Peter Newton, left and Peter Newman

1 July 2010 – UPDATED 27 JULY 2010 – Public transport use around Australian cities has jumped and, at the same time, car use is down.

According to Curtin University professor Peter Newman, new research from the United States shows this is not a localised trend – car use in the US has plunged  4.3 per cent and there has been a 6.5  per cent leap in public transport use*.

But, even if these shifts are temporary and a reaction to the global financial crisis, there is more evidence that our cities are changing dramatically.

Speaking at the Hassell offices in Sydney recently as part of a national roadshow to promote a new database to identify “greyfields” (underutilised privately owned urban land), Professor Newman said these trends meant there were massive opportunities to decarbonise the economy.

“Our cities are changing. We are having reduced car use and rapid growth in public transport; we are increasing densities after 50 years of decline, so people are coming back into the city.

“There are all kinds of light rail proposals now: in Perth, Adelaide revamping its whole light rail, and we’ve got the Gold CoastLight Rail [starting].” Even Sydney has announced an extension of its light rail system.

“If that continues for the next 30 years, we’ve got all kinds of problems solved.”

Professor Newman said this was a structural change: young people coming back to the cities and not wanting to live further out.
“You certainly wouldn’t want to invest in toll roads,” he quipped.

“It means that, essentially, our cities are changing dramatically.”
Facilitating that shift is an increase in transport-oriented developments (TODs), which focus higher densities in existing urban centres around transport nodes.

“Everyone knows about TODs,” said Professor Newman, “but what about the suburbs and land area that aren’t on public transport routes?”

The database which he is developing with fellow team member professor Peter Newton from Swinburne University, and Mike Mouritz, Hassell’s head of sustainable futures, aims to find ways to identify and map areas of greyfields or underutilised sites not on these transport routes.

“Our agenda is more what about [how to deal with] the rest of the city out there that may not be on a rail line. There are a lot of suburbs out there that are not particularly transit oriented.

“It’s a five-year program of putting together special science engineering and social planning information.”
The team is working as part of the Co-operative Research Centre for Spatial Information, which has been funded for the next eight years.

Professors Newman and Newton, have also spoken to groups in Perth, Melbourne and Brisbane as part of a Hassell-funded roadshow supporting the work.

* Correction: Figures for public transport use and car travelquoted in the original article were incorrect – a decimal point had been omitted – and have been amended.