I had the pleasure of being on James Valentine’s
Afternoons on ABC Radio on Friday (June 18, 2021)
We discussed the thirty-minute city and related topics for about 15 minutes.
An automated transcript is below:
James Valentine 0:11
You’ve been hearing for a while now that we’re going to have sort of three cities in Sydney. We’re going to have the city city, the river city of Parramatta and now the new Bradfield city, the Western Sydney parklands city, the Aerotropolis, it seems to be a city, it’s got at least three names at the moment, that Western one and there’s going to be three hubs, we’re going to be a 30 minute city, we’re gonna be able to get around this city, you’ll be able to live, you know, Jason, the paramedic, everything will be there, your job will be there, the school will be there to help services will be there and everything. So you’ll never need to leave that area, necessarily. The you may have also heard that the IBC announced a little earlier in the week that 300 or so staff will be moving to Paramount or will be based in Parramatta in a few years time that we’re in the process of looking for the right accommodation and figuring out what what would be best in that in that part of the world. So these are interesting things. And I wondered whether it was a good time to have a conversation about how successful is this going to do things like this work? When when, when an industry when something like our says yeah, when a government department or the ABC or an industry says, Okay, we’ll base ourselves here. What is it? What do we need to make that work? Do we have the infrastructure to make it work? And what effect does it have on the area? Is that a good thing? Does it you know, usually mean? Yep, this is great. The play starts to boom. And it works. I mean, there’s a big broad questions, but let’s see if we can crunch them down a little Professor David Levinson joins us. He’s from the School of Civil Engineering at the University of Sydney. He’s a very successful career looking at transport and urban infrastructure in lots of ways. He’s the author of something that’s got a dissertation that’s called probably my favorite title, “on whom the toll falls”. Yeah, a brilliant title about road road charging. Really a title of people good road charging and the like. But it’s great to have you been here for a for a conversation. Professor David Levinson. Good afternoon. Thank you for having me. I mean, you’re we’ve been sitting about four years or so now from from Minnesota. Is that right? Yes. And so do you look, I would look at the City of Sydney go. It’s pretty congested, messy, haphazard, thing, but you know that that’s grown like, like Topsy over over a couple of centuries. Now. How do you see it?
David Levinson 3:35
Well, I mean, it’s certainly grown fast. But all cities are messy. All cities are congested. A city that’s not congested, is probably dying. And so congestion is one of the prices for urbanity. Right? We can’t expect our infrastructure to grow as fast as our population and places that tried to invest excessively in infrastructure before the people are there are going to have a lot of white elephants, a lot of projects that aren’t aren’t well used.
James Valentine 4:02
Right? So. So the notion that you might think, let’s, let’s build all the metro and the schools and the parks and hope people come, that doesn’t quite work.
David Levinson 4:11
We don’t have the resources to do that, unless you want to not address the existing problems that are already there. You know, if, if planning were 100% accurate, and we could forecast these things perfectly sure. But that’s not the case. that’s never been the case. And, you know, you, you can’t expect the populations that were here before 1788 to have built in advance of the settlers. It just doesn’t, you know, so we have to think about what are we trying to do and try to establish some sort of concurrency between the development of land and the development of infrastructure. And once you’ve solved all the problems for your existing residents, then if you have some excess resources and want to sort of plan for our future residents We might be moving into currently greenfields undeveloped areas. That might make sense. But we clearly haven’t solved the problems for all of our existing residents. And yet we’re starting to build some infrastructure for people who don’t live here yet.
James Valentine 5:12
Right. So is your sense of most cities is that the it’s enough for them to play catch up.
David Levinson 5:19
I think most cities need to play catch up with their existing demand. Certainly a fast growing city is always going to be playing catch up. When the growth slows, you might be able to have caught up at at some point. But at that point, your city’s not really growing anymore. And I think of cities in the American Midwest. You’re Detroit’s in Cleveland, well, they probably have enough infrastructure for the population that’s there. Now, they did catch up. And then things change, because that’s what happens, things change, we can’t accurately foresee how the technology is going to change how preferences are going to change how economics are going to change. And we really need to be thinking I mean, a 40 year time horizons fine for a vision. So if you think about the plans currently out there 2056 plans they were started in 2016. That’s fine for vision, but we have to also constantly be updating and and checking those and make the next investment decision aligned with the plan. But we can’t expect to build out a 40 year plan today and just wait for those roads and train lines
James Valentine 6:22
fell out. Yeah. And we can’t control that within a city like Sydney, will say things like, there’ll be another million people here in 10 years old and that sort of stuff. And people will say, Well, does that have to happen? Is this also somewhat uncontrollable cities have a great gravitational pull?
