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Standing Committee on Infrastructure, Transport and Cities
28/02/2019
Current and future developments in the use of land-based mass transit

BROCKHOFF, Mr John, Principal Policy Officer, New South Wales and National, Planning Institute of Australia

HENSON, Mr Colin, Convener, Transport Network, Planning Institute of Australia

CHAIR: Welcome. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of parliament. The evidence given today will be recorded by Hansard and attracts parliamentary privilege. I now invite you to make an opening statement before we proceed to discussion.

Mr Brockhoff : The main reason the Planning Institute are interested in this inquiry is not that we are technical experts in the world of autonomous vehicles but that we want to see this inquiry look at a strategic context for autonomous vehicles and see that their inquiry's report is structured around answering some important questions around how autonomous vehicles and their supporting infrastructure can make cities more livable, better places to live and work in. The fundamental assertion of our submission is that we want to start with a different question. We want to start with a question about what goals we have for our cities and regions as places and not what attributes autonomous vehicles offer in isolation. So we ask the inquiry to ask the question, in their deliberations: what performance do we want of our cities, and how can the various autonomous vehicles, transport, energy, digital innovations and so forth contribute to achieving these goals for more livable, more productive cities? I think the public debate has this the other way round. As planners, we would like to focus on how autonomous vehicles, and the way they relate with mass transit, serve our cities, with a focus on the broader livability, accessibility, productivity and expectations of our cities and how autonomous vehicles contribute.

I think you might have seen aspects of our submission. We have asked the inquiry to structure some of its responses and reporting around how those outcomes for cities are achieved. I'd like to point out a few of those key questions. How would automated transit and autonomous vehicles assist in strengthening the economic, social and environmental values of a well-networked urban structure? How would the spatial effects of autonomous vehicles and their role in mass transit strengthen that city structure and help create a city that has accessible town centres, diverse housing and urban forms, the opportunity for improved streetscape, improved parking, improved open space, improved pedestrian environments and a treatment of streets as places? How might mobility as a service be improved through autonomous vehicles and impact city living and livability? Importantly, how could the disbenefits of automated transit be avoided? How could we avoid some of the nightmare scenarios of increased VKT from a proliferation of privately owned autonomous vehicles, increased sprawl, the loss of some trunk transit services and, potentially, a reduction in community resilience through a city structure that doesn't work? On the other hand, how can some of the benefits of an optimised autonomous vehicle city operate so that we can improve the nature of the effectiveness of our investment in transit, have improved pedestrian environments, improved streetscapes and improved prioritisation of infrastructure investment around a more livable city?

We are focusing on the movement-and-place theory around city design and looking at the opportunities that the disruption of autonomous vehicles offer one to reconsider the success of our networks. I think you touched on this before the meeting, John: how could autonomous vehicles and the disruptions they bring lead to improved investment decision-making and opportunities for effective road pricing? Then there is the way data generated by autonomous vehicle systems could support city planning and how the wider use of open access to the algorithms that support autonomous vehicle could be used for a whole range of planning benefits. We urge the inquiry to look at the planning policy shifts, the regulatory reforms and the infrastructure decision-making principles that can be stimulated by thinking about a successful city with the widespread introduction of more automated vehicles and the implications for mass transit.

In summing up, we want to avoid an autonomous vehicle nightmare, with private autonomous vehicle congestion, poor road capacity and loss of road capacity driving perverse investments that are chasing our tail in meeting the increased vehicle kilometres travelled from a proliferation of private autonomous vehicles, and a situation where the energy opportunities, the battery storage potential, from predominately electric vehicles are used to drive electricity networks. We want to move towards an autonomous vehicle future where we can reclaim streets as places, improve mass transit catchments and reinforce accessible centres as places for living, improved housing and improved access to work. We want to look at some of our regulatory and economic systems around road pricing and an improved regulatory environment for mobility as a service, expand renewables and electric vehicle energy storage grids and end up with a set of principles that we can use as a lens when we're considering new transport disruptions. I notice a number of submissions have put forward elements of this. The bus confederation put forward a number of principles by which one can judge and view the prospects of future initiatives for autonomous vehicles, and we'd support those. We also support a number of the submissions that cover off the ways in which we can play up the benefits of autonomous vehicles, leading to a scenario where autonomous vehicles are creating better cities.

