Slow and steady wins the race for Hobart

by Marion Terrill and James Ha

Published in The Mercury, Tuesday 23 October

Slowbart was once a reference to the idyllic lifestyle of Tasmania’s capital.

Nowadays, it seems a more apt description of its traffic.

The city is being choked by congestion from hordes of new people — right?

Actually, Census figures show that Hobart’s population has been growing at only 1 per cent a year.

It is a leisurely pace barely half as fast as the biggest Australian capitals.

Adds another meaning to the name Slowbart, doesn’t it?

One per cent is comparable to other cities in the developed world.

Hobart’s growth rate is on par with the average American or British city.

But many Tasmanian politicians look across Bass Strait with envy.

The State Government’s “You in a Year” campaign is just one way that they have tried to accelerate population growth.

But slow and steady growth has its benefits.

By making smart decisions now, Hobart can be better prepared for future expansion.

Growth is good for a city.

New people bring fresh ideas, add to the tax base and expand our culinary horizons.

About 1700 net new migrants called Hobart home in 2017.

Half of those were from the mainland and half were from overseas.

And why wouldn’t they? It’s got a lot going for it: charm, beauty, lifestyle, job opportunities. The vibe. Pagan rituals.

But there are also forces that push people apart: congestion, crowding and competition.

These negative effects of population growth are often easier to see than the positive effects, which is why locals tend to romanticise the good old days.

A growing population means more competition: for homes, jobs, schools.

Even for seats on the bus, or space in the intersection.

With four out of every five people driving to work, congestion is one of the biggest downsides of city living.

House prices and rent are higher in the city, too.

But before you pack up the car and head for Binalong Bay, hold up!

It’s not as bad as you think.

New Grattan Institute research shows most Hobart residents work within 7km of home.

Importantly, this has barely changed over the past five years, despite the Lord Mayor’s fears that an “out-of-control real estate market” is pushing people further and further away.

Commutes in Hobart are much shorter than in the bigger capitals.

While two in five workers are employed in the CBD, you’re just as likely to work just a suburb away from home.

The majority of jobs are dispersed across Hobart, in shops, offices, schools, clinics and construction sites — not to mention art galleries.

Admittedly, some people’s commutes have grown longer, or slower, or less comfortable. The Macquarie St/Davey St couplet is notorious in peak hour.

Unreliability is another key problem — traffic varies a lot day to day, which means you have to allow extra time to get to work just in case it’s a bad day.

And incidents can cause major delays, as many people on Valentine’s Day dates can attest to this year.

But we should be level-headed about this — Hobart has not ground to a halt.

Government should not be reaching for mega infrastructure projects, like a $900 million city bypass, to alleviate traffic problems.

We would be wise to treat any such “congestion-busting” ideas with scepticism until a full business case has been conducted.

Unless the benefits can be shown to outweigh the costs, these pipedreams are not visionary — they’re vanity projects, and they divert the money away from better uses.

Instead, the government should pursue a range of more modest projects with clear net benefits for the community, such as a private parking space levy in the CBD and smarter intersection design.

We should celebrate Hobart’s unremarkable population growth.

Sensible growth creates space for sensible planning.

This will minimise future growing pains while still allowing us to enjoy everything that new people have to offer.