Sydney Morning Herald

By Andrew West

HOMEBUYERS would be able to log onto a website listing the properties they are considering buying and automatically calculate the costs and time of commuting between home and work, shops and schools.

Under a system to be trialled in the United States - but also applicable to Australia, say its promoters - people in the property market would know if the cheaper price of a house on the suburban fringe was offset by higher travel costs.

The assistant secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Obama administration, Professor Raphael Bostic, told the Herald his department was ''about to commission research on what's feasible'', which could be shared with Australian policymakers.

''You want to have something that you could apply to everyone, not just to people who live in Sydney or Brisbane but for everywhere else in the country,'' he said.

Professor Bostic was in Australia this week to address a conference on the ''City of the Future'', sponsored by the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland.

The Harvard- and Stanford-educated economist, who worked for six years at the US Federal Reserve, said the introduction of a ''housing-transportation index'' - conceived by the Chicago-based Centre for Neighbourhood Technology - would allow homebuyers to make more informed choices and could even change the shape of cities.

''When people think about buying a house, they often think the only cost they need to worry about is the monthly payments,'' he said. ''But that's not true because housing costs are correlated with how close it is to the urban centre. While the cost of housing goes down the further you move away, the cost of transportation goes up.

''To think about the housing without the cost of transport means you're solving the problem with only half the information. Where you want to get to, ultimately, is a system where, when a house is for sale, it gets announced ... Maybe there's a website with a list of the community's average housing plus transportation numbers.''

The proposed website would show the average cost of a daily, weekly or monthly public transport ticket, or the cost of petrol to commute between home and work, retail centres and schools.

''We're hoping it may lead to a change in the spatial distribution of where people choose to live and ultimately affect development patterns,'' he added.

Professor Bostic also said Australia should ''leverage'' its multicultural neighbourhoods for their economic advantages. ''Sometimes ethnic enclaves are a good thing,'' he said.

''Think about immigrants when they land in a big city. These enclaves may be the best place for them as they adjust to a new city and new culture.

''I'm not sure you would want to eradicate them, but make sure they form purposefully, rather than systemically.''