Outer Sydney employment a big issue

A few months ago, an important report which analysed and compared the performance of Australia’s four big cities was released with remarkably little fanfare.

The November 2013 report was called ‘Population growth, jobs growth and commuting flows – a comparison of Australia’s four largest cities’. Prepared by the Commonwealth Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics, the report represented the first comparative study of changes in population, jobs and commuting patterns within Australia’s largest cities. It can can be found here.


Our daily media regularly gives us information (and to be honest usually criticism) about the Sydney’s key performance indicator, however it’s not often you get to compare these indicators in detail with other Australian cities.

For starters, the report shows that there are common good and bad trends across all the major cities.

Among the good news is that, between 2001 and 2011, we were using our cars less and instead increasingly using the train, bus, ferry (or our bodies) to get around.

Melbourne scored the best outcome in this regard, with its share of car trips as a percentage of all journeys down 4% (compared to a fall of just 0.8% in Sydney). Meanwhile, during the same period, Perth gained the biggest increase in public transport overall journey share – up 3.4% – compared to 3% in Melbourne and again just 0.8% in Sydney. Strong city centre employment and population surges in all cities, higher petrol prices and placing homes near transport were all factors which led to this result.

Perhaps Sydney’s modest result in this statistical area may be due to the fact that it already has the lowest rate of commuter trips by car (67%) and highest commuter public transport trips (22%) of any of the cities. Trying to be fair here!

Other good news is that our cities grew during 2001 to 2011, despite the substantial global financial problems during this period. Growth may have its challenges but it is certainly preferable to economic decline.

Melbourne was the most successful in adding population and jobs. Melbourne’s population went up 636,300 during this period and its jobs by 302,300 – compared to 477,600 extra people in Sydney and 184,600 more jobs during the same time.

Another interesting fact is that Sydney had the lowest level of greenfield housing growth during 2001-2011, which contributed 46% of Sydney’s housing growth compared to 53% for Brisbane, 62% for Melbourne and 68% for Perth. It doesn’t look as though Sydney’s mantle as Australia’s densest city has any chance of being beaten in the near future.

However, there were plenty of warning signs in the report about upcoming planning issues. The report identifies two big issues which are closely related – average commuting times and outer suburban employment growth.

It’s not hard to figure out that more jobs closer to where people live means that people don’t have to spend as long during to and from work. ‘’Jobs closer to home” allowing “more time with families” has been a popular slogan for politicians now for many years.

However, the dream is proving hard to realise, particularly for areas away from the main CBD of the capital city.

The report notes that average commuting times increased across all cities between 2002 and 2010  – against the stated aims of their relative strategic plans. The increase was biggest in Brisbane (up seven minutes), then Perth (up six minutes), Sydney (four minutes) and Melbourne (three minutes).

Of course, if you place more jobs close to where people live – and provide ready transport access to those jobs – then commuting times should not increase. This is another red flag raised by the study.

The report states that while rapid outer suburban employment growth happened across all cities from 2001 to 2011, there continues to be a shortfall of jobs compared to residents. The report finds that while Western Sydney added 5,500 jobs on average each year between 2001 and 2011, this was significantly less than the 12,800 a year long-term target in the Metropolitan Strategy.

This meant the proportion of Sydney’s employment in Western Sydney fell from 37% to 33.3% in 2011 – at the same time as the government had a long-term target of 50% of jobs to be located in the West. The report concludes bluntly that

Employment growth did not keep pace with residential growth in Western Sydney.

In recent times, the Western Sydney employment debate seems to have been tied solely to Badgery’s Creek airport, with the logic being that if you build an airport then higher-order office and logistics jobs will follow. The debate can’t be allowed to be bogged down in this fashion. The fact of the matter is that that there is no time to wait to promote jobs in Western Sydney, any way and in any form.

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