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suburban blues « Previous | |Next »
January 8, 2009

In the Sydney Morning Herald Elizabeth Farrelly makes a good point. She observes that the smog in Sydney and in other capital cities in Astralia will be

remembered as one of the great ironies of modern planning, that the system we call suburbia, whose main promise was sunshine and fresh air for all, ended up destroying those things for everyone. Even now, people - thinking people who should know better (and do, in fact, but somehow choose not to) - defend suburbia on the basis of how nice it is to wake up with birds and trees outside the window. And it is nice. There's no denying it. I like. You like it. We all like it. And that's the point, really. Because just as one binge is fine but every weekend means you're an alkie, or one house among the gum trees is fine, but millions? Millions of suburban houses means millions of cars, millions of smog-belching passenger kilometres and millions of kids with chronic asthma and bronchitis.

The states have basically given up in rolling back the car to make our cities more liveable. The Rann Government in South Australia, for instance, does not have the will to close down small streets to the car in the areas of the inner CBD where people gather in public spaces.

As Farrelly points out everything now depends on Infrastructure Australia providing the funds for better public transport and a decent rail system. Don't hold your breathe.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 6:00 AM | | Comments (13)


I am a town planner and urban designer by profession and had been working in Hong Kong for years. I was, and am, amazed by the attitude of Melbournians towards the 2030 Plan.

Air pollution in advanced countries like Australia is mostly caused by vehicles while in developing countries like China, is caused by heavy industries. Hong Kong also suffers the industrial pollution from China in winter. Therefore, we need different tactics to solve the same problem for different countries. It is not an exaggeration to say that once we solve the on-road vehicle problem in Australia, we solve most of the on-street air pollution problem.

On the other hand, the heavy use of private transport in Melbourne is correlated to typical American style low density suburb development. This is quite unfortunate as Continental Europe has the better planning/design of city which the Melbournians don’t’ want. I think Melbournians are quite selfish in this respect.

Before the Rann Government in South Australia has the will to close down small streets to the car in the areas of the inner CBD, the Government will need the will to increase the people’s reliance on public transport. In other words, we need to increase living density, improve rail services (I am aware this is difficult as the Connex couldn’t even implement the smart card system in Melourne, a technology installed in Hong Kong decades ago) and offer economic incentives such as road toll, parking levies in CBD, free parking near major suburban rail stations etc. If we close some small streets without addressing the problem in the bigger picture, the problem is not “gone” but will appear elsewhere in the same CBD.

re your comment ' I was, and am, amazed by the attitude of Melbournians towards the 2030 Plan. "

Do you mean the dumping of urban consolidation near rail/urban nodes in favour of extending the suburban sprawl by Brumby?

This suburban sprawl is also happening in Adelaide--eg., the southern and northern ends keeping on going despite all the talk about consolidation. There was some talk about urban consolidation around Bowden on the old Clipsol site just outside the western parklands ----but that sounds as if it is dependant on funding from Infrastructure Australia.

Re your comment “Do you mean the dumping of urban consolidation near rail/urban nodes in favour of extending the suburban sprawl by Brumby? ”

My family and I just came back from our “wonderful” shopping experience at the biggest shopping centre in Melbourne, the Chadstone Shopping Centre.

We walked 15 minutes to the bus stop and took the bus for 45 minutes to get there. To get there by car would probably take less than 15 minutes, walk-free and my family didn’t need to carry the goods all the way back home.

I didn’t drive a car because I don’t have one.

I don’t have one not because I could not afford one, but because I don’t want to,

It is interesting because back in Hong Kong where public transport was relatively cheap and highly accessible and owning a car was very expensive, I did own a car.

Could we not see the problem with the planning and the so-called life style in Melbourne?

To use your words, the success of the Hong Kong, Sydney and European cities rests squarely on “the dumping of urban consolidation near rail/urban nodes in favour of extending the suburban sprawl”.

In Hong Kong, the mass transit rail stations (the MTR) are always the hub of commercial and residential development. As a result, the patronage of the MTR is phenomenal and, together with the property value at the MTR stations, the fare is affordable to most people. The rail service is highly accessible.

Some of us may notice the strong objection to some of the medium density redevelopment (in fact these are low-density development if we use Hong Kong standard) in Melbourne East on ground of preservation. Some of these objections are legitimate. But I also heard a lot about preserving the life style.

