OPINION: Brisbane’s success as a smart global city depends on our ability to overcome our very real bias towards motor vehicles and instead plan for greater mass transit mobility, urban densification, walkability and green space as opposed to isolation, gridlock and pollution.
Next year, the year 2018 is a fundamental year for our region. More so than 1988, when Brisbane hosted World Expo, or the G20 in 2014 and not because of the upcoming Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. It is because next year will prove our ability to push ahead with cornerstone mass transit projects like Cross River Rail and Brisbane Metro which will change the course of our region.
South East Queensland (SEQ) population has crept up to approximately 3.5 million people today. Conservative growth forecasts over the next two decades indicate that the population of South East Queensland will add another 1.8 million people, or to put it into perspective a city larger than Auckland.
One thing is clear, the SEQ of tomorrow will be vastly different from the region we have known for decades. The ultimate cross road is here, like never before. We have arrived at a space where our region is fast approaching a critical population mass. We are now slowly starting to feel growth pains of a larger city.
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Importantly, the question is, will Brisbane follow a similar trajectory and inherit the same congestion, affordability and mobility problems that Sydney and Melbourne currently experience? or will we take a vastly different approach by planning ‘radical’ infrastructure reforms which sets a completely different course to our southern cousins?
A key concept to understand how SEQ can do things differently, and grow differently is by understanding a concept known as induced demand. Understanding this concept will enable our region to change course and grow more sustainably.
A large portion of the population are coming to terms with the reality that adding more lanes ONTO a freeway probably isn’t A SMART OR sustainable thing to be doing.
While it might sound like common sense, traffic is at a standstill, you are frustrated as anything sitting in traffic, wasting your life away. It feels belittling. To be stuck, day in day out in this never ending snake of congestion.
The most obvious thing to do is to add more lanes to that road. Adding lanes, duplicating roads would instantly fix congestion, instantly. It is fast, it is also cheap to widen roads and freeways. This however is fundamentally the worst thing we can do. Simply due to the effects of induced demand, which will be explained shortly.
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Firstly, people absolutely cannot be blamed for thinking that road widening is the way to go. It seems like common sense, adding additional lanes would fix the problem, but this is so very wrong, and has unfortunately formed the status quo of government decisions for decades.
A vast array of reports tell the same story, with one by the American Economic Review putting it simply, “If you build it, you will sit in traffic on it”, which is exactly what the evidence shows.
Gridlock isn’t solved by adding more lanes to a congested freeway, because it will only invite even more cars to join future congestion thanks to the newly created road space.
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Roads are the cause of traffic
— City Observatory (@CityObs) December 18, 2015
Twenty years ago, in the late 1990’s, the M1 Motorway between Brisbane and the Gold Coast was a nightmare. The two lanes each way would regularly became congested and gridlocked from traffic accidents or simply from the commute back from the beach.
The state government at the time planned for a $850 million upgrade to the M1 motorway between Brisbane and the Gold Coast which opened to the public a few years later. Around 28 kilometres was expanded to four lanes each way and was covered in an Australian-first Portland Cement for longevity.
The final product resembled something you would see in Los Angeles, instead this freeway linked Australia’s 3rd and 5th largest cities together. Upon completion in 2000, driving from Brisbane to the Gold Coast was a dream. Never was there issues with congestion or ‘avoiding the traffic’.
Fast forward 17 years, and over a million additional people have moved into South East Queensland. Groundhog day is here. The M1 is now considered by most as ‘congested’, again.
With a state election looming, media has been notably calling out the congestion and calls are being made by the Queensland LNP Opposition for a duplication of the M1.
May I just add that this process of expansion, gridlock, expansion is a never ending vicious cycle whereby additional cars are encouraged onto the roads only to end in total gridlock a decade later. This basic graphic below shows this exact trend.
Continuously expanding motorways simply does not work. Even in the world’s most car-centric city, Los Angeles, the astonishingly wide 16 lane freeways still regularly become gridlocked even at non-peak hour times. Urban planners who spend years studying population and mobility trends would never once recommend freeway or road expansions for commute traffic purposes.
