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  • Writer's pictureDavid

What has driven the relocation of industrial land away from the waterfront? Is this sustainable?

The NSW Government maintains a highly useful website called "Six Maps". As part of this website, there is a feature that shows aerial images of Sydney from 1943. I would recommend anyone interested in geography and urban planning to have a look at them for historical reference. One of the most interesting attributes of these images to me, is the fact that almost all of Sydney's industrial land in 1943 was around the waterfront (especially Sydney Harbour) against almost none today.

The images below show the differences between the Pyrmont/Darling Harbour/Ultimo area between 1943 and close to present day.

We can see the presence of many more industrial buildings, being in close proximity to what was then a working port for freight ships. There were also strong rail connections into and out of the port. Today there is additional housing and greater emphasis on commercial/entertainment/tourism uses.

This post looks at the factors that have driven the relocation of industrial land away from the waterfront and whether it remains a sensible policy going forward.

My last post looked at energy density and how it has affected land use. The below table shows the energy efficiency of various transport methods. As is shown below, shipping is by far the most energy efficient way of transporting goods, followed by rail. Trucking is in comparison to shipping and trains, an extremely inefficient method of freight transport over long distances, with an energy efficiency up to 80 times lower.

While oil began as a significant source of the world's energy in the mid to late 19th century, coal was still by far a larger source in 1943. With only around half of the energy density of oil, there were greater limits on it's ability to transport goods large distances. It is oil that has enabled trucking to replace horses on roads for transport, although coal did enable steam trains for some freight. The first Sydney electric train, which began operating in 1926 and the former electric tram network ran primarily on coal fired power stations. The electric tram network was shut down and replaced largely with diesel powered buses following WW2.

Prior to coal, we were largely limited to wind powered sailing ships and horses for transport, hence we can see the necessity of freight related uses being close to the water. This is probably the main reason why all of the large cities in Australia are located adjacent to the coast, as we have a lack of navigable inland waterways.

Basically, the main factor that has allowed the relocation of industrial land inland, reliant on roads has been the availability of cheap, energy-dense energy in the form of oil (diesel). In roads, an extremely energy inefficient form of transport is able to account for 30.4% of freight transport based on Australian government statistics.

National Freight Task (tonne-kilometres by mode), 2013-2014. Source Australian Government

Below shows an image of what is currently described as Sydney's largest industrial estate - The Smithfield-Wetherill Park Industrial Estate. It is located well inland - approximately 12km from Sydney Harbour, the nearest navigable waterway. It is almost completely reliant on road transport, with the M4, M7 and Cumberland Highway being located nearby, although a small section in the southeast corner is located in proximity to the southern railway line.

Source: Six Maps

It is likely that market forces combined with diesel fuel and trucks, in addition to government planning have played a large role in moving industrial land away from the harbour. Trucks do offer many advantages in terms of flexibility and direct door-to-door transport over other modes. Many would argue that there have been huge benefits to tourism and amenity in the inner city from relocating the trucks, noise, pollution associated with industry away from the CBD and high density residential areas. Darling Harbour is now one of Sydney's main tourist attractions, with it's redevelopment having been a government led project from the 1980s. Many of us do like living close to the water, which is probably a product of our evolution.

Oil is a finite resource. Currently about two-thirds of the world's remaining conventional oil is in the middle east, and 80% of conventional in OPEC nations (Friedemann 2021). The percentage of heavier oils eg. at grades of <=35° API, useful for producing diesel and not only lighter fractions such as petrol and kerosene/jet fuel would probably be even greater. Many of these nations have their own booming populations, likely to accelerate their own demand for oil and lessen the likelihood of continued mass exports. The population of Saudi Arabia was only 9.69 million in 1980, although had reached 34.81 million in 2020. Iraq 13.6 million in 1980 - 40.22 million in 2020, Iran 38.6 million in 1980 - 83.99 million in 2020. Many are countries that the Australian government and other western countries have been at war with or have imposed sanctions against. It can't be ruled out in the future that middle eastern and other OPEC countries with remaining plentiful oil resources may seek to prioritise their oil exports to allies and partner countries that they perceive to be "friendly" and that the world order may be different to that of today.

Will electric trucks allow us to eliminate the need for diesel and allow industrial areas totally reliant on trucking to remain viable? There is currently a lot of excitement over the potential to replace internal combustion engine cars with battery ones. Cars are a nice to have device, although they are not essential to society in the way that trucks are. Heavy-duty diesel-engine trucks (agricultural, mining, logging, construction, garbage, cement, 18-wheelers, and more) are essential for doing the actual work of our fossil-fueled civilisation. Without them, no goods would be delivered, no food grown, nothing manufactured, no garbage picked up, no minerals mined, no concrete hauled, no metals smelted, and more. If trucks stopped running, petrol stations, grocery stores, factories, pharmacies, and manufacturers would shut down within a week and civilization would end (Friedemann 2016).

Trucks that matter can haul 30 tonnes of goods and weigh 40 times more than an average car. Batteries scaled up from cars to trucks are far too heavy. For example, a truck capable of going 1000 kilometres hauling 27,000kg, would need a battery weighing 25,000kg, and carry only 2000kg of cargo (den Boer et al. 2013) that would take 12 hours or more to recharge. Basic problem is the far inferior energy density of lithium ion batteries vs diesel fuel. Energy density of a lithium-ion battery is 0.36–0.875 MJ/kg, diesel fuel 45.6 MJ/kg. Perhaps at some point in the future, lighter or more energy dense batteries will be invented, although lithium is already the third lightest element on the periodic table, meaning that future gains are likely to be limited.

Based on the above, it's possible that some electric trucks may be viable in the future, however they will only be capable of carrying much lower volumes of goods shorter distances and much more expensively. (Hydrogen is a separate topic of discussion, which I do not have time to go into here, although others have).

The layout and location of most of our modern industrial areas in basically a long term, all-in bet on continued availability of cheap, plentiful diesel fuel in the decades to come. Perhaps we will win that bet, although retaining what little industrial land we have adjoining ports and waterways would make sense. Failing that, on or near railway lines would be the next best option.

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