If we do not change our mind set, it is a little bit too rich to talk about improving our pollution problem caused by our excessive use of private cars. If we do not change our life style, it is hypocritical to talk about global warming.

All this stuff has been well known since at least the sixties and seventies of last century.
Briefly decentralisation, for example, was discussed as an alternative to urban sprawl during the Whitlam government's time.
It's well enough known that western urban transport follows the pattern commenced in the USA in the fifties, when large automakers and the oil companies colluded to convince law makers to phase out public transport in favour of the automobile.
The same pattern follows in Victoria and is strikingly similar to the the power formations behind the logging rort- a constellations of merchant banks, corporations, professsionals and academics working as agents and hired guns, supine public service, unions and political parties who spout the mantras of growth and productivity in the cause of rorts that only benefit the few and allow costs to be passed on to an apathetic and ill-informed public when the wheels finally fall off.

I think its sad and ironic that people bag Kevin Rudd for not setting 10% carbon reduction target, whilst they all drive around with 1 person per car!

Car's annoy me, I get around on a scooter, and it is, infact MORE convenient, so much cheaper and well it makes me look good ;)

In Australia, in Adelaide atleast, cars are such a symbol of status, personality, statement whatever, but we're emotionally attached to our vehicles. It feels like it starts at a very young age.

And when people have little comparable option, like good public transport, why would you do anything different.

Oh, and smog is bad, yea, it looks bad, but how healthy is that air to breathe?

Although, in saying all that, this report shows that visibility has been on the rise since the 1950s.


Article that included graph

Simon T Small
yeah, after I'd written the post, I remembered that the air had been cleaned up re smog ---Adelaide used to be really bad in the early 1980s.The smog used to sit over the city between hill and sea. The air is cleaner now with unleaded petrol, but it could still be improved.

Government subsidies to the car companies should really be tied to cleaner emissions as well as fuel efficiency--until a green car comes along.

I read somewhere that Bronywn Bishop said public transport was for losers. Kinda sums your point up doesn't it.

Greater investment in the tram system would enable people people to get around ----up to North Adelaide out to Norwood etc. I use it all the time from Sturt Street when I go into the city. Its jam packed usually.

Good observation from Bronwyn Bishop. Cars can be personalised, public transport can't. Not here anyway.

Public transport here is like everything else, standard, government issue drab.

I can't remember which country it was now, maybe somewhere in central or south America. Anyhoo, people go to extraordinary lengths to make their buses the most attractive to get passengers. The engines are clapped out, but each bus looks like a transvestite Christmas tree, covered in bright murals, mirrors etc.

I can't see Australians going for such extravagance, but our public transport could be way more cool. If we were serious about promoting its use, of course.

as a town planner you may be interested in this kind of work ---I stumbled across it wearing my junk for code/photography hat.

Sad to say but the states aren't going to put much effort into urban consolidation without the commonwealth pushing the reform's along with lots of cash.

What is a good happening is the movement back to apartment living in the inner city, and a greater emphasis on inner city living. In adelaide the web designer/marketing crowd are working in the done up old cottages in the inner city and the restaurants and cafes etc are following them. A critical mass is slowly forming.

But the apartments being designed are pretty poor in terms of inside /outside living, and the Adelaide City Council is indifferent to making the inner city more people friendly. They want more people to living in the city but will not roll back the car to create spaces for people to enjoy themselves.

Gary, Paul

Some do not like city life. That is a fact which we all accept. But clearly making city life more viable would give people a choice to live there or close to it, or live in a medium density development near public transport hub. As long as we can offer some competitive alternatives for people to choose from, the mind set and life style of people will gradually change. As with my shopping experience mentioned above, I don’t think the Victoria State Government has given people like me a competitive choice to use public transport.

In a capitalistic world, our psychological state always fails to distinguish personal affordability from environmental affordability, and our free market also fails to attach a suitable price tag for environmental affordability.

But do not be mistaken that socialist countries like China is doing anywhere better than us. I have a blog in China for a year and my experience is that the rising middle class inherits exactly the same problem. That is to say, affordability refers to personal affordability.

all that you say here is confirmed by this reportin The Age.

Melbourne is one of the developed world's most car-dependent cities, and the study sheds light on why: relatively poor access to public transport because the city is so spread out, and travel times 26 per cent slower than the car.

Only North American cities have worse access to public transport services than Melbourne.

Thanks, Nan.

Not surprised!