Why engineers – not politicians – need to solve our infrastructure problems

Professor Peter Newman wants entrepreneurial engineers to solve our infrastructure problems rather than politicians.

Australia’s ever-expanding cities are placing significant burden on vital infrastructure, such as transport, housing and energy supply.  Peter Newman, professor of sustainability at Curtin University, will address the liveability, workability and sustainability of our cities – and the way in which they might be improved – during a session at this year’s Australian Engineering Conference (AEC).

Newman will interview Sir Rod Eddington, former Chair of Infrastructure Australia, whom he met on the football field in Perth more than five decades ago.

“I was his coach,” said Newman, “so clearly I was the senior person in the relationship, although I was all of three or four years older than him. He often still calls me ‘coach’ and, of course, I call him ‘Sir Rod’.

 

Engineering our cities

 

As it is engineers who build our cities, they must play a key role in improving their sustainability, said Newman. He cites British civil engineer and ‘Father of Railways’ George Stephenson as a fine example.

“The first railways came about because engineers were entrepreneurial enough and politically connected enough to make them happen,” he said.

“Prince Albert was a great supporter of the railways and he had the entrepreneurial engineer, Stephenson, who came along and said, ‘We can build this if we get real estate developments to fund it’.”

Newman believes entrepreneurial engineers will play a vital role in improving our cities’ transport infrastructure in the near future.

“The new engineering that I really love is called the trackless tram,” he said.

“It’s an autonomous tram that is actually a series of buses in convoy, but they just follow sensors down the road. They’re electric, they get recharged at the stations and they’re much cheaper. They are what I believe is going be the next generation [of public transportation].”

While China is leading the way in trackless trams, Newman said he expects the technology to soon reach Australia.

“It’ll be the engineers who pick up on it,” he said.

“They’ll team up with entrepreneurs, developers and good governments and we’ll get a new regime of building trackless tram systems through our cities that will solve many of our current problems.”

 

More rail, less road

 

Newman said our cities can be engineered so that home and work are accessible within 30 minutes. According to him, our cities become dysfunctional when further time is added to the journey.

“Sydney is the worst – it’s very close to 40 minutes per journey to work,” he said.

“Melbourne is next, and it crossed the line about 10 years ago. Brisbane crossed about five years ago and Perth crossed it two years ago. They need to claw it back. It’s increasingly dysfunctional because younger families are just falling apart. It’s like fly-in fly-out every day. There’s a big social impact as well as economic impact.”

Newman said cars serve an important purpose, however he sees a risk of them becoming master rather than servant.

“Those cities that have become automobile dependent, such as Detroit, are now struggling economically,” he said.

“Cities like Houston and Atlanta are rebuilding around rail and they’re doing well, because that’s where the new jobs are, the new knowledge-economy jobs.”

He said he believes the time has come for high-speed rail here.

“That linking up across the country is something that every continent has done except us,” he said.

“There is one plane a day between Tokyo and Osaka, two of the biggest cities in the world, and that’s because every 10 minutes, there is a fast train transporting people, and you can’t beat that.”

Such firm views on high-speed rail should make for an interesting debate during this year’s AEC when Newman takes the stage with Eddington, who is not a fan of high-speed rail.

Professor Peter Newman will team up with Sir Rod Eddington at this year’s Australian Engineering Conference to discuss the vital role engineers play in advancing our cities’ liveability, sustainability and workability. To learn more and to register, click here.

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