David Kirby (left) and Gavin Gatenby discuss radial freeways.

In the late 1970s in Sydney it was the South-West freeway, now the M5, that drew heavy opposition. Today it’s the WestConnex, but as far as EcoTransit Sydney’s Gavin Gatenby is concerned the fundamentals have not changed.

Gatenby, no stranger to agitation on behalf of more equitable and sustainable outcomes, has interviewed former NSW Supreme Court judge David Kirby, who conducted a thorough review of radial freeways on behalf of the NSW government at the time, starting in 1979.

YouTube video

Kirby’s conclusion, unsurprisingly, was that radial freeways should be avoided.

Today as the pressure grows for the government to drop the planned WestConnex in Sydney, Gatenby says there are plenty of lessons to be learnt fro the past that should inform our decision making.

According to Gatenby, Kirby took a “long objective look at the whole issue of radial freeways”. His investigations drew on evidence from the Department of Main Roads as it then was and experts including Professor Ross Blunden, the founding professor of traffic engineering at UNSW renowned for masterminding major operations and movements of troops during World War II for the Allies.

“Kirby concluded that radial freeways were in general a phenomena you should avoid and that was off the back of the American experience at that stage,” Gatenby told The Fifth Estate.

Kirby said radial freeways caused cities to sprawl, you would get a whole bunch of low density housing on the outskirts and you would destroy inner city areas (that would be cut off from each other).

By that stage, Gatenby says, there was a “whole amount of experience in the US” .

DMR experts such as Ken Dobinson had also investigated the US and “couldn’t help but notice that Miami in 2000 was hugely congested, even though it had got its freeways in place”.

One part of Kirby’s brief at the time was to look at the emerging port at Port Botany, to where shipping had moved from Sydney Harbour. He advised that shipping containers destined for the west of Sydney could be slated for rail freight and those for the east to go by road.

“Kirby crafted a solution that divided Sydney into western and eastern zones so that any containers going to the western zone should go by rail and anything to the east by road.

“Putting together this deal was a hell of a trial,” Gatenby says. “It involved crafting something acceptable to the shipping industry, the trucking industry and three unions, and he put together an excellent scheme that would have seen 41 per cent of containers out of Port Botany go by rail.”

This figure would have jumped with Sydney’s huge western expansion.

What happened next probably goes to the heart of what goes wrong in infrastructure planning in this state and no doubt many others. In both cases, there is first much congratulations with rational answers and plans, then comes the backlash from vested interests, who ignore the greater good, and push forward with their own agenda.

“The Ministry of Transport torpedoed the agreement and almost incited the transport workers to go on strike,” Gatenby says. “The Wran government, which had received the recommendations very warmly, then backed away.”

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  1. I am enjoying a long holiday in Canada and the USA and one of the first things you notice is how dependent North Americans are on cars. Every city I have visited from San Francisco to Seattle, Vancouver to Toronto suffers from peak hour traffic jams which get worse every year. There is only one solution and that is to invest in a coordinated transport system where public transport is integrated with private.

  2. Ken Dobinson was project manager for the M2 and at the time defended its construction (plus suburban sprawl) despite the overwhelming evidence of the damage wrought by urban motorways. Self-interest ruled, OK?
    in the 1960s & 1970, Macquarie students formally communicated the outstanding need for the rail link between the North Shore & Northern lines when the Macquarie area was being developed, plus urban consolidation with connections. Too bad the continuing bad goals of RTA/RMS & the Ministers e.g.for reducing footpaths, shared paths, and separated cycleways!

  3. Gavin Gatenby’s interview of David Kirby and the program’s revealing encounter with Sydney’s sorry history of road and traffic management removes the WestConnex from the grasp of a smug pro-business government and its league of eager developers whose talent for creating over-inflated prices for anything they do is remarkable and instead puts the project firmly back into public debate and discussion. For that purpose this interview should be seen in the mainstream media and as a core source of important information the State government does not wish us to know about.

    Kirby’s recollections – as pertinent as they were then and even more relevant today – provide crucial background for those directly affected by WestConnex and likewise the wider community.

    Traffic experts like Dr Zeibots and others give short shrift to the technical claims the government advances to justify the project, but sensible, legitimate justification if there is any to be had is the last thing the government has offered us.

    As Gatenby says there are plenty of lessons from the past to inform today’s decision making, particularly as pressure grows on the government to abandon WestConnex.

    David Kirby traced the goals and processes of his 1970s enquiry, makes clear what could have been and still should be and acknowledges the support it gained from the Wran government, and regrets the point at which Wran retreated politically from a maximum good response.

    Kirby’s candid disclosures and Gatenby’s graphics and archival pictures should trouble all of us: the NSW DMR’s knowledge of the flaws and failings of Los Angeles –style freeways, but went ahead anyway to build Australia’s first, its callous environmental regards and the government’s deference to commercial transport and market interests. These are examples I was not previously aware of, which serve to highlight the present government’s lack of a decent justification of WestConnex.

    The Delivery authority’s role is to shield the government from having to do so, eliminates any further scrutiny or expert and considered input and to explain why today is any different from the past. In the simplest of understandings, justifying just shifting the traffic jams – the highway parking lots – further out, but at great expense when, for example, as Kirby revealed his original report would have transferred more than 40% of container loads from Port Botany onto rail.

    And rail or course – public transport is the only sensible alternative. Ecotransit’s efforts to get through to the people and government of NSW must never let up.

