When Michael Bloomberg was mayor of New York he had a famous guiding motto: “In God we trust. Everyone else, bring data.”
Many cities have adopted a similar mantra in a bid to find new solutions to urban challenges. Data also brings perspective to debates about the future of our cities, like the one now raging in Australia over the impact of migration.
Politicians are responding to strong public feelings about congestion and overdevelopment, especially in Sydney and Melbourne. Prime Minister Scott Morrison, a recent defender of Australia’s current migration intake, changed tack this week.
“Population growth has played a key role in our economic success,” he said on Monday. “But I also know Australians in our biggest cities are concerned about population. They are saying: enough, enough, enough. The roads are clogged, the buses and trains are full. The schools are taking no more enrolments. I hear what you are saying. I hear you loud and clear.”
The federal government will now seek greater input from the states when setting migration targets. The annual migration intake is expected to be trimmed from 190,000 to about 160,000.
But amid this national discussion about migration and population growth, what does the data tell us about how Sydney is coping?
The city’s population has been growing strongly in the past few years – Greater Sydney’s head count swelled by 2.1 per cent in 2016-17, the highest in a quarter of a century.
And those arriving from overseas have been a big part of that growth – between 1996 and 2016 migrants contributed nearly two-thirds of the increase in Sydney’s population. However one reason for that high share is due in part to the relatively large number that leaves Sydney each year to settle elsewhere in NSW or interstate.
There is a strong public perception that congestion across the city’s transport networks has worsened. But Marion Terrill, manager of the Grattan Institute’s transport and cities program, says the data doesn’t support the conclusion that migration has brought the city to a standstill.
She delved into figures on commuting times and distances across Sydney over the past decade and found things hadn’t shifted much.
“What I found is that Sydney and Melbourne are coping remarkably well,” she says. “The overwhelming picture is that commute times and distances have changed very little at this time of very rapid population growth. So the idea that Sydney is full and the city can’t cope with any more people just isn’t borne out of the facts.”
The institute’s research showed half of Sydney’s commuters spend less than 30 minutes getting to work and that share has not changed over time. Three-quarters of Sydney’s commuters spent an hour or less getting to work, the same share as in 2008.
Sydney’s median commute in 2016 was 7.7 kilometres, which was up only 3 per cent compared with five years earlier – and lower than Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Darwin.
One reason for this is the city’s capacity to adapt to population growth. Many workers have changed their time of travel to work or switched to a different form of transport. There’s also a clear trend for more people to work from home. Some people move house or change jobs when they become unhappy with their commute.
“People seem to think things are fixed and just get worse but that’s not the case,” says Terrill. “Things are changing all the time in cities … we’re not stuck – we are very adaptive and, as history has shown, surprisingly so.”
James Hulme, from business group the Committee for Sydney, says the fact that so many skilled and talented people want to live and work in Sydney is sign of the city’s global appeal.
“We must be careful not to convey an impression that Sydney’s is not open for business,” he says. “Despite some understandable concerns raised about Sydney’s growing pains, the city has actually managed its sizeable population increase effectively and efficiently.”
“It’s also important that we don’t debate immigration purely from a negative standpoint. Many cities with declining populations would love to have the kind of growth that Sydney is experiencing.”
Hulme says the population squeeze is likely to be alleviated as major new transport infrastructure, including the Metro Northwest rail line and WestConnex come online.
Terry Rawnsley, a regional economics specialist with consultancy SGS Economics and Planning, says Sydney’s population, which crossed the 5 million mark about two years ago, has reached a significant new threshold.
“If you look around the world, cities of 3 or 4 million run pretty differently to those of 5, 6 or 7 million,” he says. “It is as if Sydney is going though a painful puberty at the moment. It hasn’t yet built up the bone and muscle in its rail or metro system to get people around, but there’s this growth surge happening.”
There’s one key statistic often overlooked in the migration debate – the very low rate of unemployment. In the past, opposition to migration has often been driven by a fear that outsiders will undermine the job prospects of locals. But there is little evidence of that in Sydney. Despite strong migration the unemployment rate in NSW is at a decade low of 4.4 per cent and the rate is far lower than that in many parts of Sydney.
Also, migrant workers are playing an increasingly important role in many of the city’s essential services, especially caring for the elderly and the disabled. Data from the 2016 census shows 37 per cent of Australia’s frontline workers in aged and disabled care were born overseas, up from 33 per cent in 2011. It is a similar story in the childcare sector where more than a third of workers in 2016 were overseas-born.
Rawnsley says it could “get pretty hard” to fill those jobs if Australia reduces its migration intake, especially as the population ages.
Here’s a more detailed look at how Sydney is faring amid the population boom.
Whether the NSW housing development market suggests the state’s population growth is going too far depends on your perspective. When she became premier, Gladys Berejiklian famously cited housing affordability as her foremost priority, and said that increasing housing supply was the “best way” to make housing affordable. In the 22 months since, the slump in prices means that housing has become more affordable. But rather than simply claim credit for this, Berejiklian has instead sympathised with local community concerns that there has been too much housing supply in some areas.
