According to the Australian Financial Review today, urban sprawl is avoidable – purpose-built roads for driverless electric cars and buses take up less room than traditional freeways. High-speed trains greatly improve connectivity to other urban centres.
It makes little sense to keep expanding Australia's big metropolitan centres – especially when the Grattan Institute tells us more than half the employment growth in our five largest cities occurs less than 10 kilometres from the city centre.
Without a radical policy change, the projected near-doubling of Sydney and Melbourne's population to about 8 million each by 2035 is likely to make congestion and social divisions much worse.
Cities don't need a population of 8 million to thrive. Designing cities for greenfields sites between Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane could create the compact infrastructure suited to high-quality educational, research and cultural facilities interacting with high-tech industries and start-up ventures.
Overseas experience shows these trains generate large increases in land values in wide areas around stations. Public-private consortiums could construct the train tracks and recover much of the cost by developing cheap land for new cities and capturing part of the gains from metropolitan stations.
If new cities along the Melbourne to Brisbane corridor attracted 2 million or more people and associated businesses, this would make metropolitan population growth more manageable.
Two competing train technologies exist. Advanced wheel-on-steel trains in Japan, France and China operate at up to 360 km/h. But the extra speed comes with steep increases in maintenance and energy costs from mechanical friction.
This doesn't apply to the faster magnetic levitation, or maglev, technologies available from Japan and potentially China and Germany. However, they all suffer from air resistance at higher speeds.
Japan's most profitable high-speed rail operator, JR Tokai, is building a maglev system between Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka without government subsidies. The system relies on superconducting magnets to lift, stabilise and propel trains at 500km/h within a guide-way. Because tunnels comprise more than 80 per cent of the route, construction costs are much higher than in Australia.
Sydney-Melbourne is the world's fourth-busiest domestic air corridor. Almost all these passengers would choose to switch to a two-hour trip by maglev from city centre to city centre, compared with the three hours it would take by high-speed rail or air plus ground transport.
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