In conclusion, we assert that achieving the adopted strategic planning and transport goals for cities is what should drive this debate and should be the starting point of the inquiry. It should look at what attributes of autonomous vehicles can help us achieve cities that are great places to live.

Mr ZIMMERMAN: Thank you for your comments. Maybe unusually you posed more questions than answers, which is probably very honest of you. That's the challenge with an inquiry like this, I suppose, because there are lots of questions that don't necessarily have answers at this stage of our understanding of where technology will lead us. I want to pose a question from a planning perspective. You've outlined objectives, but those objectives to some degree require an understanding of how technology is going to develop and how individuals will cope with that technology. The classic case of that is in relation to governments making long-term investments particularly for rail projects that might have a start date of 70 years hence and a life of 40 years, where we don't know how relevant they're going to be in a new world. Do you have any guidance from a planning perspective about how you shape, or attempt to protect, model and so on, a city when you have so many unknowns?

Mr Brockhoff : I think it comes down to having a line of sight between your investment decisions and your strategic plan, both its goals and its spatial structure. Col might want to comment on that, but I think having a line of sight between your investment decisions and your strategic planning goals for the structure of a city is the starting point.

Mr Henson : I'm a trained engineer, but I've developed a great interest in planning because of its long-term horizon, as you've pointed out, and also its ability to influence land use, which is the other side of things. Technology is one thing, and land use is the bread and butter of most planners. To answer your question, PIA very strongly supports the setting aside of corridors between places of likely population growth, and those corridors should be multipurpose, multimodal corridors. If it's a train then it's a train in five years or 10 years or 20 years. I'm not sure how you come up with the investment decision, but certainly over time things have changed with metros now running underground rather than requiring surface reservations, motorways running in tunnels—

Mr ZIMMERMAN: But often they're running underground because we gave up the service reservations.

Mr Henson : Precisely. While I'm on that subject, I see some very specific things that would come from planning for an eventual high proportion of AVs. One would be that all the roads could be narrower because the vehicles would track within a very tight laneway. So, where we've currently got two lanes we might have three or even four lanes within that road. That would allow you to move more people, or alternatively to narrow the roads and the carriageways and provide more space for footpaths and so forth. Traffic signals will become a thing of the past, which you've probably already heard about from others. All of the signage could be eliminated at some point. Buildings could be closer to the roads, so there would be no need for huge setbacks. Many of our motorways at the moment, because of noise, danger and intrusion, are 100 metres wide. Potentially, with AVs running on electric or hydrogen fuel, those corridors could be halved and you could bring buildings, parks or whatever much closer. Excess public rights of way could be turned back for infill development. That would be an opportunity for not just greenfield sites, where you're deciding how wide the road network or the street network is, but existing situations, where you might be able to close half of Bligh Street and turn it over to street vendors or something else quite easily and still move the same number of people up and down the street using AVs.

Less parking would be needed, particularly if you've got robotic taxis and vehicles that don't need to stay where you are. The amount of parking will be reduced, and that provides a huge benefit. In most low-density Australian cities parking is a third of the land use area. If you can cut back on that from a planning perspective, when we lay out our subdivisions for 50 years hence, that will make a big difference. The trouble is we need to start to move on some of those subdivisions that are being built in Western Sydney and western Melbourne now. Currently they're being designed for Kingswoods.

Mr Brockhoff : Getting back to your question about the risk to investing in major mass transit corridors, given the disruption from autonomous vehicles, which I think was the nature of your original question—

Mr ZIMMERMAN: It was an example—

Mr Brockhoff : I mentioned that strategic planning was one element of that. The critical part of that element is asking: what are your major centres, and what is the shape of, say, Sydney you want to form? The Greater Sydney Commission has talked about a city of three cities, with a focus on Parramatta, a focus on where we are now, the Sydney CBD, and a future focus in the west, with a range of intermediate-sized centres, and the notion of a 30-minute city for commuting purposes. That can provide a logical framework for hanging a transport network off.

Major investments in trunk mass transit are already being supported by the very beginnings of disruption around the first stage of its revolution—the beginnings of Uber and dial-up community bus services. They're already expanding the catchment for some mass transit links and, rather than undermining major mass transit corridors, the first phase of this revolution is actually widening the catchment for some of those important mass transit corridors. So where those mass transit corridors service major centres, they're being supported, and I think they'd be a low long-term future risk. Where that scenario falls over is if there's a proliferation of private autonomous vehicles that have multiple destinations that congest the network and grow vehicle kilometres travelled in a fairly random pattern; your investments might be challenged. You might go and chase your tail and want to provide more capacity for private autonomous vehicles to do their thing and you might never be able to build your way out of that conundrum.

