population growth
(Image: Unsplash/Madeleine Ragsdale)

The problem with building and widening roads is that it’s only a temporary fix. In the short term we can commute more quickly, but better roads encourage more people to live further from work and use cars rather than buses or trains.

So in the medium and long term the congestion becomes worse than before the infrastructure spend. This appears counterintuitive: how on earth can better roads slow traffic? But numerous studies show that in growing cities, it is futile to try to speed up traffic by road-building.

In Australia’s major cities, the car’s colonisation of the surface area shows no sign of abating. People remain committed to the dream of rapid automobility from crowded downtown to tranquil suburb, and this in large part explains our failure to meet global emission targets.

As the planet fries, we’re still mainlining fossil fuels and will continue to do so until most of us start driving electric cars (and running air-conditioners) powered by renewables, which isn’t going to happen any time soon.

Misgivings about road-building generally don’t apply to the regions. When a politician announces a new road to bypass a regional town, most people are usually happy. Who needs to be stuck in a traffic jam driving up the coast for the summer holidays?

Earlier this month the New South Wales government announced a proposal to build a road tunnel in the Blue Mountains between Katoomba and Lithgow, bypassing the towns of Blackheath and Mount Victoria. Media reports suggest locals are supportive: apart from a few shopkeepers who fear the loss of trade, most welcome the tranquillity that diverting traffic away from the town would bring.

But the proposal comes just a few years after the completion of the last major upgrade to the road from Sydney and we should be careful not to assume it’s disconnected from the process of urban growth.

Residents of towns more than 80km from cities often see themselves as living well outside the urban rat race. Few undertake the daily commute. So when governments improve local highways, they do so ostensibly to improve freight and tourist movements.

No limit to urban expansion

It’s important, however, to stop thinking about Australian cities in 20th century terms and recognise that the gravity of CBDs is becoming weaker. The idea that there’s a natural limit to urban expansion, a point beyond which a city will not grow, is challenged by urbanisation patterns elsewhere in the world.

As Australia’s major cities — Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth — expand they come to resemble polycentric conurbations like southern California or Tokyo-Yokohama. Brisbane is already cheek by jowl with the Gold Coast and playing footsie with the Sunshine Coast. Melbourne will soon become Australia’s most populous city and at some stage will join up with Geelong. Traffic is epic in both cities.

Major peri-urban commercial investment and infrastructure projects help to drive sprawl, as is happening with the western Sydney airport, and adjacent “aerotropolis”, driving the growth of adjacent suburban centres like Penrith and Blacktown.

And the rise of hybrid work during the pandemic — some days at home, some at work — has made living at great distance from the office more feasible. More people will see regional towns as viable places to live. They’ll become less economically isolated and more connected to the big four cities. But in turn they risk losing the sense of singularity.

Twenty-five years ago, Western Sydney University students from Camden, on the south-west edge, laughed when I told them they lived in a “suburb”. Today the suggestion barely raises an eyebrow.

Regional towns are rarely immune from the influence of nearby cities. Their populations will grow if governments improve transport links, and even though this may compromise local tranquillity and distinctiveness, it will improve job opportunities for those who would otherwise be too remote.

Roads are less sustainable, however, than rail. Congestion will increase and much more energy will be consumed. It takes nearly as long to travel by train from the upper Blue Mountains to Sydney’s Central station as from Manchester to London, even though it’s only a third of the distance.

Trains travel the 75km from Geelong to Melbourne in an hour and even though planned rail improvements will cut this trip by 10 minutes, that’s much slower than global standards. European or Japanese commuters would cover the same distance in half the time.

To conserve the place-centredness while encouraging regional economic growth in peri-urban areas, our representatives would be much better advised to invest in improving rail than road. In doing so they may even help to save the planet.

George Morgan is associate professor at the Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University.