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Sydney is experiencing transport gridlock. Public transport services in the CBD are overcrowded, even though train services are inadequate and in many suburbs non-existent. In response, transport plans are announced and then reannounced. New rail lines are proposed but then abandoned, and governments blame increasing costs and global financial problems.
Sound familiar? Welcome to Sydney in the early 1900s, when the city's congestion problems first emerged. The present transport debates bear a striking resemblance to those of a century ago - right down to the obsession with providing major infrastructure in the CBD and the arguments about the merits of metro-style services versus heavy rail.
Concentrating on the inner city was justifiable in the early 20th century. The CBD was ideally located for shipping, but the wide harbour and its bisected and ridged foreshores made railway construction prohibitively expensive. Tram lines rather than railways became the primary form of transport in Sydney's densely populated inner suburbs, and thousands of trams poured into the CBD's narrow streets, contributing to congestion.
Reducing this congestion, providing new transport infrastructure and modernising the railways were the challenges faced by politicians, planners and engineers of the day, including the public works engineer John Bradfield. In response he came up with the biggest and most comprehensive transport strategy the city has ever seen.
His plans for additional suburban railways were never realised, but the core of Bradfield's vision was implemented - and this was not just the building of the Harbour Bridge. Equally important was the provision of two modern underground rail lines into the heart of the city centre, integrated with electrified suburban railways at Central and the north shore.
For decades state governments lived on this legacy and failed to expand the rail network. In fact they made things worse by ripping up the trams in 1961, and replaced them with buses rather than trains, as Bradfield had intended.
The real successor to the tram was the car. The postwar population boom combined with a boom in private car ownership to push development into the city's west. This trend accelerated and the city's population horse well and truly bolted into suburbia, forever changing the dynamic of Sydney from the compact harbour-focused city of the Bradfield era.
Starting in the late 1970s, the state government revived the provision of new rail infrastructure after a 40-year pause. However, despite the city's changing population dynamics, the government again gave priority to the inner city, building the eastern suburbs railway, the airport rail link and a light rail line to the inner west.
For a second time the lion's share of public transport funding went to the inner city, as most of the plans for new suburban rail lines were again abandoned. If the Olympic Park rail link (which provides little real utility to the region) is discounted, investment in net additional public transport infrastructure in western Sydney since the late 1990s totals less than $1 billion. This compares with more than $3 billion spent in eastern Sydney on new major rail links in the same period.
Meanwhile, the city's demographic centre continues to move west; it has now reached Ermington, more than 15 kilometres from the CBD. Sydney has become two cities - one, the established eastern half, is well served with trains, buses, trams and ferries. The other, greater western Sydney, depends heavily on cars.
Development continues to expand beyond the reach of the region's limited and fragmented public transport infrastructure. As a result, families on middle to low incomes are forced to run two, three or even four cars and have to drive long hours on congested roads to work. Apart from the human costs, the resulting increase in traffic volumes and congestion is now adversely affecting western Sydney's economy.
Yet for the third time the State Government has decided to give priority to providing major infrastructure in the CBD while cancelling plans for new suburban rail lines. Plans for a rail or metro link to the north-west, already home to hundreds of thousands and earmarked for 70,000 additional dwellings, have been replaced with 170 buses. The south-west rail link, intended to serve 110,000 new homes, has been reduced to a commuter car park at Glenfield station.
In their place we have a plan for yet another CBD rail link - the Metro, the cost of which has already blown out to $5.3 billion. If it is completed, more than $8 billion will have been allocated in less than two decades for new public transport projects in eastern Sydney. This is eight times more than the amount allocated to new projects in western Sydney.
Sydney has moved on from the 1930s, and the city continues to grow westwards. Inner-city projects such as metros may be nice to have, but they are no longer relevant to the desperate public transport needs of almost half the city's population. State and federal governments should recognise the reality of Sydney in the 21st century and adjust their funding priorities appropriately.
Alex Gooding is a consultant and former executive director of the Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils.
Source: The Sydney Morning Herald
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