It’s not just the Royal National Park under threat from the NSW government’s rampant road building agenda. Now they want to steamroll through Western Sydney Parklands, putting at risk the Greater Sydney Commission’s plan for a green western city. Committee for Sydney’s Tim Williams says it’s time for a new approach to transport planning.
As of writing, a quiet battle is going on in Western Sydney that is of great importance to the future of the city, and the way we select infrastructure for that future.
The battle is around the NSW government’s current proposal to extend the M12 highway, above ground, through a most beautiful part of Western Sydney Parklands to provide a new road link to Badgerys Creek.
No one doubts the airport needs road and rail access, though the Committee for Sydney is strongly in favour of fast rail connectivity for the airport – east, west, north, south – and agrees with Liverpool Council and others in the area that the road connection should be as unobtrusive as possible through the Parklands.
But on current RMS plans, it will be anything but.
If you live near or have seen the Robert Moses-style freeway emerging at Wakehurst Parkway near the new Northern Beaches hospital, you know what to expect.
Why we keep getting more and more roads
Now, just as with that behemoth, it will be said that there was “significant public consultation” around options for the connection to the airport through the parklands.
However, public engagement with such projects tends to be confined to minor alternatives around a single alignment and a single mode of transport already preferred by decision-makers in a single and siloed government department.
In reality, the most “cost-effective” option will have been essentially pre-selected from a limited “business as usual” infrastructure appraisal toolbox and cost-benefit analysis. In this case RMS will have focused on facilitating high-speed car journeys as swiftly as possible across the parklands, as cheaply as possible.
Though many bureaucrats are now dissatisfied with this narrow approach and RMS itself under its new minister may be more open to change (she is a cyclist after all, which was more or less deemed antisocial if not criminal by her predecessor), this has been the norm in the road appraisal process in NSW.
This has traditionally favoured purported travel time reduction above all objectives and “benefits”, and has given little or no weight to the true costs of such projects, including environmental degradation and adverse health impacts, or the true benefits of alternatives.
Such alternatives may have higher build costs but might yet better protect the natural attractions and assets of the area. Properly and objectively appraised, such alternatives may also return greater economic and social benefits to Sydney overall, particularly around land-use transformation, especially in its crucial west.
Such design alternatives might, for example, be under-grounding the road through the Western Parklands, or indeed diverting it via a less damaging alignment. Ensuring any alignment can, in future, carry a rail option would seem relevant thinking too.
We wouldn’t do this in the east
I doubt that much attention will have been paid in the appraisal to valuing the benefits of maintaining the integrity of the Western Sydney Parklands as key green infrastructure, and the way they promote the whole value proposition newly advanced by the Greater Sydney Commission of this emerging Western City as Sydney’s “Parkland City”.
It’s a poor start to the concept of Western Sydney being the green future of our city to put an open sewer for vehicles above ground through its prime green asset. I am not sure we would do this today through a park in the eastern part of the city.
Induced demand counters claims of travel time savings
Overall, a large part of the claimed justification for city road projects is that they will realise significant travel time reductions. For example, 80 per cent of the benefit claimed for WestConnex is travel time reduction.
However, most academic studies from across the globe show that in reality travel reduction benefits are seldom achieved. New or wider roads simply induce more cars to travel. Despite all the road investment of the last five years, Committee research shows that travel time has remained more or less constant in Sydney. This is largely because of what is called “induced demand” – more supply creates more demand.
This fact is well-established in academic literature. Regardless of what we spend on roads in our cities, in due course and often almost immediately, congestion tends to return to equilibrium. Only road pricing, not new road supply, can effect a different outcome.
At the same time, the dis-benefits of such urban highway projects have tended to be marginalised in appraisals. The fact has been ignored that such investments not only attract more cars to travel, they can actually exacerbate sprawl, damage the natural environment, worsen health outcomes and lower land values.
The Committee, which has been reviewing how to improve the appraisal process, has written to the NSW roads minister to call for a review of options for the road connection to the new airport, stressing the need to protect the Parklands as a key asset for Western Sydney.
There’s still time to change tack
We believe this is a winnable battle at this stage, as the road design has not yet been finalised and I believe there is some prospect of the RMS under its new ministerial management being more prepared to respond to our concerns, which are widely shared in this part of Western Sydney.
They are, at this moment, reflecting on these concerns. We welcome this. Also importantly, the road will need federal funding and it is hard to believe that the Commonwealth would simply rubber stamp this project without questioning the design, the appraisal process or the wider implications. We have thus also written to the federal urban infrastructure minister and Infrastructure Australia.
My optimism is fuelled by what we know of the new approach to appraisal the federal government has been developing in its commendably broad-based and open consultation as to the best alignment for rail connectivity to the new airport.
They have sought views on and evidence for which route/s would bring most – and the widest range of – benefits, not just for mode users but for the economy and communities of Western Sydney and indeed for the very development and performance of Greater Sydney.
More importantly, they have asked that potential projects show how they will impact on the “city-shaping” of Sydney, rather than just how they might – in a fictional universe far away – reduce travel time.
City-shaping needs to be the new norm for infrastructure appraisal
“City-shaping”, which is code for “build this city without worsening sprawl”, is potentially the beginning of a new norm for infrastructure appraisal, and is very welcome.
We also welcome the signs of reform in the process we see in the emerging Metro West project, where Transport for NSW is clearly looking at how rail can bring not just travel time reductions but also land use and economic transformation. More of this approach please, across government.
It’s not easy, but we must do better
Refreshing or enhancing a city’s infrastructure is not a simple task. NSW is not alone in finding it difficult to meet high standards of evidence and justification for its infrastructure priorities – and delivering sub-optimal or damaging results and poor value for money as a result.
Global expert Bent Flyvbjerg of Oxford Business School calculates that nine out of 10 infrastructure “megaprojects” go over budget, and most make inflated claims for the benefits to be realised.
And recently the Grattan Institute found that 836 projects valued at $20 million or more built in Australia since 2001 had cost blow-outs that accounted for almost a quarter of their total budgets.
Attitudes changing globally
Everywhere there are worries that a narrow transport methodology and rationale is being applied to select projects whose impacts are way beyond the conventionally dominant appraisal criteria as to whether they reduce travel times or increase patronage, as they can in fact shape – indeed misshape – an entire city.
Accordingly, there is a global discussion underway about what the right procedures, evidential basis, metrics and measurable outcomes that should be used for choosing one project over another – with many concerns expressed about existing approaches.
Indeed, in the UK, the National Audit Office recently found that departments could not demonstrate the value for money or precise impact of government infrastructure interventions due in particular to “an absence of option appraisals” and an “inadequate development of options against which to judge the preferred course of action”.
We believe the UK findings have relevance here. Our review of practice in NSW leads us to echo the UK findings that “departments often consider a narrow range of options and … promising options are often dismissed too early or discarded options not revisited when a change in scope would again make them viable”.
This can result in one transport mode or alignment being preferred over another because alternative options have not been adequately identified or sufficiently developed. It also means that a narrow departmental, or modal, perspective can triumph over the strategic interests of a city and its communities.
This has to end.
Winning over the Parklands would be a good start that would also show that the government is listening to rational concerns, both about this project but also the whole process of appraisal.
A reconsideration of the design of this road can help us move to a more evidence-based, non-modal and transparent appraisal process of such “city-shaping” projects.
Given the major and sometimes controversial program of urban freeway building underway and in the pipeline in Sydney, the review of appraisal we call for couldn’t be more timely.