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Standing Committee on Infrastructure, Transport and Cities
Australian government's role in the development of cities

DIA, Associate Prof. Hussein, Department of Civil and Construction Engineering, Swinburne University of Technology


CHAIR: I declare the meeting reopened. I would now like to welcome Associate Professor Hussein Dia to give evidence today. 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.

Prof. Dia : Thank you for the opportunity to present today and for allowing me to make that submission. I am an associate professor of transport engineering at Swinburne. The focus of my submission has been around low-carbon mobility for cities. I was focusing on the role of transport in improving the quality of life in cities. As I mentioned in my submission, cities around the world, including Australian cities, are facing some grand challenges mainly in terms of rapid urban population growth, ageing infrastructure, limited budgets by governments to improve on existing infrastructure and, of course, we have congestion which stifles economic growth. We have road safety around the world, where 1.2 million people lose their lives. In Australia, it is in the thousands, but still that is a significant number of people and it is avoidable. Things can be done about it. Finally, emissions. The future of our cities will depend to a large extent on how we manage emissions from transport.

The traditional approaches we have taken over the past 50 years have met with really limited success. The solution that was prescribed to most governments was to build out of congestion by providing more roads for motorised transport without giving equal preference and priority to other modes of transport like public transport, active transport and even some of the policies that allow for densification rather than urban sprawl. All of these have led to some of the problems we are witnessing today. My submission is like a call for action. We really need to have a fundamental shift in the way we provide transport. Rather than focusing on the physical movement of people and goods, I think in the future we need to focus more on how we provide access to services at places, economic opportunity and so forth, regardless of the mode of transport. The mode of transport can come in at a later stage, but first we need to see what the access needs are for societies and cities and move from there.

One of the policy interventions I mentioned in my submission is what we call the avoid, shift, share and improve principles. Avoid is where we look at policies that reduce the need for travel or avoid it altogether. An example is transport oriented developments or land use, transport integration and so forth.

Then we have the shift. I think we have seen some progress especially with electric vehicles, for example, and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. With a shift in strategy the focus is on shifting travel from energy intensive modes like the motorised car to modes that are less energy intensive—public transport, EV, walking, cycling and so forth. The third one is the sharing of transport modes. We already have examples like car sharing and ride hailing, such as Uber. I think governments can have a role as well in facilitating some of the policies to enable these. Uber is still illegal in the Northern Territory and Tasmania. I think it was only made legal in Melbourne last year. People use it, but within the framework of mobility it has not been recognised as a genuine source of transport.

The final one is improving. How do we improve what we have? We have these roads, structures and infrastructure available to us today. How do we optimise its use? Rather than only making it available for vehicles, how can we make the space available for bicycles and other modes as well in order to improve mobility?

Finally, the role of digital innovation. We have seen a lot about intelligent transport systems. How do we optimise what we have? I think now everyone is talking about self-driving vehicles. This is where I think governments need to step in to provide some direction. We do a lot of research in this space, and the private sector is basically crying out for directions, guidelines and especially consistency among states, say, a national framework for allowing that to happen.

To me, I see two opposite scenarios when it comes to self-driving vehicles. One scenario could be a nightmare scenario where we have small pods each with 1.2 average persons per vehicle. The Monash Freeway or the M4 in Sydney could be 11 lanes in each direction. Again, that is a nightmare scenario. We want to avoid that. The dream come true scenario is where we have these driverless vehicles being shared as a form of public transport, especially in transporting people from their homes to the nearest mass transit hub. This is what we call the first and last kilometre problem. If you live within two kilometres or maybe one kilometre of a train station, that is very lucky, but for people who live in the Dandenongs, for example, where they have the bus arrive once every hour, it is a bit challenging for them to access these transit hubs.

Then we need to continue to invest in mass transit. The advent of autonomous vehicles does not mean that we actually stop that. Most of the research is showing that to really capitalise on their benefits they need to be supplemented by big investments in mass transit. This is where you shuttle people from the suburbs to the city for economic opportunity. Self-driving vehicles can do their work maybe around the suburbs, the first and last kilometre and so forth. Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you for that. That is fascinating. One of the questions I was going to pursue was, what is the purpose of autonomous vehicles? I think you covered it very well. If the use is not planned, you could have a catastrophic situation, but if you use them as facilitators and optimising the value of mass transport, to use it as a shared vehicle that might take a worker to the train station and where it might return to the home where another family member uses it for something else, to take the children to school or whatever else, where it can be shared. You could have Uber autonomous vehicles also, where you literally hail it. That is what you are pursuing?

