Transport Priorities in Sydney
While a massive $45B is being funnelled into WestConnex and associated roads, a paltry $60M/year is celebrated for spending on bike infrastructure while enforcing draconian fines. Active infrastructure for walking and biking comes at a low cost with vast benefits to health, local and city economies, jobs, and traffic congestion. It’s high time the state government resets its focus on public good to fund projects that deliver good value for money, return urban space to people instead of cars, prioritise human activities, and increase public transport options to expand the currently limited capacity.
Fix WestConnex and Make Sydney a Place for People
A few weeks ago I was riding my pushbike along a familiar route in North Sydney when a tradie accelerated past me in his ute with less than a metre of space. Startled, I was neither impressed nor happy. After I conveyed my feelings to him, he pulled onto the shoulder, flung his door open, leapt out, and tried to pull me from my bicycle. The baseless defence for his morally-justified behaviour was that he gave me plenty of space from where he mistakenly believed I was supposed to be. Thankfully, I fared better than a friend of mine in a separate incident who was repeatedly punched in the face by a car driver until a bystander jumped in to save his life. Now I’m no stranger when it comes to road aggression, but this was a stark reminder that perceived safety has always been the primary obstacle for friends and family to saddle up and ride a bike in Sydney.
There are numerous safety reasons why people on bikes can’t always keep left, and the law gives bike riders the right to cycle safely. In any case, such violent and dangerous behaviour from those operating a heavy vehicle is never acceptable.
The recurrence of such incidents begs the question, is this the kind of culture and society we want to perpetuate?With unprecedented spending on massive road projects in the city, we are inevitably encouraging further car use, exacerbating the issue. Or should we seek a future for our city that moves towards a future where our children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews can safely ride to school, enjoying the outdoors, and staying healthy? The answer must be to prioritise human life by investing in efficient solutions via public and active transport infrastructure.
The existing culture is hostile towards cycling. Even Australian-native, professional cyclist, and Tour de France winner, Cadel Evans, is among those who find Sydney too intimidating to cycle in. Whilst the City of Sydney delivers great initiatives to overcome this barrier from courses for new riders and personalised route advice to expanding the bike path network, efforts have often been thwarted by the state government. Case in point was tearing up the well-used College Street cycleway in 2015, despite evidence and protests that it would negatively impact the safety of cyclists and wouldn’t improve traffic flow. Additional obstacles include the controversial laws in 2016 that increased fines by 500%, which consequently saw regular ridership significantly decrease. In order to improve our transport situation, we must demand better from our public servants.
Overview of Meetings
In September, I attended a CityTalks event hosted by the City of Sydney, called Cities Taking The Lead. This was a forward-thinking event which provided great ideas and solutions demonstrated by other global cities. The speakers cited approaches in which cities have been building resiliency and addressing issues such as inequality, climate change, and housing affordability through sustainability which Sydney would do well to emulate sooner rather than later.
Following on from this, in October the City of Sydney hosted a public meeting about how to Fix WestConnex, a local motorway scheme currently under construction in Sydney, stretching 33 km and affecting many suburbs. Delivery of the scheme is based on poor economics and comes with serious warnings from experts about the associated health implications. Additionally, it is shrouded in secrecy, unlikely to alleviate congestion, and sacrifices a generation of transport spending. Costs will rise to $45 billion dollars considering all the stages, interchanges, entries and exits, while supporting only a small portion of Sydney’s daily trips. It is we as taxpayers who will have to bear the burden for the price of the project.
The City of Sydney has put forward a good alternative for Stage 3 of WestConnex, that limits the impact on the greater community. The original justification for WestConnex was to improve access to the Sydney Airport and Port Botany for cars and trucks, yet the current plans for the roadway stay eight kilometres from the area, not to be connected for at least 6 years and additional billions in costs.
Why Should We Care?
We heard from a variety of speakers including the Lord Mayor, University professors, industry experts, and community representatives. They covered topics such as the health impacts of pollution, repercussions of toll expenses, proper ways to service and grow cities, the economics of WestConnex, the social fabric of urban life, and effects on everyday people. They made emotional appeals on behalf of everyday people and showed how the numbers don’t stack up with tolls, traffic flow, or value for money.
