transport traffic
Illustration: Down the Street

Laurie Patton responds to last week’s Spinifex from Anthony Albanese, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Cities on the “Tyranny of distance threatens the fair go

Anthony Albanese is absolutely right when he says governments need to “promote jobs growth closer to where people live”. He is also correct when he points to the tyranny of distance that means “many Australians now live in drive-in, drive-out suburbs and spend hours a day on the roads or on crowded buses and trains commuting to and from work”. This really only affects people living in two or three capital cities of course, but that means most of us.

Improving transport systems is one way to make our big cities more liveable. However, recent history shows no sooner have we built new bridges, new tunnels (except Sydney’s Cross City Tunnel of course!) and new motorways than they become clogged – at least in the peak hours when this matters. It’s a never ending tale of catch-up.

The amount of money being spent on this increasingly redundant capital city infrastructure would go a long way towards building infrastructure in regional centres and providing incentives for businesses and their employees to move there.

We need to look beyond the 20th century concept of urbanisation. It’s really only over the last 100 years or so that we’ve seen the level of global urban consolidation we have now, and Australia is one of the worst examples.

With modern communication technologies we no longer need to jam 90 percent of our growing population into a handful of overcrowded capitals. These days there are numerous jobs that can be done pretty much anywhere, allowing of course for a decent broadband connection.

One of our largest telcos has several high-rise buildings in both Sydney and Melbourne, accommodating thousands of employees who only leave their office to buy their lunch. However, the majority struggle with congested transport systems, which means hours spent traveling to and from work.

Australia is roughly the same land mass as the US. Of 307 American cities only about 15 are as big as Sydney or Melbourne. That’s how they’ve accommodated more than 300 million people. Even allowing for all our desert areas we have plenty of space around the edges of the continent to create new cities or to expand existing regional centres.

In the 1970s the Whitlam government envisaged a more decentralised nation, establishing the Albury-Wodonga Development Corporation. There are several reasons why the Albury-Wodonga decentralisation experiment failed to spur a dramatic shift of our population back then. Arguably, the biggest stumbling block was the lack of communications services. That problem no longer exists.

The Greater Sydney Commission wants to turn the city into a “tri-metropolis”– effectively creating three CBDs. They say their plan will take 40 years. We could do a lot of other imaginative things over four decades, surely.

Of course, their plan also involves building hundreds of high-rise apartment blocks. That’s great news for developers. But is this the future we really want? It’s been said that millennials are quite happy to live in home units. Perhaps they are, right now. But are they so different to earlier generations? What about when they start having children?

Of course, for some millennials it’s a waiting game. Waiting until their parents drop off leaving enough money to buy a house. Here, though, is where the fair go goes out the window. Not everyone will inherit sufficient wealth to be able to afford a house in Sydney or Melbourne. Not the way house prices are escalating.

In previous times only the well-off owned property. Others rented all their lives because they couldn’t afford to buy. It was only as recently as the 1950s that the concept of universal home ownership became a reality in this country. If we’re not careful that could turn out to have been an historical bump.

In my opinion we need to seriously revisit the decentralisation concept. We are already seeing families move out of the big capitals to places where they can actually afford a house. The ability to find work is the key factor though. That’s why we need a national plan that sees jobs growth moving closer to where people are living, as Mr Albanese proposes.

Perhaps, though, we need to look at moving both the jobs and the people?

To start the process we need a bipartisan accord, involving all three levels of government and all sides of politics. We need business groups, civil society organisations and trade unions involved. Most of all, though, we need to include people in the decision-making. Whatever the population in 10 to 20 years from now and beyond we will need to rethink where everyone lives, and how we will live.

While we’re at it, we also need to embrace the smart use of technology in the remodelling of our cities and communities. Around the world there is a move to create “Smart Cities”. This involves using big data to better plan the delivery of community services – often done in real time. Smart systems that better manage traffic flow. Smart lighting that substantially reduce street lighting costs. These are just some of the innovations we need to embrace.

Laurie Patton is the inaugural chief executive of the Australian Smart Communities Association. The thoughts expressed in this article are his and may or may not reflect those of the organisation he now leads.

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  1. Start with locating the public service to the regions … that’s +10% of the workforce in one hit. They don’t all need to be in glass edifices located in prime CBD locations given technology today.

  2. All across the US there are viable cities with one or two major employers. We need a long term plan with incentives for businesses to move out of overcrowded capital cities. It can be done.

  3. Nice points but I read a lot of these articles and what’s missing is the specific industries or a definite plan for a definite place. Barnaby tried with the Pest Authority…. unis are pretty well covered. What will work? Industries like to get the benefits of clustering together – that drags many toward major city CBDs. What defies this gravity???