Urban growth leads to rising traffic congestion

We all hate it and there’s only one certainty about it: it’s going to get worse.

In fact, I’d suggest it’s a mathematical inevitability.

Things could be worse though: it could get better.

Confused? Read on…

Nothing seems to infuriate the community at large more when it comes to urban growth than the consequence of rising traffic congestion.

Lost time

Getting to and from work and even shopping or recreational trips around the city on a weekend seem to take longer. sydney job car traffic work congestion road bridge

We seem to spend more time stopped in queues of traffic waiting at traffic lights (often for two or three changes) before we move dutifully on to the next queue.

Long-time residents recall fondly the days of easy mobility and, prodded by rising public annoyance, governments have rightly responded by approving new road initiatives to create more lane space.

In south east Queensland that’s meant the inner city bypass, the Gateway duplication, the Clem 7 tunnel, the Go Between Bridge, the Legacy Way Tunnel, and the M7 Airport Link – all of which have been green lighted with the intention of improving mobility around the city.

With the exception of the ICB, nearly all of these have been initiatives of recent years, spurred initially by then Lord Mayoral Candidate (and now Premier) Campbell Newman’s ‘Trans Apex’ proposals.

These won broad support at the polls from a community anxious for someone prepared to bite the bullet on doing something about congestion.

The ‘new ways not freeways’ brigade of flat-earthers, who had successfully scared off previous governments (witness the Goss & Beattie era opposition to virtually any new road projects), were out of favour.

But transport infrastructure investment wasn’t just limited to roadways for private transport.traffic car congestion

Billions have also been spent on busways and the bus fleet. Rail has been upgraded, and new lines are under construction south west to Springfield ($1.3bn) and north east to Kippa Ring $1.14 bn).

Billions more have been proposed on public transport projects we really quite like the sound of but can’t afford.

The $6 billion (or is it $7bn or $8bn?) cross river rail project is just one of those.

Yet despite this long overdue recapitalisation of our transport systems, congestion just seems to be getting worse.

And there are very good reasons why it will continue to get worse.


For starters, a city that grows is bound to experience more congestion.

More people will equal more congestion.

And when city plans are predicated on creating more urban density by increasing the number of people per square kilometre, congestion will get worse, faster.

This is simple maths and it’s virtually impossible to deny.

suburb area map location street city roadIf there are ‘experts’ in urban planning trying to convince you otherwise, I’d suggest you think very carefully about the snake oil they’re trying to peddle.

The only way a city with rising density could avoid more congestion would be for every single extra person who is accommodated in a high or medium density dwelling to solely and exclusively rely on public transport, and not own or need a car, for anything.

Either that, or we expand our road networks and public transport systems at a rate many times the scale of what we’ve already been doing, which we simply can’t afford (and indeed, just finding the space for the extra road lanes or rail lines is a physical impossibility in an already urbanised area, without going underground, which is massively expensive given our relatively small urban populations).

The reality is that even at the highest rates of public transport use on a global scale, you are not going to get more than half the population using public transport, or walking or cycling or staying at home.

The other half will need and will use private transport and so will add to congestion.

But as targets go, 50% is well beyond the realm of possibility: it’s plain fanciful.

This (50%) is the level of public transit in New York, famed for its subway system, mega density, and very large population (over 8 million).

There are few cities like New York on the planet.

And even by US standards, it’s unique in public transit patronage.

So for Australia, the most optimistic hope is that maybe, at the best, 30% of the extra population in higher density housing won’t need or depend on a private vehicle.

That in turn means that roughly 70% will. So for every extra 10,000 people you add into existing urban areas under a density model, you will generate roughly 7,000 more people relying on something other than public transport to get around.

Overwhelmingly that is the private car.

You could always hope and pray that a high percentage of the existing population in established urban areas will swap their cars for public transport, alleviating road congestion in the process.

You could also believe in Peter Pan.

Here are a couple of neat little graphs which show long term patterns of public transport patronage in Australia.

(Source: Public transport patronage trends in Australasian cities)

(As an aside, the advocates of the “public transport will solve everything” school of thinking frequently resort to punitive public policy approaches such as congestion charging, parking levies, fuel taxes and other means in efforts to punish motorists for their chosen form of transport.

