“We are excited that we will see another million cars on our roads by 2041, such is the growth our region will experience.”
Yeah, nah. You’re never going to hear a growth booster make that statement. But it’s true. Or at least highly likely. Another 1.5 million people, based on the average ratio of cars to people, will mean roughly an additional 1 million more cars on the roads. Plus more commercial vehicles. Whether that’s Sydney, Melbourne, or South-east Queensland (where the 1.5 million more people is the official 2041 forecast) matters little. Each city has been “promised” very large population gains in a short space of time. With those gains come consequences, in the same short time frames.
We are assured that public transport – usually in the form of heavy commuter rail - will “solve” the rising congestion problem. If you believe that, please share whatever’s in your Kool-Aid, I want some too. Heavy commuter rail works well for centralised workforces. Jobs in CBDs and near-city locations are well supported by this type of public transport. But there are a number of things to keep in mind if you see a bright future in radically expanded public transport of this type being ‘the solution’ to rising numbers of private cars.
First, CBD and near city jobs represent only around 10% of a metro region’s workforce. Heavy commuter rail proponents – including many who support ‘fast rail’ – envisage outlying exurban areas maybe 50 or even 100 kilometres from CBDs serviced by subsidised fast rail than can transport highly paid professionals to their CBD offices in under half an hour. Which is fine if you are among the 5% or fewer of people in outer suburbs with jobs in the inner city. Most inner-city workers live much closer to their workplace, and are already well served by existing public transport. Of CBD workers, around half typically already catch public transport. But of people with suburban work places – who represent the 90% of jobs – this percentage falls to single figures.
Second, the fastest growing industries producing the greatest numbers of jobs are health and education. This is going to continue for the foreseeable future. These are not CBD white collar office worker jobs – they are typically suburban. Which means the fastest jobs growth in our metro areas is likely to continue to be outside the inner cities. And accessing those jobs currently is most conveniently achieved by private motor vehicle. Public transport networks servicing suburban home to suburban workplace journeys are notoriously difficult, (with the exception of buses which can make use of the road network but which still struggle with volumes).
Then there’s been the whole Covid response with what seems a semi-permanent move to CBDs as places of work for maybe three days a week, with white collar professionals using technology to work from home and save themselves the time, cost and inconvenience of the commute. I still think it’s too early to call this a permanent change, but what it has done for now is markedly reduce overall demand for public transport. Cars are in more demand with long wait lists for new vehicles and very high prices for second hand. Is this a long term thing or not?
Some public transport advocates can get quite Bolshie when it comes to private cars. Some suggest they be banned from CBDs altogether and roads converted to cycle and pedestrian thoroughfares. Others promote suggestions that private cars are taxed even more heavily (including through road user charges) to discourage their peak hour use and to support public transport. The latter could work if public transport was a genuine alternative. But go back to my first point: only one in ten jobs of a metro wide region is in the sort of centralised location where PT is a genuine option. And that ratio will likely shrink as suburban jobs grow faster. Banning or taxing cars may go down well with the inner urban professional set who are well served by existing PT networks, or who can ride their $10,000 carbon fibre racing cycles to work on a dedicated inner city bikeway, but it would impose significant and unnecessary hardship on the other 90% of workers.
Also, take into account the changed nature of the journey to work these days. Some years back in the public transport hey-day, city workers left homes at a regular time, commuted to their central office via public transport, and left work to return home the same way. The 9 to 5 commute is no longer. These days the journey to work can mean leaving at a different time every day, a school drop off en-route to work, then gym on the way home and maybe a stop for groceries too. Don’t forget the kids either. That’s very difficult for public transport.
