Albanese
@alboMP: “Glad you’re paying attention, @TurnbullMalcolm”

“Glad you’re paying attention, @TurnbullMalcolm”, Shadow Cities Minister Anthony Albanese tweeted last week when he discovered the Prime Minister is also promoting the idea of “the 30-minute city”. As the exhibit shows, the two politicians ran very similar lines albeit six months apart.

The ambition is that all – or in Mr Albanese’s case “most” – destinations should be within a maximum 30 minutes travel time from home. That’s already largely true for motorists, but Mr Albanese wants 30 minutes max by walking, cycling or public transport i.e. cars aren’t counted (Mr Turnbull doesn’t mention mode in his quote but I’ll assume he’s taking the same view).

They might both be unaware former Victorian Liberal Planning Minister Matthew Guy made the idea of “the twenty-minute city” one of the key principles in his strategic plan for Melbourne published in 2013, Plan Melbourne. The current Planning Minister, Labor’s Richard Wynne, says he’s keeping it.

Cartoonist @cathywilcox1 tweeted what many readers were doubtless thinking about the Albanese vs Turnbull contretemps:

Doesn’t matter who has the good idea, just so long as it gets action.

But is the 30-minute (max) walking/transit city really such a good idea? (1)

Well, it’d be hard not to like something so positive; it’s like Bob Hawke’s famous pledge to eliminate child poverty. The real issue is whether it’s a way of conceptualising urban issues that really helps in policy-making; or whether it’s just political spin targeted at massaging the preconceived notions of supporters.

If it’s to be a really useful idea, the 30-minute (max) city has to deliver on the journey to work. The more employees that firms can readily access the greater their productivity; similarly for workers. So cutting commute times has a clear economic outcome.

The inner suburbs of Australia’s cities are usually invoked as the model of the 30-minute (max) city given their relatively high population densities, large number of public transport routes, and proximity to the huge job concentration in the CBD.

Look at the inner ring of suburbs in Australia’s densest city by far, Sydney. These eleven municipalities account for a quarter of all trips in the Sydney Statistical Division. (2)

The car is the largest mode for the journey to work (46%) but public transport is close behind (38%). Moreover, 14% of inner ring workers walk and 3% cycle.

That might look promising until you look at the average duration of commutes. Those made by train average 66 minutes and by bus 50 minutes. For cars it’s 30 minutes and walking is 15 minutes.

Remember, these are trips originating in the inner ring of suburbs. It’s complicated by the use of averages but it’s obvious a large proportion of inner city workers – possibly most – currently have longer commutes than 30 minutes.

Moreover, most of those who drive travel further to get to work than they could in the same time if they went by public transport or walked (bicycle could be competitive for some, though).

It might be imagined that what’s therefore needed is simply to move workers and jobs geographically closer to each other – or dramatically improve public transport service – but here’s another ripple.

The average commute time for each mode is much the same for inner and middle ring workers and not that much different for outer suburban workers.

For example, the average duration for the largest mode, driving, is 30 minutes in the inner ring, 29 minutes in the middle ring and 26 minutes in the outer ring. Walking is identical in all three and train and bus are the same in inner and middle ring suburbs (and 20-25% longer in the outer suburbs).

Transport planners know that travellers seem to have a constant daily travel time budget. Workers don’t want a commute that’s too long but they don’t crave a short one; they tend to optimise job location, housing location and commute duration at around an average, in aggregate, of 30-minutes (one-way).

Clark, Huang and Withers studied 462 Seattle households who moved house. They found a majority of commuters who lived less than 13 km from their workplace increased their commuting distance when they moved, while the majority of those who lived more than 13 km away reduced it.

Contrary to what the politicians think, jobs aren’t distributed relatively evenly across the metropolitan area like supermarkets and primary schools. Firms tend to cluster.

Jobs aren’t the same everywhere either. They differ enormously on dimensions like remuneration and skill requirements and some tend to cluster in specialised concentrations.

People also aren’t distributed evenly. They tend to group geographically on a range of variables like cultural similarity, income, age and household structure. For example, the demographics of CBD residents differ enormously from those who live in Vaucluse or Liverpool.

Cities aren’t the collection of near-identical country villages that Messrs Turnbull and Albanese implicitly assume. The point of the city is the opposite – specialisation and the geographical spikiness that comes from exploiting economies of scale and agglomeration.

Three quarters of all travel in Sydney is in the middle and outer rings. Most workers aren’t going to restrict their choice to jobs within 30 minutes walk or bus ride of home.

Within their personal travel time budget, they’re going to take the best job they can get, whether that’s defined in terms of remuneration, job satisfaction, or a positive work environment. And they’re going to evaluate the travel time in terms of what housing options it makes available.

Nor are the 46% in Sydney’s inner ring, 74% in the middle ring and 85% in the outer ring who commute by car going to forego this mode if it offers them greater job and housing opportunities than walking and public transport. If driving is more competitive, they’ll continue to drive.

And neither are firms going to restrict their locational options if it means the more limited range of workers they can draw upon damages their business. Despite their rhetoric, politicians have very limited influence in practice over where employers locate.

I call this one mostly spin. Mr Turnbull and Mr Albanese would serve us better if they articulated specific actions to get workers to their jobs faster by public transport and private vehicles. But specifics invite disagreement and heighten expectations; better politically to focus on vague and unaccountable aspirations like the 30 minute (max) city.

As by far the largest mode within the political lifetimes of these gentlemen will inevitably continue to be cars, they should focus too on policies to make traffic cleaner, safer, less congested and easier to live with.

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  1. An immediate problem is you can’t define the 30-minute max city in terms of all three modes. Not everyone can or wants to ride (even in Amsterdam cycling’s mode share is 38%). It has to be universal; walking and public transport are more plausible.
  2. Municipalities: Ashfield, Botany Bay, Lane Cove, Leichardt, Marrickville, Mosman, North Sydney, Randwick, Sydney, Waverley, Woollahra.