Adding a million more people to a region simply does not mean that freeway expansion is inevitable or necessary. There are more sustainable solutions which are easily up-scalable, free up road space for economic benefit such as freight and also drive growth in concentrated, planned areas. These will be touched on later.
The Joys of Australian Politics
I think we all know the reason why politicians push knee-jerk, often ill-thought out infrastructure proposals. We do. There is no need to even go there. It is the sad reality of our current political system of constant fighting and rarely any bipartisan support for long term sustainable projects, Cross River Rail being the tragic on-again-off-again example of this.
One way of looking at it is this. If you have a problem with your health, you go to a doctor. If you have legal problems, you go to a lawyer or legal professional. If you have congestion or transport problems, one would think that you’d better talk to an Urban Planner, however often this doesn’t happen.
Now if this has depressed you with our current reality, may I pick you back up with a positive observation.
Green shoots are forming. For the first time in a while, possibly caused by the Council’s long term in office (therefore longer term thinking) or directive to get Federal assistance, the LNP dominated Brisbane City Council has been working cordially with the State Government when it comes to mass transit. Both the LNP run Brisbane City Council and the Labor State Government want to see the Cross River Rail and the Brisbane Metro happening concurrently, which are two critically important projects in Brisbane to avoid total gridlock. This wasn’t always the case, but it is now.
The release of Connecting Brisbane and the Shaping SEQ 2017 is evidence of both bipartisan long term vision from the State Government and Brisbane City Council as well as positive adoption of professional advice from urban planners. There is however much more to be done to resolve growth areas of concern.
Areas of Concern
Identifying areas of major concern in the region is key to developing solutions. There are two types of ‘concerns’ when it comes to growth in our region. If we want to live in social, vibrant and easily accessible neighbourhoods, we need to link them to fast, reliable and clean public transport, because ultimately mobility is everything.
Low density suburban development in areas with no current transport infrastructure like Yarrabilba, Ripley Valley and to a lesser extent, areas of North Lakes is steadily cementing the car culture for residents in those areas and limits people’s accessibility and opportunities, which can be enormously isolating and frustrating.
The other area of concern is existing developed suburbs of Brisbane which are experiencing medium to high levels of densification but do not have adequate mass transit infrastructure in place or planned to cater for future growth. Fast densifying suburbs like Chermside, Carindale and Northshore Hamilton are areas of extreme concern.
Chermside Case Study
Chermside in particular has seen astonishing urban densification which has enveloped around the newly upgraded Westfield Shopping Centre.
According to the Brisbane Development Map, approximately 2,974 new dwellings are either proposed, approved, under construction or recently completed within the Chermside-Kedron growth area along Gympie Road.
Despite thousands of additional people moving into these two suburbs, there is not even a single dedicated bus lane on the main arterial road into the area. Large sections of Gympie Road are now constantly gridlocked, a large percentage of the day and night.
Densification is here to stay. It is a good thing. More people mean more opportunities and more critical mass for our city. However plans need to be drawn up to move these people around, and not by motor vehicle.
Simply remarking lanes as bus only down the side of Gympie Road would not cut it. In order to flick a mental switch in people’s minds and convince them to swap their beloved car for public transport you need to make a transit trip enjoyable. People need to see value. People need to see a permanent, dedicated line so that a metro bus doesn’t get stuck in traffic. A reliable service that will always be there with little wait times, is modern, air-conditioned and overall very comfortable.
The Chermside extension is actually exactly what Deputy Mayor Adrian Schrinner has called for, telling the Brisbane Times that eventually, the Brisbane Metro will be expanded to Chermside, Carindale and Springwood.
More than ever, we need Council and Government to create the plans, lay them down and future plan for them. Even if it takes a few years, the plans are there, momentum and support will grow to get it done.
The below image is a mock impression showing what a future Brisbane Metro Chermside extension and reconfigured Gympie Road from a car-centric road into a multi-transit road.
The artist’s illustration shows car lanes reduced from three to two in either direction with newly separated bike lanes. Traffic calming would be achieved through narrower lanes and walkways at each station.
