In a recent op-ed piece (What’s wrong with us) the New York Times, writer Bob Herbert lamented the disastrous lack of American investment in infrastructure.  In a blog comment that appears tailor-made for Australia, the answer is in Pogo’s classic line “We have met the enemy and he is us.”  And Bob Carr.

In last week’s Crikey Bob Carr and Dick Smith argue over whether our population should be 36 million or 28.5 million by 2050 but the real issue they ignore is that Australia and Australians must change their ways — that business as usual is inadequate.

In roughly the same span and timeframe of Carr’s time as premier, Paris has gone from a bike-unfriendly city to one of the best cycling cities in the world, cemented in 2007 — after a decade creating cycling paths and retraining their super-aggressive car drivers — with the Velib free bike hire scheme, which has been a phenomenal success.  We do not need to recount here what has happened to Sydney in the same timeframe under Carr but it does make one’s jaw drop reading his article.

In citing the Intergenerational Report that “migration does not reverse the ageing of the population” Carr is correct in that one cannot “outrun” population ageing with immigration, but the reality is that among developed countries, Australia has one of the lowest age profiles, and consequently will have a longer delay before the onset of population ageing effects, because of only one reason, immigration. Our median age is 37.1 years compared to 39.5 for Canada and 36.7 for the US compared to more than 40 for most European countries and 44.2 for Japan.

All of this would be significant if our population was high in any relative sense but on any basis we are underpopulated.  Australia’s overall population density is less than three people per square kilometre.  At about 46 people per arable square kilometre we are a bit denser than Canada at 38 but both countries are in a completely separate league to most developed countries such as the UK (837), France (332) Japan (2,570) and one quarter of the USA (163).  Canada has the highest per capita immigration rate in the world.

The big difference between Canada and Australia is that the latter has been preparing for this growth for the past five decades. In the 1960s Toronto decided to invest more in public transport rather than adopt the US road-based city transport paradigm.  The city also has a strong cycling culture. Along with Montreal and Vancouver these Canadian cities are studied as models of how to cope with a growing population against a strong tendency to be car-based.

Carr claims that for our east coast cities all development plans are based around public transport.  The problem is that not one of these cities has a plan that anyone takes seriously. Sydney has no end of plans for upgrading its inadequate rail transport — several in just the past year alone.

By his statement “our cities will be more congested with 36 million, no matter how much goes into public transport” he is confusing crowded versus congested.  He left the city in the latter state.  All large cities with even the best public transport still suffer crowding at peak hours but people still get to their destination in a consistently predictable time.  On the other hand congestion prevents people (and goods) getting to their destination on time and is predicted to cost the Australia economy up to $30 billion per year as soon as 2020. That is just the tip of the iceberg of a business-as-usual strategy.

Sydney may well have the highest proportion of commuter journeys using public transport in Australia but at 23% it is still woeful compared to 54% in New York (all five boroughs, much higher on Manhattan), 80% in London, 52% in Paris, 78% in Tokyo (57% in Greater Tokyo).  And not just in those very large world cities (which actually Sydney and Melbourne like to compare themselves) but also in comparable sized cities such as 90% in Hong Kong, and 32% (plus 16% cycling) in Toronto.

Bob Carr could also claim increasing use of public transport during Labour’s rule but the problem is that it has nothing at all to do with improved public transport but entirely to do with increasing road congestion. Not only could his government not implement any serious program for expanding the rail network but it managed to waste $95 million on a failed integrated travel smartcard. The same company awarded the Sydney contract, ERG, is responsible for the highly lauded Hong Kong Octopus card system, the first such card in the world. London’s Oyster card is similar, as is Brisbane’s Go card.

In Melbourne and Sydney the politicians and transport supremos could not accept the notion of simplifying zone/fare structures and thus brought certain disaster.  It defies the imagination how Melbourne can spend $800 million on the Myki card system and still it is dysfunctional. Sydney went back to the drawing board and finally, in Kristina Keneally, NSW has a premier with enough common sense to replace the antiquated complicated fare structure. Our politicians need to have enough common sense and backbone to over-rule the bureaucrats, nitpickers and bean counters with their false economic models.

This author has elsewhere countered the argument about water as the limiting resource for our cities where I wrote:

“In the case against further population growth many cite Brisbane’s experience in the recent prolonged water concerns. Yet it shows the exact opposite: people responded beyond expectations in going from about 300 to 140L/cap/day. No new dams, desalination plants, pipelines, recycling or rainwater harvesting were needed to get us through one of the worst dry spells in our history”

Two days after Carr called for an inquiry into population and Australia’s carrying capacity, Tony Burke was appointed federal Population Minister.  It is not yet clear what a “population strategy” will encompass.  The problem of trying to determine Australia’s carrying capacity will be in defining the key parameters.  If one uses our current practice and simply extrapolates our lamentable infrastructure, then yes it is clear that we are probably beyond the limits.

Stopping immigration will not be enough to rescue our unsustainable way of life.  But technological progress, particularly in clean energy, water conservation strategies and smarter infrastructure spending such as in urban planning, city transport and inter-city transport can have a profound impact.  Do Carr and many other commentators seriously think we should just stand still? Stick with this 1950s mindset that only Australia and America persist with?  In that case his prognosis is self-fulfilling defeatism.

A few weeks back Lindsay Tanner made some common sense remarks on some of these panic scenarios re population. The message was in the title:Issue is profligacy not population“. Unlike almost all of his fellow ministers Tanner appears to appreciate the true issues and solutions and is willing to explain the ugly truth in public:

“We have been very profligate in how we’ve managed our environment, our water resources, the development of our cities and how we’ve managed our economy in general in recent decades. Regardless of what our population is in 2050, for Australians to continue enjoying the quality of life we currently do, that profligacy has to stop.”

Bob Carr appears to very Australian in his near-total pessimism and complacency about our ability to change to meet future challenges.  His only “idea” is to shut the door on immigration, the only thing that has stopped us — just — from being the most boring place in the known universe.  Instead of being Cassandra he should be part of the solution, but then he never did that when he held power. Being from the boomer generation he should remember the saying, if you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem.

Michael R. James is an Australian research scientist, writer and former Parisian cyclist. He addressed some of the issues of population growth in a recent three part series: 1. Population and Transport; 2. Population and Housing/Urban Planning; 3. Population and Resources.