Prof. Dia : That is right. That is the vision for a sustainable transport system in the future; otherwise we can see scenarios where people get lazy and they would order an autonomous Uber to pick up a carton of milk from the milk bar. If it is readily available, people can start to do silly things. We know with mobiles, for example, people have already started to use it for less than ideal scenarios. At the other end, we have been trying to get people to car pool, for example, and share cars for more than 30 years and we have not been successful. But suddenly you have this mobile device and an app and people are more than happy to share their ride with a total stranger, a driver who they do not know. Technology is playing a fantastic role, but I think there needs to be some general guidelines and public policy directions.

From the research we are doing, organisations like the RACV are not interested in occupying that space. Governments do not know how to step in and facilitate that. There needs to be some vision laid out as part of a holistic approach to sustainable transport in cities. What is the role of autonomous vehicles? What is the role of disruptive technologies? What is the role of land use, transport integration? If we are really serious about sustainable transport, we need to pursue this.

At the moment, we have the planners working on their own modelling tools to say where the job growth will be and where people are going to live, and then we have the transport professionals working on their own modelling tools to say how we minimise travel time and so on. We need to bring these two together. That is what is called land use, transport integration. It is an active area of research, but in practice it has not surfaced as a best practice yet. I think we need to encourage that as well.

The role of densification of cities—what I and maybe others call as well, human-scale cities. The research shows that each of us has a travel budget, what is known as the Marchetti constant. It is about 20 to 30 minutes of travel every day. If it exceeds that, it becomes a stress on people and it becomes counterproductive. Again, encouraging public transport and encouraging other modes of transport rather than just a focus on motorised transport.

CHAIR: Our previous inquiry concluded and made recommendations that all infrastructure should be master planned and should be attached to land use. Densification should be commensurate with the capacity of the transport, but I think what you have raised today is a more detailed version of what that transport infrastructure is.

Prof. Dia : That is right. Again, I try to avoid thinking about transport in terms of only roads. We have a city. We have economic opportunity in certain areas. We have people who cannot afford to live, for example, closer to that city. How do we provide that integration? It could be like a transit oriented development. We have some good examples in Melbourne, such as Central Station, for example, where you have the train station and on top of it you have retail, on top of that you have offices and also accommodation. Everything is integrated. That is a perfect example. The challenge is how you translate this to the outer suburbs. Some of the research shows that the vast majority of the energy use is coming from the suburbs. In outer suburbs, because they are not as well serviced by public transport, for example, you have people who use their private vehicles. You get some of the disadvantaged communities out there as well, and they tend to use older vehicles, which are more polluting. Then they need to access economic opportunities in the cities.

I think part of the inquiry is about regional centres. When we are looking at regional centres, whether it is the Dandenongs or Geelong, how do we make these cities sufficient and sustainable on their own? Sometimes you hear people saying, 'I would like to live on a piece of land, two hectares of land. That is my right. I want to do it.' The problem is the further you move the more services we need to provide, and also there could be social isolation as well if there is not a community. Some people say, 'The hyperloop is coming.' This is where you can do a trip from Melbourne to Geelong maybe in 15 minutes. That could be a solution, too. It could be part of the solution when that comes but also we need to look at Geelong, otherwise everybody will be living in Geelong and working in Melbourne. So how do we provide economic opportunity in these regional centres; for example, unfortunately we lost all the vehicle manufacturing there so the city is struggling to find the next best thing. It is really having the view of the urban environment and also how it connects to the regional centres as well.

CHAIR: You could have a dormitory suburb called Geelong, where you have a lot of people commuting into the city. But as it grows it gets to a critical mass; companies are locating there whose staff might not need to be in the city on a daily basis. Is that a reasonable plan for evolving dormitory cities into sustainable cities in their own right?

Prof. Dia : I agree. This is where you provide the economic opportunity within walking distance, within a 20-minute travel, and then people do not need to access the bigger cities. If, also, you provide the medical services and all the infrastructure necessary then it becomes self-sustaining. People in the early stages can enjoy perhaps a little bit of the backyard, if you like, until it becomes at a stage where you need to densify that. In Melbourne there is a huge push now, or there should be, on densification. I notice it in the inner suburbs and I think slowly it will start to move to the outer suburbs, because I am sure you have heard the cost of housing is just like Sydney.

CHAIR: Is there any reason that both strategies could not be employed, where you have densification and satellite cities serviced by some fast form of rail to optimise the potential growth, to minimise the pressure on housing and of the densification strategy and congestion, if you have both strategies being employed?

Prof. Dia : I think that could work really well if it is accompanied by a first deployment of sustainable modes of transport. The only concern is that you would again go back to encouraging urban sprawl where people would live on the fringes of Geelong and then it just keeps on expanding.

CHAIR: Would it be correct that through a very fast train service or fast rail service where Geelong was, say, 20 minutes from the CBD of Melbourne, that land prices would be increased?

