the time, parked elsewhere 16 per cent of the time and on the move only four per cent of the time.”
8. The population is not only growing fast, it is ageing. This means we need to have services and transport concentrated where people with decreasing mobility need them.
9. We have built up one hell of an infrastructure deficit in the past 40 years – the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet estimates we’ve underinvested in things like public transport by $100 billion. The report reckons this will grow to $350 billion within 10 years on current trends.
Should you be in any doubt about the problem, consider this: in recent years, what were supposed to be the city’s inviolable boundaries have blown out again and again, as politicians capitulate to pressure from developers and from young families who cannot afford to live close to the centre of the city. It is now 150 kilometres from the eastern boundary to the western one; further than from the CBD to Bendigo. It’s not working and will only get worse if we don’t make changes.
Here’s what the report says needs to happen:
1. Reduce or even avoid the need to travel by having what’s know as polycentric development – which means having economic hubs so that people live close to where they work. This is being helped greatly by technology that allows people to work from home, an option being embraced by more and more people and businesses.
2. Adopt and adapt solutions happening elsewhere in the world. Here’s what Dr Bruce Godfrey, chair of ACOLA’s expert working group says: “Some of Australia’s capital cities (Sydney and Melbourne in particular) are already well-informed about the sort of sustainable urban mobility planning being practised in Europe and are working on how to adapt that.” If you want to have a look at some of the best stuff going on around the world, he recommends a site called Eltis.
3. Shift to environmentally friendly modes of transport – a mix of public transport, bikes and walking. The main goal here is to bring origins and destinations closer together by making them more accessible.
4. Improve energy efficiency; electric cars are particularly important in this.
5. Get the three levels of government – federal, state and local – to actually coordinate planning.
Dr Godfrey again: “The single most important public policy implication of the report is establishing a planning philosophy in which demand for mobility is moderated and the goals of good health and sustainability advanced. As the (new) Prime Minister recently said, ‘Integration is critical’. Australian urban planning is currently fragmented, across different tiers of government and from one geographic area to another.”
Speaking of the Prime Minister, the timing of the study is serendipitous – its emphasis on the need to vastly improve citizens’ mobility dovetails rather nicely with the dramatic power and personnel changes in Canberra. Tony Abbott, a man known for his support for cars and roads, rather than public transport, has been replaced as Prime Minister by Malcolm Turnbull, a man known for his support for, and serial use of, public transport. The expectation that this will lead to metropolitan transport policy changes has been augmented by Turnbull’s creation of a key new role in cabinet, Minister for Cities and the Built Environment, which has been given to Jamie Briggs.
Briggs, formerly assistant minister for infrastructure, is formulating a plan for cities in co-operation with state and local governments and urban communities.
The ACOLA report buttresses the warnings and prescriptions of other experts. Here’s a link to the thoughts of the Professor Shane Murray, Dean of Art Design and Architecture at Monash University, and of Professor Roz Hansen, one of Australia’s most experienced and well-regarded urban and regional planners.
We’re not alone in facing these challenges. Another fresh report, this one from global policy advisory firm McKinsey & Company, tells us:
1. By 2030, 60 per cent of the world’s population will be living in cities, up from 50 per cent today.
2. There will be more and more megacities – they are home to more than 10 million people.
3. The rising global middle class will want cars – annual sales are expected to rise to 125 million by 2025 from 70 million now.
4. By 2030, the global car fleet will have doubled from today’s 1.2 billion.
5. This will worsen congestion in many cities. Congestion is already costing some economies as much as four per cent of gross domestic product. This is killing people. The World Health Organisation said in 2014 that a staggering seven million premature deaths were caused by air pollution, much of which comes from urban cars stuck in traffic jams.
There is good news, too, though, in the McKinsey study:
1. The number of battery-powered cars and hybrids sold each year is forecast to rise from some 2.3 million in 2014 to 11.5 million by 2022 – that’ll be more than 10 per cent of the car market.
2. Car-sharing has the potential to cut the cost of personal mobility by up to 60 per cent. Remember, the average car sits unused for more than 90 per cent of the time. Car-sharing services are becoming increasingly common, and carmakers including BMW and Daimler are starting to provide them.
3. Autonomous cars are on their way. This will reduce congestion (technology will smooth traffic), and, most important, reduce car accidents by up to 90 per cent.
4. More and more younger people are preferring not to own a car at all.
5. Bike sharing is on the rise, too, encouraged by cities that have created car-free zones. By last year, the number of cities with bike-sharing programs had increased to 850 from only 68 in 2007.
Read more on The Age.