- Australians have been swapping the city for the regions in the last ten months but the trend may not be set to last.
- Urban planner and UNSW professor Shane Geha believes the pandemic hasn’t changed the population fundamentals of the country, and estimates only regions may only retain 5% of those who have made the move.
- However, the biggest issue that remains with Australia’s largest cities is congestion with public transport needing to be rebooted to make cities work.
- Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.
A global pandemic may have sent some of Australia’s city dwellers packing, but those who left the city for fresh air, affordable housing, and a change of scenery may find themselves returning sooner than they think.
The latest provisional ABS figures confirm that cities lost 11,200 people due to internal migration between June and September alone – the largest population loss on record.
The potential reasons for moving away were many. High-density city living made less sense to residents confined to their homes, with state capitals, particularly Sydney and Melbourne, home to the lion’s share of the coronavirus cases in the country.
Remote and flexible work made it all possible. But while many speculate whether the phenomenon may change our cities forever, planners are highly sceptical.
“That migration trend is real, but it’s momentary, and it is transient,” urban planner and UNSW professor Shane Geha told Business Insider Australia.
“The fundamentals of why 70% of Australians live in six places are still the same. None of that has changed or will change in my view, in the next five years.”
The pull of cities remains too great for most
Yet even if the change is momentary, it has had a significant impact on regional property markets.
Median prices in Noosa, Queensland, jumped more than 15% in 2020. Byron Bay, Wollongong, Newcastle and the Gold Coast weren’t far behind, with prices rising 14%, 12%, 9% and 8% respectively as Australians either moved to lifestyle locations and nearby second-tier cities.
While Geha acknowledges the quality of regional life is a major drawcard for some, there are too many reasons for most people to abandon cities altogether.
“There are a lot of people that have already temporarily relocated but they are generally people who are either retired, or have no genuine needs to be in the city for anything substantive. But that’s not the majority,” he said.
“Most people are primarily drawn to employment opportunities which are far greater in Sydney than they are in Wagga Wagga, and they also want the other attributes cities can offer like good schools for their kids.”
On the employment front, the idea that anyone can work from wherever they want from here on out is overblown according to Geha.
He believes that ultimately higher productivity and a need for face-to-face contact will gradually compel employers to call their staff back as virus fears become subdued.
Early signs of that thesis are perhaps already showing up. The latest survey results from the Property Council of Australia shows Melbourne more than doubled in-person workforces from December to January, with office occupancy jumping to 31%. Likewise Sydney offices are nearly half full and slowly ticking higher.
He predicts that it’ll be a smaller component who can make regional living work for them, estimating that around 5% will manage to stay.
Major challenges ahead to make cities work again
But it’s not as simple as calling time on the regional experiment and recommence livings like it’s 2019.
“One of the hardest bits will be public transport because without public transport, the office spaces and the city doesn’t really work,” Geha said.
“We cannot go back to long periods of congestion with everyone spending hours and hours in a car so we need to get public transport running again.”
The data points to that very problem. In Sydney, the number of trips made on public transport in December nearly halved on the year prior, as residents ditched trains, buses and ferries. Partly the trend could have been driven by concerns over virus transmission, while working from home was likely also a factor.
Instead many may choose to drive. Road operator Transurban’s half-year results on Thursday showed Sydney traffic is up 8.7% on the previous six months. Other cities however, like Melbourne and Brisbane, remain down on normal figures.
Geha believes the vaccines or the development of rapid testing will eventually fix the transport dilemma, but that – in the meantime – it will be slow going trying to return to normal.
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