Emissions and Health Dangers
Professor Paul Torzillo, Head of Respiratory Medicine at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, spoke extensively on how increased traffic and associated pollution will affect the population with both acute effects and long-term impacts.
The emissions are a combination of fumes such as carbon monoxide, and particulate matter from road and tyre wear. In many ways, the makeup is similar to cigarettes, except these come with filters. More exposure means increased risks of heart disease, heart attacks, stroke, asthma and other respiratory diseases, especially from the small particulate matter that gets into lungs and the bloodstream.
While emissions will be heightened significantly closer to the stacks, interchanges, exits, and entries, impacts will still be felt throughout the city as the emissions disperse. The current plan is to place unfiltered, exhaust stacks from the WestConnex tunnels throughout the route, often next to schools.
Back in 2008, Gladys Berejiklian stood up for filtering the stacks along the Lane Cove Tunnel in her own electorate to avoid impacting children. So why can’t the Premier now stand up for children in every electorate?
Apart from the effect that emissions have, the automobile itself is the leading cause of accidental death in Australia. Building more motorways will only increase this tragic number.
“Cities Are for People, Not Thoroughfares for Cars”
We heard from Elizabeth Farrelly, Sydney-based author, columnist, and associate professor, who gave her perspective on the project and its potential impacts. In her view, the city is often viewed in strictly quantitative terms, seen only as a place for making money and getting through quickly. While this is true to an extent, perhaps more important are the qualitative aspects of a city. It is a place of dwelling, with beauty, heritage, sweetness, charm, trees, and grace. WestConnex threatens the city’s social fabric as the project rips people from their homes, destroys heritage housing, and pollutes neighbourhoods and schools with unfiltered stacks. Furthermore, it threatens to further disrupt the social lives of the people who call this city home, by restricting people’s movement through determination of where and how people can walk and cycle with ease and comfort.
Speakers at the event discussed the impacts on people’s lives when homes have been forcibly acquired for lower than market value, damage to neighbouring houses where the Sydney Motorway Corporaton (SMC) won’t accept liability, and ongoing disruptions from the operation of the new motorway. For these people, it almost seems a modern extension of the beloved Australian film, The Castle, where Darryl and his family fight against compulsory acquisition of their home to make room for the Melbourne Airport expansion. If we rooted for his family in this classic film, shouldn’t we be supporting those being forced from their homes throughout the proposed WestConnex corridor encompassing Rozelle, Haberfield, St Peters, and more suburbs surely to follow?
Around the world, in place of building motorways through cities, forward-thinking leaders have been pulling out existing highways due to effects on neighbourhoods and traffic. Successful removals include the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco, Cheonggyecheon in Seoul, Harbor Drive in Portland, and Park East in Milwaukee, which helped to revitalise parts of their city while decreasing congestion. This is due to the phenomenon of induced demand wherein building new roads encourages greater car use, such that traffic stays the same whether a route has two or five lanes.
Especially in light of climate change and the likelihood of 50°C days for Sydney by the end of the century, continuing to build more roads to encourage greater car traffic and associated pollution instead of following the City of Sydney’s long-term strategy to adapt to climate change is even worse than burying one’s proverbial-ostrich head in the sand.
“Can’t We Do Better Than Spending Our Current Legacy on a Future That Is No Longer Relevant?”
Professor Peter Newman, of the Sustainability Policy Institute at Curtin University, spoke about why we don’t need freeways, specifically citing similar yet defeated projects. The Perth Freight Link and East-West Tunnel Link in Melbourne, together with WestConnex were brainchildren of Tony Abbott. In these cases, the general populace wanted public transport solutions, not road projects. These people continued to campaign and protest against the new roads until they became pivotal election issues which ousted the incumbents with parties that halted these road projects.
