There’s a common view that Malcolm Turnbull’s ‘30-minute city’ is yet another slight variation on the many terms we already have for a more sustainable urban form e.g. compact city, walkable city, smart growth, new urbanism, urban consolidation.
They all imply smaller dwellings, higher densities and less reliance on cars. But whereas the others leave a lot of wiggle room (e.g. a more compact city), the 30-minute city specifies a precise standard. It insists that travellers should be able to go wherever they want to – irrespective of purpose, place or time – within a maximum travel time of 30 minutes.
Mr Turnbull accepts cars in his conception of the 30-minute city but the version proposed by Shadow Cities Minister, Anthony Albanese, is much more demanding; he says travellers should be able to get to destinations within 30 minutes by public transport, bicycle or on foot. But even that looks conservative compared to what’s in the Victorian Government’s strategic plan for Melbourne, Plan Melbourne; it also rules out cars but sets a target of just 20 minutes!
The 30-minute city implicitly assumes cities like Melbourne or Sydney, even though they have populations well over four million, consist of a large number of self-contained villages with residents necessarily living at much higher densities than is customary in suburbia i.e. smaller dwellings closer together. (1)
How close are our big cities to the Prime Minister’s 30-minute ideal? How realistic is it? Can the politicians actually deliver on this one?
Mr Turnbull should note that’s an average; breaking it down shows that 63% of all commutes take 30 minutes or longer. And Mr Albanese should consider the fact that 75% of those commutes are made by car; only 19% of work trips are made by public transport, with 5% by active modes i.e. cycling/walking.
But surely journeys to work that originate in the denser inner suburbs are shorter than 30 minutes? No, the average one-way commute originating in Melbourne’s inner suburbs takes 38 minutes. Commutes by car average 33 minutes; those by public transport take much longer i.e. 47 minutes on average (see here for map of what constitutes inner suburbs).
Alright, but no doubt the residents of somewhere like Geelong with a population of just 180,000 all get to work within 30 minutes? No again; the average commute by Geelong residents takes 35 minutes.
If you want to find a real 30-minute city you get closest in a provincial centre like Shepparton, Ballarat, Bendigo or Traralgon. Taken together, the average commute in these places is 20 minutes. Note though that 84% are made by car and the average commute by public transport takes 78 minutes.
So, these numbers illustrate a key reason why the ‘30-minute city’ is more about political fluff than about offering a real policy alternative. It conveniently ignores history or what economists call path dependency i.e. the huge stock of low density dwellings, roads, and reserves that exist in our cities. It ignores the deep cultural expectations of space embedded in the Australian psyche e.g. the ‘save our suburbs’ movement.