The opportunity for planners is to say, 'Well, what do we want of our city? What destinations do we want to connect? What centres do we want to grow for different functions?' and look to see how all the elements of the transport network support the high capacity mass transport transit links, typically by some sort of rail, connected by some sort of other types of intermediate mass transit links. And then for the whole range of wider types of ad hoc connections, there's a much stronger role for the smaller on-demand services. But to achieve that point, you want to make sure that you have a system in place that maximizes the shared use of autonomous vehicles, maximises the opportunity to claw back on road space to achieve the advantages that Colin was describing, you need to have clear metropolitan-scale strategic plans that highlight what are the important links that you want to invest in and you also need some supporting economic and regulatory incentives to achieve the best autonomous vehicle future, and one of the obvious ones is a form of road pricing that can be used to maximise the advantage and incentivise against some of the disadvantages of unrestrained travel by multiple private autonomous vehicles. It all starts with having a clear view of the structure of your city and the outcomes you want for different places within it.

Mr ZIMMERMAN: I will ask one very broad question. The advent of the private motor vehicle liberated the world's population, you could argue. It meant that the horizon was beyond where they could walk or whatever. I mean, it really had probably the most profound social impact of any invention in the first half of last century. Why shouldn't we be concerned about moving to a world—the type of argument you just put—where you are entirely dependent upon a third party—ultimately, government regulation—for your individual movement?

Mr Brockhoff : I think a very clear answer is that the economy of the future is one where people have the opportunity to mix together, to do business together in really well-designed liveable groupings. Sure they might live in a whole range of settings but they tend to work and group in different places. To have those nodes work as part of a transport network doesn't work as well in a spread-out sprawling city. That said, you're going to get your nodes where the high volumes of people are coming together in a transport network and there's always going be a role for private transport whether it be autonomous vehicles or some other form of private independent transport in the diffused transit task. But if you want to create a city with strong nodes, drive agglomeration economies that come out of people working together, as we are here in Sydney CBD, then you do need the heavy lifting off opportunities from a mass transit network. And when you run multiple private trips across that, it tends not to be as effective and you tend to have some of the negative externalities of congestion, which really work against the—

Mr ZIMMERMAN: I was talking about something a bit broader than that. I mean, if I was in the authoritarian regime, I'd be very excited about the prospect of basically forcing everyone into vehicles for any movement that I could monitor or control.

Mr Brockhoff : The problem is that if you take that out to its extreme, what sort of a city do you get? While we've had enormous economic productivity benefits from dispersed private vehicle transport and the ability that's provided, it has actually come around to bite us on the bum in that we are getting the disbenefits of that. The most economically successful, the greatest generation of business and activity is in accessible nodes, particularly well-designed liveable ones, and the high amounts of car use tend not to work as well in those environments. They're great to feed in and expand the catchment of mass transit and to do a whole range of ad hoc transport tasks, but if you're trying to create a node that is great for business, is great for living then the sorts of cities that are structured around private vehicle transport don't deliver those sorts of nodes. Do you want to add to that?

Mr Henson : To take the analogy a bit further, I'd say the other big transport change alongside the motor car has been the aeroplane.

Mr ZIMMERMAN: Yes. The car did on land what aeroplanes did intercontinentally.

Mr Henson : Intercontinentally, yes. To take your point, air travel is highly controlled, government regulated, all of the above tick, tick things, and yet we've still found a way to introduce competition and we've found a way to make it suit the everyman to go to Bali and so forth. So my suspicion is that it's not such a big threat but that we've got no idea what the mass transit system might be in 50 years. We've got no idea of what the personal transit system might be and all we can do is sort of plan for a loose overcoat rather than a tailored suit based on current trends.

