Cities, congestion and the opportunity of automated vehicles

Welcome to the Australia-New Zealand Cities Symposium, here in Western Sydney—one of the fastest growing areas in our country.

I am confident that sharing information about the challenges and opportunities in cities policy —on both sides of the Tasman—will benefit us all.

I would like to thank you all for participating, and particularly acknowledge my co-host, the Honourable Phil Twyford MP, Minister for Housing and Urban Development and Minister for Transport as well as Her Excellency the Honourable Dame Annette King, High Commissioner for New Zealand and Mr Bill Dobbie, Consul-General for New Zealand;

Today, the five sessions provide an opportunity to drill into the detail of effective partnerships, the challenges of population growth and advances in technology. As well as the innovative financing, and city-shaping potential, of urban infrastructure.

Australia is different to New Zealand in that we have three levels of government, all with an interest in cities policy.  This makes it particularly challenging for us, but our “city deal” concept which our government pioneered a few years ago, is proving to be a really effective mechanism to align the priorities, planning and interests of the three levels of government.

Just yesterday, Prime Minster Morrison and I announced the Hobart City Deal, being the 5th deal that we have now signed.  In the previous week, we announced our intent to conduct a South East Queensland city deal, covering 3.5 million people across the fast growing south east regions of Queensland.

The largest, most complex and most comprehensive deal, however, is the Western Sydney City Deal.  We will be discussing this in the first session today.  Built around our Government's $5.3 billion commitment to the building a new Western Sydney Airport, this city deal is a 20 year plan from the federal government, state government and eight local councils to cater for a further 500,000 people, generate 200,000 jobs, 200,000 new houses, and connecting infrastructure.

In my opening comments today, however, I want to focus on perhaps the greatest challenge that our larger cities face—congestion—and how we are addressing it. City deals are a part of it, but there are other elements.

I have a long ministerial title, but the Prime Minister refers to me as the “Minister for Congestion Busting” which gives you an indication of the priority we are placing on it. I want to take you through the infrastructure plans and population policy we are developing, but focus my comments on the opportunity that automated vehicles could play in addressing the congestion challenge.  The opportunities are immense, but we need to get the preparation right.

Cities and Congestion

Australians in our biggest cities are spending more time stuck in traffic than ever before, particularly in Melbourne, Sydney and South East Queensland—the areas which have accounted for three quarters of Australia's total population growth over the last five years. And as we all know, more time in the car means less time at home with our families, and less time to spend productively at work.

Looking at my home town of Melbourne, ten years ago, a person could (with 90 percent confidence) complete their 30 kilometre morning freeway journey in 21 minutes. Today, it takes 27 minutes.

Here in Sydney, average morning peak hour journeys in Sydney now take 65 per cent longer than off peak.

By 2030, avoidable congestion is estimated to cost up to $37.3 billion, up from $16.5 billion in 2015.

All big cities have some congestion and people understand this, but much of the congestion in our big cities has come about from avoidable factors.  In particular the lack of infrastructure to cater for the very fast population growth;  and the lack of coordination between the federal government (that controls the major population growth lever, migration) and the state government which is primarily responsible for building the roads and rail and service delivery.

We saw these factors at work acutely in Sydney when Premier Carr said that Sydney was “full” and consequently didn't build for a higher population growth, and yet a few years later, Prime Minster Rudd turbocharged the migration rate, with much of the new arrivals going to Sydney!  The massive infrastructure build occurring now in Sydney (supported by our government) is now just catching up on that period.

So what is our government's plan for busting congestion?  There are several parts.

First, we are investing record amounts in the major, city shaping roads and rail corridors. This is part of a $75 billion infrastructure plan, which includes major projects in every capital city.

Many of these projects are ones that have been on the books for decades, but have never got off the ground.  We are now building them.

This includes $5 billion to finally get a rail link to Melbourne Airport—Australia's second busiest.  It also includes $475m to finally connect Australia's largest university campus—Monash Clayton—to the rail network.

The second part of our plan is fixing local congestion hot-spots with smaller amounts of money. Over the last few weeks, the Prime Minister and I have announced $505 million from a $1 billion Urban Congestion Fund, for these small scale projects.  It includes projects like fixing the 8 intersections along the Princess Highway between Pakenham and Berwick.  This funding recognises the fact that a large part of a person's commute can be getting onto the highway or freeway at a key intersection, as much as it is the travel time on the major road itself.

Our aim is to get people to their destination and back faster and safer and so we need to be allocating funds to both the major corridors and the local pinch points that cause considerable time delays.

The third part of the congestion-busting plan is have more effective population policy, that will ease the pressure off the big cities, support the growth of the smaller cities and regions, and also better marry population growth with infrastructure and service delivery.

As part of this, the Prime Minister has asked the states and territories to have a far greater role in our migration settings—to achieve a ‘bottom-up’ view rather than just a ‘top down’ view on what our migration policy should be.  We know that the big capitals are struggling with the very rapid population growth, while smaller states and some regions want to grow faster.

Our cities policy can be a part of this—supporting governance arrangements so that population growth and infrastructure are aligned at a localised level. But we also need a national framework.

These three elements of our plan are all underway. But we are also thinking about the future and how technology could assist in addressing congestion and getting people across our cities more rapidly.

Australia is already a leader in using technology to make our roads more effective, through things like managed motorways.  But the biggest opportunity will come with the development and wider-spread usage of automated vehicles.

Automated vehicles and congestion

Depending on the uptake, automated vehicles have the potential to significantly reduce congestion on our roads within a decade. 

