The only solution for Australia's crowded cities and roads

TRAFFIC is bad already. This week, most schools go back, and Australia is likely to start the year of its worst traffic in history.

More people will be heading to work and school than ever before. Not only is population up by 400,000 people since this time last year, but employment growth has been strong. An extra 400,000 people have jobs now compared to last year.

All of them will be trying to squeeze their way through a transport system that's not really any bigger than last year.

In Sydney, the idea traffic could get even worse probably feels like the apocalypse. The city faced chaos last week because of major problems in the train system. And a strike today was only avoided at the last minute.

 

WHAT DO WE DO?

One idea towers above all others: Move the jobs closer to the people.

This idea makes sense. Not only does it reduce congestion in the middle of the city, where crowding is worst (for both public and private transport), it does something else. Giving everyone a smaller commute means there is less traffic overall. The amount of traffic is not just the number of people on the road, but how far they have to go. Halve everyone's commute and you halve the traffic.

 

HERE COMES THE BUT

But.

Let's not pretend this idea is new, nor imagine it is easy. Cities have been trying to avoid the problem of having a single dense core since forever. Canberra is a great example of this in action. It was designed with multiple town centres. I will let you decide whether it has been a tremendous success or not.

The great cities of the world tend to converge around a very dense centre with lots of jobs.

The number of jobs in various areas of London, New York and Hong Kong. Source: Duncan A Smith for LSE Cities.
The number of jobs in various areas of London, New York and Hong Kong. Source: Duncan A Smith for LSE Cities.

CBD office rent is often three times more expensive than suburban office rent. Companies choose to pay the extra because they think it is worth it.

This should make us stop and ask ourselves a question. Why does this happen? Is it in fact important for a city to have a dense middle? If we try to spread out, do we risk killing the vitality that makes cities good?

 

WHY THE MIDDLE?

Let's say there are two types of business. Those that sell generic stuff and those that sell rare stuff.

The fish 'n' chip shop round the corner from my house doesn't need to be in the city centre. They can get enough customers in the suburbs, because plenty of people like battered flake.

But imagine there's a retailer that sells some rare, expensive kind of fish that a just a few people will pay a lot for. They need to find a location that gets all the potential customers as close to them as possible. It makes sense to set up in the middle of the city.

The same sort of choice applies for employees. If you simply need a person to work at the checkout, you can find staff anywhere. But if you need people to do internet security for your finance firm it's probably best to be in the city centre, where you can hire the best people no matter where they live in the city and they can get to work easily.

This is what cities do. They are not just a small town copy and pasted one hundred times. The combination of size plus access means they allow rare things to pop into existence. They permit different kinds of jobs and different kinds of services than small towns. Those unusual types of jobs are often highly productive and highly paid.

The side effect of cities being desirable is crowds and higher prices, but the growth of Australia's cities shows that is a price many will pay.

 

WHY IT'S WORSE NOW

One upon a time, businesses needed a lot of land, or a lot of raw materials. But Australia's agricultural past is long gone, and our status as a manufacturing hub is fading, as this graph shows.

Our status as a manufacturing hub is fading. Source: SGS Economics and Planning
Our status as a manufacturing hub is fading. Source: SGS Economics and Planning

Nowadays, most businesses sell services, and what they need is access to a lot of people. No wonder I can't get a seat on the morning train.

 

SPREADING OUR WINGS

It hopefully seems obvious by now that access is really important for cities to work properly. City centres get bigger at the beginning because they're the easiest point for everyone to access. Then, because everyone is going there, we add more roads and more public transport to serve the middle. That only intensifies the original dynamic.

So if we want to move the jobs closer to the people, we need to find a way to let businesses get the advantages of easy access without actually being in the middle.

 

THE GRID

Luckily, there's an answer. Making public transport networks less like a hub and spoke and more like a grid.

With a proper grid, public transport works like private transport. You can get wherever you're going without having to go into the city and back. Yes, you probably have to change lines once to get where you are going.

This probably sounds expensive, and it will be. But fixing access is the only way to move a city's jobs closer to the people without also killing it.