Manly, Sydney transport
Manly, Sydney. Photo by Hannah App on Unsplash

TRANSPORT – SYDNEY: We have heard numerous times over recent years, the population of Greater Sydney is set to grow from about 5 million today to a projected population of more than 8 million over the next 40 years. This population growth, in the order of 60 per cent additional people, will place enormous pressure on our city’s infrastructure and services, not least of all our transport network, and in particular the streets of our increasingly dense urban centres. 

As Sydney continues to grapple with the ever-growing economic, environmental and social costs of its congestion, it is plain to see that Sydney’s historically car-based mobility preferences cannot continue in a city of 8 million people in the future.

One look at US cities like Atlanta or Houston, where they’ve tried and failed to build their way out of congestion with an endless supply of new road lanes, shows that it simply doesn’t work. How many houses will need to be compulsorily acquired for the next upgrade? How much actual city do we need to delete until all we have left is asphalt?

The Katy Freeway in Texas, USA. (source- TripSavvy)

This is not a matter of being an “anti-car leftie” or “conservation car addict”. Cities are competitive places with limited space, and that space needs to be used efficiently in a way that improves the amenity of our urban lives.

No city in history has been able to build itself out of congestion by continually widening roads and building new motorways. This is because adding additional capacity to the road network only increases demand for that capacity, in a phenomenon called “induced demand”.

This phenomenon occurs as the result of increased road network capacity on land-use patterns (people choosing to live farther from work, encouraging suburban sprawl) and travel choices (people that currently use different travel modes or travel at less busy times, commuting outside of peak periods). While traffic may briefly subside after widening a road or building a new motorway, time and time again these projects are proven to choke in every country in the world.

Induced demand. (source- CityLab)

We need to look to alternate strategies – we just can’t afford the money or land to continue building car-based infrastructure at the expense of other modes, nor can we afford the social and environmental stress that spending hours a day in congested traffic brings.

Having left swathes of our cities reliant on one mode of mobility, when this mode is privatised we become entrenched in a cycle of funding private profits with little way out, handing over hard earned wages in ever increasing amounts just to get to our jobs to earn said wages.

If we want our tax dollars invested in a way that best benefits not only our increasing population but also those of us that are already here, then we need to spend it wisely where we get the biggest bang for our dollar.

When compared to public transport investment, motorways reveal themselves to be highly inefficient, with a return on investment often several times lower than investing in walking, cycling, and public transport. The recent privatisation of 51 per cent of Sydney Motorway Corporation to Transurban has been labelled “the biggest waste of public funds for corporate gains in Australian history”. That’s a waste of public funds that forces our citizens to further rely on using private motorways. It begins to sound less and less appealing.

And so, in the light of the current boom in transport infrastructure investment, now is the time for an honest discussion about how we plan to “keep Sydney moving” in a future of 8 million people, and whether the NSW government’s blueprint for doing so will build the Sydney we want.

A vision for this population growth has recently been captured in the Greater Sydney Commission’s Greater Sydney Region Plan – A Metropolis of Three Cities.

Among the aspirational targets that go along with building its 30-minute city, the plan’s attempts at addressing congestion are primarily focused on integrated transport and land use planning in the form of a polycentric city of mixed-use centres that reduces the need for, and length of, car-based trips. There is a noticeable absence of mode share targets that aim at reducing congestion in Sydney.

Transport for NSW’s Future Transport Strategy 2056 provides a more detailed vision of how Sydney’s transport network will cope with forecasted population growth. In addition to echoing the need for integrated transport and land use planning, the Strategy’s aspirations for managing congestion focus on technological fixes like smart motorways and autonomous vehicles, with no mode share targets to guide future transport policy.

While we should welcome any attempts at integrating transport and land use planning, such planning will only place more pressure on the streets and public spaces of our neighbourhoods. Sydney’s streets are limited in their size and need to cater for all modes of transport and all forms of public life. When we design and build streets with priority given to cars, all the other elements suffer.

To that end, there is a growing trend around the world to focus on reducing the number of motor vehicles driving around the city, rather than measures to cater for their increase. Instead of inducing demand, the focus is on reducing demand. This is particularly the case in cities that our governments like to compare Sydney with on liveability and economic clout.

In London, the Mayor’s Transport Strategy commits the city to reducing dependency on cars, targeting 80 per cent of all trips in London to be made on foot, by bike, or by public transport. The strategy goes one step further by encouraging all future development in inner London to prioritise walking and cycling as the most attractive forms of transport.

London’s transport mode share, 2015 existing and 2041 target (source- Greater London Authority)

Across the Atlantic, the City of Vancouver’s transport plan, Transportation 2040, adopted by the city’s council in 2012, illustrates that Vancouver is not only planning for a reduction in CBD traffic, but has reduced traffic entering its downtown area by 20 per cent since 1996, despite population and jobs increasing by 75 percent and 26 percent respectively in that time.

Vancouver’s Transportation 2040 mode share targets (source- City of Vancouver)

Meanwhile, in Paris, driving within the city limits has dropped a remarkable 45 per cent since 1990, while the share of cyclists has increased tenfold in that time. Handing back the motorways adjoining the Seine to pedestrians and cyclists is just another example of how serious Paris is on fighting congestion.

And to top it off, Hong Kong is planning for the autonomous revolution in urban transport to reduce private car ownership in their city to zero. That’s right, zero.

These examples prove that a city’s accessibility, productivity, and success in the global economy don’t hinge on the ability of its streets to move private motor vehicles.

Back at home, it’s disappointing that recent NSW government documents that aspire to shape Sydney’s future make no commitment to the reduction of motor vehicles in our city. Over half a century of growth with private cars as the centrepiece of our mobility has shown us that we haven’t been able to build our way out of congestion with more road infrastructure to date, so why should we expect to be able to do so in the future?

