Traffic Congestion versus the United Nations Urban Habitat: The Future for Our Cities.

By 2050 it is forecast that 70% of the people on the planet will be living in urban cities.  This is not like the historic shift of the industrial revolution where masses of people moved to the new cities to earn a living.  Most of these people have no jobs.  They are fleeing repeated natural disasters on their farming lands.

In some countries this spontaneous urbanisation is creating slums where the planning authorities and national finances are unable to keep up with demand for new dwellings and infrastructure.  In other countries the issues are about the equality of access to the city’s amenities, employment and housing caused by cloying congestion.

In Australia we already have 80% of our population based in cities with over 40% of our population in Sydney and Melbourne.  Traffic congestion has long been the hallmark of travel in Sydney and now Melbournians are also talking about time to travel rather than the distance.

Let’s look at congestion as a cost and the plans for its resolution through good urban planning.  The Australian Government Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development reported that traffic congestion cost $16.5B in 2015.  By 2030 it is forecast to cost between $27.7B and 37.3B depending on the assumptions made.

Our Governments at Federal, State and Local are tasked with addressing this lost productivity.  What is the framework behind their thinking?

The United Nations (UN) has created a blue print for sustainable human habitat (The New Urban Agenda or Habitat III) that brings the best elements of international design for new cities and re planning or older cities together.  Australia is a signatory to its implementation.  The global need for this framework for planning is underscored by the thirty-six thousand people who attended the first implementation conference in Quito, Ecuador.  Another much more modest event was held in Melbourne last week.

How can we address traffic congestion?  We are seeing new cities built within existing cities such as the redevelopment of the formerly industrial suburb of Fisherman’s Bend in Melbourne.   It is planned to be a ’20-minute City’ where all residents can access local employment, health care, schooling, shopping, parks and entertainment through 20 minute trips.  It is also planned that 80% of these trips will be made by walking or public transport.

Imagine if your commute were to change and you could live in a ’20-minute City’.  No more slogging to work on the motorways, or through the back streets.  The public transport options may mean you could leave the car at home and work during the commute.  Instantly you might have more time per day; for some it could be as high as one and a half hours a day, or 7.5 hours per week.  That is like having another day in the week!

Where there is no brownfield land we could develop new ‘20 or 30-minute Cities’ through new technologies such as high speed rail (HSR) linking smart cities to employment centres in the CBD.  These cities can be built from scratch and embrace the best technologies, the best integration, and the best habitat creation from around the world.  Habitat III is world best practice to support sustainability, connections to the key services, and the amenities we need to live well.  Songdo in Korea is upheld a key smart city, though with so many new cities required it may become a statesman example very shortly.

In existing cities wise spending on connections between where we live and where we work will reduce the cost of congestion, the associated stress it causes, and create happier lives.  The Governments in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland are creating METRO train services to increase the quality and scope of services.  There are also HSR proposals on the table to connect affordable housing with CBD employment centres.  Both are backed by planning based on the predecessor of Habitat III.

Did you know that Sydney has the lowest rate of volunteering time per person in the country?  This indicator acutely shows the cost of congestion as we struggle to travel between our affordable homes and distant employment centres.

The cost of the next range of solutions for increased liveability in both Melbourne and Sydney involves delivering mega infrastructure and the funding model for Government delivery is broken.  We need to identify new ways to fund projects to deliver sustainable human habitat so Australia continues to be seen as a world class business and tourism destination.