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Should the “20 minute city” be the key objective of planning?

Planners seem seduced by the idea that cities are just lots of self-contained villages. But that view misunderstands what cities are about and why they form.

Where workers employed at Monash-Clayton live

The Baillieu Government’s newly released discussion paper on Melbourne’s Metropolitan Strategy is nominally intended to generate ideas and promote open discussion about future possibilities for the long-term planning of the city.

However a couple of matters are apparently so important for the city’s future that the authors thoughtfully made up residents’ minds for them. One of those is a commitment to making Melbourne a “20 minute city”.

Whether they like it or not, the authors decided apriori that residents should be “living locally”. All Melburnians, it says,

should have access to the services and facilities they need within a 20 minute journey from home.

I’m disappointed the paper effectively pre-empts debate on this issue by making the 20 minute city one of the discussion paper’s nine foundation principles. Nevertheless it sounds like a principle all reasonable persons could agree on, doesn’t it?

After all, the evolution of transport technology – from walking to beasts of burden to rails to cars to planes – shows humans seek to minimise time spent getting to and from places.

The paper pulls its punches though when it comes to mode. It’s not saying all of Melbourne should be a 20 minute walking city, or a 20 minute cycling city, or even a 20 minute public transport city.

While it acknowledges the inner city probably already offers 20 minute accessibility on foot, it’s happy for the 20 minute limit to include driving time. That’ll trouble some observers but I think it’s realistic.

Since more than 90% of the population live in the suburbs, that’s a reasonable definition. It would be jejune to set a 20 minute walk as an objective when 89% of households have access to at least one car.

Residents aren’t going to go back to walking to a small local hardware store when they can drive to Bunnings within 20 minutes and get significantly lower prices, a vastly bigger range to choose from, and easy parking.

Unless there’s an extraordinarily large increase in the marginal cost of driving, as well as some constraint on the scope to adapt (e.g. to more efficient vehicles), consumers will want the benefits that economies of scale and scope provide.

This is where strategic planners should look beyond conventional infrastructure and land use policies and actively canvass non-physical ways (e.g regulatory and taxation initiatives) to promote use of more efficient cars.

But even if the aspiration of a largely car-based 20 minute city is accepted, I don’t think the case has been made that “living locally” warrants being one of the Strategy’s foundation principles.

Paradoxically, we’ve already got it and it’s unachievable.

We’ve already got it because there are very few places in Melbourne, even in the outer suburbs, where you can’t already get to a supermarket, hairdresser or GP within a 20 minute drive. By this standard, Melburnians are living the local dream already.

On the other hand, it’s unachievable because there are some higher-level activities that simply can’t be distributed evenly across the entire metropolitan area so that they’re within a short walk, bus ride or drive of almost every household.

For example, there are major sporting facilities, universities, private schools, night club strips and fashionable restaurants, that either locate in clusters or can’t be disaggregated. Cities are “lumpy” and “spiky” places.

The journey-to-work is the best example because it’s a frequent trip. Some jobs are indeed local, but it’s a fallacy they’re filled completely by locals.

Workers are prepared to travel considerably longer than 20 minutes to find a better job. The median journey-to-work time in Melbourne (all modes) is 30 minutes and the world’s biggest, densest cities are in the same ball park.

Many jobs also agglomerate due to internal and external economies of scale. Suburban universities, hospitals and heavy manufacturing are examples of industries that have regional and metro-wide catchments.

The pre-eminent example is the CBD and surrounds, which attract workers from all across the metropolitan area. Because it’s dependent on public transport, journey-to-work times are considerably longer on average than they are for (overwhelmingly car-based) suburban jobs.

Workers can of course choose to live close to their jobs and many years ago when transport costs were very high that’s what they mostly did. But these days housing within 20 minutes of the CBD is extremely expensive, especially for larger households.

Once most households only had one full-time worker so location decisions were relatively straightforward. Today’s households however are likely to have multiple workers. Some have members who attend non-local universities and schools (around a third of all high school enrolments are at private institutions).

The idea of a 20 minute city is also at odds with increasing use of public transport. It’s not like a car – walking, waiting and transfer time might be minimised but they can’t be eliminated.

At present the median work journey by public transport in Melbourne takes 55 minutes, compared to 30 minutes for workers who drive. That’s partly walk and wait time but trains in particular enable many residents to trade-off travel time for more living space.

Even in a city as dense and well-serviced by transit as Manhattan, it’s not easy for anyone other than the very wealthy to live within 20 minutes total travel time of work.

You can certainly “live locally” if you’re in a small regional city or country town. It also makes sense to improve the quality of life in neighbourhoods since we spend a lot of our lives locally (although not necessarily in the same neighbourhood – we usually shift frequently).

