Professor Peter Newman AO, Professor of Sustainability, Curtin University


Why is public transport the ‘holy grail’ of future communities?

There is a fundamental change occurring across the world in the 21st century driven by a need to make our cities functional again. They were becoming totally dysfunctional as the cities sprawled and depended on cars for everything.


Cities everywhere are now seeing that automobile dependence is fundamentally an economic problem, social problem and environmental problem; and cities must respond better to re-urbanisation using public transport. World cities are now investing more in public transport than they are in car-based infrastructure, with the exception in recent times of Australia. China, India, America and Europe are growing dramatically in public transportation and for the first time in 200 years we can now see cities moving back in, not continuing outwards. Tony Abbott’s roads only policy was the last gasp of the old paradigm but Malcolm Turnbull understands that the economy is being made in rail-based urban centres.


The present model used by transport planners generally relies on finding where the bus routes are and suggesting we build rail along that corridor. In this process the land development and community development part is always forgotten; we end up having suburbs with buses and not much more. The breakthrough in my thinking was to say that if you’re going to make dense centres again, you have to combine land use into the model of how you build public transport networks. The need for such a model has been evident but the mechanism was not. The ‘Entrepreneurial Rail Model’ outlines how you must link finance to successfully deliver integrated land use and public transportation.


How can we get public and private stakeholders working together?

You start by talking to politicians, which I have done, about how you could reinvigorate both public transport and transit-orientated developments (TOD). The second thing is you’ve got to come up with some actual examples of it, so people can see how it works and that requires government agencies, the private sector and the community approaching integrated urban development differently. It requires people to find the best redevelopment potential and use that to drive the building of rail as well as the centres.


We must attract interest from the private sector as they know best about land markets and the economics of where to redevelop centres and TOD’s. Attracting expressions of interest from those who could find the best areas and linking that with light rail or even heavy rail gives you the best chance of private sector investment. Governments can no longer afford to fully fund projects, but private sector support will help attract a level of government support as well as helping create a more efficient, cost-effective rail project.


Government land around road-rail connections offer good opportunities to build TOD’s through value capture. The private sector can do this through ‘active value capture’ models leveraging the value of upgrading by committed private sector money as the catalyst to redevelopment. Middle suburbs reaching the end of their building life offer the most significant redevelopment potential if you can combine a whole precinct around a station.


The current practice of allowing developers to put little units in backyards will see very little change. You need to make centres where people in the suburbs have a place to work, for shopping, child care and other services, and where there is a good public transport link.


How does public transport future proof cities?

Outer suburbs are predominantly ‘consumer economies’ and will never be able to compete with the intensive land use required to stimulate other types of jobs. Whereas city centres continue to grow as ‘knowledge economies’ which thrive on intense people-oriented activity. These ‘creatives’ or ‘innovators’ need to be able to meet around coffee shops and walkable spaces where there is easy access to lots of people with different disciplines and backgrounds. That is the model for ‘knowledge cities’ everywhere and they are competing now on the basis of how attractive the spaces in knowledge economies can be for capital and creative young people.


Melbourne is one of the best in the world. The city centre and the inner areas are attracting all the jobs, those creative, innovative, high paying jobs. This is why public transport is so critical. It enables those centres to function. You cannot imagine Melbourne, or Sydney, or even central Perth now, without the public transport that enables those large quantities of people to come together and work. Younger people who are at the centre of all that don’t want to live far away. They do not want to spend an hour and a half to journey along a stationary freeway. This is the new dynamic in our cities which are over car dependence.


Is light rail the only choice or simply the best choice for Australia?

Ultimately it is a combination of transport modes. There is a rail revolution happening because essentially car congestion has got to the point where you cannot overcome it with freeways any more. They just aren’t working and fill so quickly. The speed of traffic has been going down now for 10 to 15 years in most cities, compared to rail speeds which have been steadily going up. In Australian cities now it is faster to go by rail than car.


For shorter distances within 15 to 20 kilometres of a city you should lace the urban environment with light rail. You can easily achieve a good 20 to 30 km/h service, which provides much higher carrying capacities than buses and supports neighbourhood centres.


Cities do require options if they are going to overcome automobile dependency. Heavy rail is much more effective at reaching deeper into the suburbs than light rail. Heavy rail in Melbourne and Sydney averages around 40km/h but it is twice that in Perth; now you just can’t beat that in a car. The future of our cities is to have these long corridors where you’ve got fast rail connections that can carry the equivalent of 20 lanes of traffic in either direction linking people into the rest of the city.


Do cars have a role in the future of Australian cities?

If you think of public transport as being the base you can achieve very significant reductions in car dependence. You still need some cars such as taxis, autonomous vehicles and even some private vehicles, but driving would only be a small part of city transport.


People have suggested that autonomous vehicles will somehow revolutionise freeway congestion, having platoons of autonomous vehicles going down freeways like massive trains. We have done the numbers on this scenario and it doesn’t get anywhere near the capacity of trains, nor do I believe it will work. You only need one person to panic at 100km/h, override the system and you’ve got the most unbelievable accident.


What happens when autonomous vehicles get to the city centre? They are still vehicles and are not needed or welcome in city centres. They would be crawling along, constantly stopping every time a pedestrian walked near them as the autonomous sensors are set off.


Where they could be useful is moving around the suburbs, linking people with stations, shopping centres and the main TOD centres. People could book to be picked up meaning they wouldn’t need a car and would no longer be car-dependent having that kind of access.


Are ‘Park N Ride Facilities’ a sustainable land use strategy around public transport nodes?

It’s a very cheap and unattractive way to help people access stations by transport planners who don’t understand how you integrate transport and land use. Carparks are simply about getting people on the train, rather than the advantages of integrated connector and bus services running out into surrounding suburbs and not creating car conflicts with pedestrians around stations.


If you could change one thing about the way new communities are created what would it be?

I would encourage private sector development expertise, creativity, and money to be partnered with local communities who want to revive their community and local governments who want to attract jobs and denser urban development by having good public transport. If you can start those partnerships, you will be creating sustainable, viable communities for the future.


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