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Sydney's population grows by almost 1000 a week but the train system is at a standstill, the buses crawl at horse-and-buggy pace through the CBD, and the transport duo, Costa and Scully, are implacably opposed to light rail.
It's enough to make an urbanite weep. The Government's successful policy of urban consolidation has not been matched by a workable public transport policy.
The Government encouraged and coerced us into living close together in apartments and townhouses on the expectation we could leave our cars behind and catch the train or bus. But it hasn't worked out.
Any self-respecting, long-serving Labor government should leave as its legacy a first-class public transport system. The Carr Government's legacy will be the Eastern Distributor, the Cross-City Tunnel, the M5 East, the Western Sydney Orbital and the M4 East. Just like a Liberal government, it will be remembered for its new roads.
As well, it has engineered Sydney into a densely-packed city in the interests of efficient land use. We were told governments found it easier to provide water, sewerage and especially public transport if we lived closer together, and not in an urban sprawl. The old way, of backyards, plenty of space, and two cars in the garage was an environmental menace.
More of us live cheek by jowl just as the Carr Government wanted us to do. We watch old residential neighbourhoods demolished and blocks of units rise in their place. Vacant sites are put to use, not as parks, but for medium-density housing. We can't complain. In fast-growing Sydney, people need housing as close to the city as possible. But the compact between government and citizens was "you accept the flats and we will look after your neighbourhood". The compact is breaking down. The deal is proving one-sided. Urban consolidation has moved apace quickly, outstripping the ability of the rail or bus system, or the responsible ministers, to cope. Millions live on top of each other - but they still drive their cars because usually it is quicker than the alternative; or they play Russian roulette with an ailing public transport system.
In my neck of the urban jungle, two huge residential developments are poised to bring an extra 3500 people to the neighbourhood, and over 2000 cars within the next five years.
As an urbanite who grew to love dense cities during three years in New York, I support consolidation. The more the merrier. But New York had a subway system that worked, and hardly anyone I knew owned a car. Many, like me at the time, could not even drive one. Everyone used public transport.
Sydney, on the other hand, has a Roads Minister, Carl Scully, who calls light rail "little more than a pipe dream"; and a Transport Services Minister, Michael Costa, who also opposes light rail, dumps heavy rail projects, suspends future expansion of the train system, dumps the integrated ticketing plan, can't get the trains running on time, and adds new motorway projects to an already impressive list. It has a Treasurer, Michael Egan, wedded to budget surpluses, and opposed to borrowing - as any business would do - for infrastructure projects such as train lines. And it has a Premier whose name will be synonymous with having made Sydney more car-dependent.
When I look nervously south to where the new metropolis is rising far from a train station, I imagine the cars that ate Sydney. I see them pouring down the avenues and back streets. I see, too, the hardy commuters, like myself, persisting with buses, caught in traffic jams, and crawling through the CBD. I see bus drivers in an ever longer line on Elizabeth Street, or near the Queen Victoria Building, jostling each other for a place to let their passengers off. And I wonder how much longer the trip from Central to Circular Quay can take: 12 minutes before the Olympics, 22 minutes now, and sometimes 40.
Costa and Scully like buses, especially noisy, smelly ones. (They're not buying more of the quieter compressed gas buses because diesel is cheaper.) But you can barely pack another bus into the city in peak hour. And it won't be long before bus commuters follow the lead of hapless train travellers and stage a revolt.
It is easy to build tollways; private companies have footed most of the decade's $10 billion bill; and when people are killed on them, it is seen as their own fault not the Government's. It is harder to build an efficient public transport system, or the NSW Government makes it seem so. Other cities manage it. In the recent US election, the car-addicted citizens of Denver voted for a sales tax to raise $US8 billion for new light rail lines. And dozens of other car-crazy American cities have recently embraced public transport systems. The US Federal Government, unlike our own, now directs money to urban transit instead of national highways. Closer to home, the Western Australian Government has reversed the old ratio and is now spending $5 on public transport for every $1 on roads.
In NSW, the problem is not beyond redemption. Some smart people in the bureaucracy are doing their best, and Craig Knowles, the Minister for Infrastructure and Planning, is not a lost cause. But after nine years of Labor, public transport is getting worse not better; Neanderthal statements on light rail make it hard to feel confident of change. For the millions of us packed in tight, the Government has not lived up to its side of the deal.
Sydney Morning Herald
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