Gold Coast transport strategy takes a wrong turn

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The Gold Coast transport system, including the light rail, is centered around expansion rather than centralisation (Screenshot via YouTube)

Gold Coast Council’s focus on “congestion busting” is at odds with how cities really function, but is just one example of a nationwide fixation, writes Brian Feeney.

MANY GOLD COASTERS have their own stories about getting to work, education or the shops. But when all those separate travel stories are put together, the results can be surprising.

It turns out that, while Gold Coasters like to be out and about, there are limits. Importantly, on average, they don’t spend more than about an hour a day travelling. And on average, it takes them about 25-30 minutes to get to work. This has been fairly constant over decades even with population growth and new transport infrastructure.

This average commuting time is remarkably widespread throughout larger cities in Australia, Europe and the U.S. The explanation is that cities are continually adjusting to the limited time the average person is prepared to travel. There may be more traffic delays as the population grows but average travel times don’t increase.

Gold Coast Council’s focus on “congestion busting” is therefore at odds with how cities really function. Congestion busting just moves the bottleneck further down the road and doesn’t reduce average commuting times.

In this respect, the Gold Coast provides an example of how transport planning throughout Australia has often taken a “wrong turn”.

A better strategy is “planning for proximity” (PFP) — more jobs and other favourite destinations closer to home for all residents, including those without a car.

Peter Seamer, former CEO of the Victorian Planning Authority, calls this approach “localisation” His recent book argues that reducing the need to travel so much is the key to better cities rather than more transport infrastructure. He advocates cities that are more multicentred and localised. 

As the data shows, building more big roads doesn’t reduce average travel times. It can, paradoxically, encourage favourite destinations to move further apart and reduce accessibility.

We’ve become used to that “sugar hit” of having a new road, which gives a short-term benefit for some but soon has a let-down. In contrast, promoting localisation through PFP is a long-term strategy that requires patience.

PFP consciously makes some selected locations more accessible than others and then uses the natural tendency of cities to adjust to average commuting times. This can be achieved by a number of different means. Over time, these selected locations would become more attractive places for businesses and other destinations to be.  

How could PFP be implemented for the Gold Coast?

Gold Coast has two large commercial centres — Southport and Robina. With PFP, each of these centres could be the hub of its own radial transport network, with new transport infrastructure and services encouraging this pattern.  

The bus network would then need to be reorganised to become a transfer-based system with interchanges at Southport and Robina. There would need to be a new direct and fast connection (bus or rail) between Southport and Robina, running in its own right of way, to connect the separate radial networks for these centres.

Proposed extensions of the Gold Coast light rail would do little to support this PFP scenario. The money would be much better spent on a Southport-to-Robina fast connection, as well as providing high-quality bus interchange stations at each of these centres.

Future widening of the M1 motorway (between Tugun and the Brisbane metro area) would very likely work against PFP. The focus of new roadworks should be on self-containment within each of the separate Southport and Robina catchments, as well as making road “black spots” safer.

This PFP scenario would not favour more commuter travel (road or rail) between Gold Coast and the Brisbane metro area. In this context, the proposed Coomera Connector is questionable. Residential development at the northern end of Gold Coast city could be encouraged to look to Beenleigh for services rather than to destinations to the south.

The fixation on building more big roads is not limited to the Gold Coast but has infected governments nationwide. While this may be politically popular, what’s needed is not more transport infrastructure but less travel. This is a strategy that aligns with the way cities really function.

You can follow Brian Feeney on his blog here.

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