Prof. Dia : Yes, along the whole corridor. I think you are absolutely right.

CHAIR: So, therefore, the opportunity for value capture of those regional areas to fund the infrastructure, both in the capital funding and if you could employ land tax to subsidise the operations and maintenance in that, that infrastructure is going to continually add value to those regional towns as they graduate to be sustainable?

Prof. Dia : Yes. I think value capture is another aspect of what we are going to be seeing more of in the future because that is the way to pay for this expensive infrastructure.

CHAIR: One of the first things you said was budget restrictions.

Prof. Dia : Yes.

CHAIR: This would seem to be the way for governments to capitalise on the massive investment they are making on infrastructure.

Prof. Dia : That is right. Another aspect of where the government funds are dwindling is with the gas tax or the petrol taxes. Increasingly, as we start to see more electric vehicles on the road, it means the tax coming from the pump is going to decline. We are thinking now—and there is a lot of research as well—and there is some industry interest in road pricing or even congestion pricing. They are two separate things. Road pricing is where instead of us paying a petrol or gasoline tax or paying the registration fee for a vehicle, instead of doing these things which are basically like a property tax, what we do instead is we charge people for the amount of travel they do. That could be additional income for the government, but to me the better way of doing this is what I call congestion pricing or demand management. So, with inner city areas if people still insist to use their private vehicles to get into the city, then like in London for example you have to pay $5 or whatever it is in order to be able to drive your vehicle into the city and every time you drive also you pay. The examples from London and Sweden seem to have worked quite well where you would get the funds that are generated poured back into public transport and active transport infrastructure, and it eases congestion and so forth.

Mr WALLACE: Just on that congestion tax, how long has that been operating in other countries?

Prof. Dia : Singapore has had it for a very long time. It used to be manual and maybe 20 years ago they shifted it to an automatic system, so you just have the tag in your vehicle and you do not need to stop. In London it has been a good 10 years. I do not have the specific number.

Mr WALLACE: Ten years in London?

Prof. Dia : Yes, and in Sweden.

Ms BIRD: I think it would be over 10. I was there in 2007 and it was well-established then.

Mr WALLACE: What studies have been done on the impacts or the benefits? Is it working? What is the utility of it? I imagine if you look at things like tolls, no-one likes to pay tolls when there is a new bridge or there is a new stretch of motorway that is built. We all hate paying it and we all avoid paying it but eventually we start paying it. Before you know it we have forgotten about it and it is just one of those additional things that we pay. Would a congestion tax, unless it were horrifically expensive, just go the same way?

Prof. Dia : Do you mean people will get used to it?


Prof. Dia : Yes, it is possible. The research from London, Sweden and so on shows there was a lot of resistance to begin with, but people then saw the benefits in terms of reduced congestion on the roads, for example, and improved public transport. Even the retailers thought it might affect customers arriving at their doorstep, but after a while people adjusted their behaviour, as you suggested, and now it is a given fact of life. At the same time I think people see that their taxes or whatever they are paying have actually been translated into a good utility in terms of improved public transport.

One thing I would like to differentiate is that we pay tolls, for example, on some freeways now but these are not part of a congestion management automated management; these are essentially to help the operator of the freeway to recover costs. There would be an agreement with the government, so that is a bit separate. It does influence people's behaviour but if you are a freight operator an additional $5 might not be a big expense if it means delivering the goods just in time to the factory and so on.

Ms BIRD: You make the point that trends are also increasing the focus on the social dimensions of transport to ensure mobility benefits are equally and fairly distributed. I am wondering—and I have raised this with a number of people giving evidence—if there is research into why people are taking trips? There seems to me to be an overriding presumption—probably largely correct—that it is about employment, but we have also had evidence that people might relocate to an affordable suburb and are actually travelling back into the city to visit family, they are coming in for specialist health appointments or travelling in for educational purposes. It would seem to me, from a policy perspective, understanding why people are travelling therefore opens other alternatives up, such as establishing a university or TAFE campus, a health precinct and those sorts of things where they are. Do you know if there is much quality work done on that?

Prof. Dia : Yes. I think most of the evidence we have is that people are, as you suggested, travelling for economic opportunities, studying and so on, and accessing services and places. It is interesting that in Melbourne, for example, we have noticed that the weekend patterns of transport are shifting. Nowadays, for example, during a workday you get the peak hour between let us say 6.30 and 9.30. Over the weekend it used to be after 10.00. We are noticing now that the weekend travel, or the peak, is for an extended period of time and it is starting earlier and finishing later. It could be that because of better economic situations people are accessing more services and travelling out of the city for leisure and so on, but for the peak hour situations this is where the infrastructure is struggling. It is mainly for economic opportunity.

