Melb JTW duration 2
Is basing policy around a 30-minute maximum journey to work – even one that counts the car – really a plausible idea? Exhibit shows average journey to work trip duration by mode and ring, Melbourne (source data: VISTA 2012-13)

After months of build-up Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull finally delivered the Government’s cities policy on Friday. It was an agonizing wait because this is the agenda that will supposedly equip Australia’s cities to grow – and in some cases to double in size – over the next 30 or so years.

What did we get? Not much. There’s the obligatory lightweight marketing document, of course, in this case titled the Smart Cities Plan. The 34 pages prepared by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet are filled with the usual platitudes and vague but comforting aspirations that cost nothing, inconvenience no one, and require no significant action within the current political cycle.

As is the case with every other plan written over the last twenty years, it promises to plan and finance infrastructure better than it’s ever been done before; to coordinate across government better than the other guy can; and to harness the power of technology in new and magical ways no one else ever thought of.

But when it comes to specifics, there’s $50 million to establish an Infrastructure Financing Unit to do some infrastructure planning and deal brokering; and there’s what looks like the Turnbull variation on place-making, City Deals, an administrative initiative to improve coordination across the three tiers of government in urban areas.

That’s it. The whole exercise isn’t so much underwhelming as underdeveloped. It’s what you get when governments don’t have any idea of what actions they should take but are under intense pressure to rush something out fast.

There’s a break-out box in the Smart Cities Plan that’s particularly revealing. It purports to show the Government’s positive and enlightened approach to cities policy by showing its current public transport funding commitments. It lists three rail projects attracting a total Commonwealth contribution of $156 million.

That’s $156 million (with an ‘m’) across the entire nation. This was in the same week as the Victorian Government announced it will provide $11 Billion (that’s with a ‘B’) in nominal terms from its own resources for the Melbourne Metro rail tunnel. A mere $156 million (one of the projects is getting $2 million!) doesn’t sound much like the “renewed national focus on our cities” that Mr Turnbull is claiming.

Alright, so it’s just a PR exercise, albeit one that even on its own terms looks decidedly lacklustre. Perhaps there’ll be more substance in tomorrow’s budget; after all, the Government’s said elsewhere it intends to borrow more. But what about the Smart Cities Plan itself; does the document have anything useful to say?

Well, there’s lots of “back to the 80s” rhetoric about innovation copied from the Hawke era. There’s also plenty of bombast about finance and leveraging, presumably because Mr Turnbull and his Cities Minister, Angus Taylor, think the media is impressed by merchant banker speak. And of course all the urbanist cliches get a cite without any sort of nuanced interpretation.

It’s most interesting though for what it reveals about the way the Government is approaching this area of policy.

A key insight relates to the 30-Minute City trope that has a prominent place in the Plan. The Turnbull version isn’t defined in terms of walking, cycling and public transport as it is in the versions promoted by Shadow Cities Minister Anthony Albanese and Victoria’s Planning Minister, Richard Wynne.

The Smart Cities Plan doesn’t mention mode. I don’t interpret that as an oversight but as an explicit watering-down of the idea i.e. Mr Turnbull’s version of the 30-minute city includes travel by car. Have a look at the exhibit to see why it nevertheless remains an implausible idea.

Value Capture has a conspicuous place in the Plan too, but with a significant qualification. The Plan says “value capture does not require new taxes”. This restriction limits the already modest potential revenue contribution from value capture and may largely confine it to cases where governments own the land.

That doesn’t matter to the Government, naturally, because the entire exercise is about selling a long-term aspiration to voters. Whether it would actually work in practice is largely irrelevant; it’s all about pitching the narrative to those who want to believe it.

To the Government’s credit, the Smart Cities Plan mentions the role of pricing in managing the demand for infrastructure. There’s no commitment of course but it might foreshadow an intention to take a stronger line in the future.

Other cities have used pricing signals to influence choices made by motorists about the time and route they choose to travel. Pricing is also used to manage demand on public transport networks to take the pressure off peak travel times. We recognise there is no single approach. Better accessibility needs a combination of demand management and investment in public transport, roads and active transport, including walking and cycling.

The most interesting aspect of this whole political exercise in my view is the following comment made by Mr Turnbull at the launch on Friday:

While we genuinely need to invest in more infrastructure to support our cities, Infrastructure Australia recently reported…that throwing more money at the problem won’t solve it. Change can only be delivered by addressing the policy and regulatory settings through which cities and infrastructure are governed, planned, funded, constructed and operated.

Again, there’s no commitment but it’s encouraging to see the Prime Minister acknowledging that preparing cities for growth needs much more than spending money on infrastructure. The problem, though, is the regulatory changes needed are far harder to implement politically (c.f. indexation of fuel excise) than churning out appealing ideas, words and plans.

On a technical point, I’m disappointed to see the Smart Cities Plan misquoting Marchetti’s constant to support the idea of a maximum 30-minutes for all trip purposes. Marchetti’s constant refers to the journey to work and, moreover, to the average commute duration of a population, not a maximum tolerable commute time for all individuals (see exhibit). The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet should do better than this.

The Smart Cities Plan might well be smart politically, but unless Treasurer Scott Morison has some dramatic surprises in the budget that give it real substance, it looks like yet another lightweight marketing exercise.