New modelling from the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics indicates that by 2030, congestion costs would drop by more than a quarter if automated vehicles account for 30 per cent of kilometers travelled (a “fast penetration scenario”). They estimate it would drop from $37 billion of avoidable congestion to $27 billion.

This is an incredible figure. It is the equivalent to the outcome you would get from tens of billions of dollars of added road and rail capacity.

How would automated vehicles reduce congestion?  And is such uptake of automated vehicles likely?

The answer to the first question is easier than the answer to the second.

There are several ways that automated vehicles can reduce congestion, but the main one is that it would allow cars to safely travel more closely together.  Consider a freeway at the moment before it has so many vehicles that the traffic slows below the regulated speed. That is, the moment before it begins to experience congestion.  If you took an aerial photo at that moment, you would see that the vehicles occupy only 8 percent of the freeway bitumen. Ninety two percent of the freeway is not occupied, but is necessary for driver safety.

If the vehicles were automated, then they could travel far more closely together. If they occupied, for example, 16 percent of the space, rather than 8 percent, you are effectively doubling the freeway capacity.

This data is from ZOOX, one of the global leaders in automated vehicles, based in Silicon Valley.  I visited them earlier this year and they informed me of these figures based on US analysis.  However, the situation is likely to be the same here in Australia.

Automated vehicles may also mean that space for car parking is less necessary. And the time taken for car parking significantly reduced.  Figures, again from ZOOX, estimate that up to a third of all inner city footprint is carparks.  A huge amount of traffic is generated from simply searching for parking spots.

Further, with automated vehicles, ride share could become more affordable, reliable and hence more common, taking other vehicles off the road.  That is, mass, customised shared transport is possible.

Combining artificial intelligence with connectivity would also allow active management of transport networks in real-time through predictive modelling, enabling congestion to be addressed before it happens.

The potential congestion alleviating benefits seem clear, but is the uptake of automated vehicles likely to happen?

It certainly won't be happening on a mass scale tomorrow or next year, but in a decade's time, automated vehicles will almost certainly be a significant feature of large cities around the world. This is the view of many experts in the field.

Consider what is occurring already. Most major vehicle manufacturers are developing vehicles with higher levels of automation, including vehicles that are designed to require no human control. Sophisticated automated driving features—such as lane-keep and traffic jam assist—are already available in current model vehicles.

Moderately sophisticated automated vehicles are currently being deployed in some countries.  For example, Google's Waymo began trialing a commercial automated taxi service in Phoenix, Arizona late last year. Zoox is launching their shared ride vehicles (essentially Uber without drivers) next year, at a yet undisclosed city. They have already tested it extensively in San Francisco, one of the more complex cities to drive.

Even here in Australia, we have trials occurring and already taking people.  For example, the Royal Automobile Club of WA has developed its ‘Intellibus’ trial involving a fully driverless electric shuttle bus in Perth, supported by a grant from our Government through our Smart Cities and Suburbs program. The trial involves testing the shuttle bus in a variety of settings and scenarios, with various degrees of interaction with road users. The trial, now in its final stage, has already carried 11,000 passengers along the 3.5 kilometre route on public roads.

I have focussed on the benefits of alleviating congestion, but the safety benefits could also be significant given that over 90 percent of all accidents on the roads today relate to driver error.

So how do we realise the benefits of automated vehicles?

Many companies around the world the world are rapidly advancing the technology as I have outlined.  The challenge for governments is the regulatory environment and ensuring that we are prepared to capture the opportunities that automated vehicles will present in the future.

There are significant issues that we need to be considering now. For example, marking roads with brighter lines or considering whether newly resurfaced roads from now should have nanoparticles placed in the bitumen.

Our Government has already taken several steps and is working closely with state and territory governments, the National Transport Commission and Austroads as well as through the Transport and Infrastructure Council to support the safe and early deployment of automated vehicles in Australia.

This work is supported by our Government's announcement in October 2018 of almost $10 million to advance work to prepare Australia for automated vehicles and other transport innovations, including through establishing the Office of Future Transport Technology within the Infrastructure Department

While much of the implementation will be at the state level, it is important that there is national consistency in policy or else we will have new “rail gauge” problem where an AV car from Victoria may be unable to “read” the road or be authorised to drive on it in New South Wales.

The Office of Future Technologies has been tasked to collaborate across governments to ensure automated vehicles are safe, to consider future infrastructure needs, to make sure cyber security safeguards are in place, and to support Australian businesses in taking advantage of new commercial opportunities.

The Office will play a leading role in the national coordination of new transport technologies and ensure that there is a supportive regulatory framework and policies, consistent with international best practice.

The Deputy Prime Minister and I are both taking a strong interest in the outcomes of this work and have requested that they explore how our future infrastructure requirements will be shaped by their introduction—looking at the development of ‘smart’ roads, with sensors in the asphalt, for example.

In addition, the House of Representatives Committee on Infrastructure, Transport and Cities—chaired by my colleague John Alexander MP—has launched an inquiry into Automated Mass Transit, which is considering a range of issues relating to AVs. I look forward to receiving their report in the coming months. 

We know already from the international research that there are a range of issues to consider when looking at AVs, and a range of possible outcomes following their implementation into a transport network.  We need to optimise it for our context.


I have only touched on a few issues that you will be discussing today.

Our two countries are used to working together, but today's symposium—an initiative of our two Governments—is particularly welcome.

I would like to thank Minister Twyford for coming and for facilitating the attendance of such a high-level delegation from New Zealand.

Thank you for your time and I hope you enjoy the symposium.