The $53b economy lurking, wasted, in our congested cities


I’m not anti-car. I have 3, I reluctantly admit. Our household proudly has a family Skoda, for daily things and to ferry our family of 5 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 extra-ordinary things like late meetings and functions, and to take me to the tram stop on a semi-daily basis (however its days are numbered).

The last one is a recent acquisition, fuelled by my interest in 1970’s classic European cars, a 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. 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 that 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, 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 slightly less so, our food needs are centralised in large boxy suburban centres surrounded by car parks (let alone where the food comes from), and our entertainment is spread across the city.

Our recreation is slightly better, as us middle ringers have backyards (they are becoming smaller, and in our case, are producing some self-sufficiency) and for us, we have 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 that ever and 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 placemakers. The focus needs to start with people. Demographics. 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 Abbott’s constant reference to cities ‘being a matter for the states’.

Us ‘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, 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 better for people, 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, and ultimately, for their people.

The City of Unley, an inner Adelaide suburb, for example, only has around 2.6% 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/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’. If you like, healthier cities for healthier people.

Through an integrated policy approach, we can start 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 not only meet quantum targets of performance, and 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 $53b problem associated with congestion to our national economy.

Right now it is still too easy for me to keep 3 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 see us all into a new, more sustainable, greener future. Our cities might even start loving us back for it.

This article was first published on the industry website,

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