Moving on with transport

Train and a woman on a mopedDr Garry Glazebrook, Senior Lecturer at UTS’s School of the Built Environment and Transport Policy Manager for City of Sydney, looks at the unique challenges facing Australia’s busiest city.

Cities around the world are grappling with how to move their citizens sustainably. More than half of the world’s population now lives in cities; transport is almost totally based on oil; and oil is reaching its global peak (maximum rate of extraction). This is now an urgent and critical task.

Attitudes are changing. In the United States, public transport has been growing faster than car traffic for a decade, and the building of new urban freeways has essentially ended. Indeed, some inner-city freeways have been pulled down. Growing awareness of peak oil and the link between exercise, obesity and health means that the way in which transport dollars are spent is now seen in a wider context of strategic security and health budgets for the future.

In Australia, too, cycling and public transport use is growing much faster than car use, and all major cities are planning significant upgrades to their public transport systems and networks of cycleways. The Gold Coast is building a new light rail system; Brisbane has built extensive busways and “green bridges”; Melbourne is building new rail links; and Perth is planning an inner suburb light rail network to complement its successful suburban rail system. Brisbane will shortly follow Melbourne in introducing a public bicycle hire scheme, similar to those operating in European cities.

Greater Sydney is one of the world’s more car-dependent cities, with high car ownership and a huge urban footprint. Cars currently account for 80 per cent of travel, with 15 per cent by public transport and the rest by walking or cycling. Reducing our reliance on cars will not be easy, and will require a change in individual behaviour patterns as well as a shift from road investment to public transport, footpaths and cycleways. It will also require our cities to become more pedestrian-friendly, with changes to the way we design and build our cities.

While Greater Sydney is highly dependent on cars, our historic city centre, with the biggest concentration of employment, educational, entertainment, cultural and other facilities in the country, is actually almost a model of sustainable transport. Three-quarters of peak-period trips to the city are by public transport, 11 per cent by walking and cycling, and only 14 per cent by car.

But the combination of streets laid out in convict times and a skyline increasingly resembling Manhattan gives rise to unique transport challenges. At present, more than 1000 buses converge on the city centre in the busiest hour each weekday, jostling for limited street space with pedestrians, cars, taxis, delivery vehicles and an increasing number of cyclists.

Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore’s strategy Sustainable Sydney 2030 draws on local and international experts, such as Danish urban designer Jan Gehl, and focuses on planning for people rather than for cars. Gehl’s vision includes the transformation of George Street into a boulevard for pedestrians and light rail, connecting the Circular Quay precinct with a new square opposite Town Hall and a revitalised Central Station precinct.

Implementing the vision will mean redesigning bus routes, changing traffic signal priority to favour pedestrians, reducing speed limits across the city centre to 40kph and modifying traffic flows, all while maintaining the commercial viability of Australia’s global city centre.

The recent Transforming Sydney memorandum of understanding between City of Sydney and the State Government outlines cooperative planning and implementation mechanisms between the two levels of government.

The complexity of the task is immense. For example, Sydney currently has 192 bus routes serving the city centre, with large volumes of buses running through the city on north-south streets such as York, George, Castlereagh and Elizabeth Streets. Despite the introduction of bus lanes, the sheer volume of buses causes long delays and contributes to congestion, while also impacting on the amenity for pedestrians. In addition, the need to layover buses between runs means much of the street space near Circular Quay is packed with buses.

Light rail can allow some buses to terminate at the edges of the city centre, and others to run through, by providing a convenient, legible and environmentally friendly means of travelling north-south through the city centre. It can also lay the foundation of an extended light rail network serving the inner suburbs. But to achieve this, re-routing and rationalising buses is necessary, as well as a fully integrated fare and ticketing system so people won’t be deterred from transferring between trains, buses, ferries and light rail. It also requires installing the necessary underground pipelines for the city’s tri-generation plants, which will provide electricity, heating and cooling to CBD buildings.

Another example is the difficulty of catering for the growing band of cyclists approaching the city centre, which has increased two-and-a-half-fold in the past seven years. The City is installing a 200km network of cycle lanes throughout the local government area to accommodate this trend.

Car-sharing is also on the agenda, to reduce pressure on scarce on-street parking. In the past six years, more than 4500 people and businesses in the city have joined car-share schemes, which use less than 200 vehicles.

Major effort is also required on the metropolitan scale to double the number of people using public transport and quintuple the number of people cycling. If State Government targets are not met, Sydney is likely to grind to a halt. The option of simply building more roads is no longer viable. Space on the surface is at a premium, so most new roads have to be underground and the high costs of tunnelling and increasing user reluctance to pay ever greater tolls makes private finance for toll roads difficult.

In Sydney, the challenge now is to design the best integrated public transport systems, and then to fund them. We have been fortunate to live off the brilliance of Bradfield, who gave us the Harbour Bridge and underground rail system. As a consequence we have long been the public transport capital of the country.

But we cannot live on that legacy forever. In addition to meeting sustainability challenges, Sydney faces growing competition from other cities in Australia as well as the likes of Singapore and Hong Kong, which have extensive, modern and efficient mass transit systems. Surveys carried out for The Sydney Morning Herald’s public inquiry by the UTS Centre for the Study of Choice found strong public support for a shift to sustainable transport solutions, and a willingness to fund this through carbon pricing, congestion charges on roads, higher fares and land-based taxes. The challenge now will be to convert changing public attitudes and behaviour into effective public investment strategies.