Instead of planning our dense urban centres around cars, we need to remember that high density living brings with it increased pressure on streets as public and social spaces, and that the public domain is the largest public asset we have. If we expect existing and future Sydneysiders to embrace high density living, we need to be realistic about the impacts that our transport choices will have on a neighbourhood’s public spaces and streets that these residents will be encouraged to embrace.

As we move from houses to apartments we leave behind the backyard, and so reliance on the public domain to serve our environmental and social needs will increase. The public domain needs to increase both in size and quality, but if we continue to give this limited resource over to increasing numbers of vehicles we’ll have little left for quality landscape.

Other cities around the world are showing how this can be done. From the usual suspects like Copenhagen and Portland, to the not-so-well-known like Aarhus, Seoul and Oslo. We see it time and time again, where cities accept that the future of urban mobility simply can’t revolve around the private motor vehicle, plans and policies are put in place – with the support of the community – to change the way people move.

At a time when most American cities were building highways to feed their sprawling periphery, Portland implemented an urban growth boundary and committed to building public transport and cycleways. Only decades later, Portlanders now drive 20 per cent less, saving the region $1.1 billion each year. That’s $1.1 billion fewer dollars leaving the local economy, meaning Portlanders spend above the American average on recreation of all kinds, like bookstores, restaurants, and, for the record, strip clubs.

But a shift in urban mobility patterns will support our local economy in ways beyond just increasing expendable income for recreation. All across Sydney we have turned over our most crucial of civic spaces to cars. From over-burdened arteries like Oxford Street in Paddington or King Street in Newtown, to the eyesore that is the Cahill Expressway overshadowing our iconic waterfront, conventional road building wisdom – and our city’s conventional road builders for that matter – tell us that we couldn’t fathom a reduction in car traffic in these places, let alone the removal of cars from them all together. 

But we can reduce cars entering our urban centres, and we should.

The Cahill Expressway overshadows Sydney’s premier waterfront public space.

The more inviting and competitive alternatives we give people, the more likely they are to leave the car at home or not buy one at all. For every driver that doesn’t need to drive because they have alternate transport options, not only do they save on petrol and parking costs, but they free up space on the roads for those who need to drive for work – delivery vans, taxis, and others that rely on our streets for their jobs.

We should reconsider streets as places for public life – for strolling, for lingering, for people watching, and for relaxing, rather than simply for utility.

We should be redirecting public funds to build new, fast, and frequent public transport as an antidote to driving, investing in a coordinated cycle network across Sydney’s metropolitan area, and improving the quality of streets to encourage walking and stimulate local economies. 

We should be giving our citizens a reason to want to leave the car at home, and we should feel confident in letting our kids play in the streets once again.  

We should know that good urban design, including the way we plan and design our streets and our transport systems, plays a critical role in building tolerance and understanding within our communities – something that Sydney could do with these days.

It’s time to stop kicking the can down the street, and tackle density and congestion in ways that have been proven to work around the world.

Benjamin Driver is a senior urban designer at Hill Thalis Architecture + Urban Projects and regularly lectures, teaches and tours city-making.

Jason Packenham is an associate landscape architect at ASPECT Studios working in public space and urban mobility.

The Fifth Estate invites other thinkers to contribute to this topic. Send articles or flag ideas to

Join the Conversation


Your email address will not be published.

  1. What the article misses is not that ‘civic spaces’ are being sacrificed to ‘Cars’ but that the civic spaces are being sacrificed to high density residential apartments, and so is commercial and industrial land, when you concentrate all the residential development in one area and all the jobs are located elsewhere what is the result ? When you mention Paris, which one Paris centre or the the Paris suburbs, with all their social issues. Why does Paris centre not really on cars as much – because the park, the jobs, the retail and community places all are within easy distance and you have the Metro, even on a Sunday night it a train every 4 minutes

    The conversation about what is happening to Sydney and the degradation of the people’s ;lifestyles goes beyond, just worrying abort cars – cars are a consequence of the poor urban planning , not the cause

  2. “Mr Head, who led Transurban’s successful $9.2 billion bid to buy a majority control of the 33-kilometre toll road, said cancelling the final stage would also result in congestion worsening on local roads in Sydney’s inner west.
    Mr Head, I’m in total disbelief,
    Mr Baird promised the not yet finished Westconnex to be a “Congestion Buster” just like his father did with the M2.
    Now Mr Head is confirming the induced demand of Westconnex 1 will require Westconnex 2 to be built, not only that if Westconnex 2 is built it will require the “Beaches Tunnel” to redistribute induced demand to the beach on workdays.
    The road builders in Sydney are getting crazier and crazier, with the delusional belief system they can outbuild congestion. Delusional belief systems are the symptoms of mental illness.
    The total construction cost of Westconnex is approaching 18.2 Billion dollars and it’s been sold at an enormous loss to the taxpayer for 9.2 Billion Dollars, not only that we have the purchaser of this road complaining the induced demand if not rectified by a stage 2, “congestion” will limit the money they can make because of the reduced throughput of cars.
    We have the equally stupid Mr Foley of the opposition promising “cash back” schemes to encourage motoring, whilst also promising to truncate Sydney’s new Metro System with another equally absurd policy.
    It can be summed up in a few words “Cars occupy too much space to provide an efficient transport system.”

  3. *sigh* if only you guys were working for the NSW Government planning.Some great insight into how other bigger cities are making it work – it currently feels like Sydney will end up like Atlanta as you said. Let’s hope that won’t be the case.

  4. Thanks Ben and Jason – we have to keep plugging away at changing the mindset of everyone, from the pollies to the planners and all way out to the people. Ending the dominance of the motor vehicle will be one of the great achievements of the 21st century – barely a one century on from its emergence.