Newman’s research and work with other urban planners described in the Theory of Urban Fabrics have demonstrated an alternative system for understanding city infrastructure, as three overlapping city fabrics. The innermost walking section is composed of walking, cycling, trams, and basic buses (5-8 km), surrounded by a transit section with light rail, metro/train, express buses (8-20 km), and enclosed with a car fabric extending the city further (15-40 km). The ideal arrangement would be a polycentric city, with multiple connected, urban centres in a region. Well-built walking and transit fabrics supporting walking, cycling, and public transport modes reduce reliance on the car fabric and its impacts on the city.
Internal NSW government analysis of the WestConnex project showed that congestion will continue to worsen even after the motorway is built. The underlying analysis certainly furthers the question as to what value such a massive expense is actually adding. If the government was serious about reducing congestion in the city, it should consider that we need to have fewer cars in cities to reduce traffic and air pollution, as having cleaner cars alone wouldn’t achieve these goals.
At present, major cities throughout the US have allocated as much as 40% of urban land space for car use while London still uses 24%. As demonstrated by Los Angeles, which has the highest road capacity per capita in the US, building more roads and highways translates to an increased use of private transport and associated congestion problems. The real way to improve transport is by supporting mass transit and active transport options, with various positive knock-on effects ranging from increased productivity to health benefits.
When considering car parking requirements, the spatial inefficiencies become magnified even further. Looking around cities it is easy to see how parked cars are clogging up existing infrastructure. People can be quick to criticise the dockless bike share schemes in Sydney and Melbourne as bikes are occasionally parked in inconvenient locations about town, yet turn a blind eye to the valuable city space and transit infrastructure consumed by volumes of cars lining the streets on a massive scale. To put this into perspective, on average, cars sit idle 92% of the time, meaning public space subsidises the storage of private property most of the time.
Adding to their inefficient use of space, the average car park requires 28 square metres of asphalt, the equivalent of a New York City studio apartment. This is then compounded by daily habits which require the same space away from home, at work, supermarkets, gyms, cafes and restaurants. While the original intention of providing parking was to improve the quality of life for city residents, the effect has become the opposite, as parking spaces have eaten away at cities where humans would previously walk, live, play, and work.
“The Government Says It Has Nothing to Hide, but If It Doesn’t, Then Why Is It Hiding so Much?”
Sunil Badami, a concerned homeowner and parent, spoke on behalf of the experience in his suburb, Rozelle, a place which he had hoped would be his family’s forever home. He spoke with concern about the number of councils and schools to be affected by both the construction and operation of the roadways. He highlighted the level of secrecy and biased aims of the state government with these projects.
In 2015, the Baird government transferred control of the WestConnex project to the recently created SMC, a move that hid the project from public scrutiny by removing it from the reach of freedom of information laws and parliamentary enquiries.
Earlier this year, leaked documents from Transport for NSW revealed an internal directive to ignore alternative options to a toll road when preparing a business for an F6 extension. This decision-making methodology for publicly funded transport projects, demonstrates that infrastructure investment is being manipulated in favour of a pre-determined choice.
Not surprisingly, the government has now announced the anticipated F6 toll road extension and its commitment to the first three stages, without releasing its options analysis to the public. Meanwhile, the controversy of the fourth stage which would include acquiring 60 hectares of the Royal National Park (the world’s second oldest national park) or acquiring 460 homes in Sydney’s south has been put on the backburner. The likelihood is that this controversial stage will be pushed through once the project is already underway and it becomes essential for completion.
Poorly-Grounded Financial Justification
We heard from Louise de Plater, an Ashville resident and legal officer for the Transport Workers Union. De Plater discussed toll pricing and the greater impacts of these costs on the general population. She discussed that current toll pricing agreements vary arbitrarily from one road and entity to another. While some have fixed costs per usage, others are charged per km, with all types usually increasing by an annual rate of at least 4%.
At a time of low wage growth and increasing living costs, the ever-increasing WestConnex tolls will compound affordability issues for working commuters or owner-operators, who have no other choice than to drive in order to earn their living. Freight toll rates have also been arbitrarily set, with rates 3x more expensive than cars. Ultimately this additional cost of transport will be reflected in the price of goods.