Ms BIRD: It terms of the equality issue that you raised, one of the challenges in planning is something that you have touched on, that is the impact and intervention of technology. Some of the big organisations have said to us—and the chair has raised this a few times—that the capacity for companies to have smaller footprints in the CBD and then themselves have satellite businesses out in developing polycities or outer suburbs, or whatever we are going to call them, has some economic advantages for them. We talk about this but there does not seem to have been a great deal achieved. Do you have a perspective on what the barriers are for employment opportunities, themselves, in seeing an opportunity in moving out and whether there have been good policy initiatives that you have seen that have facilitated that?

Prof. Dia : Yes. That is a very good question and you are right; I have not seen much done in that space although it might seem like, theoretically, it is a good idea. The barriers could be just like, as you suggested, companies trying to relocate to inner city areas rather than expanding out, especially if there is no manufacturing required and so on, but I have not seen any good examples where that has been implemented.

Ms BIRD: It might be something for us to have a think about. Just a small example in my own area of Wollongong, with the government relocation quite a long time ago now: there was a decentralisation and the Navy hydrography office was relocated to Wollongong from the centre of Sydney. They reflected to me, when I talked to them, that there was massive resistance to it and yet now they are saying, 'With the lifestyle for our employees we have much lower staff turnover than we've ever had before.' They just reel off all of these advantages. I am thinking why are businesses not seeing that as well? Whether it is just, 'We've always done it this way', and continue to do it that way, or some internal fear about moving out of a CBD might affect them. You think there is not much work being done?

Prof. Dia : Yes.

Ms BIRD: Governments can build infrastructure, place universities and hospitals and all of that but the reality is the economic drivers of the private sector do not follow up and take up those opportunities as well.

Prof. Dia : I think mobility plays a big part in where people choose to live, work and play. Again, maybe it is about having to provide that necessary infrastructure and make sure it is in place, at least as a base, but if the bus is going to come once every hour I think that is a deterrent for people. We experience this in many suburbs here, especially outside the peak period that this is what is happening.

Interestingly, governments in North America have started to cancel suburban bus lines, especially during the off-peak periods, and instead giving citizens a discount on Uber, so you order your Uber and it replaces your bus service. If we go now into the suburbs most probably we are going to see one or two people in very big buses. During the peak period it is totally different. Again, how do we accommodate this? We need to provide that service for equity and so on but how do we optimise it and reduce cost?

Ms BIRD: I raised equity because I wonder how much of private sector decision making about location is driven by the fact that those who are making the decisions in organisations live in leafy northern suburbs and so forth? It is quite accessible for them to get into the CBD, whereas the vast bulk of their workforce may be coming from somewhere else.

Prof. Dia : That is right.

Ms BIRD: That is just an observation. I was hoping there might have been some sort of data study on it. Are you saying that you have not seen anything like that?

Prof. Dia : I have not seen anything substantial. You maybe have isolated experiments, but nothing substantial.

Ms BIRD: Thank you.

CHAIR: We have discussed a lot today the polycentric city and the opportunity of having cities within cities. Has any work been done on having the government facilitate the development of certain businesses clustered in these individual cities? For instance, if you look at North Sydney it is largely advertising and marketing businesses. If you go to Macquarie Park it is medical, innovative, high-tech businesses, but it is not as clearly defined as it could be and then you could affect your residents, people choosing to work in those industries, to live near those industries so you are really creating, as in Paris, regions or regional activities and therefore creating cities within a city but you have some intelligence and some purpose behind the planning. Has there been any thought to pursue that? If you go to the US, for instance Charlotte, which was a sleepy little town in the seventies, is now a banking capital with five million people. It has grown enormously but it has a real identity. Memphis has gone from being the home of the King to the second-busiest airport in the US because it is a freight airport. It has all of the overflow from Atlanta and it became a transport freight, air freight hub, so created a reason to be there and entrapped a particular industry. Have we given any thought to that?

Prof. Dia : Again, in Australia I do not have strong evidence to support this. I can think of the Monash employment cluster. I think the Victorian Planning Authority is talking about employment clusters. The other day I heard the statistic that the Monash employment cluster—the Monash University, CSIRO and other businesses—is the second-largest area in terms of employment for Melbourne. We are seeing these experiments and, again, one of the challenges for that cluster is transport. People who go to Monash will tell you that getting there is not easy, that you need to have a car essentially, or otherwise you need to change between a number of modes of public transport to get there. Overseas in China and other places there is a lot of evidence to support what you have suggested.

CHAIR: Thank you. We have run out of time. Thank you for your attendance today. If you have been asked to provide any additional information would you please forward it to the secretary by Tuesday, 12 September 2017. You will be sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence and you will have the opportunity to request corrections to transcription errors. Again, thank you very much for sharing your scholarship with us.