When’s the last time you heard some futurist or management guru suggest that in the future more of us will be working at the same desk doing routine tasks on a predictable working week schedule?

Never? That’s just one of many problems that advocates of limitless spending on public transport need to keep in mind in dealing with the issue of urban congestion.

Increasing urban congestion is said to cost the economy dearly, and if Infrastructure Australia is to be believed, it will cost even more in the future unless something is done now. They warn the current estimate of a $13.7 billion annual cost will balloon to $53 billion by 2031.

Congestion is without dispute a handbrake on economic productivity, but the range of solutions for reducing congestion range from the outright zany (see Elizabeth Farrelly’s suggestions for Prime Minister Turnbull as one example) to milder versions of zany. They all tend to be very expensive and many impose unacceptable compromises on our basic freedoms (such as proposals to ban cars from cities).

Increased investment in public transport is a feature of many proposed solutions for alleviating congestion. It is true that we have under-invested in public transport systems in past decades and it’s equally true that we’ve under-invested in private transport. Basically, we’ve cheered a rising population while passing the buck when it comes to funding and delivering the infrastructure needed to support that growth to future generations. Rising congestion levels are making it feel like crunch time now.

But there are valid questions about the capacity of public transport to alleviate congestion which are rarely getting asked. Rather than a magical silver bullet, there are a few things to keep in mind before you climb aboard the merry bandwagon of limitless investment in public transport:

The nature of work is changing

Public transport systems work best on a hub and spoke model of employment and commuting, built on predictable schedules designed around predictable commuter needs. Central business districts of very high employment concentrations, where people work in the same workplace from day to day and for the same hours each day, are ideal candidates for public transport.

But increasingly, this is looking like a 20th century model of work. Technology has been the primary driver of change, allowing more workplace flexibility and providing for increased location diversity. ‘Standard hours’ of work are being diluted while at the same time, companies increasingly realise the high costs of ‘paper factories’ for administrative staff in costly CBD locations makes little sense. With this, the centralised nature of work is also being diluted and this is working against the centralised economic model that makes fixed public transport systems (especially rail) effective.

Society is changing

There was a time when commuting trips to work in central locations were mainly a case of getting there and getting home. Much has changed. A rising proportion of women in the workforce and how this has changed family responsibilities means that commutes to and from work are also often tied in with other objectives: dropping off or picking up school kids or children in child care is only a part of this (but one which is said to contribute to 20 per cent of private vehicle traffic on the roads in peak periods during school terms).

Add to this the increasing propensity to shop less but more frequently (who owns a chest freezer anymore?) and to mix in pre and post-work social or recreational appointments, and you have a very different pattern of commuting which public transport will struggle to service.

The suburban economy

A telling reality for proponents of increased public transport investment is that employment remains – and in some cases is increasingly – suburban by nature. Between eight and nine out of 10 of all jobs in metropolitan regions are suburban by location, and when you consider that the same proportion of residents in any metropolitan location are also suburban by residence, the problem of servicing this reality through public transport is apparent

In the last inter-censal period, the proportion of metropolitan wide jobs located in the CBD actually fell in Brisbane to 12.5 per cent, while in Melbourne it remain unchanged at 10 per cent and Sydney recorded a small rise to 13.5 per cent. The raw numbers of jobs in suburban locations are growing faster, as a rule, than those in CBDs. The cost of creating a public transport system designed around suburban home to suburban workplace commutes is beyond calculation. In Australia, we will be in flying cars like the Jetsons long before this happens.

The new and emerging economy

The way cities were designed – with concentrations of white collar workers in CBDs and with discrete areas set aside for industrial, retail or other specified activities – is no longer as important for new or emerging economies. Technology in particular means that physical place is less essential for connectivity to markets. Communication is less dependent on physical proximity.

This doesn’t mean CBDs will lose their higher order function, but it does mean that disruptive or emerging businesses, for which new technologies are not just a novelty but a foundation, will have less need for the types of places offered by centralised business districts. They can locate in lower cost areas of the metropolitan area, and make use of the central business districts on occasion, rather than routine.

Attracting and retaining these emerging types of businesses will also put the onus on suburban business centres to lift their game, but in many cases this isn’t difficult. Just think of any number of start ups or tech based companies you’ve read of recently and think about how many of these have been in non-traditional locations. Even when these businesses mature, their lack of interest in a CBD style presence doesn’t seem to change. Witness the many technologically innovative businesses in the USA or Europe, by way of example.

