Australian city planning hurtles towards crossroads
Australian city planning hurtles towards crossroads
4/02/2009 9:02:00 AM
The world's great cities are at a crucial tipping point in their development. London is finding it difficult to cope with the growth in demand for public transport, Beijing has serious air pollution and the infrastructure of US cities is collapsing. Australia's cities are rightly regarded as some of the finest urban environments in the world but they, too, are in trouble.
The Sydney city region is typical. Its traffic levels are among the highest in the world, its air pollution routinely breaches World Health Organisation standards, and its planning and metropolitan governance are not fit for the purpose. Brisbane, Perth and Melbourne have fuelled traffic growth with an excess of highly expensive new highways and a failure to recognise global trends in so-called demand management.
London has its congestion charge, Toronto will not build new roads and many other cities are heavily into high-quality public transport, walking and cycling strategies. Australia is being left behind.
Transport planners and geographers have repeatedly identified the links between large new expensive bridge, tunnel and highway projects and traffic growth. These projects intensify automobile dependence, produce unhealthy citizens and make cities expensive to run.
Sydney's poor-quality walking and cycling facilities deter its citizens from making use of cheap, healthy alternatives to the car. This adds to the obesity toll and related diseases such as early-onset diabetes. The heavy reliance on cars makes for a foul stew of poor air quality which adds to respiratory disease and hospital admissions, and actually spending time in cars adds to the negative health impact. Researchers in several countries have identified the high levels of air pollution (including those pollutants causing cancer) inside cars and still Australia's urban residents spend significant amounts of time in their cars and take the children to school by car.
Canberra suffers from energy-greedy urban sprawl. The long distances to be travelled, the over-generous road space provision and the lack of high-density, mixed-use, attractive urban planning make Canberra a far less attractive place than its splendid physical environment would suggest.
The expansion of Sydney to the west and Melbourne's abandonment of an effective urban boundary make things worse. The loss of agricultural land reduces the robustness of Australia's food supply system and makes the nation extremely vulnerable to shocks that will flow from peak oil and climate change. Local food and agricultural produce not based on huge oil inputs are vital to resilience and survival, and are being squandered around Melbourne and Sydney.
Peak oil is looming and Britain's Local Government Association has issued advice to all local authorities on how to deal with it. The smart money is currently on 2012 as the crunch year but the actual year matters less than the impact. Australia's cities will be approaching maximum oil dependence at exactly the time when global oil availability is falling fast and the oil demands of China and India are really taking off.
This is a national security threat as well as a problem for cities and it needs a robust response. Australia's expanding suburbs makes things worse and are exactly the opposite of what we should be done. Sweden has recognised the importance of reducing oil dependence in its ''Oil free by 2020'' policy and it would be very smart indeed for every city and state in Australia to follow suit.
There are five things that can be done to make Australian cities resilient in the face of peak oil and climate change. Each city needs:
A clear metropolitan strategy that will reduce fossil fuel use and greenhouse gases. This would cover transport, renewable energy and energy use in buildings.
A clear transport plan that focuses on active travel and the greatest possible increase in walking and cycling. A minimum of 500km of segregated cycle paths is needed in each city.
A thorough re-engineering of urban space so that pedestrian pavements are widened and pedestrian journeys rewarded with waiting times at crossing points reduced by at least half.
A comprehensive organisational re-engineering of rail, bus and ferry systems so that total integration of all kinds is hard-wired into the system.
A large-scale local food project based on no more loss of agricultural land, the doubling of food production by 2012 and de-coupling food-growing from oil dependence.
The choice between resilience and lack of resilience has to be made in 2009, and the choice is between a healthy, successful city and a failed city. The reality behind these choices is that a shift into a resilience strategy benefits everybody and provides long-term security and quality of life for all the citizens of urban Australia. There is absolutely nothing to lose and absolutely everything to gain.
The author is managing director of Eco-Logica, a transport consultancy based in Lancaster, England, and a visiting professor of sustainable transport at Liverpool John Moores University.