Why smart cities need to be more like people and less like cars - Speech to ParraConnect Forum

September 18, 2014
Ministerial Feed
Speeches
ParraConnect Smart City Forum
Parramatta, 17 September 2014
 
Introduction
 
Lord Mayor, Councillor John Chedid.  My very good friend and ministerial colleague, the Minister for Human Services, Senator Marise Payne.
 
And can I make one observation here, we talk about smart cities and e-government and so forth, Marise and I work very closely on that, but one of the most successful e-government initiatives anywhere in Australia, in fact it’s world class, is the myGov application that Marise’s department has pioneered.
 
That represents, as you know, in effect a digital mailbox, a personal portal to connect with federal government services. Our goal in our policy is to provide that service to all other levels of government as well, including local government. 
 
Deputy Lord Mayor, Councillor Paul Garrard. 
 
And of course Alan Cadman the former Member for Mitchell, our former colleague. Greg Dyer the Chief Executive, it’s good that we’ve had a very good meeting earlier talking about these issues.  And all the way from my electorate of Wentworth, Woollahra Council Deputy Mayor Councilor Katherine O’Regan and  Councillor Tony Marano.
 
And can I just say also Frank Dorrian thank you very much for that great presentation.
 
I want to congratulate the ParraConnect committee for organising this event and more importantly, for the important work they do in ensuring that Parramatta becomes and will remain and becomes even more so a vibrant, diverse, productive and thriving city.
 
As Frank pointed out Parramatta is the geographic centre of Sydney and is the most accessible centre in Western Sydney; serviced by train, bus, ferry and cycleways along the Parramatta River with good access to the M4. Parramatta station is the fourth busiest on the Sydney Trains network with 50,000 people arriving each weekday morning.
 
Members of Parliament, Mayors and Councillors receive a lot of complaints from the public about ‘over-development’.  But at their core, most of those complaints are really about the congestion and diminished urban amenity which result if planning fails to keep up with population growth.
 
The truth is that if we want our cities to be healthier, more productive, more creative they need to be more like humans and less like cars. Density is the solution, not the problem. But it must be density coupled with amenity.
 
We humans are social animals - we like being with each other, we like looking at each other, talking with each other, talking about each other, learning from each other. 
 
Of course these days a lot of connecting and engaging can happen virtually, and as a Shareholder Minister responsible for NBN Co, I probably should be urging everybody to stay indoors and become the social animal they want to be online.
 
But as Ed Glaeser regularly reminds us, those cities where technology and electronic communication are used most intensively are also those with the most intense opportunities for physical engagement, enabled by proximity and density.
 
The healthiest people by and large live in places where there is plenty of useful walking, where they don't need to drive to do just about anything or go just about anywhere. The fittest, greenest, least energy intensive Americans live in New York.
 
Historically cities have been scaled to conform to our chosen mode of transport. The oldest cities and towns were walking cities with a density and scale to match.  Many of our early twentieth century suburbs were built around railway stations.  And from the 1920s onward the motor car enabled us to spread out extravagantly.
 
But a typical family is no longer one where dad goes off in the morning and comes back in the evening leaving mum to mind the home during the day. These days both parents probably work, and most households don’t have kids at home. Part time and flexible work and consequently proximity to services and amenities, to the centre of a city, are more important than ever.
 
As properties close to an urban centre with its concentration of employment, services and public transport - be it Parramatta, Chatswood or especially the CBD of Sydney - gain in value, as Matt Wade reminds us in the SMH today and as a consequence households with lower incomes are inevitably pushed towards the urban fringes.  Public transport is more distant, less frequent and more expensive if it exists at all, and transport costs take up more and more of the household budget. Gains from lower rents or cheaper property prices can be swallowed up by the costs of lengthy commutes and diminished employment opportunities.
 
Technology and connectivity were meant to alleviate these problems.  The car’s ability to disperse us would be remedied, we were told, by technology. We wouldn’t need to battle our way across the metropolis to a distant office - everyone would be able to work from home, and if we wanted home could be relocated from suburbia to exurbia, even further out.  Density would fall further and cities become even more decentralised.
 
But rather than the Internet benefiting the periphery at the expense of the centre, as so many expected in the 1990s, it had the reverse effect.  The cost of transporting physical goods and commodities has declined, and supply chains have become more elaborate and global. There is no longer any particular need for businesses to be close to one factor of production or another.
 
