One of Australia's leading urban planners says concerted efforts to upgrade urban public transit are indispensable to maintaining the international competitiveness of the country's major cities.

City Planner and Economist Professor Sue Holliday believes a failure to develop and upgrade the transit infrastructure of Australia’s major cities could severely compromise their international competitiveness.

According to Holliday, one of the primary challenges confronting Australia’s two most populous cities is traffic congestion – a problem that is set to worsen should the expansion transit infrastructure fail to maintain pace with population growth.

“By 2020 Melbourne and Sydney will probably have the same population while Sydney is on a trajectory to be 8 million people by 2050 – roughly double the size it is now,” said Holliday. “They’re both the largest cities in Australia, they both purport to be cities of industry of knowledge and they both purport to compete internationally.

“If that’s what they want to do, then they need to be thinking seriously about the issues will stand in the way of them achieving that, and for both those cities congestion is one of their biggest costs.”

Holliday points out that traffic congestion has already saddled Australia’s major cities with a heavy economic burden, and that this problem set to worsen as population growth continues– particularly if the vehicular bent of urban commuters isn’t curbed.

“Infrastructure Australia recently said there’s going to be a gap of $53 billion in infrastructure by 2031 – that’s across Australia but mainly in Sydney and Melbourne,” she said. “The congestion costs in Sydney alone are eight billion dollars, and congestion causes nine per cent of our greenhouse gas impacts. Both of those are already pretty significant, while passenger car usage is growing even faster than the population.

“When I was growing up, families had one car if they were lucky. Now families – particularly families living out in the outer suburban areas of both Sydney and Melbourne – regularly have two or three cars, and some with teenagers have four.”

The most effective solution for alleviating the ongoing congestion woes of Australia’s major cities would be investment in transportation infrastructure, with an emphasis upon public transit in lieu of roadways.

Holliday notes, however, that roadway construction has traditionally been more of a priority for government infrastructure funding in Australia, despite the prevailing consensus amongst transportation and planning experts around the world that they only provide a stopgap solution to traffic congestion.

“It’s an international evidence-based conclusion that more roads don’t cure congestion,” she said. “Doubling road capacity might work for a few years initially, but the cars would eventually build up to use that car space.

“There was a time – particularly when John Howard and Tony Abbott were Prime Ministers, when they resolutely said they would only pay for roads and wouldn’t pay for public transport, and I think that must be to do with the fact that the National Party want more roads out in the bush.

“But it’s ridiculous when you think about how important our cities are to the economy of Australia – the Federal government is responsible for the economy of Australia. It’s ridiculous that they would stand by and let our economy take hit after hit after hit because we are not making those kinds of investments.”

While expanding public transit in Australia’s leading urban centres will be expensive, it will play an indispensable role in shoring up their efficiency, and will keep in line with the current initiatives of major international cities around the world.

“Without exception, other international cities we are competing against are investing in more public transportation – all of them,” said Holliday. “Sydney is a big city, Melbourne is a big city – they are already sprawling, so it’s expensive to catch up with providing to access to public transit throughout the both these regions, but that’s what’s got to happen.

“That’s why I talk about taking a metro loop between the CBD, out into the employment areas, round into the second CBD at Parramatta, and back again, and then another loop that runs out to the second Sydney airport.

“We should run them the way international cities run their trains – no timetable, just regular trains every three to five minutes.”

Given the exorbitant cost and difficulty of introducing public transit initiatives to established major cities, Holliday advocates that any infrastructure plans be expedited as soon as possible, while policymakers should also resist pressure to introduce more roadways.

“We have to start now, because to get a new line or initiative up and running takes a long time. If you want to build a new railway line you have to go through all the planning requirements, land acquisition and then you’ve got to construct – we’re talking at least 10 years, if not longer,” she said.

“They’ve only just started construction in Sydney on the expansion of the light rail that I introduced into Piermont in 1994, now that the buses have withdrawn their objections.

“So we’ve got to start now, because we have to overcome the pressures that are coming from the shock jocks and others that are saying that we need double the capacity of a particular road in order to deal with congestion.”

The tremendous expense of public transit initiatives also necessitates greater involvement and support from all levels of government, in particular the Federal government, given its greater resources and its responsibilities with respect to the national economy.

“It’s absolutely 100 per cent important that the Commonwealth contribute more to public transit – the states can’t do it alone,” said Holliday. “They’re already been given a lot of responsibilities by the Commonwealth for all sorts of investments and infrastructure.

“The Commonwealth must say here’s an amount of money for transport, and it can go to either roads or public transit, and preferably public transit over the next 20 years.”