The 30-minute city: How smart city technology will get us there

The road to the 30-minute city: How smart city technology will get us thereIn March this year, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull shared a dream with various members of the media. That dream was a branch of the smart city, termed the 30-minute city — the idea that your daily commute would take no longer than watching a standard sitcom (ironically a thing many people like to do on their commute).

According to The Conversation, 30 minutes is the ideal amount of time commuters across the world are prepared to spend travelling per day — half an hour to work, half an hour back home. Mr Turnbull acknowledged that at present people are treating their communities, like ‘dormitory suburbs’ and that government has a duty to think carefully about the direction our cities would take so that people could create fuller lives for themselves.

The idea is undeniably attractive. It’s not only about cutting down on the dreaded commute, but it involves shaping communities so that people can truly live in them. The infrastructure for new jobs, schools, hospitals and modes of transportation would need to be fully developed.

However, there are some hurdles that will prove challenging:

  • Our high density inner cities, versus our low national population density
  • Unaffordable housing prices
  • Community fears of redevelopment

And the lynch-pin of the plan, reworking our public transportation system, is also an issue historically mired in complexity.

So given these challenges, how could national, state and local governments go about making the 30-minute city a reality?

Smart cities

The notion of the 30-minute city is nestled within the broader concept of the smart city. In fact, if smart city technology is truly implemented then the 30-minute city will be a natural byproduct of this progress, because at its heart it’s about optimising processes so that greater connectivity is realised.


The 30-minute city is based on the idea of minimising daily travel time to and from work. And it’s worth pointing out that the term ‘travel’ itself is debatable. Some parties take it to mean any form of travel be it on foot, by bike or by public transport, whereas others take it to mean merely public transport or car.

For argument’s sake, if we were to use the former as the ideal, then what would need to be done to achieve this goal?

Smart traffic management

At the moment one of the biggest issues is that the majority of Australians need to drive in order to get to their destination. In 2014 a census study found that nearly two thirds of Australians drove to work while less than 10% commute to work by train, bus or walking.

Top 5 ways Australians get to work

To alleviate our roads from this burden, two key things need to happen:

  • Improved anticipation of road congestion levels for better traffic mobility
  • Making public transportation an attractive and viable solution

The good news is, there are many smart cities  who are already doing amazing things with smart traffic management.

Amsterdam traffic management

Amsterdam has implemented its own ‘virtual traffic manager’. Working across local, regional and national jurisdictions, they have implemented a system called SCM that allows any road manager to view any road within a region, or between regions, a procedure known as area-based control.

‘The technology is a combination of cameras, sensors and vehicle detection centres that feeds information to the road managers. Having a holistic view of the traffic allows the road managers to work together to optimise flow. TrafficLink uses the following example:

'If an incident happens on the southern Amsterdam ring road, the flow of traffic could be optimized by diverting traffic via the eastern ring road. This becomes problematic if the eastern ring road is jammed as well. The probability of this type of conflict increases when applied on a large scale or in complex areas. An alternative approach was chosen with SCM.'

The attraction of this approach that there isn’t a need for a significant infrastructure overhaul, the system makes use of, and optimises the routes already there. In its early stages there has already been promising improvements with  ‘vehicle hours lost’ decreasing by 10%.

USA Smart traffic light

The idea of the smart traffic light is not a new one. The first were introduced in LA in the 1980’s in the lead-up to the Olympic games. However, as Fortune points out, now mid-size cities are starting to adopt the technology and have seen enormous improvements in their traffic congestion. For example, when Tyler, Texas adopted Siemen’s smart signalling, traffic delays decreased by 22%.

If you spread this across the whole of the US, this could mean significant time and financial savings for citizens. Fortune states that: ‘Americans currently spend an average of 38 hours a year stuck in traffic, and burn nearly $2 billion in gasoline while sitting still.’

The best thing about smart signalling is that it doesn’t require excessive investment. As CEO of Siemen’s Marcus Walz comments:

‘What makes a dumb traffic pole smart is usually a small part of the investment. Just sensors, chips, and software added to existing infrastructure. Plus, the systems are modular, and can be expanded gradually.’

The road to innovation

These are just two very simple examples of how easily implemented smart city technologies can make an incredible difference in a relatively short amount of time. The other piece of the transport equation — public transport systems — will prove tougher to tackle given the amount of planning, infrastructure and investment involved.

Smart transportation systems aren’t just a road to the 30-minute city, they could play a significant part in the economical, cultural and environmental improvement of Australia.

What role do you think technology will play in bringing the dream of the 30 minute city to life? We’d love to hear your thoughts. Leave them in the comment section below.