Over recent times, transport and the future of Australian cities has been an important topic of debate amid a ramping up of public sector investment in road and rail infrastructure and talk about 30-minute cities.

Things have also been busy at Infrastructure Australia, which outlined 93 priority developments in an audit of the nation’s road, rail, power, water and telecommunications requirements in May last year and subsequently made 78 recommendations for change as it unveiled a 15-year plan for infrastructure in February.

By all means, challenges going forward cannot be understated. Between 2012 and 2061, ABS projections suggest that the population of Brisbane and Melbourne will both double, whilst that of Perth will nearly triple. Thanks to the combination of a declining proportion of people of working age relative to those in their retirement years and spiraling healthcare costs, meanwhile, the government will have an underlying cash deficit of $266.7 billion by 2055, according to the nation’s Intergenerational Report released last year. This will obviously reduce the available pool of public sector cash for spending on public assets.

On the positive side, by contrast, technologies such as ride sharing and autonomous vehicles offer opportunities to make better use of existing infrastructure, whilst further avenues to address peak hour congestion exist through measures such as encouraging more people to work from home and using market based mechanisms such as road pricing to discourage travel during peak periods.

Given all this, where should our infrastructure priorities lie?

One of the critical mistakes we have made in the past, Panther Consulting Planners director Brett Skyring says, revolves around a haphazard approach to road building projects. An example of this can be seen though a proposed upgrade of the interchange between the Gateway Motorway and the Logan Motorway in Brisbane’s south, where Skyring says considerable sums of money are being spent on improvements to the southbound direction but not the northbound direction coming in to the city.

He adds the focus should revolve less around building new infrastructure and more in making greater use of our existing assets. Many of our roads suffer from ‘choke points,’ he says, and removing these would improve efficiency. Improving interfaces between various forms of transport could also be a big step forward, and better separation between industrial and residential areas could help reduce impacts such as industrial noise felt by residents – though this could potentially see either industrial or residential precincts having to be located further away. Finally, Skyring believes the case for high speed rail on the east coast has considerable merit, as such a system could alleviate air travel congestion across the busy Melbourne/Sydney/Brisbane routes.

Meanwhile, Brisbane-based transport planner and author Rachel Smith says the context in which transport planning is taking place is evolving as changing work patterns potentially see a greater proportion of residents working away from the office and thus not commuting to the CBD. Rising health costs from an aging population, meanwhile, could change tax revenue, baby boomers could potentially sell down assets and the rise in the sharing economy and services such as Uber has the potential to alter vehicle ownership and travel patterns.

Whilst the precise impact of these trends upon the transport system is not yet clear, Smith says forward thinking solutions are needed and that the nation needs to have a clear conversation about how we might go forward in light of some of these trends.

“We’ve got to be having these really tough conversations now and saying ‘let’s really look at what the future could be like and let’s plan for that,’” she said. “Let’s put these big trends on the table and let’s plan, prioritise and project what the future is going to look like.”

Asked about overseas examples which Australia could follow, Smith says good approaches can be seen through the pedestrianisation project on Times Square in New York and the cycle superhighways initiative in London.

Smith says the former, which saw a number of streets closed off to vehicular traffic on Times Square on a trial basis, was a resounding success and Times Square is now one of the 10 most popular destinations for shopping in the world. She says Australia could learn from this approach and look for opportunities where potential improvements can be trialed for short periods and ‘put back’ if things do not work out.

The cycle superhighways project, meanwhile, saw the creation of cycle routes running across central London. Smith says Mayor Boris Johnson had a bold and clear vision of what he wanted and took the appropriate action in order to make it happen. Australia could learn much from this, she says.

Australia is currently undergoing a significant program of public sector infrastructure investment.

The extent to which these investments will pay off or otherwise will largely depend on our ability to anticipate and plan for future trends in transport need and usage.