Problems with fringe-dwelling are peripheral (OpEd in The Age)

I have an OpEd in The Age this morning which the editor has titled Problems with fringe-dwelling are peripheral. That’s quite clever! My OpEd seeks to cut through the hyperbole and examine the issue of sprawl dispassionately and logically. Unfortunately this time The Age doesn’t appear to have made provision for people to make comments – that’s usually a lot of fun. (EDIT 1: I see that The Age has now activated the comments section but its after midday so I suspect the horse has bolted. Edit 2: see further post on sources here)


The jobs are already in the suburbs

There was another good story published in The Age yesterday as part of the continuing series, Project Melbourne: Towards a Sustainable City. Titled The Great Divide, it compares living in a CBD apartment with outer suburban living.

However there is a point where the writer, Julie Szego, goes too far. She contends that outer suburban living “depends on jobs becoming a reality. If jobs don’t come to the suburbs, roads will remain choked and families time-poor”.

The idea that there are few jobs in the suburbs is a common misconception with important policy implications.

The reality is that around 72% of all jobs in Melbourne are located at a distance greater than 5 km from the CBD. Half of all jobs are more than 13 km from the CBD.

Destinations of Casey commuters

And these aren’t all low-skill, low-pay jobs either. The majority of jobs in Melbourne occupied by graduates are located more than 5 km from the CBD.

This misunderstanding of the geography of employment is also displayed in the first feature written for The Age’s current Project Melbourne series. That article, titled The Outer Limits, made the claim that “of those jobs that are available (in fringe suburbs), a higher percentage are blue-collar”.

The idea that suburban jobs are mostly in low skill occupations seems to be another popular misconception.

In fact, only 9% of jobs located more than 40 km from the CBD are in the Manufacturing sector, compared to 14% for all of Melbourne. If the definition of blue collar is extended to include jobs in the Wholesale, Transport and Construction sectors, the respective figures for the fringe and metropolitan area are 26% and 31%. What the fringe areas actually do have is a higher proportion of jobs than the metropolitan average in the high-skill education and health sectors.

It is not in any event clear why having more ‘blue collar’ jobs would be a disadvantage compared, say, to having an over-representation of retailing jobs. Many jobs in the modern Manufacturing and Construction industries are highly skilled and involve interacting with complex technologies and systems.

The main issues associated with employment in Melbourne can be explored in this presentation I gave last year at a cultural industries seminar at Qld University of Technology, Jobs in the Suburbs.

The contention in Julie Szego’s article that outer suburban roads are “choked” probably depends on one’s definition of what constitutes congestion. Most outer suburban residents travel locally – for example, 70% of trips by residents of the City of Casey are to destinations located in either Casey itself or the adjacent City of Cardinia (the corresponding figure for Cardinia is 83%). Read the rest of this entry »


Increasing multi unit housing supply

There’s a feature in yesterday’s issue of The Age, The Outer Limits (clever title!), which is the first shot in a new series the newspaper is publishing under the banner, Project Melbourne: Towards a Sustainable City, on the challenges facing Melbourne as it hurtles towards a projected population of seven million sometime around 2050.

One of the key themes developed in the article is the need to increase the proportion of new dwellings constructed within the existing urban fabric rather than on the urban fringe. Another key theme is the need to increase housing affordability across all price segments.

I’m a strong supporter of these priorities. We do need to lessen the constraints on new construction in the suburbs but not, as The Age implies, because sprawl is intrinsically bad – it’s deficiencies are greatly exaggerated. Rather, the key reason is to increase affordability.

Most Melburnites want to live within established areas where they’re closer to everything else that’s going on in the city. They can do their grocery shopping and get their hair done anywhere, but living closer in usually means greater proximity to family, work and major sporting, cultural and entertainment facilities.

Contrary to much of the rhetoric on this issue, most households looking to settle in established areas do not have the option of locating in the buzzy inner city. It’s way too expensive. Redevelopment opportunities are constrained by heritage protection, by high property values, by highly organised resident opposition and by small lot sizes that are difficult to assemble into viable redevelopment opportunities. The inner city is also much smaller than most commentators realise – only 8% of Melbourne’s population live within 5 km of the CBD despite the considerable growth experienced in this region over the last 15-20 years. Read the rest of this entry »


How to increase commuting by bicycle

I argued yesterday there might be potential to shift a small but important proportion of workers who live and work in the suburbs out of their cars and on to bicycles. This is a somewhat novel view as most of the attention given to commuting by bicycle has focussed on how to increase work trips to the CBD.

The suburbs are an important potential ‘market’ because, unlike commuting to the city centre, the great bulk of suburban bicycle trips to work would be in lieu of the car, not public transport.

I also indicated yesterday that I would look further at possible concrete actions that could be taken to advance greater suburban bicycle commuting. Here are my early thoughts.

The key deterrents to cycling concern safety, compulsory helmets, security and personal hygiene. A possible way of addressing these obstacles could go something like this. Read the rest of this entry »


What role for commuting by bicycle in Melbourne?

In response to my post last Tuesday, Melbourne will be a car city for a long time yet, a reader asked for my views on the role of cycling in Melbourne.

I have a particular interest in cycling, not least because I’m a keen recreational cyclist and commuted religiously by bike for a number of years. I think cycling has a small but significant role to play in meeting Melbourne’s transport needs but my ideas are a little different to the conventional view.

Despite record sales over the last ten years, bicycles account for just 0.9% of all weekday kilometres travelled in Melbourne, so their present contribution to saving fuel and reducing carbon emissions isn’t large. That figure includes recreational cycling too, so we don’t know how many of these kilometres actually replaced car travel.

Bicycles are more competitive for commuting, where they are used for 2.9% of work trips. The journey to work, however, only accounts for around one fifth of all trips in Melbourne, so again we’re not talking big numbers. Read the rest of this entry »


Melbourne will be a car city for a long time yet

It seems likely that many more Melbourne travellers will drive cars in the foreseeable future than take public transport.

This is not necessarily the disaster that it might at first appear – improvements to the environmental and fuel efficiency of cars will make them much more environmentally friendly and offer a fair trade-off for their many advantages. Read the rest of this entry »


Decentralising population growth

I watched SBS’s Insight program on Housing 36 Million earlier this week.  A theme that recurred during the program and in the subsequent on-line discussion was the idea of decentralising a large proportion of the projected population growth from the major cities to provincial centres.

Decentralisation was tried in the 70s as an alternative to capital city growth but, while it had a measurable impact on major country centres like Albury/Wodonga and Bathurst/Orange, it didn’t significantly relieve growth pressures on the capital cities. Read the rest of this entry »