Tim Williams at our Sydney Surround Sound for Sustainable Precincts.

It’s a lot easier to break a great city than to make one. And undoing errors in cities can be so expensive that we defer action for decades, when it becomes even more costly to put right. How many of us look at Sydney’s Cahill Expressway and say to ourselves, “What were they thinking when they did that?”.

I look at the Western Distributor with the same wonderment: why would you do that to a beautiful city – and why, when so much development is taking place around Darling Harbour, would you not take advantage of it to at least underground the road? But, of course, such errors are historic, lessons have been learned, and aware as we are that as Marx famously said, history repeats itself first as tragedy then as farce, we are planning a very different future for Sydney.

Up to a point. We are still in my view using old-style appraisal methods prioritising new road construction as a way of “beating congestion” without considering the compelling evidence that roads actually induce congestion or that alternative options such public transport or road pricing are probably more effective and certainly cheaper.

We need to look at the appraisal process in Seoul where they actually took out the Cheonggyecheon expressway, which had been carrying 160,000 cars a day – currently more than Parramatta Road – creating a park and a canal instead. The city’s economic performance improved, as did congestion, land values in the corridor went up, and new business and residents poured into it. And the mayor who did this became the country’s president.

There is some light at the end of the Sydney tunnel. The light rail projects in the CBD and Parramatta are the kinds of modern city-making projects the best cities globally are implementing. The same can be said of the new heavy rail projects, such as the Sydney Metro and Southwest Rail, which are providing the beginnings of the public transport revolution we need to ensure our fast growing population can access the jobs in Sydney without the extended, economically irrational and frankly health-undermining car commutes people are currently forced to endure.

Though we are a long way from having the kind of fast rail or underground network we surely need as we double in size between now and mid-century – a city-shaping network that gets you from Sydney CBD to Parramatta in 15 minutes and from Liverpool to Central in half the current 54 minutes – progress in the right direction is being made. A better, more inclusive and more successful Sydney can come from such projects.

But we still have to make the right choices, using the right appraisal methods for infrastructure. This is not an academic matter at the moment. The NSW government has to make a real world choice over the best alignment for the Sydney Metro – via Waterloo or the University of Sydney?

Treasuries everywhere always insist on investing only in what is rather than what might be. So if they support rail projects at all, their narrow appraisal method tends to support ones that access the biggest catchment of existing service users. They are reluctant to back ones that create new communities and thus bigger potential catchments in the future. They tend to support the city as is, and not how it could or should be.

We must do better than this. We need appraisal methods that prioritise infrastructure according to economic impact, increased housing supply, job creation and social inclusion – desirable city outcomes of strategic significance – over whether it merely results in even better transport service to existing beneficiaries. Transforming the socio-economic outcomes for some of the poorest people in Sydney in Waterloo/Redfern, along with providing thousands of new homes close to the city, strikes me as a desirable city outcome.

Will we look back in 30 years time and say “good on yer” or “what were they thinking?” Can we do the right thing this time, before hindsight?

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  1. Building 20 storey towers on the North Eveleigh site is not city making, it will degrade a major heritage precinct and terraced suburb and give 2000 people appalling amenity against the busiest rail line in the city – this is the leveraging of public land for quick profits