Mr Brockhoff : I think the reason why the planning industry is involved is not because we're experts on autonomous vehicles but we just want to make sure that a lens is adopted around what sort of cities are we going to get out of the future. Can we have a look at this issue and these problems that are arising to see well will they or will they not give us an economically productive and liveable city that works in the digital economy of the future? Is it going to be the place that people want to live, want to work and want to prosper in? And how are autonomous vehicles going to add or subtract to that? If you have that overlay and ask some of the questions that we've posed, I'm sure this inquiry will not just be seen as getting onto the excitement that the disruption of autonomous vehicles and their manufacturers and suppliers are promoting but also look at how genuinely we're going to be better off as a society and as dwellers of cities.

Mr ZIMMERMAN: Maybe I have just watched V for Vendetta too many times.

CHAIR: It's as if you were listening to our evidence yesterday when you used slightly different language regarding the widening of catchment to use our new technology in autonomous vehicles, shared autonomous vehicles, partially shared or privately owned to facilitate, complement, feed our mass transport whether it's bus ferries or trains. It seems that it's quite logical. You can see that there will be on-demand, publically-accessible, autonomous vehicles to bring you to a mass transport hub. There will be some at the other end where you've got your own privately held autonomous vehicle that may do a chore for you and then some other chores for other members of the family and then be retired until needed by the family later in the day. There'll be others that take a family member somewhere and then are put into an a pool of Uber-like autonomous vehicles. It generally seems to be, in the context that we've been discussing this, about addressing the problems that have arrived through not having planned our transport infrastructure hand in hand with land use. We've had sprawling suburbs. At one point the car liberated people to go from those suburbs, but when it got beyond a critical mass the congestion brought it to a halt and the cost of parking brought it to a halt and we're trying to come up with solutions to these problems.

Mr Brockhoff : I think that's a very fair summary.

CHAIR: I've been paying attention to the evidence. For all the questions that you ask, I think you actually hold the answers to them. We know this is where we're going. The technology might be unknown at this moment, but we know what we want it to achieve, and there's the need to make this interaction between our various modes of transport seamless. In the end, the larger carrying capacity is really just served by the smaller more private capacity vehicles.

Mr Brockhoff : Up until the last point, I think it was exactly the summary that we would have given. The role of private autonomous vehicles or any sort of private vehicles and their performance in the network is one that is going to continue to be very important in our dispersed journeys and in the front end of a journey to get to a node. I guess the question is what you do with them. How do you park them? If they're autonomous, do they circulate round the landscape while you're waiting to use them? Is that causing trouble? Are they using energy? Are they using road space? If they're to be parked, are they taking away space that could be used more productively for buildings or recreation? Getting back to your summary point, it is about what we want from our public space and what we want from our cities and how the way autonomous cars feed into a network that gives us great places to work and live.

CHAIR: In our previous inquiry we looked into the retrofitting of infrastructure and land use planning around that. But, as importantly for the future of Australia, when we consider that reportedly 87 per cent of immigration goes into Sydney and Melbourne, our future probably lies outside of Sydney and Melbourne as we know them and in a strategic plan of decentralisation. We will be looking at greenfield sites and looking at the challenge of how we design our infrastructure and our land use to create these smart cities, which we've talked a lot about—compact, smart cities. That's where, I would imagine, we need to pay attention to not repeat the sins of the past of these endlessly sprawling suburban areas that aren't actually efficient; although, in some people's minds, they define the very essence of being an Australian and having a house with a third of an acre or whatever. How do we design the future cities? What are the things that we must have learnt that are the challenges in retrofitting infrastructure? How do we systematically look at all of those issues to eliminate them from the design of our new smart cities?

Mr Brockhoff : There are a range of good planning and good structure planning principles that planners would be happy to share with the committee. There are enormous opportunities if, ultimately, some form of fast rail or automated mass transit operating regionally and across parts of Australia does generate the need for important, new regional nodes that are designed according to these sorts of principles, or, if it's tagged on to existing regional centres, they don't develop into an urban design that creates the need for a heap of unnecessary travel, doesn't use space well and doesn't create the communities, nodes and centres within them that are attractive to live in, attractive to work in, encourage investment and encourage the agglomeration economies to occur that will enable these new regional centres to be productive. Do you want to have a go at that one, Col?

