Dodson, J. and Sipe, N. (2008). Unsettling Suburbia: The New Landscape of Oil and Mortgage Vulnerability in Australia’s Cities; Research Paper 18.

By David Wilson – Another 500,000 thousand residents in Western Sydney cannot be accommodated without a radical overhaul of transport policies.

Transportation is a very emotive word in Australia, starting with the arrival of the First Fleet and its crew of convicts in 1788 after a long and tedious journey, to 21st century Sydney when many Sydneysiders regard with loathing their daily journeys to work on overcrowded trains and buses, or equally tedious long drives along congested roads. Not only does congestion irk commuters, it contributes to air pollution and climate change.

It is high time for the whole experience of “transportation” in Sydney to be transformed to mean fast comfortable journeys that speed residents and workers from one side of the city to the other, connecting all parts of the city. The population of Western Sydney is forecast to rise by 500,000 by 2031, posing particular challenges for long-term, sustainable transport planning policies to link residential and employment areas, and ensure the future vitality and success of the region.

NSW’s lack of detailed credible transport proposals meant the state got virtually nothing from the Federal Government’s billion-dollar infrastructure fund, thus deferring again a long-term transport plan for the city.

Western Sydney, like other urban regions in Australia and overseas, is under increasing pressure from rising demand for transport and falling oil reserves to fuel transportation. Australia already spends $12 billion a year on imported oil and within six years will be importing 70 per cent of its fuel from increasingly volatile areas such as the Middle East and Nigeria.

Griffith University’s Vulnerability Assessment for Mortgage, Petroleum and Inflation Risks and Expenses, or VAMPIRE, index highlights the vulnerability of Western Sydney to rising oil prices rises through rising transport costs, disconnected communities and transport deficiencies.

Congestion costs Sydney families and businesses more than $4.58 billion annually, or $12.5 million per day in lost time and delays and health problems (pollution from vehicles accounts for four out of 10 Australian deaths and illnesses a year) and this is projected to rise to $21 million a day by 2020.

Meanwhile, traffic volumes in Sydney are forecast to grow by 47 per cent in the next 20 years; public transport is so overcrowded that 20 per cent of passengers report they cannot board rail and buses at peak times and bus networks are hopelessly congested at peak periods when demand exceeds supply. At Circular Quay in Sydney, commuters have to queue at three separate booths for train, bus and ferry tickets when an integrated ticketing system could easily speed up travel and interchange times.

Extending the light rail system is a simple way to increase passenger capacity. Other possible solutions to tackling transport problems could include more use of tolls; introducing congestion charges; higher parking levies; park and ride facilities; using Infrastructure Australia funding, and carbon trading.

One of the first solutions is to cut car use. At present 82 per cent of long trips (defined as more than 5 kilometers) are made by car; 45 per cent of trips of less than 2 kilometers are made by car. Within 10 years the total number of kilometres travelled by car in Sydney is forecast to increase by 29 per cent to almost 55,000 million kilometers. Why not have signposts in suburbs informing people that 2 kilometres is only a 12- to 15-minute walk, costs nothing and is good for your health?

Other problems besetting Sydney’s transport system is its ageing infrastructure and lack of funds.

Western Sydney

Despite infrastructure restraints, the 1990s’ housing boom and cheap fuel prices have pushed new development to the western edge of Sydney with commuters confronted by long and congested journeys to work. Large areas of Western Sydney have been designed to be served principally by car. The NSW Opposition recently released figures indicating 85 per cent of residents in north-west and south-west Sydney had no option but to drive because there was no public transport. The expected 500,000 population growth in Western Sydney over the next 20 years is greater than Canberra’s population, yet there is no state-level authority co-coordinating development in the area. Western Sydney needs a powerful, dedicated development authority to provide leadership and deliver prosperity and growth to the western suburbs that is equivalent to the eastern half of the Sydney metropolitan area.

Only a long-term public transport plan can respond to the needs of the growth centres and regional cities west of Sydney. In needs to test key transport network options and management measures and set short-, medium- and long-term priorities for the next 30 years. These include: upgrading existing heavy rail services; expanding light rail networks; build new metro lines; provide dedicated priority bus lanes; remove all street parking on arterial roads; extend walking and cycling tracks; integrate ticketing systems for all public transport; introduce congestion charges, as in Stockholm, Singapore and London; spend less on building roads and more on efficient public transport.

The objectives are to get people to switch from private vehicles to public transport in greater numbers by providing better services and reasonable fares.

Another thing the state government could do is reinvest the $100 million a year it pays to motorists in rebates on M4 tolls in efficient public transport systems.

In conclusion, the four main transport policy options for Sydney that need to be debated and agreed include:

  • Stop designing car-dependent suburbs;
  • Establish a dedicated development agency for Western Sydney;
  • Develop a robust transport funding framework to implement a sustainable transport plan (Hong Kong is a good example);
  • Start designing a long-term carbon-neutral, resilient city.

David Wilson is a senior transport planner with MWH.  This is an edited version of a paper presented to the Planning Institute of Australia on 27 August 2009 in Parramatta.