Ideas have never been more powerful or the pace of innovation more dynamic - and both thrive in cities.  The great neo-classical economist Alfred Marshall wrote that in cities, “the mysteries of the trade become no mystery but are, as it were, in the air.” 
But how can we assure those mysteries and the people who unravel them are in the air of our city?
 
Urban economists like Enrico Moretti and Ed Glaeser and, closer to home, thought leaders on urban issues such as the Committee for Sydney (ably chaired by my wife Lucy) and the Grattan Institute are as one in emphasising the importance of urban agglomeration and the benefits of large scale mass transit.
 
A paper issued by the Committee for Sydney last year argues the best way to deepen the employment market in Sydney and improve the city's amenity was to:
 
●     Increase the supply and diversity of dwellings (and implicitly, the density of population) in established areas; and
●     Improve the transport system’s capacity to connect people and jobs - this requires better roads, better public transport and better integration of the two.
 
Parramatta’s continued growth will depend heavily on the types of jobs that policy settings and public and private sector activity generate here – and those, in turn, will in part depend on the Sydney metropolitan area’s ability not simply to grow, but to plan for and provide the necessary infrastructure, amenities and services to keep pace with that growth.
 
Now that 2 million Sydneysiders live to the west of Parramatta, we must also more effectively take advantage of Parramatta’s potential to emerge as Sydney’s second CBD. The Committee for Sydney favours a balanced city model which will put less pressure on rents and residential values while enabling Western Sydney to make an even greater economic contribution to Sydney.
 
The Abbott Government’s significant support for WestConnex and the associated regeneration and renewal of Parramatta Road represents a truly city-shaping project.  This project has the ability to contribute to increased productivity by reducing travel time between Parramatta and the CBD; to increase amenity by reducing traffic on Parramatta Road and enabling vibrant new clusters of residential development; and to equip Parramatta to become a higher value urban centre with the strongest  employment and knowledge economy agglomeration west of the Sydney CBD.
 
Of equal importance will be improvements on the Western line to improve the travel times on the train, although I cannot complain about the length of my trip today having taken care with the help of the Tripview app to take a Blue Mountains Train - only one stop from Strathfield.
 
I’m glad that Frank has explained how ParraConnect have thought carefully about how they can benefit most from the NBN, focusing on how it can be best used in the Westmead health precinct, at the University of Western Sydney, and this city's government precinct.
 
The Government is committed to completing the NBN as soon as possible, at less cost to taxpayers, and more affordably for consumers. Had we persisted with the Labor’s fibre to the premises rollout, the NBN would have cost an additional $30 billion, completion would have been delayed until the mid 2020s, and a typical household’s monthly Internet charges would have increased by up to 80 per cent, or $43 per month.
 
Affordability is a key but often overlooked point, given the biggest barrier to Internet access is not technology but lack of income. Those in the bottom income quintile are ten times more likely not have access to the Internet at home than those in the top quintile.
 
We are not ideologically or politically committed, as our predecessors were, to one particular access technology. Our focus is on customers’ needs and ensuring the availability of the levels of service they value and will pay for. Since the current Government issued a new statement of expectations guiding the operation of NBN Co in April, the company has had unrestricted freedom to utilize whatever technologies it believes allow it to achieve its network rollout and performance goals on budget.
 
For all the wailing from true believers in the Labor NBN about the alleged deficiencies of fibre to the node (where fibre cuts over to the existing copper network at street corners or in the basements of apartment buildings) this access technology has delivered 100 Megabits per second downloads over 500 metres of copper loop.
 
That’s vastly more bandwidth than residential consumers need or foreseeably will need - enough for the real-time download of 15 simultaneous HD video streams, with sufficient bandwidth left over for web surfing, Skype and email.  Of course it also saves the project over thirty billion dollars.
 
The NBN will significantly improve digital connectivity across the nation - and since over the next five years almost all places in Australia will receive it, there won’t be any comparative advantage to one locality or another.
 
There will be an abundance of technology and what will make the difference is technological imagination - always much scarcer. Parraconnect is on the right track, technological imagination in action.
 
But as the top urban economists remind us, there is no substitute for physical proximity to other humans with kindred skills, interests and work. Cities succeed when they are places that people find desirable to work and reside. Technology gives us greater freedom than ever to choose the city where we want to build our careers and lives and to invest.
 
In other words, a smart city needs more than smart technology, it needs smart people. And to create the environment that will attract them, you need technological imagination and above all smart planning. I can see Lord Mayor that Parramatta has both in abundance. 

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