Is Melbourne full?

Ever since the 2016 census data was released, there's been an explosion of articles written across many different outlets. Some are tackling quite broad range of topics and others somewhat perplexingly focused on 'liveability', a construct of a foreign economics magazine whose original purpose was to inform managers on good places to live and expand businesses in.

As is always the case, the comment sections are equally as informative and in many cases, across multiple outlets, there are two broad camps emerging: the change movement - changing the status quo by altering the way we live and transport ourselves in our cities and the immigration reduction movement - changing the status quo by altering the amount of people who are allowed to settle in Australia.

Full disclosure - and I dare say many wouldn't be surprised by this - I am firmly in the camp of changing the way we live and transport ourselves in our cities, regardless of the rate of population growth.

In saying that however, it's been fascinating to absorb as much of the pro-immigration reduction movement's broad argument.

In a nutshell, this camp has a loose concept of 'sustainable' population growth that it clings to and more often than not it is solely focused on immigration to Australia, particularly the number of people who are provided visas and the like by the Federal authorities.

As we all know there are three primary components to population growth: natural increase (births minus deaths), net interstate migration and net overseas migration.  There's not a lot a government can really do about natural increase - humans are humans, we procreate.

It's the other two components that authorities can have a somewhat large impact on.  Net overseas migration is the issue du jour of the 'sustainable' population growth group and it's worth looking at the actual numbers.

Table 3 in this Australian Parliament House report puts the numbers for net overseas migration out there for all to see.

In the past 20 years we've seen over 100k in 1995 with the rate dipping under 100k for the second half of that decade to the numbers being above 100k for the first half of the 2000s then we reach our peak in the years prior to the GFC.  In 2007 we had 277,000, 2008 315,700 (the modern-times peak) and in 2009 246,900.

From 2010 the rate has stayed around the 200k mark and then by 2015 - the last year where the records have been made public, we're back down to 177,100 - or about 55% of the 2008 peak.  Recent statistics have the numbers back up around the 200k mark.

But there is one dramatic difference between the upswing we're seeing in the past 12 months and that of the 2007/2008/2009 peak: net overseas migration is heavily concentrated in Victoria and New South Wales whereas pre and during the GFC, it was far better spread around the entire country.

Net overseas migration by state - source: Pete Wargent

Western Australia was punching well above its weight right up until 2012 - very much on par with the rates of growth in Victoria -  the same time considered by many as the end of the mining boom.  Queensland is in the same boat.  

The convergence between the states in the 2008-2011 period points attractiveness of migrating to many parts of the country, not just a select few.  Many of the people who did migrate would have been temporary workers who have since left, many would have stayed in the country on the PR or citizenship path.

With the downturn in the West and North, clearly Victoria and New South Wales are now these most attractive places to migrate to.

The added zinger for Victoria specifically in the past 12-24 months has been the added growth through net interstate migration - specifically from WA and QLD into Victoria.

The notion that we might be able to direct migrants into specific areas of the country is an interesting one.  How is the power to direct people to live in a specific region going to be limited?  Does this idea run against ethos of freedom of movement within Australia - one of the many things embodied in our Federation?

At the national level, the data and specifically the chart below illustrates how people from both overseas and interstate are attracted to another region by economic opportunities contained within those regions.  

Net interstate migration - source: Pete Wargent

Cities are at the apex of human civilisation, they're as inevitable as death and taxes.  What's also inevitable is that different cities take on different forms, and when those cities which have been built to replicate smaller country towns - the garden suburb accessible by a car - reach the point that we're at now, the answer is not to shut the gate and stop people from moving to a city, it's to make changes.

Is Melbourne full?  I suppose if you are unwilling to think about - let alone actually change - the way you live and transport yourself in Melbourne, especially in the dominant form - by car - you might think the city is 'full'.  

Whether a low or high population growth scenario plays out over the next 5, 10, 15 or even 30 years, we are dealing - and will have to for the foreseeable future deal - with the fact that 70+ per cent of us are either forced into or choose to use private vehicles around the city.  

Infrastructure Victoria - the independent authority set up to advise the State Government on all things infrastructure - has advised that we should be doing more with what we have.  And in the transport realm, this should translate directly into new leadership and implementation of changing on how we use existing road space to stop locking new and existing residents into the suburban & exurban hell of being forced to use a car in congested middle and outer suburbs to just get to the local shops, schools or workplace.

It's all very well to have the aspiration to concentrate services and workplaces in areas closer to where people live, but when we formulate land-use policy to concentrate workplace uses in specific areas and don't provide the alternative higher-capacity public transport modes then we're back to square one.

In Victoria, we have a special knack for rapidly changing planning zones that effect development, but there is no obvious, policy target or signal to alter the status quo.

Likewise, we have a state-based renewable energy target that would see our electricity generation shift from one fuel to the other over time, but we don't have any target to reduce dependency on car use in Melbourne or other regional cities over time. This is part-time progressive activism.

In the context of Infrastructure Victoria's advice, our leadership and the next target for progressive change should be in the inner-city, middle ring our outer-fringe: policy settings should only favour road network expansion if it includes both the physical infrastructure and the high-frequency services contained within them (think dedicated bus lanes, tram network extensions).

You might have come across this or other images like it on social media.  It's a message for all - a city can feel less 'full' if we get our transport 'balance' right.

Reduce car dependency, gain more space. Source

Lead image credit: flickr.


Jon McLeod's picture

A good article. We should encourage higher density cities. But as cities become more humanity-dense (pedestrians, bicycles, public transport) our politicians and industry lobby groups are just going to have to accept that cities must redesign to exclude large motor freight vehicles from very high human-density areas, and all private motor vehicles from the inner city. Existing wide roads in the inner city can be narrowed down - giving primacy to active transport (walking, cycling) and public transport. Also - as cities become more humanity-dense, noise pollution must be controlled. No more bloated, attention-deprived, wooly mammoth bikies revving ear-splitting Harley-Davidsons downtown, immediately adjacent to hundreds of pedestrians. No more private vehicles with loud modified exhaust systems. Private vehicle registration will not be granted if vehicle noise emission can exceed a given db rating under any conditions.

Jon McLeod's picture

Also - who is the author, Alastair Taylor? A brief bio of each author provided at the bottome of each article would give readers some orientation on potential bias and affiliations. It's a common thing to do.

Laurence Dragomir's picture

We do it for all authors who are not affiliated with Urban Melbourne. When Alastair, Mark or myself write content (which is every week) we don't provide a bio because most readers would be familiar with who we are.

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