The prime minister of Australia, Malcolm Turnbull, has come up with an idea that will no doubt soon invade the United States. He calls it the “30-minute city,” the idea being that everyone will be able to get to work, school, and “anywhere we need to be” within 30 minutes.
Instead of relieving congestion so people can travel further within 30 minutes, however, Turnbull wants to completely rebuild urban areas, relocating jobs and people so they will be less than 30 minutes apart even if congested. Essentially, he wants to promote polycentric cities in which most jobs are located in a few urban and suburban centers.
Following Turnbull’s plan, for example, Sydney is proposing to become a “metropolis of three cities,” meaning three major job centers. Three? Los Angeles has more than 100 job centers. You’d have to get down to urban areas of under 500,000 people (Sydney has 5 million) to find ones in the United States with only three job centers.
Sydney’s “three cities” plan.
Turnbull is about fifty years too late, as cities haven’t been polycentric since the 1970s at the latest. Today, even in places like Los Angeles with scores of job centers, less than 30 percent of jobs are located in those urban and suburban centers. The rest spread out across the landscape in retail shops, warehouses, medical centers, small factories, and schools.
I don’t have data for Australia, but in the United States most people live within 30 minutes of work anyway. That’s not because urban planners have dictated where jobs should be located but because people tend to locate where it is most convenient, and their jobs is one–but only one–of several things they consider when deciding where to live. The densities that Turnbull’s plan would call for would actually make it harder for people to locate within 30 minutes of work and other locations.
The real problem in Sydney, Melbourne, and other major Australian cities is that housing is unaffordable. As the above map indicates, Sydney and other cities are surrounded by huge areas of land that remains undeveloped because the government has rendered it off limits to development. If Turnbull really wants to improve the lives of urban residents, he would eliminate all of those land-use restrictions.