The Fence

Traffic congestion in Australian cities: What’s really happening, what can we do?

Image by RettungsgasseJETZTde on Pixabay

“The huge pipeline of road and rail projects across Sydney and Melbourne, both underway and planned, will not prevent the cities becoming paralysed with congestion by 2031, with the cost of lost productivity due to gridlock set to double over the next 12 years to $38.8 billion.”

So opened the reporting last week by The Age of Infrastructure Australia’s 2019 Australian Infrastructure Audit. It’s a scary forecast but one we must pay attention to. Spend just a little time in peak hour traffic – or even weekend traffic – and you quickly see that things are bad now, and if left unchecked are likely to get worse.

Although Sydney and Melbourne are named as the two cities that will bear two-thirds of the projected congestion problem, but the current and oncoming burden is not theirs alone. The other Australian capital cities, and large regional cities, will all be affected.

Have commute times increased?

But how bad is it and how horrendous will it become? A recent report from the Grattan Institute, Remarkably adaptive: Australian cities in a time of growth (2018) flagged that although congestion is a common lament at the backyard barbecue, it observed that:

“So far, the impact of rapid population growth on commuting distances and times has been remarkably benign, despite regular media coverage claiming the opposite. The average commute distance barely increased over the five years to the most recent Census in 2016, and there has been little or no change in the duration of commutes.”


The community is not just standing by wringing its hands. People have been altering their travel times, working more from home, moving house to lessen their commute and increasing their use of public transport.

But public transport is also groaning under the weight of increased demand. Again, from The Grattan Institute:

“Overcrowding of public transport and related impacts on service reliability also continue to be issues for the bigger cities. In 2016 almost all trains arriving at Central Station in Sydney between 8am and 9am on the T4 Illawarra Line were over-crowded by the time they reached Sydenham station, around 8 kilometres from the CBD. Once a train is filled to 135 per cent of seated capacity, passengers feel crowded and the train can run late because it has to dwell longer at stations.”

The question therefore becomes what further steps can we take to deal with the looming problem. Expanding capacity of roads or rail is possible but is very expensive. Which (few) expansions should we undertake?

And for those parts of the network that we cannot expand, what further adaptations can we make? Can we devise more flexible transport options that reduce people’s need to drive themselves? Do we need to rethink the start and finish times of our work and school? Can we change the locations at which the work is undertaken? Should we impose a charge for road use at peak times?

The alarm bells are ringing. In response governments everywhere have been accelerating their infrastructure spend, and people have been adjusting their living and working patterns. But the problem is not solved and there is an urgent need for more initiatives at personal, regional and national levels.

iMOVE projects

iMOVE was set up to support these processes. Amongst the things we are looking at are:

There are no simple solutions but we encourage discussion about the various options we face. Some changes will inevitably be required, and we need to debate the choices in a level-headed, factual, fair and bipartisan manner. If we do this, I am confident we can navigate through community involvement, and smart solutions, towards sustainably pleasant living and working environments.

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