David Levinson 6:37
Well, I mean, a city is part of a country and the national government will decide immigration levels. And obviously, unexpectedly last year, immigration levels fell. And we see cities in Australia, especially Sydney, are losing population in the past year to regional areas as there’s more out migration and then migration. Now, maybe immigration will reopen. But that’s a policy choice. And assuming that that policy choices made, may be probably those people will come to cities, because that’s where most of the economic activity still is. But there’s no guarantee of that. I mean, we could have much better telecommunications technologies in 10 or 20 years, in which case, the advantages of the city are lower than they are today. Because today, it’s still better to be in person for doing things than to do them virtually.
James Valentine 7:30
Yeah, that’s right. And we’ve seen that, you know, 10 years ago, if people said, Yeah, I could probably work from home and use the computer system where you couldn’t really it didn’t really work. But it wasn’t robust enough, it couldn’t carry enough.
David Levinson 7:41
Yeah, and I think that the shift has been, I mean, there’s been a push, obviously a force factor, which has required people to work from home more than they otherwise would. But there’s also been the enabling of technology, which is better that we had video conferencing. 15 years ago, I lived in London for a year and supervise my students from in who were in Minneapolis via Skype calls. And it worked beautifully. We had a 24 hour work schedule, and it’s like I would, you know, it’d be late at night there and early in the morning in London, and I have meetings with them. And then you know, they would do things in and they would go to sleep, but I would wake up and I would see what they done. And it was probably more efficient than us being on the same timezone. Because the response was, was taking place during their off time. So we need to think about this dynamic of telecommunications is changing, not just work for for people who work in offices, I mean, it’s also changed how we shop significantly and our social patterns. And you know, how many people do you know on the internet that you’ve never actually met in person? I mean, this is a growing phenomenon. We’ve seen from travel data that people are making fewer social trips than they used to. And our hypothesis is they’re substituting online communications. Yeah, social social media for that guy is that even pre COVID COVID. work at home was rising as well. And virtual shopping was rising as well, but obviously is a huge spike in the in the last little over a year.
James Valentine 9:08
At this point. He listened to what Professor David Levinson. He’s from school of civil engineer at the University of Sydney and we just joined the fat a little on some of the planning issues around Sydney and some of the ways in which we’re moving around and some of what what what was coming so this notion of the 30 minutes city is that more than a slogan is that is that a reality?
David Levinson 9:26
Well, it depends on what you mean by the 30 minutes city right so the the Greater Sydney Commission has a few definitions in their report, which are not all the same, but that you can reach the the destinations that you need for your daily life within a 30 minute trip by public transport or active transport, walking and biking. But that’s not guaranteed that you will have a job within 30 minutes or in your local region of Sydney. And we see today of course there’s huge tidal flows of people who come from the western parts of Sydney towards the eastern parts of Sydney because There’s more housing in the West and more jobs in the east. And until all of these areas are balanced with terms of jobs and housing, a workers and housing in each of those places are roughly equal. We’re going to continue to have those kinds of tidal flows. And so it won’t be a 30 minute city, if you live in the West and work in the next city over or if you run if you’re if you’re in Bradfield and Western Sydney or near retropolis. And you work in the City of Sydney, that’s going to be well, more than a 30 minute commute by any mode of transport at this point. Yeah. And so
James Valentine 10:32
is that answered by you know, we’re making a gesture of moving 300 people to to paramedic, so then those people there, if that’s their job, is there, that’s good? Could the same thing? What is the answer also, then, for other industries and ourselves to move to campbelltown, to move to the hills district,
David Levinson 10:50
I think some of this will happen anyway. Because as telecommunications gets better than need to pay the high rents to be in the center, go down, or you see that you own a building in the center, and you can sell it and if you don’t actually need to be there. So there’s some industries for which the technical term economies of agglomeration are really high the benefits of being near other firms within walking distance of other firms. And typically, that’s things like finance and media and advertising. And arguably government. And there’s other industries, manufacturing, for which there’s no real benefit to being adjacent to the shelter. You know, you need the space. And once upon a time, it might have been appropriate when you physically move the goods by hand or horse from one building to another. But now, since it’s by truck, you just need to be nearby. You don’t need to be adjacent to. And so we’ve seen this kind of decentralization for decades. I mean, we’ve essentially been decentralization since 1788, right? I mean, we’ve people landed at a point and then they’ve spread out. employment in the Sydney CBD is about 15% of regional employment, which, you know, is probably not as high as people imagined it is. So what was the percentage of the 15% of total workers in the Greater Sydney region work in the CBD, right? And if you count the neighborhoods adjacent to the CBD, like ultimo or piermont, or Surry Hills, it gets up to about 20%. Right? Yeah.
James Valentine 12:21
But when we think of it as the CBD, so there’s all these workers come in. And that’s a fairly low percentage, it’s a low percentage. I
David Levinson 12:26
mean, it’s bigger than any other business district. And Paramount is on the order of 2%. Right now, and Western Sydney is going to be pretty close to 0% right now. And this will change over time. But this percentage has also been declining, historically. And so in 1789, it would have been close to 100% of all jobs were in the CBD. Now, it’s it’s much fewer. So this is a long term dynamic and the shock to the system of enabling office workers to work from home full time, but you know, maybe they’ll go back two days a week or three days a week? we don’t we don’t know yet. I mean, it’s still, I mean, we’re a year and a half into this. And public transit, which is basically a measure of how many people are going into the central business district is still below 70% of its pre COVID levels, indicates that it’s probably some kind of permanent effect. And yeah, and I think that’s going to be you know, an issue for people who own real estate and CBD who own businesses in the CBD and so on that, that it’s going to be harder for them in the future to generate as much money as they used
James Valentine 13:32
to So will it just happen all the deliberate moves and deliberate infrastructures have to put in nothing if something like the metro out to the to the northwest and that you know, huge industrial park and and business park out there, which major firms have their head office set up? Now? That’s a it’s made to be some, you know, some planners sitting down guy, put the trail on there, build that thing there, you know, that’ll boom, that area, it’s the same source, is that what they never aerotropolis look like? Yeah, I
David Levinson 13:56
mean, there has to be there. There are 1000s of deliberate decisions I think is the way you need to think about it and and ABC moving offices from ultimo to Parramatta is, is one of many of these kinds of decisions that will take place over next decades. That will help adjust the regional balance of jobs and and workers and ultimately reduce commute times overall. giving people more freedom. But you know, the question I mean, you physically are working in a building, I physically work in a building, but how often do you actually have to be here? It’s better if we’re in the building, perhaps but is I
James Valentine 14:34
very much have to be here between 1230 and 330. In the audition, sure, but I mean, at
David Levinson 14:38
the peak of COVID lots of reporters and working at home and makeshift studios and sound quality wasn’t quite as good. And, you know, obviously there were other issues associated with that. It’s better to be interviewed in person than it is to be interviewed over the phone. So these kinds of what actually needs to be done in person versus what can be done remotely is going to be needed. Oceana is going to be steadily changing as telecommunications technology gets better as more deals are built
James Valentine 15:04
as more software is made, once your report card on how Sydney’s handling all this in the moment,
David Levinson 15:09
Sydney is doing pretty well, overall, I mean, compared to say, how Europe, the United States did over the last, you know, your year and a half? I think we’re being a little bit, perhaps overcautious on some things.
James Valentine 15:25
Also, this is with the with COVID. You’ve been with Calvin sort of in general is our is that is that getting that road? that balance? Right, between the long term planning and the short term investment, for example, is that sort of, we’re getting it I think,
David Levinson 15:37
I think we make transport decisions based on assuming the land use is fixed. And we make land use decisions based on assuming the transport is fixed. And we’re not really taking these decisions together in the way that we could, I mean, we, we should be planning for access and trying to see, you know, the city is measured by how many things you can reach. And we know that a function of where things are located as well as how fast you can move on a network to get there. We want to be able to we should be planning for that directly. And right now, the planning is is somewhat fractured for that. And we also are there’s sort of a mismatch between who gets the benefits from infrastructure decisions and who’s paying for the infrastructure. If you build a train station, and somebody owns land adjacent to it, they get a huge uplift in value, but they didn’t really pay for the full costs of the benefits they’re receiving. Yeah.
James Valentine 16:29
David Levinson great to get some time with you. Thanks so much for coming in. All right. Fight faces. Great. So nice to meet you, Professor David Levinson from the School of Civil Engineering at the University of Sydney. We’ll talk about employment and wage growth with with David Taylor in a moment or two ABC business reporter. I asked him if there was a song he wanted to sort of intro and he said I am in this one I want to groove into Michelle Pfeiffer that white. This was a masterpiece. Living in the city got Chuck was saying we got a kiss. So pretty. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Don’t give it to you. Believe images