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Congestion In Australian Cities Is Grinding Productivity To A Halt

If we improve our infrastructure, we improve the productivity, sustainability and liveability of urban Australia.

10/08/2017 10:41 AM AEST | Updated 10/08/2017 10:41 AM AEST
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"Urban sprawl is robbing commuters of many hours a week that they might otherwise spend engaging with their communities, their neighbours and most importantly, their families."

In 1969, then-Opposition Leader Gough Whitlam noted that Australian cities were losing their sense of community in the face of urban sprawl. To illustrate his point, Whitlam asserted that hundreds of thousands of Australians living in big cities would not even know the name of their next-door neighbour.

Sydney and Melbourne, Whitlam said, were transforming from "communities" to "conurbations". They were populated by people "whom the pattern of urban growth forces to travel further and further to work; taking longer and longer to get there; sharing less and less in common with their fellow citizens; knowing and wishing to know less and less of the common problems and interests around them''.

Whitlam's sharp analysis of life in urban Australia in the late '60s sounds just as sharp in 2017.

Urban sprawl is a major challenge in the 21st century. It is causing the traffic congestion that is costing the national economy $16 billion a year in lost productivity, according to analysis by Infrastructure Australia, with the cost to rise to $53 billion a year by 2031 unless we act now.

If we do act now to tackle traffic congestion, we will boost productivity and create jobs as well as the conditions for stronger economic growth.

We need more public transport, particularly to suburbs not connected to the passenger rail network. We need better roads. We need programs that promote job creation closer to where people live.

Urban sprawl is also robbing commuters of many hours a week that they might otherwise spend engaging with their communities, their neighbours and most importantly, their families. Indeed, it is a tragedy that many Australian parents spend more time commuting than they spend at home playing with their children.

While urban sprawl was an emerging issue in the 1960s, its modern impact has been exacerbated by changes in employment patterns.

In the 21st century, jobs growth is strongest in service industries located close to city centres. The problem is that millions of Australians who work in inner-city areas can't afford to live near where they work because of high property prices.

They can afford housing in suburban areas, but the mismatch between the location of affordable housing and the availability of work means they must face long journeys to and from work.

Governments have the capacity to address these issues. If we choose to, we can help millions of Australians recapture a better work-life balance.

We need more public transport, particularly to suburbs not connected to the passenger rail network. We need better roads. We need programs that promote job creation closer to where people live.

None of this is rocket science.

Back in September of 2014, I released Labor's 10-Point Plan for Better Australian Cities, which included these ideas as part of a comprehensive plan to improve the productivity, sustainability and liveability of urban Australia.

While the Coalition under Malcolm Turnbull has embraced such concepts in rhetorical terms, nothing is actually happening to address the real challenges or urban Australia.

Mr Turnbull likes to take selfies on trains, trams and buses, but he is yet to deliver the significant new investment for trains, trams and buses that is needed.

He has refused to invest in important public transport projects like the Cross River Rail project, the Melbourne Metro and Western Sydney Rail.

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The Government has cut infrastructure investment, with recent Parliamentary Budget Office analysis of in the 2017 Budget revealing that investment expressed as a proportion of GDP will halve in the next decade from 0.4 percent to 0.2 percent.

At the same time, it has created the new Infrastructure Financing Unit, tasked with attracting more private investment to make up for Mr Turnbull's cuts.

The problem there is that this will skew the market towards toll roads over railway lines. Toll roads produce commercial returns. But public transport, while a critical public service, is less attractive to investors.

Mr Turnbull's approach makes it less likely the Commonwealth will support construction of new railways lines into new communities which currently don't have rail access.

Residents of such communities, already forced to commute by car, will not only be denied a public transport alternative, but will also be increasingly forced to use toll roads to pay for the privilege of driving to work.

That has serious equity implications.

The current Federal Government is headed in the wrong direction on cities and traffic congestion. It is not only refusing to help commuters with rail options, but is actively pursuing policies that will worsen their plight.

Labor, already well advanced with planning to tackle urban sprawl and traffic congestion, will continue to develop further polices to make a real difference.

If elected, we will be ready to replace the current Government's talk with genuine action.

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