Official figures show a mixed picture on residential development. On the one hand, it is true that there have never been so many homes recently built – more than 44,000 homes completed in the year to September. But the slumping market has also prompted a more recent drop in the number of homes being approved for development – dropping from a recent high of more than 6000 homes approved per month in mid 2016, to around 3500 per month recently.
Another element is the uneven spread of housing development across the city. In areas such as Blacktown (13,000), Parramatta (10,500), the City of Sydney (10,200), Liverpool (9600) the Hills (9500), Camden (8300), Canterbury-Bankstown (8000), and Bayside (7700), large numbers of dwellings have been approved since the start of 2016.
In contrast, there are pockets of Sydney – largely in the northern suburbs and east – where there has been relatively little activity: for instance in Mosman (67), Hunters Hill (108), Woollahra (811), and even in the Premier’s own Willoughby (896).
Comparative figures show that, yes, the traffic is getting worse. Roads and Maritime Services publishes an occasional document – the Key Roads Performance Report – which captures average speeds and travel times across 100 or so roads in Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong.
A comparison of the reports from September 2012 with October 2018 (reports were not released in the equivalent months) shows that on most routes average speeds have slowed, and in some cases significantly. For instance, a motorist driving along Alison Road in the eastern suburbs on a weekday morning would have driven at around 20 km/h; this year, they could have driven at only 13 km/h. Someone driving into the city on Anzac Bridge would have driven at 41 km/h in 2012; now they could drive only at 34 km/h. It is a similar story across many routes. For a motorist driving towards the city on the M5 and M5 East (where peak hour is now measured from 5.15am), the average speed has dropped from 52 km/h to 43 km/h in the past six years.
Another indication of changed road conditions is the phenomenon of weekend traffic. On Syd Einfeld Drive, at Bondi Junction, counts of weekend traffic have been steadily increasing from about 17,000 vehicles a day in one direction in 2012 to 22,000 vehicles a day in 2018. Or in south-west Sydney, on Camden Valley Way, one-way weekend traffic has similarly risen from about 5000 vehicles a day to 7500 thousand.
If it feels like peak hour buses and trains have become strikingly crowded in recent years that might be because, well, they have.
Patronage started to surge on both buses and trains in Sydney about five years ago. As recently as 2012-13, the number of trips taken on Sydney’s train network sat at about 306 million per year. But that number has since climbed to 404 million in the most recent financial year – an increase of about a third. The rate of increase is even more stunning on the city’s bus system. Five years ago, about 220 million annual trips were taken on the city’s buses. By 2017-18, more than 332 million trips were taken on Sydney’s buses – a 50 per cent increase, according to previously unreleased Transport for NSW figures provided to the Herald.
The rate of increase is likely caused by multiple factors, population growth being one. But extra services are also likely to have contributed to the change. (On the rail system, only the South West Rail Link has opened recently, but the government is often putting on new bus services and routes). And generational shifts in travelling habits – young people tend to be more likely to opt for public transport over the car – as well as the convenience of the Opal payment card are also likely to be factors. Although the metro rail line to the north-west suburbs is due to open next year, for most rail commuters real relief is unlikely to emerge until about 2023, when a new line through the city is to open.
Health services in Sydney’s west and south-west contend with the complex medical needs of the swelling migrant populations predominantly from south and south-east Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Some migrant groups are used to presenting at a hospital as their first port of call when they need medical attention, rather than a GP, which compounds the workload at emergency departments already under strain. Liverpool, Westmead, Blacktown and Nepean Hospitals are some of the busiest in the country, treating rising numbers of ageing patients with multiple conditions.
Australian Medical Association NSW president and Mount Druitt GP Dr Kean Seng Lim says new immigrants from war-torn, oppressive or low socio-economic countries can arrive with underlying health issues, a distrust of health services, low health literacy and a genetic predisposition to chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. “It a triple whammy and a confluence of events which means they will have an increased need for health services,” Dr Lim says.
At Blacktown Hospital, the number of patients presenting with diabetes (often one of multiple conditions) is rising by about one per cent each year. The cost of an admission for a patient with diabetes is roughly 20 per cent more than other patients on average, Dr Lim says.
West and South West Sydney were also some of the most rewarding areas to work for medical professionals, with the population booms supporting the creation of blockbuster health precincts at Westmead and Liverpool.
Schools and higher education
In parts of Sydney – primary schools in the eastern suburbs and north shore, for example – many schools are at capacity, and there is a massive building program underway to cater for that demand. In some cases, the crowding is due to housing development; in others, it’s due to a failure by departmental planners to predict population growth. But in other areas with a high proportion of migrants, such as the inner south-west, many of the schools have spare capacity.
But there are positives, too. Modern schools are cradles of diversity, and students from different nationalities have different skills to offer such as bilingualism, or cultural attitudes to learning, or resilience developed during a difficult childhood.
A factor in Sydney’s strong population growth has been a boom in foreign student numbers. The number of overseas students enrolled at Sydney’s five major universities topped 75,000 in 2017 having jumped by 21,000 over the previous two years. But international education has become one of Australia’s biggest exports, with overseas students at both a tertiary and secondary level contributing billions of dollars a year to the national economy. The state government estimates international education was worth about $10 billion to the NSW economy last year.