Image: Joey Csunyo

In the nation of the Fair Go, Australians pride themselves on the idea that anyone in this country has a fair chance to be whatever they want to be.

Australians expect fair access to schools and hospitals so that all children, rich or poor, will have an opportunity to be their best and make their best contribution to society.

But in the 21st century, there’s another impediment to equity that looms as a threat to equity in this country – distance.

In our major capital cities, urban sprawl is making it harder for many Australians, particularly those with limited financial resources, to access the work or educational opportunities they need to achieve their potential.

The problem is at its worst in Sydney, where according to surveys, about one in five workers travel more than 90 minutes a day to get to and from work.

Governments need to address this problem, not just to preserve the concept of a fair go, but also to get the most out of our best asset – our people.

Failing to address this problem could cause some people on the fringes of our cities to rule themselves out of participating in work or education.

That would be a mistake.

Traffic congestion has always been an issue in our cities.

But until recently, average income earners living in the suburbs have avoided the worst effects of congestion because work was available near their homes in industries like manufacturing or retailing.

However, in the 21st century, jobs growth has shifted away from the suburbs and into the CBD in industries like accounting, insurance, information technology and other services industries.

This has created a mismatch between where people can afford to live and where they can find a job. It 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.

According to the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics, the resulting traffic congestion cost the economy $16.5 billion in 2015 in lost productivity.

And as well as threatening equity, it is also robbing working parents time with their families.

Governments must adjust their infrastructure programs to the new human needs of the 21st century.

New passenger rail lines and better roads are part of the solution.

But the roads and railways need to work together, providing an integrated transport system. Walking and cycling tracks must be incorporated into this system so people can readily access new public transport hubs from home.

Governments must also promote jobs growth closer to where people live by investing in research facilities at hospitals, universities and in other major projects

The perfect example is in Sydney, with the new Western Sydney Airport at Badgerys Creek. Developed properly, the airport will provide thousands of jobs in aviation as well as associated sectors including research, tourism, education, advanced manufacturing and logistics.

Between now and the airport’s opening, we must focus on maximising the opportunities for the people of Western Sydney to access these new opportunities.

That’s why we need to build Western Sydney Rail – a north-south rail corridor that will allow people of the region to access the new areas of jobs growth.

Labor has already committed funding for the Western Sydney Rail.

While the Turnbull and Berejiklian governments have proposed a line from St Marys to Badgerys Creek via the airport, they have yet to fund the link from the Macarthur region to the airport and the extension to Rouse Hill in the north-west.

They should commit to the full project now.

The airport example highlights the way in which governments must rethink the configuration of our growing cities and their transport systems to ensure they fit in with the demands of the 21st century.

We need to stop seeing Western Sydney as a city dormitory area for the Sydney CBD, but treat it as a discrete centre with its own internally logical transport system.

If we take that approach to infrastructure policy across the nation, we will open up more opportunity for local people to access well-paid jobs.

That will be of benefit to them, because they will be given a Fair Go. But it will also benefit the entire nation, because we will be making the best use of our human resources in the national interest.

Anthony Albanese is the Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Cities.

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