The link between sustainable living and transport: a new paradigm in city design

MWH Australia Pty Ltd
By Alex Iljin, National Business Manager, Infrastructure Planning, MWH Global
Wednesday, 05 February, 2014

Rapid urban development in our cities is creating new demands on transport infrastructure. Across Australia, our transport systems are under increasing pressure. Existing assets are ageing, costs to maintain and upgrade them have increased and there is a greater demand on infrastructure, in terms of both passenger and freight use. Essentially, increasing urbanisation is leading to constrained capacity and overuse of our transport networks.

Our cities, in particular, can be prone to heavy congestion and traffic, with average speeds on roads in all of the major cities declining or staying the same over the last 15 years, despite numerous new arterial roads designed to increase speeds. Anyone who has travelled down Parramatta Road in Sydney or Hoddle Street in Melbourne at peak times will know this only too well. This trend has an impact not only on the transport experience itself, but also on the overall quality of life cities offer.

Getting public transport right is a very important aspect of creating liveable cities. People want to live closer to work so they have a choice of transport modes - buses, trains, cycle, walkways and roads.

MWH Global knows from its own research it has conducted, which surveyed more than 1000 Australians, that if there was public transport within one kilometre of where people live and work, 77% of those surveyed would use it. Nearly all respondents (91%) believed that road networks will need to be maintained and operated efficiently to make an area liveable.

Poor urban planning can inevitably create segments of disadvantaged communities. Those on the fringe of cities are often shackled by a lack of transport choice, shops, childcare and healthcare. The way we connect our communities to services is critical in creating liveable communities, and accessible modes of transport are an important part of that.

The task of delivering accessible, efficient and sustainable transport networks in urban areas is a big challenge for the future success of Australia’s cities and urban areas.

Some cities around the world are coming up with creative methods to minimise the impact of the built environment on transport infrastructure and finding ways to meet the transport demands of liveable cities. The city of Portland in the US is an excellent example of innovative infrastructure design in a high-density environment.

Portland piloted a small scheme for light rail nearly three decades ago. The trial, originally around 24 km of a light rail track with 30 stations, was extremely successful and the city has been expanding the network ever since. The network is now several hundred miles in length.

One of the key goals of the light rail system was to encourage housing development. In this regard, it has been a huge success. As the light rail network was laid down and subsequently extended, developers were attracted to the areas close to the rail line and started to build high-density apartments, commercial and retail developments on either sides of the track.

By 2008, private developers had invested US$3.5 billion within two blocks of the track, including over 10,000 new housing units and 5.4 million square feet of office, institutional, retail and hotel construction. This represents approximately two-thirds of all development in Central Portland during that time (1988 to 2008).

This has resulted in a pattern of linear development following the line of the light rail track, representing a very efficient use of land. These developments are utilising more of the allowed floor area ratio, known as FAR, than developments not near the light rail track. Analysis has shown that developments adjacent to the light rail have utilised over 90% of its potential FAR, compared to just over 40% for developments not near the light rail.

Not only has the light rail network acted as a catalyst for housing development and spurred investment in the nearby areas, it has also been a focus for new models of sustainability in commercial and residential development. For example, there have been stringent sustainability standards mandated for all new developments, such as energy efficiency, renewable energy, and alternative water, waste management and material selection to be integrated into every new building.

Many green building rating systems and design tools support the view that new developments consider both general and local site context during the planning phase. One aspect is that developments facilitate access to public transport.

In Australia, the Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA) and the Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia (ISCA) have both included elements of public transport within their rating systems. The GBCA focuses on locating building projects within access to public transport corridors, whereas ISCA focuses on providing infrastructure that facilitates access, such as pedestrian linkages or urban design, which supports public transport.

In Portland, the development of the light rail system has had a significant impact on the city and it now currently comprises 84 km of rail track and 85 stations. It has enhanced business growth, liveability and housing options. New housing developments and light rail ‘corridors’ are expected to absorb some of the one million new residents the region expects by 2035, and importantly, link them to the business districts where jobs exist. The network is a key element of the city’s plan for more sustainable future growth.

More than a dozen North American cities have light rail systems that have either expanded or started operations in the past 15 years. Additionally, at least twice as many other cities have new systems or new lines under active planning. In Australia, all of our major cities have light rail projects either in planning or in construction phases.

These projects all aim to use transit connectivity to not only solve the cities’ traffic problems, but also as the most effective way to connect people to jobs, to encourage housing growth and to stimulate investment. The light rail projects often combine other urban renewal projects to make inner cities greener and more pedestrian friendly.

Investment in new infrastructure is expensive, but recent analyses are coming down more favourably on light rail as a cost-effective option that delivers the best overall economic, environmental and social outcomes.

In today’s difficult economic environment, securing funding for any project is more challenging than ever before. Building your business case so as to capture all of the potential benefits of a proposed project, not just the economic benefits, is key. Proposals that can demonstrate the economic, social and environmental benefits of a project are more likely to get cut through than those which focus purely on dollar returns.

As demonstrated by the Portland example, light rail also has other benefits as part of an integrated transport system, particularly around land-use efficiency and sustainability measures.

The ability to fit into densely developed, pedestrian-oriented and urban neighbourhoods is also a major attraction.

The Portland model has important lessons for Australia, as our major cites look to emulate some of the successes experienced by the North American city. Heavily congested inner city areas such as Hoddle Street and Parramatta Road could benefit from the ease on congestion, connectivity, and be a catalyst for high-density, sustainable development that light rail connections in the right locations can deliver.

Australian cities face big challenges as increasing urbanisation is placing significant strain on our existing urban transport networks. While it is not a panacea, light rail can be a solution to some of these challenges, as part of an integrated transport system that boosts connectivity and promotes efficient land use and sustainable living. As we progress along our own light-rail journey, Portland’s lesson of linking transport to sustainable living provides a guide on how Australia can deliver so much more than just a new transport infrastructure.

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