+ Unlike Perth, Gold Coast is investing in light rail to help connect its urban centres.

Increasingly, cities will need to form strong ‘knowledge centres’ around institutions such as universities to be successful. These centres must grow by becoming walkable and accessible to public transit. In the Bay Area, UC Berkeley is a focal point for knowledge and learning, and helps support a town centre. UCB is anchored by a Bay Area Rapid Transit Station. In Zurich, Zurich University has become part of the fabric of the city and is exceptionally well served by transit services. Why can’t more cities emulate these models?

Perth is trying to adopt this ‘knowledge centres’ approach, setting out ‘specialised centres’ at the University of Western Australia (UWA) QEII Medical Centre, Murdoch University and Curtin University’s Bentley campus. Anchored by major universities and/or hospitals, these locations can form new centres for Perth if they get the right level of transit access.

How does this process work? Major knowledge, education, research and medical institutions draw in ancillary activities such as commerce, private-sector research, retail and entertainment. With appropriate land use zoning, planning requirements, and the right incentives, these areas can also contain significant numbers of homes – reducing demand for housing in less sustainable and more car-dependent locations.

Ideally, specialised centres that begin to reach their potential can then spawn ancillary centres –producing a ‘pearls on a string’ urban system of thriving, interlinked areas. Typically for a North American and Australian city, Perth is not enjoying these benefits because transit investment is insufficient.

Fixed-line transit such as trams and trains, gives the market confidence that a minimum level of service will be provided. Australian cities including Gold Coast, Sydney and Canberra have recognised the city-shaping role of light rail and are investing in this mode while Adelaide and Melbourne are considering supplementing their existing tram systems. Meanwhile, the Western Australian State Government has deferred the first stage of Perth’s MAX light rail system at the same time as spending hundreds of millions on new road projects.

In 2013, Curtin University published a masterplan covering its entire Bentley Campus. It sets an agenda for transformation of the campus from suburban to urban. By 2031 or soon after, Greater Curtin is expected to accommodate around 6,700 staff, 44,200 students and 13,700 non-academic jobs. Every day, around 73,000 visitors are expected to access Greater Curtin.

Importantly, the Greater Curtin project is forecast to generate around AU$4.5bn in economic activity for the state. To succeed, it needs non-car access to exploit its inner-ring location. Yet there is currently no timing or funding for a light rail service to connect it to Perth’s central business district, other knowledge centres or the city’s existing metro rail network.

Perth’s future hinges on these specialised centres. So transit investment in them should be a higher priority. Without it, I think my city’s regional, national and international competitiveness could suffer.