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Cars or trains: which will win the commuting future?

By Ross Elliott - posted Tuesday, 10 May 2016


Infrastructure investment is a hot topic and the focus of that discussion tends to lean towards transport infrastructure over other categories (like energy or water for example). When it comes to transport, trains seem to feature prominently on the wish lists of big investment or ‘nation building’ projects. But how far could billions of dollars in new rail infrastructure actually go in improving congestion across our cities?  Will cars inevitably win? If so, why?

‘We need more public transport’ is the silver bullet catch cry often heard in conjunction with debates about congestion in major cities. It has become so common that its validity is rarely tested. Even large scale commuter rail projects like Brisbane’s proposed $5billion (or $8billion – what a few billion amongst friends?) cross river rail can still maintain preferred project status – despite no business case after several years of discussion and now being in the hands of the project’s third state government.

As technology reshapes the nature of work - and with it where we work - and as Australia faces cities policy with renewed national interest – led primarily by our Prime Minister – it is timely to ask how infrastructure priorities might be shaped by evolving metropolitan form and the fast changing habits of urban inhabitants. Will old ways serve new days? Do we need more passenger rail, or will cars find a new purpose in decongesting our cities and serving a new economic model?

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Some recent figures through Macroplan serve to highlight the role played by rail in urban life. In 2013–14, there were 178.5 billion passenger kilometres travelled on capital city roads in Australia and 12.6 billion passenger kilometres travelled on urban rail networks. I’ve written before that this share is unlikely to change for the simple fact that only around 10% of metropolitan wide jobs are based in central business districts of our major cities. Agreed, it’s an important 10% for public transport because PT best serves a highly centralized workforce as you find in CBDs. Commuter rail in particular relies on a ‘hub and spoke’ model, mainly designed to ferry people from into and out of CBDs.

For people who work in CBDs, a high proportion will use public transport – rail included. But that’s a high proportion of the 10% minority of people in a metro wide area. Even if every single person who worked in a CBD caught PT, the mode share can never rise very high because around 90% of the workforce work in suburban areas, for which rail is not well suited. There has been a lot of talk about Transit Oriented Development (TODs) particularly around suburban rail nodes but despite decades of discussion, we are yet to see many (any?) genuine examples.

And the reality is that the economy is fast suburbanizing. New employment engines in sectors like personal services or health and caring are not beneficiaries of industry proximity. Being close to others in the same industry might have been good for finance, property and business service industries in traditional CBDs but the fastest growing sector of our economy at present is health care related, where being close to the people being served is important. This is not the CBD. There is even evidence that technology startups in the US have tended to prefer suburban or high street locations, offering high amenity, ample low cost or free parking, and cheap (or free) premises. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak of Apple fame started in a suburban garage after all. And Mark Zuckerberg got started at a desk in his college dorm.

As this shift of the economy moves from centralized to increasingly decentralized models – aided by new and fast evolving digital technology which makes connectivity over larger geographic areas so much easier – do the foundations of commuter rail feasibility begin to crumble?

This graph, which shows the dramatic long term decline of the CBD as the dominant employer region in Sydney, could apply equally to other capitals:

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Source: The Polycentric Metropolis – Sydney’s Centres Policy in 2051, Bob Meyer, Director of Planning, COX Richardson Architects and Planners

This shift is directly related to how public transport versus private has fared over a similar long term scale, as evidenced by this chart:

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This article was first published in The Pulse.



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About the Author

Ross Elliott is an industry consultant and business advisor, currently working with property economists Macroplan and engineers Calibre, among others.

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