The $53 Billion Economy Wasted in Our Congested Cities 4

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Monday, August 10th, 2015
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I’m not anti-car. I have three, I reluctantly admit.

Our household proudly has a family Skoda for daily things and to ferry our family of five about. We love it; it is very fuel efficient, sporty, and large enough to do all the things we need it to.

I have another car, the previous family car, relinquished to taking me to things like late meetings and functions, and to take me to the tram stop on a semi-daily basis, though its days are numbered.

The last one is a recent acquisition, fuelled by my interest in 1970s classic European cars, an excellent example of Volkswagen’s shift from air cooled and rear engine cars to water cooled and front wheel drive cars. Call it my Achilles’ heel, or the money pit.

All three were carefully selected based on many factors: their design, desirability, durability, drivability, functionality, and cost of ownership.

I make no apologies that I like cars. I am also a strong environmentalist, or perhaps a pragmatic environmentalist.

For now, cars still provide the principal means to move about our hilly middle ring Adelaide suburb. In our family, we do have more bikes than cars, and I have just taken delivery of an electric boosted pedal bike to use to get to work. Like the Neanderthal, I am slowly adapting.

I realise I am partly to blame for the congestion happening to our cities. They are more congested, more polluted, less people friendly, and driven by more bitumen and concrete to cater for increased individual movements – and mostly by cars. It seems to be me that we are not yet fully willing to sacrifice individual mobility for the sake of the greater environmental good.

Our jobs are not always where we want them to be, our schools often the same way, our food needs are centralised in large boxy suburban centres surrounded by car parks (to say nothing of where the food comes from and the distance from source to table) and our entertainment is spread across the city.

Our recreation is slightly better, as we middle ringers have backyards (they are becoming smaller, and in our case, are producing some self-sufficiency) and my family has ready access to the open spaces near the foothills. However, the opportunity to downsize and move closer to a more sustainable living situation is still not easy.

In 2015, cars still by and large drive our behaviour. Some may argue this obsession with individual mobility in the form of car use has increased in recent years; we’re building more roads than ever and have taken the accelerator off building the equivalent public transport projects.

Yet, according to many sources, we have reached what many are calling ‘peak car.’

The options to move closer to most Australian cities are still limited. Housing affordability is one thing; of equal concern is equitable access to quality public green spaces. Yet we build more roads to and away from our city centres.

We need to rethink how our cities work. The housing bubble that is undoubtedly occurring in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane highlights the problem. More housing, more people, more cars, more activity, more demands, more pressure on public investment to fill in the gap. We are at a critical juncture in regards to ensuring people are the focus – not investors, not bankers, not service providers, not utility providers, not planners, not place makers. The focus needs to start with people. We need to look at trends in mobility, trends in open space usage, layering greener investments into the mix, ensuring everything has multiple uses, making democracy the centre of decision making to ensure our cities are designed better for people.

Ultimately we should be making it easier to walk to the shops, ride to work, grow our own food if we want to, deal with pollution and waste locally, and recreate near where we live. These are tangible, achievable and worthwhile objectives if we want to meet the challenges head on. They are good for us, good for the economy, and good for the planet. But where should the policy start? Who blinks first?

The Commonwealth historically had a role, depending on the colours of those assuming the Treasury benches, in shaping our cities. The current federal government has stepped back from a leading role in cities, evident in the Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s constant reference to cities ‘being a matter for the states.’

We ‘city sympathisers’ are stepping up our advocacy as a result of the policy vacuum.

The Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council (ASBEC) recently responded to the 2015 Australian Government ‘State of the Cities’ report calling for urgent change in city policy as a result of what AIA president elect, Professor Ken Maher, says is a ‘$53 billion per year cost of congestion time bomb.’ This is equivalent to the economies of Bulgaria or Ecuador wasting away every year in Australia’s congested cities. This is an incredible statistic.

The report, a joint exercise with most of the planning, engineering and design professions, calls for a new ‘Minister for Cities’ to lead the commonwealth government’s urban policy development.

This is a good move, to re-establish (with a greater role) the former Major Cities Unit of Infrastructure Australia which was disbanded by the Abbott government, and to reinforce the economic powerhouses that are Australia’s cities. The structural changes in our economy, the future economy, and how we facilitate the changes in our cities need to be recognised and led at a national level. We could easily recover this lost economy with better, more connected, easier to move around, and more people-friendly cities.

Transparent indicators proposed in the ASBEC report will measure the liveability of our cities and provide measures to identify shortfalls and strategies to improve their performance for their people.

The City of Unley, an inner Adelaide suburb, for example, only has around 2.6 per cent of the city classified as open space, yet its northern boundary is to the Adelaide Park Lands, all 776 wonderful hectares of it. The city has no major pieces of open space, and has a population intensity of over 3,000 people per hectare – the highest in South Australia.

By comparison with Sydney and Melbourne, it is not high. However, with ambitious population growth targets set by the State, cities like Unley need to rethink their open space strategies to perform and meet future pressures of more people.

The new ‘green’ is no longer a quantum of open space, measured as a percentage of total area. Our streets, backyards, parks, creeks, car parks, main roads, private and public spaces will all contribute greater value to our city’s landscape, creating a new integrated ‘green infrastructure.’

Through an integrated policy approach, we can start to realise the benefits of linking drainage corridors as valuable assets with amenity and environmental value, streets as parks and habitat, car parks as multiple use green spaces, backyards as the new sharing spaces.

With a new and improved wider policy framework, setting national targets, our cities will be able to meet quantum targets of performance. With a collaborative approach, they will be able to work across local and state boundaries to best address the pressures we continue to face, and begin to address a massive $53 billion problem associated with congestion to our national economy.

Right now it is still too easy for me to keep three private vehicles. I dream of the day where the only car I have is the one I adore as an object, used infrequently, recycled from another era, and cared for – and not as an essential daily appliance.

It is this behaviour change that will usher us all into a new, more sustainable, greener future. Our cities might even start loving us back for it.

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4
  1. David A Hood

    Daniel, I think you miss the serious sustainability point here. $53b wasted on congestion is actually a cost of our current economic paradigm. Your suggestion that we avoid that cost by fixing it is embedding the GDP growth forever model which we all know in our hearts is doomed. We have to find and implement a new way of societal interactivity that creates wellness, and growth in non economic terms (as they are currently defined). To say that alleviating congestion is essential for "growth" is to simply exacerbate the endemic problem. Alleviating congestion here, too often just shifts it over there… We need to solve the question: "why congestion?" Not continually seek to continually "alleviate it".

  2. Engr. Richard Rhimes

    I don't fully get our obsession with so many people working in our typically expensive and geographically limited capital cities. We have so much land and so few people compared to other countries (e.g. I live and work in Africa – as a FIFO). Yes there are infrastructure cost benefits (although the infrastructure is generally in a sad state of decay, due lack of long-term and current funding), but apart from peer preference is that the only defining factor for most of us?
    Surely with telecommunications, investment opportunities in country areas (even country cities) with the benefits of working/living away from the bigger cities, and dare I say even having different work times/phases for city workers, then we could all benefit with a re-think (re-boot).

  3. Om Singh

    Government policy is main reason behind it.If they develop more better new cities then such kind of situation can not created.

  4. Frank Hermesdorf

    It's great to sense that every-one of you sees the current situation of our cities as unsustainable & unacceptable. Where we seem to differ is how to solve the situation. I've been approached by a 3rd world country to design a new capital, a metropolis of millions of people, and to do so in a sustainable way. Could you share with me what your priorities, standards and must-does/must-not-does are? What advice would you give me?