Cities, places and the people who make them
Foreground Weekly Review: Australia’s infrastructure crisis is not about roads
The release of two important federal government reports paints a long-term picture of the urgent need to reconsider our priorities when it comes to infrastructure spending. So why has media attention focused yet again on roads?
Writer Foreground Tim Foster
August 21, 2019
The past fortnight has seen public release of two important federal government reflections on the nation’s infrastructure: the 2019 Infrastructure Australia audit and a dashboard update of the National Cities Performance Framework.
The audit covers transport, telecommunications, water, energy and “for the first time” social infrastructure needs over the next 15 years. It advises that “[r]ather than projecting forward the status quo, our infrastructure planning should set an ambitious vision for the country” and that the “time is right to reconsider how we deliver infrastructure, and how we can adapt existing networks to our changing user needs.”
While the audit is very clear that it intends to look toward a necessarily different future, media commentary has been limited to panicked projection of a failing status quo focused on traffic congestion. ABC news headlines their report: “Infrastructure Australia says roads and transport must ‘catch up’ to keep pace with population” – even though ‘catch-up’ is not a term used within the audit. Only transport infrastructure’s failings are costed in terms of lost earnings, with the ABC declaring that the cost to the economy was estimated to grow from $19 billion a year “to nearly $39 billion by 2031 without further spending”.
The Guardian too, with a lead image of freeway traffic, notes that “the cost of road congestion will grow $18.9bn to $38.8bn in 2031”. This point is only one of fourteen ‘key messages’ listed in the executive summary. Only briefly and dismissively does The Guardian mention “growing demands on so-called ‘social infrastructure’, such as schools, hospitals and parks, as more people move into cities.”
Road transportation is vital to economies as they are presently organised, however, there are many reasons to think that travel modes, as well as the wide variety of reasons for travelling at all, can, will and should change in the future. The answer to sitting in traffic jams to get to work may not be to widen roads but to make it unnecessary to drive a car to work. Investment in different infrastructure can enable that. Nevertheless, it is transport infrastructure – and in particular roads – which have garnered almost all press attention.
Federal Minister for Urban Infrastructure and Population, Alan Tudge, reiterates the government’s commitment to ‘congestion busting’ in the ABC report, while The Guardian gives three final paragraphs to the Deputy Prime Minister, Michael McCormack’s reminder of $23bn in new infrastructure investment for “more than 160 urban congestion projects” along with the government’s “historically high investment on transport infrastructure which now averages over $10bn a year”.
But road infrastructure is only one part of transport infrastructure, which, in turn, is only one of the five infrastructure sectors covered by the audit. Social infrastructure is very likely to have economic impacts just as great or greater than road transport, considering the physical and mental health costs from a lack of social infrastructure services. Social infrastructure is demonstrably central to social and individual quality of life: from good schooling to the direct health services provided by hospitals and aged care, to health and wellbeing provided by green spaces, recreational facilities, arts and cultural activities. Indeed, as research has long shown, rises in private transport use are proportional to rises in obesity rates. More vehicle traffic will also contribute to local and global pollution.
Despite claiming “recent investments in transport infrastructure in our fast-growing cities is largely playing ‘catch-up’ rather than providing additional capacity”, most major Australian cities have close to 100 percent of jobs accessible by car within 30 minutes, according to the National Cities Performance Framework. On the other hand, investment in public education, health and green infrastructure isn’t even playing catch-up, but is going backward.
According to the updated framework, the proportion of journeys to work by public transport averages around only 10 percent and active transport (walking and cycling) is less than 5 percent. Around 50 percent of urban dwellings have access to open space within 400 metres. Meanwhile a third of Australia’s adult population is obese and more than two-thirds are overweight or obese. Is infrastructure investment focused on private road transport then a wise investment compared with investment in public and active transport and green space?
The Planning Institute of Australia (PIA) has congratulated Infrastructure Australia “on the rigour of its Infrastructure Audit 2019 and its renewed focus on the importance of social infrastructure”. But the institute is troubled by the lack of a “coherent decision-making framework in Australia for how growth and change is planned”. National President Steve O’Connor warned that there is “a real possibility, too, that more heavily congested roads and limited transport choices could undermine people’s quality of life”.
It has been much reported that Australia’s quality of life is falling, along with living standards and education standards while wage growth is stagnating. A new Grattan Institute report has just re-confirmed a headline common over the past few years: “For the first time in centuries, we’re setting up a generation to be worse off than the one before it.” This picture of Australia’s future is one that the country’s younger generations are becoming more vocal in questioning. It is a future which the infrastructure audit explicitly invites us to consider.
With so much emphasis placed on road infrastructure costs and the costs of the failure to deliver this infrastructure to meet projected demands, it is worth revisiting the question: what exactly are the costs or savings aiming to achieve? If the quality of natural environments, recreational spaces, education or health care is eroded, spending money to create better access these poor or non-existent infrastructure services is pointless. Do roads support our cities, or do cities support our road building?
And moreover, what implications does investment in roads have for other areas of government policy? Why is there so much emphasis on one particular type of infrastructure? Who benefits most from such investment?
Foreground reads: our pick from around the web on infrastructure
The cost of congested roads and over-crowded public transport systems will double unless governments do more than just play “catch up” on transport projects, Australia’s infrastructure advisory body has warned.
Australia’s cities are straining under the weight of the country’s rapid population growth, with a major audit finding that $600bn in new spending is needed to keep pace with demand over the next 15 years.
Infrastructure Australia’s assessment of Australia’s infrastructure requirements has highlighted the need to join up population, land use and infrastructure planning across the country… National President Steve O’Connor said the report confirmed that addressing infrastructure, population and liveability in isolation was no longer feasible.
For the first time in centuries, we’re setting up a generation to be worse off than the one before it
Each new generation of Australians since Federation has enjoyed a better standard of living than the one that came before it. Until now. Today’s young Australians are in danger of falling behind.