Pub: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Section: NEWS AND FEATURES
A traffic atrocity on the eastern front
E. M. Farrelly
IT IS often said that Sydney’s architects have added little to the splendour of its setting. But governments, jointly and severally, have done this beautiful city fewer favours still. And now, just when you thought the mad caravan of Western cultural progress was finally settling to the point where something vaguely civilised may emerge, off we go again, ripping up suburbs, cityscape and parkland in vain appeasement of the road god.
The idea has been around since Adam was in nappies, having been identified in the draft Cumberland County Plan of 1947, way back when parkways (a’ la New York’s Henry Hudson) were the latest thing in panaceas and mindlessly re-dished by every statutory plan since. In essence it was to put a ring road around Sydney, much like the then proposed (now unanimously abhorred) M25 around London.
City engineer Garnsey, who doubled as city planner, returned from a 1946 world junket sprouting varietal diagrams of expressway intersections – cloverleaf, half clover leaf, “braided Y” and “trumpet” – as lovingly as a scoutmaster brandishes knot types.
“Generally,” he proudly captioned an illustration of a vastly tangled four-level intersection proposed for Los Angeles’ Arroyo-Seco and Hollywood parkways, “authorities in America are of the opinion that the solution of city traffic problems lies in the construction of entirely new thoroughfares capable of accommodating large volumes of fast-moving motor traffic”.
That was the aim. There was the minor technical problem that Sydney city comprised a narrow peninsula crammed with still narrower streets. But this merely meant that the huge “new thoroughfares” had to fly over, under or through densely packed existing fabric, and that any encircling road system would inevitably isolate the city from its fabulous waterfrontage. Strictly technical.
The Cahill was the first stage, built in 1957 and recognised even then as a “costly and formidable affair … (with) a disastrous effect on amenity and property values … ” (Denis Winston, 1957). Since then the unlovely mess of the Western Distributor has done the same for the city’s left flank. In recent years, though, following the example of cities like San Francisco and Berlin, Sydneysiders have devoted significant quantities of both design time and political fervour to the potential for demolishing or undergrounding the monstrosities.
So far it has all proved too hard (read too expensive), Olympics or no Olympics. Sad enough. But now, adding insult to civic injury, we have this further demonstration that nothing has been learnt from the past excesses and that, despite the much-vaunted Mant commission recommending a NSW planning super-body, the Government still can’t keep the muzzle on the Roads and Traffic Authority.
Yes yes, it’s true that since the day the Harbour Tunnel opened, Surry Hills has been sclerotic with traffic. And, yes, I’m sure it’s true that the standard business person’s trip from Gordon to the airport is less than reliably friction-free.
But are these really sufficient reasons to slice a hectare (and 50-odd trees) from Moore Park, widen the already gaping Domain cut, salt it with graceless motorway detritus, and extinguish Woolloomooloo more effectively than even Askin would have?
It is recognised elsewhere, although apparently not yet in Sydney, that roads – bigger, faster, smoother – don’t solve traffic problems. This is because demand is effectively limitless. The easier it is to drive, the more people will do so – until it isn’t easy any more. As any dam-building kid knows, the bigger the hole, the greater the flow. Congestion, not road-building, limits traffic flow. In the end, more roads only worsen the problem, and the air quality.
But even if you accept the need for the distributor, the current proposal is very much the blunt instrument version. South Dowling Street will be up to 10 lanes wide, with traffic at double present volumes. Intersections will no longer be simple crossings of streets, but will be distinguished by great concrete ramps diving below ground level.
“Decorative” concrete blinker walls will turn the road into a canyon where everyone complains about noise. South Dowling Street is excised from normal reality, enters motorway world.
The Art Gallery (far left in the above photograph) will feel similarly blessed, its bay views enhanced by elevated roads, toll booths, a control tower and an administration building, to say nothing of the decibels. And Woolloomooloo will be even more besieged than at present, with a further 10 streets chopped at the knees by the new expressway; Palmer Street completely submerged under ramps and tunnels; and a series of achingly ugly and inefficient pedestrian bridges offering the only route to the Domain or city.
The environmental impact statement (EIS) for the distributor proposal, as required by law and prepared by Rust PPK consultants for the RTA, makes much of the principles of both ecological sustainability and urban design. Revealing a gift for the Orwellian turn of phrase, the EIS reduces sustainability to ensuring equal access to the new monster road (never mind the air pollution) and “urban design” to decorating the concrete noise attenuation walls with bas relief.
Whereas if you took the concept of ecological sustainability seriously, you would abandon the road altogether, finding ways to plough the $600 million usefully into public transport instead (think what $600 mill could do for the train service). And urban design would surely suggest that at the very least, you underground the lot, from the Cahill to Drivers Triangle, using this god-given opportunity to heal the ghastly Domain gash, instead of making it worse.
Alternative schemes have been proposed, by the City Council and Chris Stapleton (for the Eastern Distributor Task Force). They show that, for a mere $30 million extra (some 5 per cent of the lot), undergrounding is possible. Work it out: at 120,000 cars a day, that couldn’t represent more than a 20c toll increase, amortised over five years. What price civic beauty?
Think about it, Mr Premier. This is the kind of thing governments are remembered for. The Cahill Expressway, the Carr Anachronism?
Submissions to the Eastern Distributor EIS close on Monday and should be addressed to the Roads and Traffic Authority.
Illus: Proposed site, behind gallery, for Eastern Distributor toll booths … ugly now, but worse to come.
Photograph by SAHLAN HAYES