Left to right: Ali Rad, Gordian Knot Projects; Peter Han, director Gordian Knot; Antony Sprigg AGIC; Derek Jackson, Siemens.

13 March 2013 – The future of sustainable transport was looking rosy at Green Cities this year with speakers presenting images of future cities abuzz with tiny electric pod-cars on roads that seamlessly connected with train networks. Travelling between Sydney and Melbourne? No problem – just jump on a fast train that will get you from door to door in a couple of hours. All done using cleaner, greener technology.

Such a vision is a far cry from today’s reality of clogged roads, overloaded airports and inefficient public transport in Australia’s major cities.

As Derek Jackson, executive manager rail systems Siemens Australia, pointed out Australia is the most urbanised country in the world with 89 per cent of the population living in cities. Unfortunately our cities were not designed for the number of vehicles we now have on our roads and our urban sprawl has locked us into car use, with 75 per cent of Australians using cars as primary source of transport, while only 19 per cent use public transport.

“It’s a sad fact that Australia produces the highest amount of carbon emissions per capita in the world. Transport accounts for around 20 per cent of this,”  Jackson said.

The social cost of congestion in our cities is estimated to increase to more than $20 billion per year by 2020.

“Congestion is only one part of it – the cost of road-related trauma and health costs of unhealthy lifestyles has been forecast to potentially cost Australia more than $100 billion a year.”

“To meet our national sustainability goals it is imperative we develop more efficient, cleaner transport modes like high speed rail, light rail and electric cars and buses. We also need a centralised management of our transportation networks, which can be accessed by smart devices such as mobile phones. And to tie all this together a complete mobility network which incorporates interconnectivity of all the modes. Trams, buses, trains and ferries all linked together.”

High speed rail on the east coast would provide travel times comparable to air. A good case study, said Jackson, is the high speed rail connection between Barcelona and Madrid, cities with similar populations to Sydney and Melbourne.

“The benefits of this high speed rail has provided significant economic benefits to both cities. The air route between Barcelona and Madrid was one of the busiest in the world. It now sits outside the top 10 and the rail share of patronage runs at about 50/50 with air.”

Ali Rad, principal engineer Gordian Knot Projects, told delegates our cities are suffocating under the car and people are struggling with the high cost of private ownership of cars.

But it is not enough to just replace combustion engine vehicles with electric ones – there will still be too many cars. The answer is shared ownership of small, driverless electric cars that are part of membership schemes. This will result in fewer cars, lower price tags and an efficient, integrated network, said Rad.

“We have had self-propelled vehicles for a long time but we are about to be served with self-driving vehicles for the first time ever. Essentially it’s about taking drivers out of the equation and replacing them with computers. It employs aerial technology such as GPS, radar and 3D cameras.

“In a green city, autonomous transportation will bring green convenience. Many
people will travel in their autonomous cars to the bus stop and railway station and at the other end of their trip a driverless taxi will be available to take them to their final destination.”

And shared membership will ensure less traffic and better use of resources, with cars no longer left idle for 90 per cent of the time. Large-scale partronage of public transport will be unprecedented.

“In the future commuters will be taken by electric car to the local station and the car will return home by itself. The car goes to the service provider by itself when it’s due. You can kiss goodbye to the fines and double demerit points,” said Rad.

Antony Sprigg, chief executive officer of the Australian Green Infrastructure Council, rounded off the discussion with his vision for AGIC and its new green infrastructure rating tool.

“Infrastructure is the glue that connects people and places, facilitates commerce and economic means within and between our cities and our regional centres.,” Sprigg said.

“Australia’s infrastructure sector is large. It is fundamentally larger than the built environment in terns of its capital value and future spend.”

Industry estimates put the value of existing infrastructure assets at around $400 billion and the infrastructure spending requirement over the next 10 years at an additional $500 billion, he said.

“I’m guessing that’s based on traditional infrastructure and doesn’t include things like high speed rail.

“From a sustainability perspective and a rating perspective there’s something missing.”

While there are sustainable rating tools available for all other aspects of the built environment, infrastructure sustainability has been neglected, Sprigg said.

AGIC aimed to address this with its voluntary rating system for green infrastructure but while this is a big step forward, the culture and thinking around infrastructure must change.

“The rating tool is a full triple bottom line rating scheme. It is not just environmental sustainability – there are elements of it we are going to continue to develop like workforce and economics.”

AGIC has been told by concerned stakeholders in infrastructure projects that sustainability is just not being considered in pieces of infrastructure worth $500 million, $1 billlion, or $10 billion, Sprigg said.

“We know that ratings do help in transforming industries but we also know that sometimes some of the hard questions and arguments we need to have we won’t get the success simply by going head on.

“If we can use alternative platforms and start to change the mindset and culture and start to ask questions at the right time, we’ll start to get those more significant outcomes. We very much see it as a trojan horse model and we welcome as many people as possible to get inside and use it.”

As session moderator, GBCA executive director Adam Beck pointed out, nowhere is mindset change on sustainability needed more than in superannuation funds management, where there are potentially billions of dollars available for green infrastructure spend.

“Sixty five per cent of Australian superannuation fund investment managers have not recognised the impact of climate change on investment portfolios. Similarly, 83 per cent of super funds replied ‘no’ in a key survey to the question ‘Do you think systemic risks like climate change are currently being priced into asset valuations properly?’”