I saw the two sides of Sydney the other weekend. On the one side, I attended the annual Schools Spectacular staged at the Olympic Park where my daughter, along with 5499 other kids from NSW schools, showed the talent this state has, and the impressive support its public schools give to music and the arts.
In glorious sunshine before a mostly Sydney audience of entirely and justifiably proud parents, grandparents and family friends, we were dazzled by performances that graced an excellent arena, which has seen all the greats of the entertainment world and hosts Paul McCartney this month.
As a family, we came out of the venue on Cloud 9, deeply aware as experienced travellers – and in my case as a former government advisor to UK ministers who is also a qualified teacher – of the uniqueness of the event.
There is nothing like it in any school system I can think of. Fantastic. And then we tried to cross the road. This frustrating and indeed dangerous experience is the other side of Sydney.
Sydney Olympic Park seems designed by petrol-heads for racing cars. Very wide roads, speed limits that put the stress on the first word not the second, almost no crossings between main junctions and, at what few crossings there are, traffic lights that allow enough time only for an Olympic sprinter to cross the road.
As there was not a single such sprinter at the time, the grumpy and aggressive drivers – this is Sydney after all – had to put up with many families, some of them with gerontocrats like myself, attempting (and failing) to cross Australia Avenue without body armour.
I can still hear the beeping 10 days later. How there wasn’t a collision I don’t know. Remember, if a car hits a child at 50km/h it will certainly mean devastating injuries and probably death. Olympic Park has not family-friendly but family-threatening roads.
Indeed, who exactly are these roads for? Internationally the transport debate has become about “shared streets” or “complete streets”. Not “shared roads”, because the difference between a road and a street is understood and designed for.
At Olympic Park and across much of Sydney we have what are being called “stroads” – transport infrastructure that is not sure if it is one or the other. Shared streets embrace the idea that public policy shouldn’t prioritise one user – drivers – but a range of users in a hierarchy that has pedestrians at its top and private car users at the bottom.
People live longer that way. They accordingly pay more to live on or near such streets because they are safer and encourage activity such as shops and indeed jobs. Walkable places command the highest house prices and commercial rents in Sydney. Fast roads may connect, but they kill economic activity on either side of them, as well as people on them. Have a walk down Parramatta Road – take a helmet – and see what prioritising the car user has done at Strathfield.
The good news? The announcement of massive investment for a new stadium in Olympic Park combined with plans for thousands of new homes in the precinct offers an opportunity to fix the roads there – to make them streets that are safe not just for the families visiting there but the ones increasingly which will live there.
In Olympic Park, as across much of Sydney, some of our roads need to be put on a diet to slim them down – widen pavements, plant street trees, reduce speeds, increase on-street parking to help narrow the road further, extend crossing times at lights and reduce waiting times for pedestrians, as they do – believe it or not – in many US cities.
As to Olympic Park itself, it is crucial we ensure that the new West Metro project being promoted by NSW transport minister Andrew Constance – which would connect the area better and faster to the rest of Sydney and take thousands of cars a day off the roads – is built, and fast.
It is extraordinary that the government is planning major residential development in Olympic Park without prioritising the one mode that will make the place work – and safely. That’s one Olympic hurdle we must help them over.
Tim Williams is outgoing chief executive of the Committee for Sydney, and soon to be head of cities at Arup.