Aug 9, 2017

Is the “20-minute city” mostly spin?

It seems an attractive idea, but the 20-minute city is more about marketing than substantive policy. Of course politicians love it; the rest of us have no excuse for being gullible

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Average weighted trip distance (kilometres) for all modes, by purpose, for inner, middle and outer Melbourne (source data: VISTA)

The recent refresh of Plan Melbourne by Victoria’s Andrews Government confirmed the goal of creating a 20-minute city is a centre-piece of the city’s strategic plan. Here’s the idea:

The 20-minute neighbourhood is all about ‘living locally’ – giving people the ability to meet most of their everyday needs within a 20-minute walk, cycle or local public transport trip of their home.

The hoped-for benefits are enormous; it seems there’s nothing that can’t be achieved via land use planning:

A 20-minute neighbourhood can create a more cohesive and inclusive community with a vibrant local economy – reducing social exclusion, improving health and wellbeing, promoting a sense of place, reducing travel costs and traffic congestion, and reducing carbon emissions across the city as a whole.

To give credit where it’s due, the refreshed version of Plan Melbourne gets rid of the jejune idea in the original Plan that jobs must be within 20 minutes travel time by active modes:

Due to the specialised and diverse nature of many people’s work, access to employment will often be outside the 20-minute neighbourhood.

So, is the 20-minute city a compelling idea that warrants being at the top of the policy priority list? Or will it soon be forgotten like the target set in the previous metropolitan strategic plan published in 2002, Melbourne 2030, to achieve 20% travel by public transport by 2020? According to VISTA, public transport’s share of all weekday trips is currently around 9% and its share of motorised trips is circa 11%.

It would be nice to live in a place where you have the option of not having to drive in order to meet your everyday needs (except work!). And there are places where you can e.g. small country towns, tourist resorts. It’s a nice idea, but it’s mostly fluff; it’s more about marketing than serious policy.

Politicians like Malcolm Turnbull love the idea (his version is 30-minutes) because it’s inherently long-term, so it won’t take much from the current budget, won’t inconvenience anyone in the short-term, and the current Government knows it will be long gone before its ever called to account. Key constituencies like the rhetoric around traditional village values and sustainability objectives.

But nice isn’t the same as plausible. You can have anything you want – even congestion-free, untolled motorways – if you’re prepared to cop the financial, social, environmental and economic cost. Few are though. The problems with this idea for real-world policy are numerous.

The first issue is that the defining access limit for active travel with an ageing population must be weighted towards walking. Even in the Netherlands and Denmark, considerably less than half of trips are made by bicycle. Access and wait times make it hard for public transport to be competitive for short time/distance trips.

At present, 60% of walking trips in Melbourne are less than one kilometre and 88% are less than two kilometres, suggesting a limit of around one kilometre, perhaps even less. The average trip distance in the middle ring suburbs by all modes, however, is 5.3 km for shopping, 6.5 km for education, and 8.1 km for social and recreational trips. It’s not much shorter in the inner suburbs (see exhibit).

So the scale of change to existing land use patterns, especially the density of activities and population, would have to be enormous to achieve even a semblance of a 20-minute city in the suburbs where over 90% of the metropolitan population lives. The scale and intensity of opposition to higher density developments in Australian cities suggests that’s optimistic. Something close to it will likely be achievable in the inner city and in pockets of high-density redevelopment around centres, but that’s only a small minority of residents.

Another huge problem is many people would still choose to drive to the local supermarket and the local doctor, or take their kids to the local school in the passenger seat. Three quarters of kids already get driven to primary school. Simply having the option of walking won’t by itself automatically change residents’ preferences away from driving.

In any event, there’s no reason to think that people would necessarily shop, dine or get haircuts locally just because there are service providers within a 20-minute walk. We’ve got a large local centre, but my household largely chooses to travel elsewhere e.g. we regularly travel 9 km to Preston Market, we like to dine at particular restaurants, patronise specialty bookshops, buy hardware at Bunnings, and our children don’t attend local schools/universities. Most of our friends and family don’t live within 20 minutes by walk, bicycle or transit.

What a dense network of walkable local centres can’t offer is the range of services and, in particular, the high level of specialisation, available at a larger centre. Those who’re constrained, or choose, to meet their everyday needs locally, will on average have less choice and/or face higher prices. Those who have a choice will more often than not drive somewhere else.

A big problem is that without the journey to work, the “20-minute city” is a much less substantial idea. The commute is what mostly drives peak hour congestion and determines the capacity and cost of infrastructure. It’s the most important trip most people make. Many work trips are incompatible with the 20-minute city as Plan Melbourne now recognises, but that only goes to show the whole idea is a sideshow.

Plan Melbourne doesn’t acknowledge it, but there are other trips that also don’t fit with the 20-minute limit. For example, trips where specialisation or economies of scale and/or agglomeration are important e.g. to universities, sporting events, medical specialists, hospitals, museums, festivals, private schools, family and friends. Their absence further reduces the importance of the 20-minute idea. It’s nice to have the option of walking to Woolies or Coles, but it’s hard to justify it as a headline objective in a 30 year metropolitan strategy.

And think about this; even in the centre of Paris – a radius of roughly five kilometres – there are many places that can’t be connected within 20 minutes by transit, bicycle, or walking e.g. use Google Maps to get to Sciences Po (university) near the geographical centre from elsewhere in Paris intra-muros. That’s in a city with one of the world’s best metros and one of the highest population densities in a developed country. Then try getting to Science Po from the Banlieues in 20 minutes.

