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The great urban mobility challenge

By Ross Elliott - posted Tuesday, 12 September 2023

Each major Australian capital city is faced with predicted population growth of millions more people within just the next 25 years. In Brisbane it's over 1.5 million more, Sydney will cop another near 4 million and Melbourne over 3 million more people. Here's a scary fact: at current rates of cars to people, Brisbane will also have another 1 million more cars, Sydney will have around 3 million more and Melbourne around 2 million more. Unless we ban personal ownership of cars, what are the future choices we need to be thinking about, now?

Before we run through a list of the various options, first a challenge: whatever the "solution" to an imminent urban congestionastrophe, let's try agree that whatever succeeds needs to provide a personalised mobility solution: it needs to be available on demand (there when I need it), offer infinitely variable routes (takes me where I want to go and when I want to go, which differs every day), and can carry my stuff (from groceries to whatever). Ideally it's also expandable (can carry more than one person when I have someone travelling with me) and offers good range and rapid recharge/refuelling.

Sounds a lot like a personal car doesn't it? This probably also explains why they have proven so successful in meeting community needs. But what are the other options in the future? Here goes…


Shared car ownership. It's been touted as something of a solution to car ownership but doesn't seem to address congestion so much. Plus, things like Goget (car sharing app) have struggled. Perhaps having one parked in our garage, ready and waiting, is still just too convenient?

Passenger rail. The great hope of many but, in my opinion, never to repeat its historic 19th and 20th century popularity. The routes are fixed, the overhead wires are fixed, the stations are fixed, and the schedules fixed. It struggles to serve the realities of modern life with multiple trips and different routes daily. It isn't convenient for carrying our stuff and mostly suits the 9 to 5 centralised office worker market, which is shrinking globally. The average CBD share of metro wide jobs for a city in a modern western economy is around 13% - and that was before the 'work from anywhere' thing started to take off post Covid. It actually carries very few people (just 10% of work trips across capitals in Australia using pre-covid numbers from 2016 – the 2021 journey to work numbers being Covid affected) and is frightfully expensive – especially underground. At over $100million per kilometre on surface, you'd struggle to find a more expensive and less popular mode of travel. Worldwide, infrastructure projects with massively blown budgets and under performing passenger numbers often feature passenger rail (except China, where everything is different).

Buses. Not as popular as rail (5% of passenger in Australia capitals) but more popular than trains in Brisbane - possibly because they service a wider variety of routes using the road network? Buses can be re-routed with ease and bus stops are low capital intensive investments. But they are still not "on demand" or offer personalised routes, nor are they very convenient for doing the shopping. They have been around a long time but the mode share has stubbornly not moved much. Unlikely to do so in the future either.

Metro. Trackless trams or metros are a modern solution which may gain a lot of support. They don't require permanent rail or overhead wires, they are electric, and potentially autonomous. They provide a higher level of comfort than buses and can be rerouted using the road network if needed (all of which makes them much cheaper than trains). They can also turn corners (which trains struggle with) plus in Brisbane they are promised as a high frequency service (so no need to check a schedule). Metro stations are more capital intensive than traditional bus stops, and like other public transport modes, aren't exactly the preferred way to do the groceries, visit the doctor or get the kids to school. Still, in all likelihood, a big step forward in the future.

Ferries. "Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats." So said Ratty to Mole in Wind in the Willows. Ratty was right – a more pleasant way to travel is hard to find. But when it comes to solving congestion by providing a meaningful alternative to cars, ferries aren't the go-to choice. They are confined to water ways for starters. And they don't usually go near shops or schools. They are expensive to operate and maintain (ferries need terminals and require a lot of maintenance) on a per passenger basis. The lucky few who can make use of these on a regular basis can count themselves very fortunate.

Cycling & walking. Fun fact:three times as many people walk to work (3.2%) as bicycle (around 1%). The numbers on active transport are an interesting read. Active travel works for people when their jobs are close to where they live. Any more than a few kilometres away though, and walking or cycling drops right down. Hint to urban planners: don't segregate future housing from future work places and you might see more active travel. On the downside though, climate (too hot, too cold, too wet or too unpredictable) are factors difficult to overcome. It's also difficult to carry your shopping bags any great distance (unless you steal the supermarket trolley which the visual evidence says happens a lot). Unlikely to ever make a big dent in urban congestion, however appealing the idea.


Uber buses. Yet to gain a lot of traction here are Uber buses – a way of tailoring schedules and routes to users. It's working overseas and I witnessed a non-tech version in Vanuatu a few years ago (the bus driver asked where you were going and, based on where all passengers were going, worked out the route from there). The Uber bus is typically a smaller bus which varies routes and schedules around user demand. Sounds great in theory, provided they don't cancel on you, or hit you with a surge. The technology platform that makes this possible ought to be something public transport agencies look into further. Will it bust congestion? Unlikely, but with support it could make an impact.

Flying cars & taxis. They're coming, and I want one! Brisbane has announced the promise of flying taxis by the time of the 2032 Olympics. Other cities will follow. The technology is proven and trials of various personal flying cars are underway with some already available – if you have the cash. One thing promoters haven't counted on is Australia's love of regulation, and I fear that Federal aviation authorities will pose so many constraints on operations in the sky that it will be decades before private users will be buzzing around like George Jetson. As for parking one at your local shops… yeah, nah – that just takes shopping centre parking to a third dimension!!!

Scooters & e-bikes. Love them or hate them, there's no denying they've been rapidly adopted where they've been allowed. For shorter trips they are brilliant. But they aren't cheap to hire, and scooters are useless for carrying anything more than the wallet in your pocket, and have the same climate issues as active transport. Plus, regulators are introducing so many geofencing limits that their appeal is being limited. However, privately owned e-bikes that make use of extensive bikeway or active transport networks could potentially see a rise in popularity – shopping baskets included. Provided the lithium battery doesn't burn your house down, these could be useful to have in your garage.

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This article was first published on 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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