The hope is that this will force people out of private transport into public.

It won’t, it will only punish those in the economy for whom the private car is essential.

This form of social engineering through pricing policy is worth another article in its own right, but not today).

Suburbanisation (‘sprawl’ to the ideologues) is also often blamed for rising congestion, the myth being that ‘all those people on the outskirts’ will want to commute into the CBD by car.

But roughly 9 out of 10 jobs are actually in the suburbs already, so it fails the evidence and logic test to suggest that this can happen.city ipad building

The majority of jobs aren’t in the CBD, they’re spread throughout the urban and suburban network.

Getting to and from most of those jobs requires a car, because public transport is so ineffective in serving cross-city commuters (though it works well for the minority who are CBD workers).

But rising density and a growing population alone aren’t the only factors that will increase congestion.

Social change has played a huge part too, and trying to change society to solve congestion is something only Stalin might attempt.

Consider the change in work in the last 50 years.

The number of us working in centralised office ‘paper factories’ on rigid 9-5 hour shifts has declined.

There are more dual income families, often with one part time job in the family.

Employment has dispersed into various retail, industrial and service nodes throughout the urban fabric as the economy grew.

Shopping for necessities is no longer a fortnightly or weekly trip, with stores open only Thursday night and Saturday morning (as they were).

We now shop more frequently, often to or from work.

We often have school pick up runs (something which I understand can add 20% to road traffic volumes in school terms), despite the availability of cheap, subsidised public transport for kids (partly because they’re spoiled and partly because as parents we’re scared of letting them out of our sight).

Modern life itself has made private transport much more the necessity

We aren’t as some suggest having ‘a love affair’ with our cars: we need them, and frequently more than one, just to operate at an employment and social level.

population growth people city urban crowdWork, play, shop, live – all aspects of modern life are now more dependent on the private vehicle than they ever were.

Michael Matusik recently posted some interesting figures on this via his ‘Missive.

Based on the census, “there are apparently about 7.8 million motor vehicles in Australia.

One in ten households does not own a car; two out of five (37%) dwellings hold just one vehicle, whilst a further 54% of our households own two or more cars.

When it comes to those living in apartments, these proportions shift considerably: 14% of apartment dwellers don’t own a car; 52% only have one car and just a third own two or more cars, with 29% having just two cars.”

My take on this is that if overall car ownership is 90% of all households but still 86% of households in apartments own cars (albeit less of them), it isn’t really that much different.

The form of housing choice is not highly correlated to a lesser level of car dependency.

So changing the overall form of housing in society is unlikely to make much difference to our patterns of private vehicle use (and hence congestion).

Modern society has more to do with it.

So what can realistically be done about congestion?

There is no silver bullet. We will continue to invest in new road transport networks as our city continues to grow, as we should.

Likewise, we will continue to invest in more public transport, as we should.

But as our city continues to grow and the economy develops, we will only at best be keeping pace. 

Our ability to invest at the speed required to decrease congestion is beyond our reach, and the potential of different forms of housing to alleviate congestion is limited, if it exists at all.

Increasing congestion will ultimately create opportunities for development in transit friendly locations which promise reduced congestion or travel times for residents and employees.

This in itself won’t solve the broader issue, but simply allow some to respond to a market craving more convenience.

To promise that town planning or public transport hold any genuine promise to substantially alleviate our great annoyance at other people using ‘our’ roads and slowing ‘us’ down, is to perpetuate a lie.

If congestion is a sign of an economy that’s alive with people making all manner of trips for work or social reasons, then quiet uncongested roads would surely be a sign of not very much happening at all.

There is one way congestion can improve, but maybe it’s the cure we don’t want.

Think tumbleweeds blowing down the streets of your town.

Empty shops and offices, abandoned factories, an empty CBD and a shrinking population.

There are numerous US cities where this has happened to the city cores.

There are also plenty of Australian towns and regional cities with a similar problem.

They no longer complain about congestion – they have more serious things to worry about.

Want more of this type of information?

Ross Elliott


Ross Elliott has spent close to 30 years in real estate and property roles, including as a State Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer of the Property Council of Australia, as well a national executive director of the Residential Development Council. He has authored and edited a large number of research and policy papers and spoken at numerous conferences and industry events. Visit www.rosselliott.com.au

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