Where does this leave us with solutions for congestion? Ironically, increasing public transport investment designed to ferry people into and out of central business areas is unlikely to make much difference to metropolitan wide congestion. It can’t – simply because only a minority of jobs (between 10 and 15 per cent in the case of Australia’s major cities) are in these locations.

People with jobs in these locations may currently have relatively high rates of public transport usage already (often 40 per cent plus) but imagine the cost of increasing this to 80 per cent? The cost of getting there is incalculable for cities of our size, and in any way, it would only benefit 10 to 15 per cent of the urban workforce. Ironically, the people most likely to benefit from this type of public transport prescription tend be much higher wage earners, living close to the inner city in highly valued real estate. Have a look at this analysis from The Pulse a couple of years ago to get a sense of this reality. Yet their higher capacity to pay is not reflected in most policy debate.

The reality is that public transport can only go so far in alleviating congestion. Social and economic change to the nature of work is changing the shape of employment decisions and has forever changed the nature of the commute. Public policy officials, urbanists and politicians who pretend that all that’s needed to ‘solve congestion’ is massively increased investment in heavy rail, light rail or dedicated busway networks are deluded. This thinking is rooted in nostalgic notions of work, unrelated to the future of work.

And as if to demonstrate the fact we should not expect better from our various governments, when a technological innovation comes along that promises to realize the long held dream of ride sharing and increased persons per vehicle – which if widely embraced would go a long way to solving congestion at no cost to taxpayers – governments stand in the way. It’s called Uber. Go figure.

  • Very well said Ross!

    It's getting harder to every year to predict the future of work which pretty much determines the structure of our cities and our lives in general. I think we will certainly see more CBD commercial buildings converted into apartment blocks in years to come and even the creation of virtual offices using VR tech entirely removing the need for CBD office workers to travel. 2016 will be the year when VR has it's real birth and starts to change us forever.


  • Sorry Ross, but you've missed the mark on this one. The future of work, life and play are increasingly concentrated in higher density compact urban environments, and the infrastructure we need to support productivity and liveability in those environments is increasingly high public transport networks.

    The infrastructure we need for the 21st century is simple. We need high frequency metro rail and bus networks, the kind you deplore, to provide accessibility within our dense inner city urban environments. These places should be designed and built for people, not cars. Secondly we need express rail services between our major city centres and the suburban hinterland, allowing suburban residents to access more specialised, higher paying jobs in centres of agglomeration. And finally we need comprehensive orbital road networks that provide public and private transport within and between our lower density suburban locations.

    These network should all be priced to reflect demand, not construction costs, to ensure they are efficiently allocated to the most productive uses. You will never build your way out of congestion. The age of unpriced roads and unearned property value from public transport must come to an end. It's time to motorists and land owners to pay for the benefits they receive from transport infrastructure, only then will we be able to reduce the burden of congestion and fund the transport infrastructure our cities need.

  • All this (and the responses) are based on the belief that we will, even in the medium term, continue to "go to work". Emerging technology will make this unnecessary for a very large proportion of the population in a very short space of time, leaving the available public transport for those who really do have to commute. All that is needed is for what has euphemistically (and unfortunately) been called "presentism" – the need for my superiors to see my butt in a chair every day because of some archaic, Dickensian sense of control and their inability to assess my productivity by any measure other than my being present or not being present – to disappear and the "problem" will reduce to the point where it will no longer be a "problem". It will happen…… despite my superiors because the sheer weight of technological progress on communication will mean it costs those same superiors more in overheads to see my butt in a chair every day!

  • The problem with roads in city peak hour is their poor efficiency. At any road speed you are lucky to get 2,400 people per hour down a 3.2m expressway lane compared to 9,000 for light rail and 25,000 for heavy rail using the same 3.2m. On top of this you need a parking space at each end of the journey. Our road system is more than adequate for trady utes and delivery vans in peak hour if some more of the single occupant cars were moved over to an expanded public transport network. The roads work well in school holidays and this is with only a 15% traffic reduction.

  • Change it will, but who can say when — 20yrs. 50yrs ? When it comes to pass, roads will no longer be as useful/used as today, heavy rail neither, however light rail, and bicycle use will be bigger than ever before for all of these metropolitan / suburban dwellers and workers. As mentioned, ride-sharing is going to be a part of the mix too, more than likely. Most importantly we need better cycling infrastructure, better footpaths and more efficient use of rail infrastructure — ie. removing every level crossing in Australia and investing in cutting-edge train and signalling technology is going to pay many times more dividends than adding extra lines, both now and decades from now.

Autodesk – 300 X 250 (Exp Dec 31 2017)