    Comparing past and present, it is hard to credit but we have a State government which is building a new railway line in north-west Sydney at a cost of a billion dollars but of a loading gauge different from the rest of the State’s loading gauge.

  4. A fascinating glimpse into a lost world of institutional integrity, independent inquiry, and a sense that politics can and should consider the long term public good, not just advance private interest and benefit in the now.

    The Wran government had its shortcomings, but the extent to which its successors abandoned the former and embraced the latter makes for sobering viewing.

    The modern road bureaucracy in NSW knows better than to allow independent inquiries, or inquiries of any kind to be established. The public airing and transparent assessment of the justifications and supporting arguments for a project are no longer seen as a core government business.

    It’s now about generating a bureaucratic consensus beforehand; finding private sector partners with deep pockets and political influence; gaining the consent of our political parties, because they’re two sides of the same coin; and using the Murdoch press, particularly the Daily Telegraph, to enthusiastically spread the misinformation required to generate the public concern, indeed preferably, the public panic that demands that “something” be done. And that “something” is exemplified by WestConnex.

    The next step involves the establishment of a Delivery Authority, a powerful and largely unaccountable legislative entity whose sole purpose, as the name suggests, is the delivery of the project it has been named after.

    The Delivery Authority insulates the government departments from any scrutiny, so there is no risk of inconvenient reports and assessments being tabled in a public inquiry — such as the “Car Cult Country” report prepared by the DMR’s Ken Dobinson — that would undermine the public rationale for the project.

    The Authority has lots of funds to undertake carefully prepared community consultation pantomimes, with glossy brochures and oleaginous facilitators seeking public feedback, which we’re assured is taken seriously, but they’re just for show. With the public consultation boxes ticked, the Delivery Authority sets about it legislatively mandated task of delivering the project.

    While this is occurring, the Minister for Roads can be depended upon to cut the political deals required so that Parliament abrogates its responsibilities towards the people it claims to represent. The Minister will do everything he can to ensure that crucial information, such as the business case, funding model and benefit cost ratio of the project are not released until it is too late to halt the progress of the project.

    This is exactly what occurred with WestConnex, when as reported in a June 25, 2014 story in the Sydney Morning Herald:

    “The State Parliament will be denied a chance to investigate the biggest motorway in the country’s history after a Shooters and Fishers Party MP cut a deal to save a park near his inner west home.

    Robert Borsak said he had agreed to vote against an inquiry into the $13 billion WestConnex after Roads Minister Duncan Gay committed to preserve Ashfield Park, which had been threatened by the motorway.”

    Good news for Mr Borsak, but tough luck for the rest of the Inner West of Sydney.

    Thanks to Gavin Gatenby for researching the background to this important story, and to Justice Kirby for taking the time to recount the story of the inquiry he undertook with such diligence and integrity.

  5. I totally agree with Dr Zeibots. Also the quality and importance of the videos Ecotransit is producing is astonishing. They should be nominated for an award.

    One thing I’m convinced of from this video, is that there should be no doubt as to the inappropriateness of WestConnex. It is a large radial motorway deep into the heart of Sydney. At least as far back as the Kirby enquiry we can know that, in principle, it is wrong. It is the smoking gun. There is no LNP justification for WestConnex, or ‘in principle’ justification as Labor might have it.

    That means the stop WestConnex movement doesn’t really need the full business case released. It is clear already that a proper business case will certainly not stack up. We may seek to get that business case released as a political tactic to make others realise it too, but we should recognise it is just that, a tactic, not an end of itself.

    Another, perhaps equally worthy tactic, would be to get people to watch this video. Or perhaps just to get on with the immediate job of standing in front of equipment and collecting as many phone numbers of other people willing to do so at short notice.

    The path to victory could be right before us.

  6. A big thank you to Gavin Gatenby and David Kirby for this enlightening interview. It says a lot about the power of the road lobby in Australia that, 40 years after the events referred to in this presentation, Sydney again faces yet another destructive and self defeating motorway proposal.

  7. This interview (and from a community group!) is incredibly significant and provides many insights that work to explain how Sydney’s transport system has been corralled into the sad and sorry state that it has. One point of particular interest is the revelation that technical officers within the then Department of Main Roads were well aware of the effects of induced traffic growth — the increase in traffic volumes that occurs in response to the changes in relative travel speeds created by the addition of road capacity — but went ahead with the construction of these transport elements regardless. The implications of this are that the situation we have now is the vision these people were aiming for.

    It might be argument that these days we now know more about urban transport network, and in particular we have a clearer understanding of the relationship between public transport (or fixed speed networks) and road networks (or variable speed networks). We know that the speed of the fixed speed network acts as the default speed for the variable speed networks as most people will choose whichever network is quickest until an equilibrium between the two is found.

    But even so, the analysis carried out by engineers like Ken Dobinson, as mentioned by Kirby, should have been enough to enable the DMR to know that the construction of these road like the M5 would not produce anything even remotely close to what most people would consider an optimum network performance.

    This history is critical to understanding how these poor decisions came about and in the process, just maybe, provide some insight into what needs to be done to get us out of the poorly performing situation we are now facing.

    Thank you Gavin Gatenby for taking the time to collect and present this information for us all. And thank you David Kirby for agreeing to discuss this part of Sydney’s history with us.

    I still can’t get over that a community group has done this!

    Well done everyone.