Mr Henson : Just off the top of my head, I wonder whether AVs create a lot of opportunities in the sense that transport in the past has determined the shape of our cities. In other words, Sydney is as it is because of a port, or because the road went past or there was a highway. AVs give us the opportunity to reduce transport back to what the economists tell us it is: it's a derived demand. Transport isn't an end in itself. It's something that allows you to enjoy quality of life, open space, education, school, sport and those things. I just underline John's point: that maybe it gives an opportunity to design our cities specifically for those things rather than to provide 100 metres for roadways. It allows us to decide where school grounds and sports grounds could all be within walking distance, and the AVs could just come and go and park somewhere out in the boondocks.

Mr Brockhoff : Chair, you did ask for some sort of good city-structure-planning guidance and advice. I'm not sure if you are actually specifically asking for that, but there are a number of principles that you can work around. You want a city that makes work and services accessible to where you live. You want opportunities for there not being a monoculture of land-use types. You want to be able to move between work, enjoyment and recreation, and you want to be able to have choice. You want to be able to choose to live in a reasonably low-density area. You want to be able choose to live in a setting which meets your particular family needs that might be very different. You really want the ability to have a mix of built forms. You want to have some objectives around accessibility. You want it to be fair in terms of equity of access to facilities and work, and also you want to have some guidance on what sort of a commuting city you want it to be in terms of time and travel. All of those things can begin to shape some design principles for the structuring of a city. Walter Burley Griffin had a shot at Canberra almost 100 years ago, and every time you look at an urban renewal project or a new greenfield project there's a cutting edge of good planners and designers applying those principles. I don't think you want us to go into those now, but, if the committee wanted to refer to them, we could provide advice.

CHAIR: Yes. I think that the point of the line of questioning or thought is that we are looking at mass transport autonomous vehicles and alternative energies, but equally we have to look at the way our cities are planned so we're not just retrofitting our transport solutions around bad design, which have made up for the sins of the past designing. The automobile, as Trent said, allowed us to have sprawling suburbs that we now realise aren't the most efficient design. In the design of a smart city you can keep in mind that people do have to get from where they live to where they work and where they recreate—or education or whatever else. The idea is: we're not used to having these blank canvases to work on, so, as we seamlessly try to bring different forms of transport together, how do we bring the land planners and the city planners together with the transport operators to work together to create the most efficient design that is compatible for our transport systems.

Mr Brockhoff : I do have some suggestions down that path. At the moment, we structure our city budgeting, our city infrastructure prioritisation and, ultimately, the investment in services and maintenance in a series of siloed institutional structures that typically relate to the provision of transport services, rail, land use and so forth. The notion of structuring a city administration around objectives for places, making clear what it is an institution wants to achieve for a place, budgeting for those outcomes in a place and then having the different agency providers contribute to achieving those place outcomes from a budget which is based on outcome for a place, drives integration and incentivises integration. We're seeing early signs of that with the City Deals. In the City Deals, without drastically changing the institutional arrangements across Australia, you actually are seeing the objectives we want for, for instance, Western Sydney. We've got a bucket of money at the state level, at the national level and even amongst local councils and other players for an airport and a number of other outcomes associated with it. What do we need to achieve this outcome for a new centre for Western Sydney and an airport that's connected to the economy of Western Sydney, linked to the economic activity in Sydney and linked to the rest of Australia and the world? On that basis, what do we all bring to the table as agency partners and how do we organise ourselves and fund ourselves to achieve the outcomes for, in this case, the Western Sydney City Deal?

I believe that model is scalable. We see that model operate at a precinct level with innovative urban renewal precincts, where you can actually say: 'This is what we want for Redfern-Waterloo. This is what we want for the north-west sector in Sydney or elsewhere. This is what we want to fund. We want to look at what's available through the budgeting process and then ask: what is the best mode? What is the best land use approach that works? What's the way we can all work together to achieve these strategic planning outcomes?' There's an enormous opportunity for innovation in the way we organise ourselves as a government and how we look to fund institutions to deliver infrastructure and services and look ultimately to restructure government around achieving the goals we want for a place. So, if autonomous vehicles are part of the disruption that moves us in that direction, I think it's really exciting.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for your attendance here today. I think you have volunteered to provide us with additional information. If you would please forward that to the secretary by Wednesday, 6 March, that would be appreciated. You'll be sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence and will have an opportunity to request corrections to transcription errors. Thank you again for your contribution today.

Mr Brockhoff : Thank you very much. I didn't mention that, in the earlier inquiry, we talked about the role of national settlement strategy. With your permission, I'll include some linkages to that work.

CHAIR: Thank you very much.