‘Congestion-busting’ election pledges won’t solve Sydney’s problems

by Marion Terrill

Published by the Sydney Morning Herald, Tuesday 12 March

Sydney is set to be relegated to Australia’s second biggest city in the coming years, overtaken by Melbourne. The impression is of a paradise gone wrong – that poorly managed growth has left one of the world’s most beautiful cities with too many people and too little infrastructure.

In the face of increasing worries about crowding and congestion, the upcoming election means plenty of promises for new transport infrastructure, along with the usual calls to get people to move to regional towns.

But despite media coverage suggesting the opposite, Sydney’s rapid population growth has had a remarkably benign impact on commuting distances and times.  The average commute distance for Sydneysiders barely increased over the five years to the most recent Census in 2016. And commute times didn’t change much overall in the 12 years from 2004 to 2016.

How can this be? It’s due in no small part to the spread of jobs across the city. There’s a common misconception that jobs are centred in the CBD, which becomes harder to get to as Sydney grows. In reality, fewer than two in 10 Sydneysiders work in the CBD, whereas three in 10 work in a suburb just near home.

The importance of suburban “employment centres” is similarly overblown. We hear a lot about Parramatta as a jobs magnet and “second CBD”, but the truth is that it accounts for only 2.3 per cent of Sydney’s jobs. What’s more, Parramatta’s share of Sydney’s jobs did not increase in the five years to 2016.

As for plans to create new sub-centres, such as the “aerotropolis” at Badgerys Creek – don’t hold your breath. Sydney airport – which is only 10 kilometres from the CBD, compared with 60 kilometres for Badgerys Creek – had just 0.7 per cent of Sydney’s jobs in 2016, unchanged from 2011. Similarly, Melbourne’s airport at Tullamarine, now nearly 50 years old and much closer to the CBD than Badgerys Creek, has just 0.8 per cent of that city’s jobs.

Instead of being concentrated in the CBD and sub-centres, three quarters of Sydney’s jobs are dispersed all over the city, in shops, offices, schools, clinics, and construction sites. This spread is a key reason Sydney’s rapid population growth has had a remarkably benign impact on commutes.

People adapt to population growth. Some change job or worksite, or work more from home; some move house, or leave the city; and some change the way they get to work, leaving the car at home and catching the train. Others, especially high-income earners, simply accept a longer commute – at least for a while.

Of course, even if commutes are not getting much worse, congestion is still a problem. There is overcrowding on the trains and buses. Commuting times are unreliable, forcing workers to allow a buffer to ensure they get to work on time. A 2017 Grattan Institute report, Stuck in traffic?, found that while most Sydney drivers are delayed no more than five minutes getting to work, the delay can be much longer on bad routes.

But to date, governments have acted as if building expensive new infrastructure is the only way to respond to population growth. They’re wrong. Major projects such as WestConnex, the CBD and South East Light Rail, and the Sydney Metro are not yet finished, and yet commute times and distances have been remarkably stable.

Instead of making “congestion-busting” election pledges, governments should not announce any projects before rigorously establishing their net benefits to the community. Politicians should also focus on facilitating the natural adaptations people make. This means removing barriers to people and firms locating where they want to be. It means abolishing stamp duty, which now costs more than $43,000 on the median Sydney house, and effectively locks people into staying put when they otherwise might move. And it means introducing decongestion charges, to encourage drivers who don’t really need to travel at peak times to stay off the most congested roads at the most congested times.

Sydney is an Australian treasure – beautiful, vibrant and economically prosperous. With the right policies, governments can ensure it remains so, and that the benefits that draw people to the city outweigh the costs of the congestion and crowding that come with population growth.