RMIT’s Storey Hall was the venue for the hot topical debate concerning Transport for Suburbia on 17 August 2011. The public debate was a platform for Associate Professor Robert Nelson of Monash University and Dr Paul Mees of RMIT University to go head to head to challenge each others on their outlook on the problems associated with Melbourne’s urban sprawl and the effectiveness and efficiency of the transport system in Melbourne.

Following a brief introduction and welcomes extended to the debaters by Stuart Worn, Dr Mees stepped up to the podium to express his outlook on Australia’s urban policy, which he explains is based on the belief that high levels of car use and poor public transport were mainly the result of low urban densities. He explained however that urban density figures used by the Victorian Government are flawed. The method used for calculating urban densities divides the population of a municipality or other administrative region by its gross area, however this method, as pointed out by Dr Mees created unreliable results as municipal and administrative boundaries rarely correspond to actual urbanised areas. He demonstrated these flaws using charts generated with density figures based on administrative boundaries for urban densities and figures based on actual urbanised areas for Australian, Canadian and American cities.

Dr Mee’s stated that as a result of recent changes to data collection and publication systems by the Australian, Canadian and United States national census agencies, it is now possible to compare urban densities and transport mode shares (for the journey to work) across the three countries’ urban areas on a consistent basis. Dr Mees has reviewed the results from census agencies and concludes that he has seen no correlation between urban density and the efficiency of public transport. He argues that low urban densities are not the issue and therefore increasing urban densities will not make public transport more successful. Higher frequency train, bus and tram services he suggests will be an effective factor in making public transport more successful, popular and efficient.

It was then the turn of Associate Professor Nelson to put forward his ideas. Associate Professor Nelson expressed how he strongly believes suburban gardens are to blame for the problems surrounding the successfulness of Melbourne’s transport system. Explaining this, he suggested that aesthetic and cultural preferences for gardens have resulted in cities being unable to reach increased densities. He identified examples of where good public transport systems existed in dense cities and suggested that sparse cities could never have an efficient transport system as it will always be structurally inefficient, infrequent and will have unconnected services

He suggested that in some cases it was not always people’s choice to have a garden and believes a revision of planning control legislation is required to permit reduced setbacks. These reduced setbacks would allow owners to develop their land more efficiently and ultimately allow for increased densities to exist and reduce urban sprawl. With reduced urban sprawl the public transport system, according to Associate Profession Nelson can become more efficient.

So with increased populations predicted for Melbourne and the surrounding suburbs in the near future, we will be keeping a close eye on whether the Victorian Government will focus on the public transport system or on urban density to address arising issues.