Cars and trucks are causing billions of dollars in congestion, health impacts and environmental damage, a new report released today (Wednesday) by the Australian Council of Learned Academies has warned.

The body, which comprises the Australian Academy of Science, Academy of Social Sciences in Australia, Australian Academy of the Humanities and Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, warned in Delivering Sustainable Urban Mobility that Australian cities were becoming increasingly vulnerable to greater urbanisation, diminishing resources and climate change.

Our car-centric city planning was a major factor in this increased vulnerability, with the cost of urban congestion set to increase by 400 per cent over the next 20 years to $53.3 billion by 2031 if something isn’t done.

The report was launched in Canberra by new minister for cities and the built environment Jamie Briggs, with an introductory speech by Australia’s chief scientist Professor Ian Chubb.

“Australian cities are under pressure and we need to find a way of putting people first in urban transport and planning,” Professor Chubb said.

“New technology can be part of the solution but what we need is long-term, nimble policy development that incorporates the benefits of science and innovation as well as many other disciplines.”

The report said “a lack of polycentric planning” meant that half the population of Australia’s cities were dependent on cars, and the entire population was reliant on road freight. Apart from environmental, health and economic concerns, it was also a fuel security issue, compounded by Australia’s globally poor transport energy efficiency, with standards that would be illegal in many other countries.

As the population of major cities grew, a business-as-usual approach would not be adequate, the report found, and major changes needed to occur.

Three-pronged approach needed

City planning would need to take a three-pronged approach, which tackled strategies to reduce and avoid travel, modal shifts to more environmentally friendly travel and improving vehicle energy efficiency.

Key to reducing and avoiding travel was the move from a singular dense CBD to polycentric cities, which would bring “origins and destinations closer together”.

“Planning for the development of polycentric cities will help to reduce transport poverty and improve the quality of life for Australians on a more equitable basis,” the report said. It would spread employment opportunities, as well as reduce travel and sprawl.

To get on the right path would be tough though, and expensive. The report found billions would need to be invested in infrastructure over the next ten years.

“The lack of investment in transport over the past 40 years means Australia has a major infrastructure deficit which stood at $100 billion in 2014 and is forecast to grow to $350 billion by 2025,” chair of the report’s expert working group Dr Bruce Godfrey said.

There were still opportunities for the country to get back on the right path over the next decade, but decisive action needed to be taken, the report said.

“Australia has no megacities yet and there is therefore an opportunity in the decade ahead to rethink the growth and development of our major conurbations (both cities and metropolitan areas), before the problems associated with urbanisation become critical,” the report said.

The report suggests an approach based on the environmental, economic and social dimensions of sustainability and “prioritises people rather than any particular mode of transport”.

“Establishing a planning philosophy in which the demand for mobility is moderated and the goal of sustainability advanced implies significant planning reforms,” it said.

“In Australia this will mean a far-sighted, transparent planning process. In many cases, responsibility will be vested at the metropolitan level. The aim is to allow all Australian cities (of 100,000 people or more) to play an active role in developing their own sustainable urban mobility plans. But this will ideally take place within a national urban planning framework, to coordinate infrastructure development and thereby maximise efficiency.”

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