Perth congestion and planning

By Paul Edwards.

The start of the 2016 school term this month sees Perth peak period commuters dealing with up to 20 per cent of added private vehicle traffic on our roads.

Ken Morrison, Property Council Chief Executive, recently cited Infrastructure Australia’s estimation that the costs of congestion will continue to worsen and the estimate is that by 2031 the productivity loss caused by congestion will cost the Australian economy around $53 billion a year.

Congestion in our cities is constantly in the news, however is congestion really as big a problem in Perth and what are we doing about it?

Greater investment in public infrastructure has traditionally thought to be the silver bullet to the congestion problem affecting the growth and liveability of our Australian   cities. Perth is based on a 20th Century centralised economic model of living in the suburbs and working in the city and our four corridor rail system and radial suburban feeder bus routes supports this.

With at least 85 per cent of jobs being located across the broader metropolitan area, public transport for the majority of time poor workers in Perth is just not an efficient option. Traveling to destinations across town rather than to central CBD can take around two hours with a combination of bus and train rides.

Perth does not have a congestion problem, in my opinion. For the past 12 years I have lived in the southern suburbs and worked in the city. Depending on my meetings schedule and the weather, I use public transport, drive or cycle the 14km route.

Conscious of the cost of my time, my peak hour city trip by car and bike is often around 10 minutes less than taking the bus and train. The car trip allows me to catch up with work related calls and together with parking cost of less than $20/day, it is currently difficult to argue the benefits in choosing public transport over the alternatives if you live in the ‘burbs’. Getting around town is simply quicker in the car. If I lived closer to the train station, my public transport travel time would reduce making it a more favourable option.

I choose to run a business and work in the city mainly so our staff can catch public transport. However, the traditional central city workplace is changing with advancements in technology, alternative activity-based workplace environments and increased flexibility in working hours. We can work while on the move with our smart phones.

Like our William Street office, landlords are upgrading inner city commercial space with end of trip facilities to cater for the growing lifestyle choice of employees who choose to cycle or walk to work. Some start-ups and tech companies are moving away from the city centre altogether, choosing lower cost rents in outer urban centres such as Cockburn.

How to wisely plan and invest in public transport infrastructure is a complex question best asked considering the broader societal changes impacted on by technology, the economy and also housing affordability.

So with this changing nature of ‘workplace’ and the societal changes toward smaller, denser residential lifestyles, Transit Oriented Development (TOD’s) has been a successful model driving Planning reform around Perth.

Increasing development density especially around current major infrastructure and transport nodes has driven record multi-residential and mixed use development in and around the CBD in South Perth, Burswood and Rivervale and other outer urban centres like Cockburn, which have created opportunities for housing where people work.

Environment Minister Greg Hunt recently stated that the focus should be on creating opportunities for employment where people lived and developing more housing where people worked, as a response to planning to address Australia’s housing affordability crisis. There is no revelation here as this is happening and has been for some time.

Terry Redman, WA Minister for Lands, recently announced reforms to the Strata Titles Act which aim to offer greater flexibility and diversity/mix for housing, retail and commercial properties through Community property titles. This has the potential to improve current and future planned urban residential precincts to create opportunities for “work where people live”.

On the back of this announcement, The Hon John Day announced last month the proposal to redevelop the former Shenton Park Hospital site with a range of mixed use and residential types zoned up to remarkable R160.

Day explains: “The site’s proximity to well serviced public transport links, including the Shenton Park train station, make it an ideal location for appropriate density. A development of this type will go a long way to accommodating our growing population while providing people with housing diversity and choice.”

State Planning in Perth appears to be fully conscious of the changing societal demands for housing, working and recreation, yet our local government planning appears to be dragging its feet a little when compared with other states.

As per tradition, Perth seems to look across our wide open spaces to the denser east where development controls appear more relaxed as apartments get smaller and residential blocks are being shoe horned into smaller lots.

With our Perth population tipped at reaching 3.5M in the next 15 years, perhaps we should really be planning for 5M people and therefore turning more to Europe, or even Japan, where 70sqm houses sit on lots less than 33sqm.

So perhaps we don’t quite have the congestion problems of Tokyo, but Perth has great examples to follow much closer to home such as Breathe Architects’ mixed use development, ‘The Commons’ in Brunswick, Melbourne which is built only metres from a railway station.

The Council approved the development with no car bays and 72 bike parking. Residents buy an apartment knowing they will be relying on public transport. What has been touted as a benchmark residential model addressing these societal changes in living and working, labelled the Nightingale Model, it is surprising to learn that a similar project located across the road from The Commons, also unanimously approved with zero car bays by the Moreland City Council, has been overturned by VCAT for not providing any on site car parking for potential ‘future’ residents. Wouldn’t buyers be purchasing an apartment in Nightingale knowing there are no car bays?

Let us hope that the Shenton Park residents are ready to embrace this R160 high density proposal, as early last year the City of South Perth announced Amendment 46 to the current TPS No 6 which has been said was in reaction to the local residents resistance to the density observed in neighbouring precincts. The amendment will increase setbacks and impose height restrictions affecting the ‘South Perth Station Precinct’, which frustrated developers have claimed will compromise developments in the order of 1000 less residential units. The potential impact being not achieving the critical mass required to demand the new South Perth railway station which, ironically, would be of great benefit to the local residents.

We can’t believe that pouring money into a public transport system is going to solve traffic congestion. Congestion will always exist regardless, and while Perth’s congestion is annoying it is clearly not at crisis point when compared to other cities globally.

Perth people are coping through flexible workplaces and shifting lifestyle trends. However, as we grow to 3.5M in the next 15 years, the planned increase in density at TOD’s and across our inner suburbs is going to need to work faster and in parallel with smart investment in fixed public transport infrastructure (light rail). Radial bus routes need to be replaced with light rail infrastructure, which has the potential to increase densities in the suburbs and create strips of living and working alongside transport infrastructure, as demonstrated in the success of ‘The Commons’.

Although Colin Barnett is committing to Perth’s Light Rail project, WA Transport Minister Dean Nalder recently announced they are currently investigating alternative options. We can therefore be hopeful for a well-considered proposal with the potential to encourage these TOD’s, which have great future outcomes like ‘The Commons’ rather than just a political band-aid solution. The Perth public are ready for it.

*Links to examples of small lot housing in Japan:
e-architect.co.uk/tokyo/shirokane-house-residence
e-architect.co.uk/tokyo/small-house-meguro-ku

 

Paul Edwards, Architect Director of Site Architecture Studio
sitearchitecture.com.au