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The Cross River Rail project offers a solution to a narrowly conceived problem while ignoring the bigger picture of metropolitan planning. shutterstock

Brisbane’s Cross River Rail will feed the centre at the expense of people in the suburbs

The Queensland government is pushing for the Cross River Rail project, a second railway connection through Brisbane’s CBD.

In the state’s ShapingSEQ regional plan, advocates of the project claim it will remove a constraint on job growth by improving access to inner Brisbane. However, the plan neglects an alternative strategy of prioritising job growth in a few strong “metropolitan centres” within the greater Brisbane metropolitan area to the CBD’s north, west and south.

The Cross River Rail project emerged from a narrow focus on boosting the CBD’s peak-hour commuting capacity by overcoming a bottleneck on the single rail bridge across the Brisbane River. The issue was framed as a problem, rather than a potential opportunity to encourage employment decentralisation.

Life outside the CBD

It’s been 60 years since Australia’s first drive-in shopping centre, Westfield Chermside, opened in Brisbane’s north. The centre is now one of the largest in Australia.

In the ShapingSEQ plan, Chermside is one of 11 “principal regional activity centres” outside the CBD competing for market share within Brisbane’s greater metro area. If media reports are correct, there is an “arms race” between some centres on Brisbane’s northside.

But is competition between so many centres the best strategy for a metro area with rapid population growth, most of it expected at the fringe? Would it be better to have three “key metropolitan centres” providing more diverse employment and higher-level services – not just “big box” shopping – closer to these areas than the CBD is?

These questions have been dodged for more than a decade.

Key metropolitan centres

Planning authorities promoted a key metropolitan centres concept as early as the mid-1970s. The Moreton Region Growth Strategy recommended three key centres in metropolitan Brisbane, beyond the CBD. Each was to be a focal point for “public and private employment growth”.

These three centres were to be given “priority over other centres in relation to planning, promotional and resource allocation activities of government”. The report considered key centres offering alternative employment locations to the central city “both necessary and feasible”.

This approach was continued during the 1990s in the Regional Framework for Growth Management (RFGM) in the southeast. By 2005, when the first statutory regional plan was introduced, the concept had been dropped.

Instead, a policy of “principal regional activity centres” was adopted and remains in effect. It was based largely on centres designated by local councils at that time, rather than being a more integrated regional approach.

The large area of the city relative to southeast Queensland means Brisbane City Council has significant influence on planning for the region. Without its support, a policy of key metropolitan centres outside the Brisbane City boundary would not have been possible. Such a policy would have necessarily restrained the growth of some centres within the city.

In addition, background research for the 1994 RFGM noted that “considerable forward planning effort” would be needed to consolidate retailing, office, civic and community facilities in selected locations. Any resolve to undertake this seems to have dissipated by 2005.

About that time, and particularly after the global financial crisis, transport infrastructure development became more about promoting economic growth than being part of an integrated land use strategy. This was particularly evident in Brisbane’s TransApex road projects, with Cross River Rail falling into a similar category.

Infrastructure development has since threatened to supersede spatial planning in Australian metropolitan areas.

Thinking strategically about the whole city

If built, the rail project will serve areas that already have comparatively good public transport services. The suburban areas where most people live would continue to have limited transport options.

RMIT’s Jago Dodson has called for a stronger suburban focus in city policy. Projects like the Cross River Rail project have “questionable merit”, according to Dodson, and will have “little impact on conditions in our suburban growth areas”.

A key metropolitan centres policy would likely create more benefits for these growth areas, particularly if combined with effectively networked public transport offering good service to these centres.

Some upgrades of southeast Queensland’s passenger rail network might be needed. These should serve the agreed spatial planning strategy rather than being narrowly focused on relieving forecast congestion.

The sense of urgency created around Cross River Rail works against the need for genuine community engagement in planning for the Brisbane metro area and the broader region.

The Cross River Rail project should be considered in the context of a metropolitan area that citizens want, not simply as a response to forecast travel demand.

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