A 30 minute commute? Sprawling in the world’s most liveable city.

In figures released in July 2015, Victoria has become Australia’s largest growing state. Despite the lowest national growth rate since 2011 of 1.4%, Victoria topped the state average with a growth rate of 1.8%. Contrastingly, Malcolm Turnbull seeks a “30 minute city”. At this stage, this is looking much like a myth, as for those who live in Melbourne’s outer suburbs, only 10% of jobs available are accessible within a 45 minute drive. The impact of this is intuitive; when people spend longer in the car they spend less time with their families and are less productive at work as they are more tired. Evidently, policymakers must consider a number of solutions to this problem as populations grow larger, roads grow more congested and commutes grow longer.

So far government policies proposed to solve the problem of congestion and population growth in Melbourne focus on relieving the burden on public transport. However, these schemes, such as the proposed $9 billion Melbourne Metro Rail – a 9km underground rail line to flow underneath the inner city – have been heavily criticised, with some suggesting that they are only part of the solution to managing population growth in the coming years.

Around the world, debate rages over dealing with population growth by having a specific approach to the location of housing. Put simply, there are two options: the horizontal, or urban, sprawl and the vertical sprawl. The horizontal sprawl already occurs in Melbourne to a great degree, where outer suburbs and rural areas become more populated and workers commute into the CBD. As a city we have already seen the drastic effects of this – the overcrowding of public transport by commuters and the political debate that ensues over roads such as the East West Link. Although there are alternatives, governments have funnelled cash into infrastructure projects such as roads and enhancing suburban access to public transport – ultimately making living in these outer areas seem more appealing. From this perspective, at least politically, Melbourne has chosen the horizontal sprawl.

However, Melbourne, and other big cities around the world, have also engaged in vertical sprawl – where instead of moving outwards those who would otherwise face a long commute from the suburbs move upwards into high rise housing. The horizontal sprawl is said to have destroyed previously spacious park and farmland, strained resources such as water and electricity and created denser traffic and highways. Where people live in the inner city, the commute to the CBD, where most jobs are situated, is smaller. This relieves pollution as commutes become shorter, and combats the need for public transport to run to outer suburbs. Another argument in favour of this, although contested in some schools of thought, is that apartment living is much more sustainable than living in large houses in the suburbs. Apartments are easier to cool and heat, and are insulated by the apartments either side, compared to a house with a much larger surface area completely detached from its neighbours.

However, some suggest that vertical sprawl, as a development method, is near impossible to maintain. High rise buildings are notoriously expensive to purchase and will often play to wealthier buyers, and as demand increases with population growth and their cost of living increases, inevitably those with lower incomes will be forced into outer suburbs. Furthermore, rural land on the outskirts of the city is worth more as housing development, which may compel housing developers to usurp any vertical sprawl approach a government might choose to take. It is also worth noting that even from a lifestyle perspective, there are some that will always prefer a backyard and spacious living, even if it has a longer commute.

Ultimately, there is a range of approaches to managing population growth in Melbourne. Whether or not vertical sprawl begets urban sprawl, or whether transport infrastructure schemes are effective in improving Melbourne, this is a debate that needs to happen if we are to maintain our position as one of the world’s most liveable cities.