For a lot of people, the words ‘lane removal’ evoke nightmarish visuals of sitting in idle gridlocked traffic, with even less lanes to dart around slow drivers. However what needs to be remembered is that even if you, a motorist who won’t convert to using newly built transit infrastructure, others will, and if done correctly, the road space would dramatically be freed up for other important uses like freight or potentially future driverless ride sharing. So in essence, if you yourself are totally against public transport investment, you should still be supporting it for your benefit of spending less time in traffic.
In case you didn’t think that this was possible along this stretch of Gympie Road, it has actually already been done. Images below show a Chermside tramcar running down an exclusive Chermside Line of Gympie Road in the 1950’s. There was even enough road space to accomodate rose gardens and two lanes of traffic on either side.
With average drivers in Los Angeles wasting around 100 hours a year sitting idle in traffic, the city as well as private businesses are formulating ways of fixing this problem. Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles is one of LA’s most notorious stretches which suffers from crippling congestion.
A partnership between architecture firm Perkins+Will, transport consultants Nelson\Nygaard and ride share operator Lyft has proposed a solution which would transform the traditional car-centric road into a multi-transit space with wider sidewalks, benches, planters, bike lanes, dedicated bus lanes, and lanes for shared self-driving cars.
The below images demonstrate how capacity can be hugely increased just by introducing a mass transit line. Improvements to walkability as well as cycling improve as the roadway becomes safer.
M1 Expansion Alternative Solution
The year is 2030. You just sat down in your seat and a voice announces that the duration to Surfers Paradise would be 18 minutes with three stops at Loganholme, Norwell Valley and Helensvale.
The journey is amazingly smooth, with entire suburbs seemingly hurling past in an instant thanks to SCMaglev, the latest in Japanese maglev technology.
A high speed rail link from Brisbane to the Gold Coast (and eventual expansion north to the Sunshine Coast) would fundamentally revolutionise the dynamics of the entire South East region forever. South East Queensland would become one city, but not in a sense that evokes images of urban sprawl. Accessibility wise, we would be the same city. Stronger to attract the world’s smartest and well connected unlike anything Australia has seen. A city region which boasts the world’s best beaches and the world’s best jobs.
How would we build it? Despite what would seem like an enormous undertaking, the less than 100km distance between Brisbane and the Gold Coast is dwarfed in comparison to the enormity of the nationally fantasised Brisbane – Melbourne High Speed Rail route via Sydney.
Brisbane to the Gold Coast is achievable if we understand what needs to be done.
- Increase mining royalties
- Divert funds away from future M1 Motorway upgrades (this is prolonging the problem)
- Value capture mechanisms for new ‘compact city’ located in the Norwell Valley (creating jobs).
The increase of coal royalties for resources belonging to Queenslanders from the embarrassingly low 7% (one of the lowest rates in the developed world) to 18.75% as well as increasing the gas royalty rate from the current 10% to 18.75% would generate around $19.7 billion in additional funds for the state government over a five year timeframe. More than enough money to fully construct a rail link running even beyond the Sunshine Coast which in itself would generate thousands of sustainable jobs.
While mining companies can complain, lobby government and threaten to pull jobs and put them in ‘other countries’, at the end of the day, like the Norwegians found out, the world is always going to be a mineral hungry place. We have the resources, the people of Queensland deserve to reap the benefits of it, not shareholders on the other side of the world.
A 18.75% coal and gas tax on minerals is not considered high when you consider these minerals belong to the people. As a comparison, Quebec in Canada has mining royalties of around 16% and Texas has an LNG royalty rate of 25%.
Imagine if we had a sustainable way of linking our region together by the time South East Queensland reaches the forecasted 5.3 million people by around 2042.
The TED video below explains additional principals we can use to create better well connected cities.
7 Principals for Building Better Cities
We strive to better our cities, however sometimes in order to truely prosper, we must break the cycle of status quo behaviour and take a chance, only this time, the chance of creating more social, easily accessible cities is weighted heavily in our favour by simply putting mass transit before cars.
For those who say all of this is pie-in-the-sky, pipe dream sort of stuff, I say this. If you fight hard enough, its no pipe dream.