So, what do we do about the prospect of another million cars on our roads? Promising to solve this with visions of fast commuter rail is, in my opinion, unrealistic. Witness the new Moreton Bay rail link in southeast Queensland. Opened in 2018 at a cost of $1.2 billion (over $100m per kilometre), then Treasurer Jackie Trad promised “A project like this … will see 600 new trains go from the Redcliffe Peninsula to the city CBD every week, (and) is a fantastic initiative for workers in this area.” Then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull chimed in with “Realistically, someone could jump on a train here in Kippa Ring and use our public transport network to visit the beaches of Gold Coast or Sunshine Coast.” The trains are running – every half hour even – just few commuters are using them, nowhere near predictions. I caught one last month, from Rothwell to the CBD. Near $10 fare for one way. Lovely carriages, huge platforms. Just empty. Few people in Redcliffe work in the CBD, and if they want to visit the beach, I can’t envisage the beach umbrellas, eskies and other stuff making the trip which involves at least one platform change and a bus trip and, in all likelihood, a two hour exercise. I mean, were they on drugs when they made these statements?
But enough ridiculing (though it’s tempting with so much material to work with).
One option could be to centralise everything – jobs and social infrastructure. Schools, Universities and hospitals included. Outer suburbs become residential dormitories and their inhabitants are transported daily to their workplaces or for their needs, via rapid transit networks, to the city centre. This urban model was well portrayed in the series of movies “The Hunger Games.” ‘The Capitol’ was where all the high-quality amenity was concentrated – the best jobs, the most wealth, the finest dining, cultural and other facilities, enjoyed by a highly privileged elite whose lives were totally removed from those of the ‘Districts’ where impoverished worker drones lived. Great movies. Like Sim City on ‘roids from a planning sense. But maybe not something to aspire to (even if Sydney seems to be heading that way).
What else? We could try slowing the growth rates. Our rates of projected growth in our three larger cities are, by world standards, very ambitious. It’s not the quantum, but the speed. Growing faster than even Beijing or Shanghai ought to ring alarm bells. Realistically, history and experience shows we are just not very good at it. We have proven more or less capable of housing a rapidly growing population (though the wheels are falling off even that cart now) but when it comes to infrastructure like transport, hospitals, schools – we haven’t much to brag about. Perhaps slowing the population growth to a safer speed – one we can keep up with - is an idea?
We could also invest as much energy and thought into the future of work and workplaces. Much regional growth planning seems fixated on housing, and maybe the provision of schools. But there could be more discussion about how we support more opportunities for jobs and industry near where future populations will live. Jobs closer to homes allows for shorter commutes and potentially reduces congestion caused by lengthy trips, or trips in one direction. The fast-emerging post Covid economy will be shaped by tech and new and emerging industries along with high growth industries like health and education. If we did as much planning for distributed suburban hubs as we do for inner cities, we might find the investment pays dividends.
More time thinking about the alleviating benefits of autonomous, electric travel might also be handy. This technology is already with us, it just hasn’t been widely deployed yet. Instead of every million people requiring 600,000 to 700,000 cars – most of which sit in garages for 20 hours of the day going nowhere – the prospect of not owning a car but having access to an on-demand fleet of hybrid private-public transport vehicles is something we could be thinking more about?
Buses and hybrids (like Brisbane’s Metro) could also be worth expanding – on the basis that making use of the existing road network is a more flexible and much cheaper option than fixed heavy rail tracks, fixed heavy rail stations and fixed overhead power lines. This handy video summarises a number of trackless tram initiatives around the country (though very strangely leaves out Brisbane’s metro which is arguably far more advanced).
We could also make better use of existing infrastructure including the heavy commuter rail network. Existing suburban train stations are commonly viewed as potential high density housing hubs so that city workers can commute to their city jobs. But what about viewing these also as potential destination stations, surrounded by higher density employment zones? Or schools? Or community facilities? Some stations offer ample surrounding land for this to occur. Moving away from a centralised view of the economy and transport to one that encourages dispersed employment nodes around suburban hubs seems critical to maximising the infrastructure opportunities we already have.
Way over the word limit on this one, but a big topic that could deserve a lot more thought and open-minded discussion. For those interested in delving into some of the evidenciary background, the references below are handy.
ABS Census on Journey to Work (2016 data)
JAN 2022 UPDATE ON AUSTRALIAN TRANSPORT TRENDS – CHARTING TRANSPORT
The MIT Mobility Initiative, a collaboration between the School of Engineering and the School of Architecture and Planning, is designed as a platform to connect all mobility and transportation activities at MIT, building an integrated approach for the Institute’s efforts on research, education, entrepreneurship, and civic engagement related to transportation systems.