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Populate at peril?

By Ross Elliott - posted Thursday, 28 October 2021

We are fixated on population growth as a positive thing, which it can be. And we've become accustomed to rates of growth which have been absolutely extraordinary in global terms. Up until Covid turned the tap off on net overseas migration, we were projecting growth rates for our major cities which put them in the same league as cities such as Shanghai and Beijing. To think we were actively planning to grow Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne by close to a third in the space of just 15 years is quite remarkable if you pause to let that sink in.

Recent events though have shone a different light on how that growth is working out for China's mega growth cities, with Evergrande possibly the tip of an even larger speculative iceberg.


There are warning signs about growth here as well, and while it is good to welcome interstate and overseas arrivals once again, we could spend a little less time cheering on the numbers and more time planning for what's needed to support them.

There are very prominent and entirely mathematical consequences of rapid growth that we have proven to be epic failures at when it comes to planning and delivery. The first example is congestion. Here in Queensland we seem to salivate at the prospect of more interstate arrivals fleeing southern cities as Covid restrictions lift. This will boost demand for housing yes, and will likely mean more pressure on house prices – a good thing for owners, but bad news for those not yet in the market.

But consider this: for every 10,000 increase in population, we put between another 6,000 and 7,000 extra cars onto the roads. Mostly the same roads and the same capacity as was there 20 or even 30 year ago. Inevitable, mathetical consequence? More congestion.

According to the people at Charting Transport, the ratio of cars to population peaks initially at around .75 per person for people aged mid 20s, then falls to around .55 person for those aged around 40, and rises again to .85 per person for those aged around 65. So an overall ratio of say .6 to .7 per person equates to around 6,000 to 7,000 cars for every extra 10,000 of population.

When you next hear someone predicting another 1 million people in South East Queensland, just keep in mind that will mean another 600,000 to 700,00 cars. You'd better want to be living close to work by then.

Plans to increase road capacity are limited, and suggestions 'more public transport' will alleviate the issue are mostly wishful thinking. This could work if of those 10,000 arrivals, a large majority worked in industries or in locations that work for public transport. That mostly means the city centre. But the evidence is overwhelming – of a 10,000 increase in population, 60% of those aged 15 years and over will have jobs, and of them more than 9 in 10 will be in suburban locations, many in industries like health, education or construction. And of those of school age and below 15, we seem locked into the habit of being personal uber drivers for children, using private cars to drop them at their schools or sporting events. So most jobs associated with that extra population won't be in places capable of efficient public transport because that's the locational nature of those jobs. And unless we change our parental Uber habits, more school kids will also mean more cars on roads.


Another consequence of growth is played out regularly in the form of strains on our health system. For every 10,000 extra people, you need extra hospital beds and related medical services. That's not going so well. According to recent comments by Australian Medical Association Queensland President Professor Chris Perry, "We've had ramping for a long time, we've had code yellows for a long time … but it's getting worse because our population is ageing and our population has doubled in the last 30 years, and our hospitals haven't increased in size, really."

More people need more of everything in fact. Our ratio of hospital beds to population is around 3.9 per thousand (which is below the OECD average of 4.3) so just to maintain pace, for every extra million people, we need another 4,000 hospital beds. For context, that's roughly equivalent for four PA Hospitals (a major public hospital in Brisbane for non-Queensland readers).

Extra people also need extra schools, community facilities, even extra prisons. Each consequence of growth is calculable with a range of existing, proven mathematical ratios. Yet how much of our thinking is spent on how we are going to deliver on the consequences of growth, rather than just blithely cheering on the headline numbers? Failing to match the growth numbers with infrastructure and facilities to support a larger population actually leads to a declining quality of life. Maybe we could start thinking more about that aspect of growth as much as the headline numbers when post Covid growth numbers return?

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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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