The Australian Financial Review adressed the WestConnex business case a year ago to see how all the numbers stacked up. The findings indicated critical issues with traffic modelling, investment, and value for money. WestConnex will result in a traffic increase on other roads and create a knock-on requirement for additional road infrastructure to be built to cope with subsequent congestion in other areas. Further analysis reveals that the time savings marketed as the key benefit arising from WestConnex, are highly optimistic. People won’t choose to pay tolls for minimal time savings, as demonstrated with the Lane Cove Tunnel and Cross City Tunnel.
Investors and banks have been difficult to entice as they’ve been stung on previous toll roads such as Brisbane’s Airport Link, Clem Jones Tunnel, Sydney’s Cross City Tunnel, and Lane Cove Tunnel. These projects all ended up in administration when tolling revenues and traffic were far less than required to be viable. Instead, WestConnex is currently being supported by state and government funds, to be sold off after being built for potentially less than its actual value.
The people of Sydney are asking for better public transport services allowing better bang for your buck, than a monstrous road which primarily benefits a single, private entity. Even Infrastructure Australia has been asking why the NSW government didn’t undergo “a more robust analysis” and consider “a broader set of options,” before stubbornly settling on building the WestConnex. Infrastructure appraisals should be carried out adopting a mode-neutral method, with a proper justification for proposed projects, not just a funding analysis.
Infrastructure Lessons From Global Cities
Building more inefficient roads won’t solve our problems, but public and active transport can, as we’ve learned from other cities as they’ve moved in the right direction toward becoming sustainable, resilient cities. The good news here is that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel and can learn from the likes of Oslo, Denmark, Amsterdam, Vancouver, Tokyo, Paris and other sustainable cities.
- Build reliable and integrated public transport, including cross-radial train lines
- Design mobility for people rather than mobility for cars
- Reprioritise urban space allocation – reduce on-street parking, car travel lanes, and speeds
- Build and connect bike paths for great value and low investment – reduce congestion, improve health, create jobs, boost city and local economies
- Wider footpaths, priority signalling, and overhangs to encourage city walkability
- Invest wisely in transport according to independent advice using a problem definition, proper options assessment, and a network solution approach
So What Do We Do Now?
As eloquently put by Sunil Badami, “If we all do something, we might get something, but if we do nothing, that’s what we’ll all end up with.” For the sake of your children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews please consider the impact this will have on them, the city they will live in, and the lifestyles they will lead. If you can take some time today and do one thing, that will be the start of making a change in our city. Like Darryl Kerrigan in The Castle, we have to fight for what we value.
- Bring forward Metro West plans to provide a good public transport alternative to driving
- Connect the City West Link to the Eastern Distributor via the Cross City Tunnel
- Upgrade the A3 connection to route trucks more directly to the port rather than via Rozelle and St Peters
- Realign the M5 to directly connect Port Botany and the Airport now
Drop a Line to Political Leadership
Send a brief message to the politicians calling the shots and let them know you want better value for your tax dollars in building a healthier, vibrant city. Tell them you want more public transport and improved safety for cycling and walking to meet this vision. Demand that they provide appropriate transparency and serve public interests, not private entities.
- Gladys Berejiklian, NSW Premier
- Melinda Pavey, Minister for Roads, Maritime, and Freight
- Andrew Constance, Minister for Transport and Infrastructure
- Stuart Ayres, Minister for WestConnex
- Your local councillor
Join the conversation, keep up to date, and jump in alongside demonstrations to voice your opinion. This helps to send the message that these works are not wanted by the public.
Even a core group of protesters of 30 to 40 people on an ongoing basis, such as with the East-West Link, can cause enough difficulty for a project to be discontinued.
It should also be encouraging, that the High Court recently upheld the right to protest as a freedom of political communication. This showed the Tasmanian anti-protesting laws of 2014 to be in breach of the constitution, similar to NSW legislation which was introduced thereafter.