This yuletide time of year, traffic approaches an intensity that appears designed to torment. In the long periods of sitting stationary, bumper to bumper, the average Australian gets thinking about cities.

“Why are there so many people in this city?” we ask ourselves between bursts of road rage. “Couldn’t they be … somewhere else?”

From time to time, these ephemeral frustrations explode into the political arena. We see efforts at “decentralising” Australia’s population. A politician, perhaps a ruddy-faced fellow with a largely bovine constituency, will attempt to move a public service institution somewhere more bucolic.

“Regional Australia deserves the benefits of public sector employment just as much as any capital city,” is the justification (words directly from the website of the Nationals). “After all, regional Australia supplies the water, food, electricity and gas which powers our cities.”

This seems clever on its surface. Indeed, Australia is amazingly centralised. We have just five cities of over a million people, and surprisingly few smaller cities. In 2010, just 33% of our urban population lived in urban areas of under 500,000, compared to 72% in western Europe.

Building new infrastructure in our capitals is tremendously expensive. Who would want to build a new road in an inner city where the cost of compensating landowners is at least $1 million a pop? Not to mention the logistical problems of building amid a functioning conurbation. Keeping a road running while simultaneously widening it, tunnelling under it, or bridging over it, is not cheap.

Compulsory tree change

Instead of burdening our capitals with ever-greater intensities of human beings, shifting Australians to greenfield locations appears as an enlightened option. And the lever for policy change is right at politicians’ fingertips. Public service departments can be located wherever their political masters so choose.

In recent years, the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) established its head office in Geelong (population 200,000). The state government of Victoria also chose to move the head offices of the Transport Accident Commission and WorkSafe Victoria to that city, a process that is yet to be completed.

Will it work? There’s a glaring lesson staring Australia in the face. Just south of Yass and inland from Ulladulla is an old sheep paddock that now contains more public service departments than any other part of Australia. I’m talking about our nation’s capital.

Burley Griffen’s Lament

The project of moving the nation’s administration to Canberra began in 1913 — 104 years hence, it has attracted 400,000 new residents. Not a small number, to be sure. But that hardy 400,000 represent a 10th as many as Sydney got in the same period.

Blame the weather or Burley Griffin’s obsession with the car. The truth is starting a new city is an awfully difficult enterprise. So is trying to revive a moribund one by the injection of public servants. Cities, like truffles, are hard to cultivate.

Sometimes one springs up where it wasn’t wholly expected; the Gold Coast has grown to over 600,000 residents despite being half Canberra’s size in the late 1960s. But pushing against a decline is rarely effective. The quintessential truth about humans is they gravitate to other humans. Nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd.

So it is large cities that tend to grow faster than smaller cities. In the last decade, each Australian capital has grown faster than the remainder of its state. Doubling a city’s size increases its productivity by 130%, according to one estimate. It is no coincidence that Australia’s largest city, Sydney, is also its richest.

A solitary megalopolis?

Would a single city be the optimal structure for an efficient Australia?

The limiting factor in the Sydney story is likely the trade-off between property prices and travel time. I’d probably choose to live in Kirribilli if I could rent a nice three-bedroom house there for $250 a week, but as I understand it, that’s not an option. I could live in Sydney and pay that little in rent, but of course then I’d be living in the deep suburbs and experiencing a great deal of the infernal traffic we spoke about earlier.

Australian politicians who are worried about crowding in our cities shouldn’t waste time trying to move a few thousand people to the hinterlands. You can double the size of Armidale and it won’t move the needle on Sydney’s problems.

The best advice is to paddle with the current. Australia’s cities are nothing like the largest in the world. It will be possible for them to work well even when they’re a lot larger. We need to invest to make sure of it.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey