Driven to despair in Australia’s outer suburbs

Getting out of the car: easy for some. Hunter Desportes/Flickr

In cities all over the industrial world, people are driving less. Changes to society and the structures of our cities have made jumping in the car less popular. But what does this mean for people who have no choice but to drive?

In most American and Australian cities, car use has been declining since early this century. Stanley and Barrett’s 2010 study found car use has been dropping per capita in Australian cities since 2004. Between 1995 and 2005 our data showed no growth in car use at all.

So why is it happening?

There are many factors to which declining car use can be attributed.

The first is a cultural shift. Younger people want a more urban lifestyle, one where they don’t have to drive as much. They want to be around friends and around urban activity without long commutes from distant suburbs.

We’re even seeing this among older Australians, who want to live somewhere they can drive less and walk more, particularly as it becomes more difficult for them to drive.

At the same time, we’re hitting the wall with sprawl. A city can only grow so far before it becomes dysfunctional.

In most Australian cities, suburbs have been going out for a long time, and freeways have been built to bring people back in. But now the freeways are full, and commuting is just taking too long.

Marchetti’s Constant tells us that most people - no matter where they live or how they travel - won’t commute more than an hour a day. For many people in Australian cities, this “travel time budget” is being breached.

When people have to commute for longer than that, they can get angry. And we’re seeing that for a lot of these people, the solution is to move back into the city.

At the same time, fuel prices are going up. The acknowledgment that petrol isn’t going to get any cheaper is to some extent killing off the idea that cars are a critical part of life.

In fact, for many people, cars have become less a desirable commodity, and more of a burden. For people who are dependent on their cars, it can become very hard to keep control of the budget when fuel prices are so unpredictable.

Many of these people don’t have the option of moving closer to the city. High real estate prices and poor public transport mean the only option is outer suburbs and long, car-bound commutes.

The future for these people isn’t promising. The outer suburbs will become places where only the poor will live. Opponents of development, such as Save our Suburbs, have campaigned against inner-city densification on the grounds it will create ghettos, but the real ghettos are going to be on the urban fringes.

The wealthy are moving. They’re finding places to live where it’s easy to get to activity, where there’s plenty of public transport and where there are good walking conditions. City centres are becoming kind of eco-enclaves: you can see that in the Greens vote.

But it’s more and more desperate the further out you go. Australia’s 50-year suburban experiment isn’t delivering all the wonderful things we’d hoped for. The great Australian dream is actually a bit of a nightmare.

Governments aren’t really addressing this issue. They talk about developing polycentric cities with substantial employment and activities in the suburbs and small cities. They say there should be good public transport linking them all together.

But in most cases they haven’t worked out how to fund or implement these plans. It’s just talk. In fact, most of the planning bodies in government departments still assume further sprawl and still assume more car use.

There are always going to be journeys that are too difficult to make by foot, bike or public transport. There will always be places that are difficult to reach without a car. And for many people with disabilities, a car is vital.

But cars need to be just a part of the package, not the soul of our transport system. We’ve been planning as though we can’t live without cars. We have almost killed our cities in the process.