Pick a population figure, throw it out there, advertise.
That’s how it works in South Australia when business people want to create a debate about the size of our population. Of course it is completely it is debatable whether state government policy can substantially address the state’s population growth rate, which continues to lag behind most other states despite various efforts, for the mostly disjointed, to make up the difference.
Over the past month, we’ve seen Business SA repeat its longstanding calls for accelerated growth and News Corp launch a campaign for increased population, backed by a casino, agribusiness and oil and gas company. As part of the push, a new committee for Adelaide chief executive Bruce Djité make a pitch for two million people in the state by 2030.
Bruce believes we have the infrastructure – right now – to accommodate such a large population.
The evidence strongly suggests that this claim is wrong in several areas.
And that point is one of the main reasons why business leaders continue to receive a lukewarm response to their growth agendas.
Many issues are almost always entirely ignored or included as a subsidiary consideration in discussions of growth, including impacts on social infrastructure and the environment.
But one of the most pressing is: how, exactly, would South Australia’s transport infrastructure cope with accelerated population growth?
We have the worst public transport system of any major Australian city and have a long history of reliance on private vehicles.
Building a multi-billion dollar road from north to south – as we are doing now – will not improve traffic jams on the southeast highway; it will not be easier for a parent in Salisbury to bring their child to school or daycare; it won’t help a Campbelltown teenager get his part-time job; it will not help older South Australians, who no longer drive, to get to medical appointments or their local shops.
What we need – what we have desperately needed for many years – is a consensus approach to rebuilding a credible mass public transport system for Adelaide and connecting the city to the regions, let alone addressing the chronic lack of public transport beyond greater Adelaide.
The state has no integrated or long-term vision to improve its deplorable public transportation – on either side of politics – and all the evidence so far suggests that even the current population increase forecast, not to mention the accelerated growth, will lead to congestion on key roads.
South African business leaders need to make this a priority in their lobbying for growth, not just throw in a few disposable lines in the fine print or they are selling an unconvincing dream. Worse still, if their aspirations are realized in the absence of bold political action, it will lead to a less livable Adelaide.
The Adelaide Committee, itself, made a ‘high level’ submission to Infrastructure SA during the development of its recent 20-year plan, arguing that the state needs a population growth strategy to meet infrastructure needs. “It will be necessary to focus more on public transport to relieve traffic congestion…”, indicates the document, without adding details.
That was it.
Other business and developer groups are similar in their superficial, some would say casual, approach to this core issue.
They must do better than that. Much better, if they want a skeptical public to board the growth train. There is a strong case for developers to help shoulder the cost burden of public infrastructure required by their businesses: if that’s a bridge too far, the least they can do is become tougher, more knowledgeable defenders. government action.
The consequences of our continuing to and fro without direction will be severe.
Consider these key points from the transport modeling for Adelaide, produced for Infrastructure Australia in 2019 (the modeling even accounts for a slight shift to public transport from private cars which, post-pandemic, seems unlikely):
- By 2031, peak congestion on Adelaide’s roads will increase “significantly”, with the city center and some suburban road networks under pressure.
- “Heavy congestion is expected on both the Southeast Freeway itself as well as the arteries it connects with.”
- “Average vehicle speeds on the road network are expected to decrease by around five kilometers per hour during the morning and afternoon peak periods.”
- By 2031: “Access to educational infrastructure will likely be more difficult without access to a car.”
- The South-Eastern Highway/Glen Osmond Rd corridor is expected to be one of the worst performing in Adelaide.
- By 2031, motorists in Adelaide can expect longer traffic delays, with drivers expected to spend a greater proportion of their journeys stuck in traffic. The Fullarton Road and Goodwood Road corridors are expected to be among the worst in terms of delays.
- Nor is it going to be fun on public transport services: “The demand placed on Adelaide’s north-south rail and bus corridors is expected to increase significantly due to population growth in Adelaide’s northern suburbs. By 2031, congestion on the Gawler Line is expected to worsen significantly with passenger volumes approaching train capacity.
Beyond the city limits, the situation is arguably worse. Independent analysis commissioned by Bus SA published last week shows that parts of South Australia lack even the most basic regular and accessible bus services. South Australia’s per capita spending on regional public transport is minimal compared to other states: $40 per capita here, compared to $439 in New South Wales and $133 in Australia’s giant swaths- Regional West.
The last point above highlights the challenge we face, given the reluctance of any political party to bring Adelaide’s archaic public transport system into the 21st century. Labour’s light rail project in the 2018 election was at least something, but the party is unlikely to return to this expensive and bold policy.
The Liberals are pushing ahead with the long-awaited electrification of the Gawler line and have been working on other small rail projects, but their main public transport effort this quarter was an abandoned attempt to reshape bus services, mainly by reducing the number of stops. The public rejected it and for good reason.
No other major Australian city has such an underserved public transport system. No other city in Australia has such a small, heavy and light rail network. We’re even behind on basics like bus priority lanes. Any transport planner will tell you that only an efficient mass public transport system can solve the problems that lie ahead.
Even without the acceleration in population growth hoped for by our business community, if our obsession with private vehicles continues, congestion will still stifle our urban complacency.
It’s inevitable. We are already experiencing this and car-centric solutions have so far been very detrimental to local communities. Plans to widen “decongestant” intersections are beginning to tear the urban fabric.
A debate on population is important.
But no call for accelerated growth is credible without an evidence-based prescription of how the basic functioning of our city will be developed for that growth.
Population growth lobbyists need to start pushing governments to make quick and urgent improvements to public transportation infrastructure, at the very least.
It’s a matter of fairness but, unless significant action is taken quickly, it will affect the lives of everyone: from the pensioner without a car to the politician with a driver.
David Washington is editorial director of Solstice Media, publisher of InDaily.
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