Reducing travel times and improving mode share are important objectives of policy that warrant real action, not spin. It’s time to stop enabling politicians to get away with merely waving the flag; it’s time to stop signalling and start moving.

Update: see later extensions of the arguments made above: Are the politicians trying to con us on this one? and Can public transport define the 20-minute city?


See also: The “20 minute neighbourhood”: does it make sense?Surely the 30-minute city makes sense for primary school trips?Does Turnbull’s ’30-minute city’ work for secondary school trips?Is Turnbull’s “30-minute city” all spin (or a really useful idea)?

(Visited 10 times, 1 visits today)


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

4 thoughts on “Is the “20-minute city” mostly spin?

  1. Jeff Humphreys

    A good analysis, Alan. This is a perennial issue in each of the major metropolitan region’s current planning. while the latest iteration of South-East Queensland’s regional plan has eliminated references to “self-containment” so beloved of outer local government mayors (and spruiked by populists such as Bernard Salt), it has been replaced by references to “more complete communities” which, significantly, includes the idea of working near home.
    In Sydney, the new concepts of “Western City” and the 30-minute city have been the vehicles for perpetuating this romantic thinking.
    The insidious force of this faulty analysis of course is that it gets governments and planners off the hook – of thinking hard about how to make the commuting experience better to the middle, where the jobs are growing in number and best-paid, for those residents who continue to settle, disproportionately, on the edge of the metro region. Well done.
    Jeff Humphreys

  2. Itsumishi

    Of course its mainly spin Alan (isn’t every government plan?); but you’ve misinterpreted what the policy actually says. Nowhere does it say everyone must be able to walk to everywhere except their work within 20 minutes. You’ve quoted what it says, then argued against a strawman.

    The 20-minute neighbourhood is all about ‘living locally’ – giving people the ability to meet most of their everyday needs within a 20-minute walk, cycle or local public transport trip of their home.
    *emphasis my own.

    The 1km radius you’ve implied is only relevant if you ignore the cycling PT options. Include the cycling option and you’re looking at about 5km. Which as you’ve said is pretty much where we’re at for shopping in the middle suburbs. Put in a decent network of buses and (frequencies aside) you can stretch that out further.

    ‘Everyday needs’ doesn’t include catching up with friends you haven’t seen for a while at that lovely new restaurant in the city; it should include ‘somewhere nearby to eat’. It also wouldn’t include ‘the eye specialist who will decide on my laser surgery’; but should probably include ‘a GP’.

    The policy simply recognises that we don’t want large swatches of the city to be single-use zones (largely residential estates) with poor connectivity. It also provides some kind of a measure of success. It is predominately media friendly spin, but its also a policy document that strategic planners should be looking at before working on structure plans, and stat planners can use to assess development proposals.

    1. Alan Davies


      Nah, that’s explained in the article. You must’ve got a rush of blood to the head and stopped reading! Despite the rhetoric, cycling can’t be the defining limit because an increasing proportion of the population feel they’re too old to ride a bike. The consequences of a fall can be devastating for older folk. Even in the Netherlands, only around a quarter of all trips are by bike. There’s a case for senior primary schools to be at spacings implied by a 20-minute cycle, but I reckon there’re plenty of parents who’d reject cycling and expect the 20-minute city to give them the option of walking their children to junior primary school. That’s assuming they wouldn’t do what they do now and simply decide to drive; or choose a more distant school that offered the specialist programs they want for their children.

      I agree we don’t want large swatches of the city to be residential estates with poor connectivity, but we wouldn’t restrict how people can travel if that were genuinely the objective. Off-peak trips by car to the shops or the nearest fast food joint is not the first order transport problem our cities are facing.

      It’s more than merely “predominantly media friendly spin”; the Andrews and Turnbull governments are promoting their 20/30 minute city policies as grand solutions to the issue of city growth. They don’t even know what proportion of the population can’t access “everyday services” within 20-minutes by walking, cycling or public transport. If we were to use cycling as the yardstick as you propose, then I reckon 95% of Melburnians are already within 20 minutes of everyday services; in which case we’ve already got the 20-minute city, so the politicians should be promoting the “safer cycling city”.

      Update 10/08/17: see Are the politicians trying to con us on this one?

      1. meltdblog

        For people with mobility issues on 2 wheeled bicycles there are tricycles, quadricycles, and the ever present mobility scooters. Incorporating those in with walking and other active modes allows a broad range of the population to extend their mobility. Its then incorporating appropriate infrastructure to support all these modes (footpaths or shared paths) that make useful connections through communities and don’t disappear without any connections or yield for motor traffic at every single junction and provide no way to cross busy roads. I’m a big fan of filtered permeability and you can see a good example of an internally connected community around Melbourne in the outer suburb of Doreen

        What we have now are developments designed exclusively for private motorised road transport that assumes everyone will drive, placing priority for this everywhere. You can even find developments across Australia that don’t include any pedestrian footpaths at all. Retrofitting the needed infrastructure is very expensive so it has to be mandated in to new works.

Share this article with a friend

Just fill out the fields below and we'll send your friend a link to this article along with a message from you.

Your details

Your friend's details