There’s potentially a lot to gain from encouraging a sense of community and identity within urban neighbourhoods. But it’s too restrictive – and unrealistic – to expect residents would want to, or could, do most everything locally, or that all businesses and services fit the distributed model.

The implicit idea that a key mission of planning in a city of four, five or six million people is to promote “living locally” as the headline objective is to misunderstand what a city is about.

Cities offer specialisation and that means higher level activities aren’t evenly spread in the way that hairdressers and supermarkets are, but tend to be geographically concentrated. Having access to those specialisations is one of the advantages of living in a city and ought to be facilitated.

At the least, there are legitimate issues here than ought to be part of the debate around the metropolitan strategy, not assumed to be right from (before) the get-go. That’s not what consultation and participation should be about.

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  • 1
    hk
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    Maybe the level of debate would be improved by including statements focusing on aims for time-use which are based on averages such as 80% of trips for 80% of a person’s needs should be within 20 minutes of home, work and/or school?

  • 2
    Dylan Nicholson
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    I’d be more than happy to scrap the 20 minute city idea and propose that the goal to be ensure that no residential zones are so devoid of retail and commercial options that those who live in them have no real choice but to drive. There’s so much wrong with the idea that “virtually all households have at least one car therefore we shouldn’t worry if people have to drive 20 minutes to get where they want” that I don’t even know where to start – but I’ll throw out two obvious problems: a) plenty of households can only afford one car, but have multiple people who need to travel to different locations at the same time, b) households that have realised they now need 2+ cars to get everywhere where they need to be have made such an investment in said vehicles that they get used far more than really makes sense, due to sunk costs etc. etc.

  • 3
    melburnite
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    Absolutely agree with everything you say I think Alan – yes many if not most people already live in a ’20 minute city’ assuming a car is available, and the things that are 20 minutes away are everyday things, not work or major shopping or entertainment. To achieve work and special destination trips to be 20 mins as well is quite unrealistic. So the strategy should certainly refine what it wants to achieve.

  • 4
    Samuel
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    The major deficiency of the 20 minute city is that it expresses the cost of travel solely in terms of time. Within this framework, any project or service change that would reduce travel time to a key destination for some group of people below 20 minutes is justified. These decisions also need to consider the monetary costs of the project or service (not to mention other environmental, social and economic costs).

    The analysis also ignores that people don’t make single trips, they make journeys that string together many trips. Do I need to live within in 20 minutes of everything, or is it acceptable to have several destinations within thirty minutes as long as I normally visit them altogether.

    Dylan at 2. Owners of cars should ignore sunk costs when deciding whether to use the car for a particular trip. They can’t reduce these costs by not using the car. The time to have considered the cost of purchase etc, was when they bought the car. Cars are good. Pollution, congestion and other externalities of cars are bad.

  • 5
    Dylan Nicholson
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    Samuel, I was actually going to say ‘sunk cost fallacy’, but it’s not *entirely* a fallacy in the sense that many transport options do some significantly cheaper than using a car only if you don’t actually have to purchase a car.
    Personally I think a goal of no households of 2 adults/2 kids feeling the need to own more than 1 car would be worth pursuing.

  • 6
    IkaInk
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    @Dylan – I agree wholeheartedly. I’ve no problem with households owning a car, and under the circumstances of the city completely understand why many households would own multiple cars. I do however believe cities on the whole would be far more ideal if one car was enough per household, and that at least a sizeable portion of the population could go without any car. The environmental, and social benefits would be significant.

  • 7
    Shaniq'ua Shardonn'ay
    Posted December 4, 2012 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    This map I discovered recently illustrates the commute many people make to the University of Ballarat: http://webapps.ballarat.edu.au/maps/ub_commute/
    Even in low density areas commuting to and from work is not a simple process.

  • 8
    green-orange
    Posted December 6, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    Bullcr*p.

    Specialisation occurs becuase of zoning which restricts the natural distribution of services. I’m reminded of a town planner in Adelaide which moaned the prescence of mechanics, car yards and service stations “cluttering” up the CBD “compared with world cities like New York or Paris”. Apparently Paris and New York have no service stations !

    The post War planners used zoning laws to deliberately segregate land uses in some utopian fantasy of the “urban village”. The lack of access didn’t bother them because people had cars. In the future, when the roads became congested, well we were all going to have atomic powered hover sleds weren’t we ?

    The postwar solution is failing. The outer suburbs are now so far from work that they are no longer viable. As you get further from the centre, the amount of work within 30 minutes gets smaller and smaller.

    The only “solution” is higher density, something that Mr Davies opposes.

  • 9
    Alan Davies
    Posted December 6, 2012 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    green-orange #8:

    “The only “solution” is higher density, something that Mr Davies opposes”

    Er, no I don’t! Where on earth did you get that crazy idea? I’ve been lambasted on these pages for favouring higher density, too. The world is, indeed, a strange place.

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